Winter Play: The anticipation, anguish and magic of ice dipping

A person reacts to standing in frigid lake water
MPR News reporter Regina Medina reacts as she takes a dip in the ice hole at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis for the first time on Jan. 25. Medina managed to stay submerged in the frigid waters for nearly two minutes on her first dip.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

As winter cold bites deep, MPR News is celebrating the best of the season through a new series called Winter Play. Our staff across the state set out to try a new-to-them winter pastime.

What to do when you want to embrace the winter like a true Minnesotan? Yes, there’s SnowGa and snowshoeing, pleasant ways to enjoy the chilly outdoors without mental anguish.

And then there’s ice dipping.

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To embrace it like the locals, you just have to go for it.

That’s what education reporter Elizabeth Shockman and I did. It’s the practice of immersing oneself into frigid waters to later experience, among other benefits, improved circulation, high quality sleep, and great moods.

I am living through my first Minnesota winter and I saw MPR’s Winter Play Series as a terrific opportunity to explore an extreme winter activity. It was also a chance to challenge myself to do something slightly scary and possibly invigorating.

Two people use lawn tools to clear the ice off a hole cut into a lake
Tara Young (left) and Thuy Anh Fox clear the Lake Harriet ice hole in Minneapolis before dipping on Jan. 25.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

We turned to the Night Water Butterflies, a Facebook group based in the Twin Cities. The group members maintain an 11 by 11-foot ice hole in Lake Harriet in Minneapolis they’ve named the Harriet Magic Hole. 

Many of the group’s 1,700 members dip several times a week. Some do it daily.

Thuy Ahn Fox, a member of the Night Water Butterflies, was our guide for this adventure. She dips daily and calls it a gift to her children. Why? Because after she ice dips, Thuy Ahn is in a great mood.

Two reporters smile as they talk to each other
MPR News reporters Elizabeth Shockman (left) and Regina Medina plan their dip at the Lake Harriet ice hole in Minneapolis on Jan. 25.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Getting ready

Fox, filled us in on the careful planning needed for before and after the dip.

She made a list of things to bring: swimsuit, multiple pair of wool socks and bath towels, hot tea to warm up, mittens, wool hat, hand warmers and a bath robe. 

“Your dry socks, you're going to put back on (after the dip.) Make sure they're accessible, maybe put them in the boots,” she said. She also told me to put my car keys in my bath robe so I could sprint to my car.

Tree branches frame three people on a frozen lake
MPR News reporter Regina Medina (left) prepares to dip at the Lake Harriet ice hole in Minneapolis on Jan. 25.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Falling snow

It’s Game Day and, luck would have it, it’s snowing.

The dip starts with signing the ice hole waiver. It’s a requirement for the permit issued by the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board for Lake Harriet and Cedar Lake. If you don’t have one to show Minneapolis police if they show up, then you could be issued a ticket.

Our area of Lake Harriet’s North Beach feels calm and peaceful, but my head is not.  

Elizabeth and I are anxious. It’s no longer this crazy idea, the hole is right in front of us. Now, it’s more of a mental challenge than anything else at this point. 

A stepladder is submerged in the icy waters of a lake
The access ladder at the Lake Harriet ice hole in Minneapolis is pictured on Jan. 25. Early morning dippers use saws and rakes to clear the hole after the surface water freezes overnight.
Ben Hovland | MPR News
A hole cut into lake ice is surrounded by a fence
The ice hole at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, known to dippers as the “Harriet Magic Hole” is pictured on Jan. 25.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

I’m so overcome with what happens next that I almost forget to place my microphone near the hole to capture our voices.

Elizabeth enters first, climbing down the ladder in the water wearing a swimsuit, hat and mittens.

“All right! I’m doing this and then I'm getting right back out,” she says. 

Now it’s my turn. There’s so much ice, I’m afraid of slipping. I’m layered up, wearing swim leggings, swimsuit, rash guard, hat, mittens, and a cover up.

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

I go in and the water, of course, is freezing, but, for now, it’s tolerable.  

MPR photographer and videographer Ben Hovland asks me what’s going through my head. I simply can’t contain a joy that comes over me.

MPR News reporter Elizabeth Shockman shares her experience on Minnesota Now

“I can't believe I'm doing this. I can't wait to tell everybody that I’m doing this!” I yell out to him.

Elizabeth says, “It feels like needles on my legs.” About 10 seconds later, she gets out.

She stays in around 45 seconds. I last just under two minutes. I think the extra clothing helped.

A person smiles after ice hole dipping
Regina Medina smiles as she exits the ice hole enclosure at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis after her first winter dip on Jan. 25.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

We scrambled back to our cars. I’d had hoped I’d enjoy a night of deep sleep, but that didn’t happen for me. Elizabeth said she slept in the next day. 

What I didn’t get in extra deep sleep, I certainly made up for in the spirit department. I felt a real boost of confidence and calmness that felt awesome. All that just from dipping in the icy water for just under two minutes.

I may have to dip again.

Two people walk off a snow-covered lake
Regina Medina and Elizabeth Shockman walk back to their cars after dipping at the Lake Harriet ice hole in Minneapolis on Jan. 25.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

What you need to know:

Where: Both the Lake Harriet and Cedar Lake ice dipping holes have official permission from the city of Minneapolis and a team of volunteers and enthusiasts who maintain the ice. You just need to sign a waiver before you jump in and for those worried about heart conditions, you might want to talk to a doctor before shocking your body with cold water submersion. 

When: A cold water plunge is something you can do any time the water and the weather are cold. But if you want to actually go through a hole in the ice, you’ll need to wait for the weather to be cold enough to freeze over a layer of the lake. 

The DNR has ice safety tips for venturing out on frozen water and the Night Water Butterflies Facebook group has an established community, regular updates and an Instagram page

How long: Thuy Anh Fox, who ice dips regularly, says you might want to aim for somewhere between 90 seconds to 3 minutes on your first try. The 90 seconds gets your body past the shock to somewhere more calm. But if you’ve never done it before, going past 3 minutes might be too long. 

How much does it cost?: Freeeeeeee! Surprise - there is no monetary cost to plunge your body in icy cold water! There are some comfort items you can purchase if ice dipping becomes something you want to do regularly, but many people go without them.

What to bring: You need to come prepared for cold-dipping. Bring a yoga mat or fluffy towel to lay out on the ice when you’re changing (plus a towel or two to dry off when you’re out), thick wool socks inside old tennis shoes to wear in the water (or neoprene socks), mittens, a hat and a swimsuit.

Optional but helpful: Hand warmers for inside your mittens, a mug of hot tea to sip when you get back to your car, neoprene booties to keep your feet from getting too icy and a dry robe (or something similar) to use for changing after you get out of the water. 

Pro tips: Go with someone who’s done it before! Ice dipping can be dangerous if you stay in the water for too long. A friend who’s tried this before can help give advice on where a safe place to dip might be and how to get in and out safely (plus, you don’t want to risk being out there alone, wet and cold if your phone or key batteries die).

Park your car close to the ice hole so you can get back to warm up as soon as possible. When you are preparing to dip, be sure to lay out the clothes you’ll put on in the order you put them on. After you get out of the water, dry off quickly, then put on loose-fitting warm clothes and hurry back to your car to warm up. 

– Elizabeth Shockman

An owl figuring keeps watch over an ice hole
Decorations line the fence surrounding the ice hole at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis on Jan. 25.
Ben Hovland | MPR News