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Ice, Ice, Baby: Cold plunges catch fire on the North Fork

Photos by Jeremy Garretson

Whether it’s in trendy, tiny cold plunge pools, bathtubs filled with ice or the icy open waters of the Long Island Sound, more and more North Forkers are stripping down and stepping into ice cold water — a practice, many say, that can take a body from bone-chilling body shock to euphoric highs in a matter of minutes. 

“You feel like you’re gonna die. You think that every [organ] is gonna shut down. I mean, you see stars. It’s like vibrations going through your body for that first 30 to 45 seconds,” says Cutchogue native Stephan Bogardus of what is known in certain circles as cold immersion therapy. 

“But if you stick with it, the feeling of euphoria and the dopamine rush that you get after getting out is amazing,” he says. “I’ve been doing it now pretty regularly for almost three years and still haven’t died yet.”

Cold plunging may seem like the latest health craze (and, of course, as with any new endeavor, you should check in with your physician before taking the proverbial — and actual — plunge), but evidence of those sold on the cold goes back to the ancient Greeks. In “On Airs, Water and Places,” the famed Greek physician Hippocrates extolled “the water can cure everything.” It’s even been a thing in America for more than a century — the oldest “polar bears” club in the U.S. is the Coney Island chapter, founded in 1903.

Stephan Bogardus submerges in icy waters. (Photo credit: Jeremy Garretson)

In March 2000, cold-swimming Dutch guru Wim Hof won the Guinness world record for swimming under ice, earning the nickname “Ice Man,” and his methods have won devotees worldwide. By 2011, he broke the ice with his immersive classes, dubbed the “Wim Hof Method,” and his book, “The Wim Hof Method: Activate Your Full Human Potential,” published in 2020 and now in paperback, is a New York Times best-seller.

The practice of immersing in cold water even became a recognized sport in 2009 with the creation of the International Ice Swimming Association, which now holds ice swimming competitions in 46 countries. 

For Bogardus, though — a chef by trade who is married to a psychologist — it’s all about maximizing performance and minimizing pain caused by inflammatory issues. 

“I think that inflammation and stress are two of the largest contributing factors to all the cardiovascular disorders that we see — which is still the most common cause of mortality here in America,” he says. “So anything we can do to try to cut inflammation from our body is key. And I think bath and cold immersion therapy are arguably some of the most anti- inflammatory methods on the planet.”

Winter swim for the win

Kimberly Cavoores wades in. ((Photo credit: Jeremy Garretson)

For Kimberly Cavoores, owner of One Kourt Wines in Greenport, cold plunging is a matter of facing off against what was once her least favorite season. 

“I have terrible circulation — in my feet, in my hands, and I’m just freezing all winter, as soon as it goes below 50 [degrees],” she says. Up until her recent embrace of cold water immersion, she approached the cold months, and the longer days of darkness, with dread. “I was always freezing. I couldn’t get comfortable. I used to have a deep, deep disdain for winter, because I knew that … I was going to be cold all of the time.” 

When she started plunging, she noticed that her circulation improved and she was less cold. “I mean, when I walked outside and it was 40 degrees, I was definitely cold, but I didn’t feel this bone-chilling rigidness all the time that I used to feel … I don’t despise winter anymore, which in turn makes me generally happier during the winter months.”

Mattituck High School graduate Caroline Keil, 25, took her first cold plunge in 2018, three days before Christmas, in Dublin, Ireland, where she was part of a study abroad program. Thirty seconds of “huffing and puffing” later, she was back on dry land, chastened.

Keil, who now travels the U.S. as a recruiter for Princeton University and splits her time between the North Fork and New Jersey, didn’t think too much more about that swim until the fall of 2021. At the height of the pandemic, like so many others, she was hungry for something that could shake up her life under a seemingly endless quarantine. She committed herself to a cold water swim every day at a different beach from Halloween to New Year’s Eve, just to see if she could do it. 

“I swam at basically every public beach access point on the North Fork in that two months, and certainly some private community beaches where I’m sure — if it was July — they would have been annoyed by me,” she laughs. “But it’s in November, December, nobody was there to care.”

