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Icy water swims a cool trip for many in Squamish

From Indigenous tradition to a way to be brave, locals are loving winter dips

Devan Williams, who was born and raised in Squamish, doesn't remember the first time she took a "shúkw'um," spiritual washing in a river, because she was so young.

"Growing up with Squamish cultural and traditions, you start learning young," she said. "[It is] giving thanks and brushing off and letting go of any darkness or hurt or pain or negative feelings that we don't need to carry anymore. It is a form of prayer and meditation."

It is a routine that continues year-round. Some take a shúkw'um daily, she said.

When Williams spoke to The Squamish Chief, she had done it the week before, on a chilly January Sunday.

"I went with a new family member and he took me to a new area where they like to go and pray and have their traditional bath," she recalled, adding that there are slight variations in how different people or families practice, and there are favourite spots some frequent.

"I was very lucky for my cousin to share that space with me."

Williams describes the feeling of a river bath as a "breath of fresh air."

"As I am sitting in the water and pouring the water over myself, I am visualizing the darkness coming off of my body and being released into the water and letting it go into the water and not carrying it anymore — letting it go so I don't have to hold it anymore and carry it in life."

Devan Williams
Devan Williams during a shúkw'um. - Courtesy Devan Williams

She noted it can be a tradition that unites people.

It's also a tradition that was lost to some through the generational effects of residential schools and colonial laws in B.C.'s past.

At one point, it was illegal to practice Indigenous traditions and culture, including the shúkw'um.

Williams' grandfather lived in the Cheekye area and took her to see the body of water where he took his traditional baths.

"He took us there to places where they were sharing it and the fear of going to jail for practising your culture and traditions. It defeated a lot of people and took away a lot of our cultures and traditions," she said.

"I am so grateful for my mother, Linda Williams who was very determined to bring our culture and traditions back and have people learning about who we are and where we come from, and our cultural practices and traditions to honour our ancestors who fought so hard for me to be able to even walk down a trail nearby and wash myself off and give thanks. There was a day when I wasn't allowed to and I would have gotten arrested for that."

Williams said she has no issue with other folks who do coldwater dips for other, less sacred reasons.

"It is a great way to have people come together and support each other," she said of events like New Year's polar bear swims. "I have nothing but positive feelings toward it. I don't feel disrespected at all in regards to my culture and tradition. It is a good way for people to become connected with the water and it brings us all together, physically, mentally, and emotionally. It is humans, animals, and nature."

And many in Squamish seem to have taken up the cold water swim, especially during the pandemic.

Karen Hoshino
Karen Hoshino and Sarah Laurenson. - Courtesy Karen Hoshino

A new ritual

Since the fall of 2020, friends Karen Hoshino and Sarah Laurenson have been going for cold water swims in Howe Sound, from Porteau Cove and Nexen Beach. They’ve also been taking dips at Brohm Lake, Alice Lake, and Murrin Lake.

"What really kept me going was the lift in mood and reduction in feelings of stress and anxiety," Hoshino said. "It also gives us something to look forward to and a sense of adventure and doing something new. There is a sense of accomplishment that we can do something sometimes a little painful at first but then overcome that initial hesitancy and really enjoy being in the water. It's mind over matter."

She said the friends feel connected to each other and "with Creation."

They always take a before and after photo and share it with friends on social media.

"It's a fun way to stay in touch with friends from around the world while we are all cooped up at home," Hoshino said.

Yana Roney
Yana Roney in her one of her cold dip spots. - Courtesy Yana Roney

For the rush

Yana Roney, of the Squamish Rafting Company, said COVID-19 inspired her cold swims.

"I discovered a love of running when COVID came along. My gym had to close, our business also. Running made me feel free," she said, adding she would run more than 200 kilometres a month while pushing her baby daughter in a stroller.

"With running comes soreness, and I discovered cold plunging. It also gives you a high unlike anything else. Colder the water the better. Feelings of anxiety and depression disappear when you plunge your body into the cold, dark ocean. It's stepping outside your comfort zone... [It] makes you feel alive. I'm now always looking for new spots around Squamish to dip." 

Roney noted that Squamish has an unparalleled natural beauty that she is grateful for while taking each dip.

Kimmy Ginou takes a cold water swim.
Kimmy Ginou takes a cold water swim. - Courtesy Kimmy Ginou

Wim Hof Method

Kimmy Ginou began following the Wim Hof Method of cold water exposure about three weeks ago.

Wim Hof is a Dutch extreme athlete who is known for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures and who has popularized his particular staged method for doing so.

"I had been finding myself in a funk, looking for something to entice me to continue my personal growth," Ginou told The Chief.

"I did his free mini-course on the website and the method grabbed ahold of me and didn't let go. I am now doing his 10-week fundamentals course, which I highly recommend."

Ginou said even in the short time she has been doing it, she has seen many changes, such as increased energy and better sleep.

"I am waking up at 6 a.m. with pep in my step to get my morning routine started."

She said she has also noticed heightened focus and determination, improved sports performance and willpower and reduced stress levels.

"It makes me excited for what more there is to come," she said.  "Since beginning my practice, I have stopped many unhealthy bad habits that were holding me back. It fueled a fire in me that is indescribable."

Daniel Fox
Daniel Fox taking a cold water dip. - Courtesy Daniel Fox

Going solo

 Daniel Fox, Vancouver-based photographer, solo wilderness explorer and author of Feel the wild, was recently in Squamish for six weeks, during which time he continued his practice of cold-water dips in the Stawamus River.

