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Hardy residents slip into ‘freezing fire’ of Lake Simcoe (12 photos)

'It helps with mental-health issues, it helps with immune system boosting and just overall good feeling,' says cold-water swimmer

With no fanfare or drama, Josef Polcz and Chris Criswick quietly slip into the hole they’ve spent the past hour cutting and merge themselves into Kempenfelt Bay.

The water is a chilly 1 Celsius and the air is minus-16 C. During the 10 minutes between the time they finish removing the last bits of ice and then taking the plunge, a thin layer of ice has already started to form along the surface.

“The water on the scar is like when you get an ice-cream brain freeze,” Polcz says while wading neck deep, otherwise giving no indication of the absolute cold into which he’s now immersed.

Ignore the immediate cold-shock sensation to hyperventilate and jump right out  just breathe easy and relax, he tells the uninitiated. The mental preparation begins prior to disrobing, Polcz adds.

Then Chris, wearing only swim trunks, goggles and a swim cap, disappears under the water and remains merged for a good minute. It’s his 492nd consecutive day of open-water swimming and 59th for Polcz.

Invigorating, they call it. 

Cold-water immersion has become something of a worldwide trend during the pandemic with personalities such as Dutch guru Wim Hof attesting to its health benefits. He cites breathing, cold therapy and commitment as the pillars of his method for overall well-being.

The Canadian style seems extreme. 

In Barrie, proponents access the cold water in the middle of winter by removing inches-thick layers of ice developing over top of open bodies of water.

The whole idea of cold-water swimming warmed Caroline Leppanen’s Finnish heart. She had planned to join Polcz and Criswick weekly, but jumped right in and, with the two men serving as mentors, she has also been swimming daily.

Unable to make the sunrise outing, she set her sights on wading in at Centennial Beach with her Oro-Medonte Forest School colleague, Melanie Van Pypen, at sunset. It’s Leppanen’s 33rd consecutive day of swimming.

“I believe there’s something in my Finnish heritage that urges me on,” the 56-year-old explains. “And the feeling is incredible at every stage, in the water and out. It's a fiery cold, or a freezing fire, that makes me feel so incredibly alive and strong.”

Just as Polcz navigates the cold water, he must also navigate his health. The scar on his chest serving as a beacon for the cold is also a reminder of his vulnerabilities. Not only did the 62-year-old Barrie man have heart surgery last August, but he also had a cancerous tumour removed.

As he wades toward the sandy bottom at the shallow end of the asymmetrical pool where it is roughly three feet deep, Poclz says the daily dips are part of his recovery process. But he’s well aware of his limitations and after about five minutes he easily slips out of the bay and onto a little rubber mat along the hole’s icy edge and into his dry robe.

Hypothermia is a real risk. The extremities feel it first with numbness and pain  thus the booties and the mitts. But a human body can only endure so much cold before it begins shutting down. And in 1 C water, Barrie’s winter bathers figure they can safely endure the cold water for five to 10 minutes.

For Polcz, swimming in cold water seemed a natural progression from his open-water swims in the summer  an important part of his triathlon training. He’s also the organizer of the city’s annual polar bear dips, which raises money for a variety of local charities.

The Dufferin Peel school board custodian took it up a notch after suffering heart failure six years ago, finding cold water to be invigorating. Along the way, he became part of the Bad Buoys, a group of about a dozen winter swimmers taking to Lake Ontario from a variety of beaches on weekends. 

Somewhere in there was also a competition in a 25-metre pool cut into the ice in the Vermont side of Lake Memphremagog. That’s where he first caught up with Criswick.

“It helps with mental-health issues, it helps with immune system boosting and just overall good feeling,” Polcz says. “I’m a true believer that the cold water does help with the recovery.”

Key is acknowledging the risks and preparing for them by always having company experienced in cold-water swimming through an ice hole, he adds. 

The trick is ensuring the extremities don’t freeze up or get sore. Polcz and Leppanen accessorize with neoprene booties and scuba gloves. A winter hat also helps prevent some of the body heat escaping.

When they exit the water, they dry off and jump right into matching dry robes, which is a long, waterproof robe or coat used for warming up in and doubles as a portable change area. Taking off the bathing suit right away, along with any wet gear, is key to keeping hypothermia at bay.

Criswick, a 59-year-old investment advisor, has long been a swimmer, but found the season too short and eventually a group of Lake Ontario cold-water swimmers was formed. Now residing in Newmarket and with his girlfriend living in Barrie, he decided to pair up with Polcz, who agreed to accompany him on daily swims.

“The pandemic actually made it easier, because what else is there to do but jump into cold water,” Criswick says with glee, breaking up pieces of cut ice in preparation of his daily swim. “We just found ourselves cutting the ice and enjoying it.”

“Obviously, there’s risks. You’ve got to do it safely. The amount of time you spend in the water is critical, depending on the temperature. Most people in this temperature would be five to 10 minutes and you just feel great. It’s a reboot, a reset at the beginning of the day.”

Last weekend, their cold-water circle grew to about a dozen swimmers who ventured through the opening they created in the ice off Centennial Beach.

At the start of 2022 the cold-water swimmers pushed away the surface ice to get in 200-metre and then 100-m swims as the ice developed along the beach. Last week, when the ice became thick enough, they began cutting a hole with a chainsaw, which is now a daily task.

They now have a much smaller pool, so there’s no length swimming, but the cold offers another experience. 

Going in regularly and graduating with the change of seasons helps with acclimatization, they say. There’s also some mental preparation such as deep, regular breathing, keeping calm and overcoming the instinct of getting out of the water immediately.

Leppanen says she couldn’t imagine a better place to be than outdoors. Always open to reaching beyond her comfort zone and connecting to her Finnish roots, she cites building “sisu," the Finns’ form of courage, determination and grit. 

“Who needs a pharmacy when your body releases endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin,” she says. “And building community! Having a group of happy humans laughing and sharing the experience outside! Being friends with winter… I think this is so important.”