She’s even lured multiple wary friends into cold water swimming. 

“I’ve had at least half a dozen friends that I’ve either dragged to a [North Fork] Polar Bears club meeting or made them come with me on my own. And I will say that out of everybody, I think I’ve only had one person say, ‘I don’t think I want to do that again.’ But the person didn’t stay in the water long enough. They basically got in and got out and then watched me swim.”

Calm in from the cold

For four years now, Orient resident Patricia Garcia-Gomez says she hasn’t missed a single day of swimming, no matter what the weather. “That includes snowstorms,” she says, “and any other possible weather where you look outside and go, ‘Yeah, no, I don’t want to.’ ”

When she and her partner, Dafydd Snowdon-Jones, founded the North Fork Polar Bears club in 2020, there were three members. On New Year’s Day 2021, 10 people turned out for a cold water swim. This winter, the group has a Whatsapp text chain with more than 130 polar bears on it.

She’s been cold water swimming regularly since 2017 or 2018, she says, but her longest unbroken streak so far is her current one. Her daily ritual is more than a chilly swim. It’s a daily plunge into nature’s grandeur. 

She wakes up every morning and goes straight to the shore. Part of the reason she lives on the North Fork is the easy proximity to water and the natural beauty of the area.

“Having that first thing every morning is something that I want for myself. You go into that deep, creative, vibrant space — before your day is hijacked,” says Garcia-Gomez. “If you’re paying attention, there’s something quite magical because you’re out where nobody else is. But the animals are there. The aquaculture is still really rich. There was a bald eagle that used to show up when I was doing my swim, or a seal would pop up. And sometimes you’re just astounded because all you did is get out of bed and go to the water and this magical thing happened. And that’s the first thing in your day.” 

The North Fork Polar Bears at play. ((Photo credit: Jeremy Garretson)

Long before the North Fork Polar Bears club was formed — before swimmers were covering their hands, feet and heads in neoprene and stepping out of the water and straight into oversized “dry robes” — outdoor changing robes designed to warm cold, wet bodies — Nancy Messer and Peggy Lauber were making waves in just standard bathing suits. 

“She’s the OG,” Lauber, 70, says of Messer, 63, her first mentor. “I’m an OG. But she’s even more OG than me.”

In the winter of 2015, Lauber kept running into neighbor Messer while each was walking their respective dogs in the woods in Greenport.

“Then one day in February I went down to Gull Pond and I watched her pull up next to me, and jump in the water,” Lauber says. “And it was February, and it was like 20 degrees and there were ice floes!” 

After confronting her friend on the soundness of her swimming judgment, Messer convinced Lauber of cold-swimming’s merits. She began experimenting with her own cold-water swims — and fell in love.

“Over the years I’ve kept a log. I think I started keeping [it] in 2017 where I’ve recorded every swim I’ve done,” she says. “I record the air temperature, the water temperature, the conditions how long I stayed in. What I was wearing.”

Messer says she’s been cold-water swimming for so many years, she’s not even sure why she started. 

“I guess I just started because I love the wind, the water and I didn’t want to give up [daily] swimming” for the winter. 

But she quickly came to feel the effects of the practice in a mind-body way that has made it a devoted practice in her life. “I guess people who say they’re on heroin, they do the drug to feel normal. Now I do this to feel normal,” she says. “But I do have to say, though, that I don’t have any aches and pains. I don’t have any. My knees don’t hurt now like they did a while ago. And I started playing the piano again.”

And then there’s that other draw; what some say the practice does that goes far and beyond the physical.

“Almost every day, you stand there and — even if you love it, you get in, and it’s always cold. It’s not like you get immune to cold. It’s always cold. But there’s this magic moment [for] about a minute and a half in where your body relaxes, and all your sensation is awake, and you’re incredibly present,” says Garcia-Gomez. “You hear the world and you see the world and whatever you had on your mind is gone. You’re just in this pure presence.” 

Peggy Lauber is devoted to swimming in winter. (Photo credit: Jeremy Garretson)