Winter Play: Taking a cold dip in frozen Lake Harriet

Two people stand in the water of an icy lake
MPR News reporters Regina Medina (left) and Elizabeth Shockman react to their first seconds in the frigid waters at the Lake Harriet ice hole in Minneapolis on Jan. 25.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Even though February is technically sometimes our shortest month, it can sometimes feel like the longest and dreariest here in Minnesota. That's why MPR News reporters are focusing on fun things to do in the cold weather. MPR News reporter Elizabeth Shockman talked to MPR News host Cathy Wurzer about cold dipping.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: It is February 6th. And wow, February is the shortest month. It can sometimes feel like the longest and dreariest here in Minnesota. And that is why MPR News reporters are focusing on the fun things to do in the cold weather. Our series is called Winter Play.

So far in our series, we've got ice climbing, dog sledding, and fat tire biking. Today, NPR news reporter Elizabeth Shockman takes us cold dipping.

Hey, Elizabeth. How are you?

SUBJECT: Hi, Cathy. I'm good. How are you?

INTERVIEWER: I'm fine. Am I to assume that cold dipping is just literally jumping in a cold lake?

SUBJECT: So yes. It's immersing yourself in cold water outside. Minnesota, of course, is sometimes called the land of 10,000 lakes. And cold dipping is making a hole in the ice in one of those lakes, and then getting into it.

INTERVIEWER: [LAUGHS] OK. Why would one want to do that?

SUBJECT: So I think in talking about my involvement in this situation, I think saying that I wanted to do it is maybe not quite the word to describe my decision-making process.

So this is something I've seen people do here in Minnesota and other places I've lived. Winter sunbathing outside in swimsuits, or the Russian Orthodox tradition of ice plunging in January for epiphany, or I have some swimmer friends here in Minnesota who continue their training outdoors in Minnesota lakes, even when it gets really cold.

But a few weeks ago, I saw some friends who tried ice dipping. They said that they loved it.

And on something of a whim, I asked if I could join them. And then Regina, a correspondent here at MPR, said she wanted to try it too. And so we signed up.

But I have to confess, after I agreed to do this and I told our editor that we'd record it for the radio, I may or may not have started questioning my sanity and having regrets.

INTERVIEWER: But then you did do it. Go-- you had to, of course, meet your deadline.

SUBJECT: Well, right. That, and of course, I couldn't abandon Regina. I couldn't leave her out in the cold, if you know what I mean. If you see what I did there.

INTERVIEWER: I did. I saw that. [LAUGHS] OK. So how was it when you went out on the ice?

SUBJECT: Well, we did our research. I called up Thuy Anh Fox. She is someone who regularly goes ice dipping. I wanted to ask her advice.

She has been ice dipping in Lake Harriet during the winter for several years. Here is how she described her first ice plunge, which happened before the lake froze over.

THUY ANH FOX: I immediately felt this pain in my feet and my legs. Walking into open water when it's that cold, it just felt like this long walk off the plank. And I felt like I was panicking inside. And something happened after 90 seconds, where this calm took over. It's probably because my body got very numb, but also my breath just regulated. And it felt really good. And I walked out of there, and I was like, wow.

And you had this moment where you're like-- your body temperature hasn't totally dropped yet, so you feel pretty good. And I was like, I could walk home in my swimsuit right now. And it just felt so good. And I remember talking to someone, I was like, I don't know if I'll do this again. But wow, that felt really good.

SUBJECT: So that was Thuy Anh's first time. But she's now been doing it for years and says that it seems to help with her mood on the days that she does it. She feels a lot calmer. And she says that while she used to dread winter now, she looks forward to it.

INTERVIEWER: Wow. OK. You stay in the water how long?

SUBJECT: So she suggested 90 seconds, but I didn't make it that far. I only made it to about 45. Regina did. Regina stayed in a lot longer.

But I have to say that the dread and the nerves I felt were completely out of proportion to what was going-- what going in the water was actually like. So yes, it was cold. But it was actually so cold that I didn't really feel it. I was mostly numb. And then there was this pins and needles sensation that you get when your foot falls asleep. That's what the cold felt like.

So it was just like a numb. It was over really fast. Obviously, 45 seconds. So and then Thuy Anh and some others who were there were coaching us to take deep breaths, which I have to say, was very reminiscent of the breath coaching they give you for childbirth and labor. So I think they just wanted to help people from tensing up and panicking.

So my experience, I think, is pretty typical of someone who goes for the first time. I was really nervous and I had this tunnel vision, just wanting to get it over with. But it felt less cold than it did just like a big adrenaline rush. I went in the water, came out, got dried off. And then I cheered Regina on because she stayed in longer than I did. So I'm glad I tried it out.

INTERVIEWER: OK. So if someone wants to do this, what should they do? Where should they go?

SUBJECT: So the group I went with, they call themselves the Night Water Butterflies. They were wonderful. They are on Facebook if you want to look them up.

I definitely say, go with someone who's done this before. Don't do it alone. You want to go with someone who knows the ice. And you also don't want to risk ice dipping in the cold and then realizing your phone battery or key fob battery has died, and your stuck out there. So it's safer to go with someone.

The Lake Harriet and Cedar Lake ice holes in Minneapolis are regularly maintained. You can use those. And you just need to sign a permission slip to use them.

And then of course, make sure you bring the right equipment with you, towels to dry off with, a towel to lay on the ice while you're changing out of your wet socks, loose clothing that's easy to slip into. And maybe a hot thermos of tea to sip when you get back into your car.

INTERVIEWER: Are there any health benefits to doing this? There's got to be something.

SUBJECT: You would hope that there's a benefit?


SUBJECT: So anecdotally-- so of course, Thuy Anh Fox talks about she has a better mood. A lot of the people she goes with, talks-- they talk about the aches and pains that they sometimes have seem to be better after ice dipping. Regina talked about she felt really clear in her thinking.

So-- and the Night Water Butterflies are actually involved in a study about trying to see if this regular practice increases your metabolism, helps with immunity.

For me, I just-- I thought it was a very memorable experience. It was like an adrenaline rush. And I slept really well the night after. So that's what I noticed.

INTERVIEWER: Well, your body, I'm sure, was shocked and maybe-- yeah, maybe you're more relaxed. OK. So would you try this again?

SUBJECT: Let's not jump ahead with--

INTERVIEWER: Oh, come on.

SUBJECT: --commitments about future activities here on live radio. But it was fun. I would try it again, especially with a group of friends, I think.

INTERVIEWER: OK. All right. Good for you. You're braver woman than I am. Thank you, Elizabeth.

SUBJECT: Thanks, Cathy.

INTERVIEWER: That's NPR news reporter, Elizabeth Shockman, who tried cold dipping, lived to tell the tale. Her report is part of our winter plays series. You can find winter play by going to, check out all the different things that our reporters have done, and maybe even try it yourself. What the heck?

I'm glad you've been listening here to Minnesota Now today. Thank you so much. Hope you have a good rest of the day.

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