Winter swimming in Lake Michigan

Multi-generational group finds community and resilience in cold water

By Mae Stier

Sun contributor

Empire resident Ashley Martin breathes deep in frigid Lake Michigan. Photos by Mae Stier

On the first Sunday in January, I pull into the Empire Village Beach parking lot to meet 10 neighbors for a swim. The air temperature is 35 degrees Fahrenheit; Lake Michigan is 37 degrees.

The group is made up almost entirely of women with members spanning in age from their early 30s to 70 years old. Most of the people present this first Sunday in January, myself included, have been meeting once or twice weekly for cold water swims since October.

Winter swimming, also called cold dipping or polar plunging, is an umbrella term for various ways of submerging in cold water. For this group of brave locals, cold dipping involves a measured entrance into Lake Michigan, partnered with calm breathing. Participants spend 3-5 minutes in the water up to their shoulders, often wearing neoprene booties and gloves to fight against numbness in their extremities. Most of us wear winter hats on our heads and do not go under, though a few brave souls will wear swimming caps and plunge their entire bodies under the waves.

What pulls this group of women to keep getting into the cold water? For Ashley Martin, 41, it was initially “the idea of doing something hard and challenging in a tranquil, calm way. Maybe even (more than that), the idea of spending more time with and in Lake Michigan.”

Martin was first introduced to the idea of cold swimming during the winter of 2022-2023, but at the time did not know anyone who was doing it in the Empire area. She spent the winter learning more about the benefits and approaches to spending time in cold water. This year, as fall wore on, she simply never stopped getting in the water.

Kelly Lively, 60, also says that winter swimming happened for her “sort of by accident.” Before this year, the latest she had ever gotten into Lake Michigan was on Nov. 22, joined by now-fellow winter swimmers Karen Baja, 70, and Michelle Urbane-Skinner, 54. The fall was so mild this year that the group decided to keep meeting, even as the calendar crept towards December.

Karen Baja had some exposure to cold water swims before joining the group this winter. Her first experiences were at a spa where her sister, a massage therapist, introduced her to cold plunging between sauna sessions. Baja has always enjoyed spending time in a sauna, punctuated by plunging into cold water or the snow.

She says the experience of dipping in Lake Michigan is different, though, and it “takes a little more effort. As I get older, the wave action messes with me more. But it’s really cool to be able to say you went in Lake Michigan on Jan. 7.”

“Most recently, it has been peer pressure and camaraderie” getting Baja into the water. She says she enjoys “the camaraderie of a whole group of us doing it. It makes me do it more regularly if there’s a group. I always feel so invigorated afterward.”

The sense of community in this practice has been impactful for everyone involved, which is noticeable if you happen to find yourself at Empire Beach when we are all preparing to swim. There are hugs and mugs of tea passed around, and typically, a lot of laughter as well.

Pictured from left to right: Faith Hoekstra, Jason Porter, Ashley Martin, Brianne Carpenter, Karen Baja, March Dye, Jeri Lustig, Michelle Urbane- Skinner, Kelly Lively, Laurel Voran.

Michelle Urbane-Skinner says that the community she has experienced at the beach in Empire is part of what has made the village feel welcoming. Urbane-Skinner began visiting Empire as a child in 1969 and moved here full-time in November 2020. When she first moved to Empire, she would join a group of neighbors, including Lively and Baja, for their Sunday morning “Sip ‘n Dip” during the warmer months. The group, headed by Frank and Beryl Skrocki, was an informal weekly gathering where neighbors would come together for coffee before swimming in Lake Michigan. Beryl passed away in the fall of 2022, but neighbors still met on Sundays this past summer, and her joyful spirit is present at these winter dips.

“Beryl was a huge cold water (and water in general) inspiration to me,” Urbane-Skinner says. “And the times we all went in together early in the season when the water was still chilly, she’d say, ‘Oh boy, isn’t this grand! It’s chilly, but grand, isn’t it?!’ And we’d start giggling and trying to breathe and trying to dip. The Skrocki Sunday Sip ‘n Dips (starting late spring and going into the fall) not only made me feel like I wanted to be in that big, beautiful lake all year if I could take it, but also made me feel right at home when I relocated to Empire from Grand Rapids. This community welcomed me with open arms, especially because I loved the big lake like they did.”

Another cold-dipping neighbor, Jeri Lustig, 61, was inspired by a docu-series entitled “The Geography of Bliss,” which considers what makes people in various parts of the world happy. One episode follows a group of cold-dipping women in Iceland, and watching that group walk into the water together initially interested Lustig. She resonated with what the women in the episode expressed, summarizing it by saying, “There is so much darkness, but this is something we can do that shows how brave and courageous we are, and how strong we are as women.”

Lively agrees. “Dropping into cold water slowly and deliberately is somehow liberating…We are certainly lucky to have this wonderful group of women surrounding each other and so unbelievably lucky to be living alongside a Great Lake—it feels almost like a duty to immerse in her embrace, no matter the temperature. In return, she gives us great power, health, and happiness.”

While cold dipping has grown in popularity in recent years, polar plunges are not new. Claims of the benefits of cold-water swimming date back to antiquity, and many Nordic countries have health clubs that center around cold plunges followed by a sauna. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the popularity of cold-water swimming has grown as people look for ways to connect with others outdoors and do something that benefits their mental health.

There are many purported benefits to swimming in cold water. One study conducted in Prague in 2000 found that a cold plunge in water at 57 degrees Fahrenheit caused a 250% increase in dopamine levels.  Repeated cold exposure is also linked to increased immune system activation and body insulation changes that contribute to cold acclimation.

Faith Hoekstra, 41, is a longtime beach lifeguard who has been going into cold water with and without wetsuits for a long time. She began surfing in 2006, and in 2014, she began winter surfing on the Great Lakes. She started open-water swimming into the shoulder seasons two or three years ago but always stopped once the water froze.

This has been her first winter actively swimming. “We’ve simplified it down to the joy of it,” she says of the group, and the mental health impacts keep her coming back. “It impacts my mental health positively. When (I am) in nature, in the water, or hiking, I feel like I am in my rightful place in the world,” Hoekstra says.

The last few weeks have seen a true arrival of winter weather, and still there is no talk within the group of ending the winter swimming ritual. There has been much deliberation over how best to stay warm in the sub-freezing air temperatures upon getting out of the water, as well as wishes for a public sauna at the beach. Despite the increasing cold, however, no one seems ready to hang up their towels.