"After running, I would go and sit in the river," he recalled. "At one point you find a certain sense of comfort where you have learned not to panic in that moment and your body has ways to deal with it."

He started his cold dip practice two years ago with the Wim Hof Method, and actually interviewed The Iceman, for his own work.

He recently went for a glacier swim near Whistler.

"It was so freaking cold," he said, with a laugh, of his 30-second dip.

Fox acknowledges like, with many such activities in Squamish, they come out of privilege. For people in many places around the world, physical suffering isn't something they seek, but is a part of everyday life.

"North American Westerners and in Europe, we are spoiled in the ways that we live and whether through diets or other ways, we pat ourselves on the back by recreating these things that people that in under-developed countries, for them it is daily life. You will go on a fast for a week, not because it is a trend, but because it is necessary. With the cold water, when you don't have that infrastructure that allows you to warm the water every time, you have to go in it — you have to go in the river."

Fox said these cold-water experiences are a lesson in not letting your experiences define your behaviour.

"There's a reality around you, and if you take a deep breath, then it is easier to see the clarity."

One of the metaphors he uses in his public speaking is that our brains are like a snow globe.

"Your brain, your life, is shaking the snow globe all the time." The snowflakes in a snow globe represent the worries, thoughts and anxieties we all have.

When they are flying loose around our minds, it is best to set the snow globe down and let the flakes settle.

"Your worries and anxieties are still in there. They haven't disappeared, but instead of being all over the place, now they are at the bottom... The straining of the cold water really helps with that."

Fox is organizing an annual polar soak fundraiser for nature programs at Vancouver Covenant House in English Bay on March 6.

(Check out his Daniel Fox Facebook page for more information.)

Marlaina Rhymer
Marlaina Rhymer and fellow swimmer in Howe Sound. - Courtesy Marlaina Rhymer

Swim Wild

Marlaina Rhymer has launched a Facebook group Swim Wild Squamish that she hopes will turn into a club devoted to outdoor swimming.

She just got into swimming itself about a year and a half ago.

"I would dip into the ocean as a kid in the summertime, but I had never put my head under. It just kind of freaked me out," she said.

In October of 2019, she started working with a swim instructor at Brennan Park pool.

The outdoor swimming came in March, when the pool closed, due to COVID-19.

The group came when she realized there wasn't an open-water swim club in town.

"I am hoping eventually it is going to become a full-on club," she said.

Currently, she aims to take a cold swim once a week all winter long, but lately with relatively warm weather she has been going in a few times a week.

She said another woman in her group explains perfectly what outdoor cold water swimming does for her — it is a chance to be brave.

"It is this moment when you have to go, 'OK. I can do this,'" she said. "The cold water hits your body and everything in your instinct is going 'Get out! Get out! What are you doing? This is dangerous!'"

Once you overcome the fear and do it, the endorphins flow, she said.

She said she won't be disappointed once the weather warms up and the cold swims end because then she can do distances.

She currently swims for about two to three minutes after being fully in, she said. "The whole thing from ankles-in to ankles-out is probably 10 minutes."

Given the pandemic is making socializing next to impossible, the swims are also a chance to get a few people together, though socially distanced, she said.

Her advice for first-timers is to be prepared for when you get out of the water.

"I will set up the trunk of my car or the driver's seat of my car so that all of the things that I need are set out for me so I am not trying to get my shirt on inside out... because I am not going to be able to feel my hands. You need to have everything ready, in the order that you need it."

If she is organized enough, she brings a thermos full of a  hot drink.

"Don't screw around while you are wet," she added. Move quickly to get dressed.

"The cold comes later. It comes with the after-drop," she noted.

After-drop is the phenomenon of feeling fine in the cold water, but then out of the water, the swimmer progressively feels colder, can begin to shiver and feel unwell.

This is because the blood starts to recirculate in the extremities and peripheral blood vessels, cooling as it travels, according to The Outdoor Swimming Society website.

"Your temperature drops after you get out. So you won't feel cold in the water, you will cold after and that is when the danger happens," Rhymer said.

If you want to join the group, check out the Swim Wild Squamish Facebook page.

Katie Coombs
Katie Coombs swims in Howe Sound off of Newport Beach. - Courtesy Katie Coombs

Pain relief

For Katie Coombs, who swims with the Swim Wild Squamish group, cold ocean swims offer pain relief.

"I have a lot of pain — constant headaches and migraines and when I am in the ocean, those headaches and migraines go away completely," she said. "Everything is quiet and I am used to hearing my heartbeat or whatever, so it gives me a big sense of relief when it comes to pain."

It is also a social thing that is safe during COVID, she added.

Though a veteran swimmer, Coombs said as a kid, she was a bit of a "wuss," when it came to cold water.

A transplant from Winnipeg, it wasn't until she started to do the annual polar bear swim in B.C. a few years ago that she braved cold water.

"The word swim is used very loosely," she said with a laugh.

But now, with the local small group, she goes in at Newport Beach two or three times a week.

They started together on New Year's Day 2021.

Coombs tries to accomplish six strokes of the butterfly, she said

"It is what I look forward to during the week," she said.

She stresses that focusing on the breath plays a huge role in cold swimming.

"Your body's natural reaction to cold water is it will 'take your breath away,' which then puts your body into panic mode. By continuing to breathe as normal as possible allows your body to relax, and also tells your brain that what you're doing is OK," she told The Chief.

"For me, as I focus on my breathing, I also look at the mountains that surround me, listen to the sound of the water, and in my mind, I think about my favourite mantra which is, 'Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.' It is definitely a mindfulness and meditation practice," she said.