Culture | Fitness | History | Seasons | Travel

The Cold Water Initiation

“Though it be the hottest day in July on land, and the voyage is to last but four hours, take your thickest clothes with you, for you are about to float over melted icebergs.” – Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod

The stretch of water between Cape Sable Island in Nova Scotia and Cape Cod in Massachusetts is known as the Gulf of Maine. A lot of history has floated between these two points, from Native Americans and later the Basque fishing and whaling these rich and vibrant waters to explorers like Giovanni da Verrazzano and Samuel de Champlain mapping the coast and looking for places for settlements. The Gulf of Maine remains the one constant that each would recognize, though they might wonder where all the fish went until they glance back at the developed shoreline.

In 1604 Champlain ventured south from Port Royal to explore the coast of Maine. It was on this trip that he discovered Acadia, and further south, the “baye longue” between two capes and a long stretch of sand beaches on the present coast of New Hampshire.” (David Hackett Fischer, Champlain’s Dream. It’s on these beaches that generations of New Englanders and vacationing Canadians have discovered the truth in Thoreau’s words: this water is as cold as melted icebergs!

Cold water gets in your blood, and you don’t celebrate it so much as accept it for what it is: a shocking reminder of how insignificant we really are. The Atlantic Ocean is divided into the Northern Atlantic and the Southern Atlantic, but really, there are divisions within divisions. A swim in Miami is not the same as a swim in Virginia, and a swim in the Hamptons on Long Island is definitely not the same as a swim at Hampton Beach in New Hampshire.

You aren’t really a New Englander until you’ve taken the plunge into the Gulf of Maine on a hot day. It’s an initiation of sorts into the extremes. There isn’t a person who swam in early July at Hampton Beach who couldn’t relate to the bobbing passengers at the end of Titanic. The cold water hardens you, tests your mettle, and reminds you of your mortality. And that’s why I’ve grown to love a bracingly cold swim now and then. That stinging skin is a shocking reminder that you’re still very much alive… if a bit numb.

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