#THISISMYADVENTURE - Peace, Freedom and Focus - Wild Swimming with Joanna Shimwell
Looking back I realised how crazy my first true cold water experience had been when I found my notes about the swim and I had written that afterwards I had icicles hanging in my hair.
Daily life for me is a demanding and physical balancing act, taking on various roles working on our family farm and running a campsite. I like to unwind by heading for the mountains to ride my mountain bike, training hard at the gym and by going on some extended adventures in our campervan when time allows.
As a child I loved the water and would spend as much time as possible in the water, but as I grew into a young adult, I lost myself and my love for the outdoors. I started to rediscover it in 2015, and by 2016 I had set myself the goal that I wanted to swim in the mountain water of the Alps.
2017 saw a couple of opportunities to go wild swimming which I seized, once in my friends beautiful green lake surrounded by trees on a hot summer's day, the second was in the Spanish Pyrenees, on a warm autumn day in a deep canyon river with crystal clear mountain water. Both times the water was cold but the air temperature outside was mild and it was a refreshing experience to take a cooling dip.
2018 began and don't ask me why but I just fancied braving the water during winter. I like the cold, I love water and the thrill of adventures and adrenaline/extreme experiences keeps me going, so i thought, why not go for it!? I'd seen someone I knew only through instagram (Hetty of @mudchalkandgears) had been swimming locally and it had really inspired me to want to join in. Hetty is an adventurous girl and her photos always have inspired me so I was excited to meet her in real life. I reached out and she invited me along to swim with her. It was to be an early morning dip in February, when the forecast was minus 5 degrees and a hard frost.
I was surprised when she suggested it because i knew it was going to be SO COLD, but I thought I may as well give it a go. I had nothing to lose, if I didn't think I could get in the water then at least I had tried. So I set my alarm for early the next morning. When it went off and the sky was still pitch black outside I did think to myself: "Am i really gonna do this?!"
We met at around 6:45am as the sky was blushing a beautiful pink and the ground was a frosted silver. The birds were singing a medley of choruses in the otherwise perfect silence of a still morning without even a breath of wind.
Hetty and I made our way down to the river and stripped off to our swimwear on the river bank (no wetsuits!). Leaving our bobble hats on as an essential way of keeping our temperatures up, we slithered into the water. The first thing I noticed was the strange sensation of silt and mud between my toes, which was squidgy and pleasurable. The second thing obviously was how cold the water was. Hetty had warned me to be careful of strong currents, to keep in control of my breathing and to be aware that I might feel shocked by the temperature. I decided that the best way was to go 'all-or-nothing' so I plunged right in and launched into swimming a few strokes.
The feeling on my skin was hard to describe. Like a sharp intensity that quickly began to feel strangely numb and for a few moments I didn't even feel very cold. I was aware that I was gasping a lot and I tried to focus on controlling my breath. It really was like meditation: In that moment you think of nothing else. After the sharpness of the cold, came an almost warm glowing feeling, before numbness started and I could start to feel that my toes and fingers were stiffening up. We swam a little and giggled and laughed at how freezing it was, and swam a little more. The current was actually quite strong and I needed to work a fair bit just to stay in one area. As my fingers started to lose their dexterity (hands felt like claws) we decided it was time to exit the water and in a very ungainly manner I climbed back onto the bank and grabbed my towel.
The next part was a little scary - far worse than being in the water - as I really struggled to keep my fingers moving to dress myself. I somehow pulled on my socks and trousers (wisely I had chosen items that were fairly easy to get on). It was extremely clumsy and felt a little desperate to be clothed and moving as fast as possible. We were both smiling, thrilled and uplifted and full of the joy of being outdoors. It wasn't even 7:30am, the sky was a beautiful shade of pink and I felt that all of my troubles seemed distant as I soaked in the moment. That is the beauty of wild swimming.
We walked back to the car, teeth chatting and laughing about our wonderful, magical shared adventure. Hetty told me why she'd taken up wild swimming during the winter. Not only was it great for achieving an adrenaline rush when you are short on time (we both did our swim before going straight to work), cold water swimming has numerous other benefits too.
I heard that scientists say it is supposed to be a great way of boosting the immune system. I can vouch that the endorphin rush is amazing and I could definitely feel the natural 'high' as a result of my dip. Endorphins are released as a natural painkiller to take the pain away from the stinging sensation in your skin caused by the cold water. The result is that you feel invigorated and a heightened sense of wellbeing. There are studies which suggest that cold water can help to beat depression, as the cold stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the release of dopamine and serotonin (vital for keeping us feeling happy). As I have suffered from low mood and depression in the past, I had found exercise as a natural way to treat it. I had been feeling a bit blue in the run up to the swim I can certainly say that I felt uplifted considerably after my first real cold water swim. As I sat in my car with the heaters blasting out hot air, I noticed I had icicles in my hair and my skin was bright pink. In that moment I felt so ALIVE. I headed straight to work with a great sense of achievement and a broad smile on my face as I knew I would be back for more.
Since then, outdoor swimming, wild swimming, cold water dipping - (whatever you want to call it) has been a year round regular feature in my life. When I'm at home, fitting in a swim is a micro-adventure which brightens up my week. It's wonderful if I swim alone as I enjoy the solitude, but I also relish the opportunity to share the experience and I have been meeting up with swimmers from all over the country as a result of social media connections. Making new friends has been an unexpected, welcome benefit of wild swimming. I have been to a number of swimming 'meet ups', from casual dips with friends to organised swims with groups formed online. This means if you are nervous, unsure, intrigued or just enjoy the thrill of random human experiences, you don't have to swim alone. There's a fantastic bunch of people out there who love to swim and to share their favourite locations with others. It has always been a very encouraging, positive and jolly atmosphere for me and I'm sure others would testify. Social swims have enabled me to widen my choices of swimming locations and my network of friends to call up if I'm in need of some company in the water.
Connecting with the outdoors and nature is a fantastic experience for so many people anyway and to combine that with the peace, freedom and focus that immersion in water brings makes outdoor swimming very special indeed. I am certainly hooked. Whatever the weather I will swim. In the cold, in the pouring rain, in the sunshine, each swim is different and unique and the experience gives me and many other like-minded people an uplifting 'natural high'. I have never regretted a swim yet. No matter how cold, how muddy or miserable the day is outside, swimming always makes me feel amazing.
Now I see myself as a swim tourist - meaning I seek out a swimming opportunity wherever I go! It means I will visit places I never would have before and I love the nervous excitement of going to find a new location. I try and swim a few times a week now at least, and it is always wild. I can't remember the last time I swam in a pool! My goals now are to challenge myself to swim for longer distances and to push the boundaries to see long I can brave the cold water for. I am desperate to try ice swimming now I have a water thermometer, so watch this space!!
You can follow Joanna’s adventures on her Instagram - @joannashimwell