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A vow to take the plunge

He made a resolution to dive in the river once a month – even in winter.

By David Holahan / February 23, 2009

BATH TIME IN THE BALTIC SEA: Two members of a winter swim association in northern Germany take a dip in the Baltic Sea at Ahlbeck Beach.

Thomas Haentzschel/AP

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When I lost my day job in September, I made a number of resolutions, many of which have fallen by the wayside. Some I can't recall. One vow, however, remains indelible: to dive into the Eightmile River in Connecticut once a month, every month, all year round. I have come oh-so-close in the past, but January and February are killers. Windows of opportunity – high water minus ice flows, combined with sunny, windless afternoons – are rare when you're working 40-hour weeks.

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The river, which my mother-in-law calls a "crick," marks our property's eastern border, across the hayfield. To receive full credit for the dive, a bather must walk barefoot from the house, a 200-yard ordeal, clad in gym shorts, and clutching a standard-issue bath towel to one's bosom.

I took care of December on Day 1. It was a piece of cake. Still, the dog went crazy, running in tight circles and yipping frenetically as I clambered up the rocky bank on all fours. Even my neighbor's stolid cows trudged over to the barbed wire for a gander at advanced mammalian behavior.

Then my son, who was home from college, insisted we take the plunge on Christmas Day. I went in the river almost daily in September and every other day in October, but twice in December was overdoing it. Nonetheless, I tiptoed behind Jackson toward the river. Tenacious snow patches and frozen ground-water marked the path. This would be an immersion of an entirely different hue. There was no ice along the banks, but this was only because the current was running at several knots. A strategy to minimize time in the water was of the essence. Several of my toes were already off the grid. If we used our normal spot, we would be swept downstream into the rock dam that we cobble together each summer.

So we followed the narrow animal path along the bank for some 25 feet, found a convenient rock, bent our knees and launched ourselves, reluctantly, downstream. I had hoped to get more distance out of the dive. The water burned at first. I emerged upright with my arms flailing, my numb legs churning the river bottom. The exit rock, incredibly, was more than 10 feet away. The freshet buffeted me from midtorso down. The skin exposed to the air felt angry and red, totally separate from the torpid lower body. Soon I would experience "brain freeze," similar to the one you get from eating ice cream too fast.

My son was already on dry land. I began to bellow. Bad form or not, the world needed to know what I had gotten myself into. I remember being deeply grateful that I wasn't doing this solo. After perfunctorily posing for photos, we ran – more like galumphed – back to the house.

Such frigid encounters aside, I consider the river to be part of the family. It's where my son caught his first trout; where we've looked for turtles, frogs, and indigo buntings; and it's where our dog, Sophie, engaged a six-point buck in a comedic swimming match. It's also where a hawk once dive-bombed me while I was performing ablutions, apparently mistaking me for a muskrat.

We have kayaked most of its eight miles, all the way to the Connecticut River. The stretch above us is quite challenging, and my son and I tackled the rapids in April when he was 10 or 11 years old. We portaged around a few places that we deemed to be especially dangerous. Then, as we dragged the boats across our field, he said simply, "I'm never doing that again."

Jackson and I camped by the river once, when he was 4 years old. The experience inspired existential thoughts. When I explained that the dog was only growling to protect us, he was anxious to know: "From what?" Later, having left the tent to relieve ourselves, we were shivering together in the late September, predawn chill. "Dad," he asked, "why are we doing this?"

Late January brought sub-zero temperatures. The ice was thick enough to skitter across where I would have made my first swim of 2009 – another resolution shot to pieces. On my riverine treks I sometimes encounter a great blue heron standing one-legged on an ice shelf, grimly overlooking a patch of still-open water. Having invested too much time and energy in his position, he looks at me but doesn't fly. I turn back. I know what he's going through.

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