I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, where we spent many a day in summertime on the banks of the South Toe River. This particular branch of the South Toe was originally named after a Native American tale of a heartbroken maiden named Estatoe who threw herself into the water after her people killed the man she loved from another tribe. Once the Europeans settled into the mountains the Estatoe was shortened to Toe for easier pronunciation, while the romantically tragic legend of the maiden survived.
I’ve always loved that story, almost as much as I love the feeling of plunging into that clear mountain water. The river is always cold, no matter the time of year. You have to ease yourself in, feeling the slippery stones against your feet as tiny fish gather around to tickle your toes. Some folks choose to jump right in but I prefer to take it slow, building up my nerve before immersing myself completely. I look up at the sky while running my hands across the clear green water before taking a deep breath of clean mountain air and diving in!
There is nothing quite like the feeling of frigid freshwater to make a person feel completely renewed and alive. I relish that moment of silence as I submerge, allowing myself to stay weightless in the water as long as my breath will last. Swimming in the river simultaneously clears my mind of clutter and stimulates my senses. I emerge tingling from head to toe, climbing out into the sunshine to dry myself on a rock utterly rejuvenated and refreshed.
Until recently I didn’t realize there was a name for this type of swimming. Apparently it is part of a new (yet ancient) trend called “wild swimming,” otherwise known as swimming outside in nature. Go figure, right!?
Indoor and outdoor pools are fun, too, but have you ever heard a legend associated with a swimming pool? Me neither. Not to mention a public pool's crowds of people and all the chlorine and chemicals. Thanks but no thanks. Given the choice I will always choose a river, pond, or ocean over a pool.
The renewed interest in wild swimming encourages people to step out of their comfort zone by seeking new and interesting places to take the plunge. And it's good for you: beyond the sense of adventure it can deliver, submerging oneself in cold, wild water also brings on a rush of endorphins that lifts the spirits. In other words, it may turn your lips blue but it is also likely to keep you from having the blues.
Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale were both huge fans of cold-water swimming, believing in its ability to strengthen the mind, body and spirit. Beyond these olden-day idols there is also scientific evidence pointing to the health benefits of such wild practices.
NASA studies have shown that, over a 12-week period, repeated cold swimming leads to substantial bodily changes known as ‘cold adaptation’. These bring down blood pressure and cholesterol, reduce fat disposition, inhibit blood clotting and increase fertility and libido in both men and women. Far from quelling passion, a cold shower will boost vitality and desire.”
That said, one should always exercise caution, especially when unaccustomed to this type of swimming. There is even a comprehensive set of guidelines for wild swimmer with key points that include:
• Know how to protect yourself against getting too cold
• Swim with other people
• Learn to swim well, and know your limits.
• Swim sober
• Feet first, and slowly! Never dive or jump in.
It’s equally important that we preserve and protect these wild swimming spots from environmental abuse. Be sure to pack up everything you bring in and treat the area with the utmost respect.
Image via Flickr
Planning a Wild Swim via Outdoor Swimming Society
Health Benefits via Wildswimming.co.uk