Advent, Day 7: Happy Anniversary!

 Dear readers,
The Maine for an adventure a day, each day of this advent season — big or small, by land or sea, with friends or solo, in image or word, exuberant or contemplative, real or conceptual. We live in a state of wonder, its wide open spaces anticipating our
hope and joy.

For the seventh day of advent we have more swimming! We’re celebrating a week of adventure with a happy anniversary story — one that’s sure to make you both shiver and smile. Adventure demands courage and we think you’ll agree the Dip-of-the-Month Club on Little Cranberry Island has this in spades. Thanks to Barbara Fernald for sharing this story, and to the Working Waterfront for first publishing it. 

We like to remember the big “firsts” in our lives, whether they are date-specific like birthdays and wedding anniversaries, or age-specific like taking first steps, losing the first tooth, or buying a first car. When the month of October arrives on Little Cranberry Island, a small group of women celebrate another year of membership in the “Dip-of-the-Month Club.”

It all started with an unseasonably warm autumn day in 2002. “Can you believe it’s still so hot in October?” was a popular comment at the post office when the mail arrived. Islesford Postmaster Joy Sprague and yours truly had already met after work several times in September to go for a cooling swim in the ocean. We knew we would head for the water on this day too. The thought of going for a swim so late in the season was a first for both of us. As a lark, we put up a sign by the Post Office window: “Dip-of-the-Month Club. October swim. Meet at 4 p.m. at the Sand Beach. Be there or be [ ].”

Six people initially showed up for the swim, and others came to watch. When Stefanie Alley saw us, after a day of hauling her lobster traps, she took off her boots and her hat and jumped right in to join us. The 65 degree water felt unusually warm for this little section of the Maine coast, and we stayed in as if we were kids on vacation in July.

“Wouldn’t it be great to do this in November? What if we took a dip every month for a year?” It’s all fun and games to speculate a plan like that on a hot windless afternoon, but who had the nerve to show up a month later? As it turns out, quite a few did.

Chris Wriggins and his sons Adam and Dan were spending the school year on Islesford with wife and mother Marian Baker while she took a sabbatical from teaching. The guys were up for the monthly challenge as well as the Island Institute fellow, Jesse Minor. Islesford librarian Cindy Thomas, Joy Sprague, Stefanie Alley and I also gave it a try. Teachers Jenny Johnson and Rebecca Beal rounded out the group. Though we chose different days to do it, all 10 of us took the November dip. I had missed out on going with the group, but knew I wanted to keep up. Accompanied by my sister-in-law Karen as “life guard” I walked into the chilly water on a gray afternoon. I stood waist deep, my legs were numb, and I couldn’t imagine going any further. It was a brutal lesson in how not to enter cold water. The minute you have time to think about what you’re doing or how it will feel, it’s almost too late to continue.

As residents from away heard about our club, they wanted in; hoping a dip from a Florida beach, or aboard a cruise ship would count. It was time to set some guidelines. The first rule was about safety. Never go for a dip alone. To qualify for a dip of the month, one must enter an outdoor body of water in a section of the country that is above the 43rd parallel. No wetsuits allowed! You don’t have to get your head wet, but you do have to get your feet off the bottom, achieving a horizontal position. We don’t jump off a dock, favoring the quick run-in over a sudden plunge. After a few kicks it’s good to get your feet under you so you can run out quickly. We also try to go when there is no wind and when the air temperature is above 20 degrees.

Psychologically, February is the hardest month to go for a dip. It’s just so darn wintery. In March, even though the days are getting longer and the air temperatures warm up a little, the water is usually at its coldest. We have taken dips several times in water that was 35 degrees which is so cold it almost feels like it burns the skin. It steals your breath and makes you scream, but there is nothing like the feeling you get after drying off from something like that. Your skin starts to tingle and there is a sense of joy and relief that is like no other. We call it the “spa effect.” I don’t know of anything that can get me out of a bad mood faster than a dip in the ocean. At that moment, all thoughts and worries leave the mind.

We still try to pick our days according to the highest temperatures and least amount of wind. Every now and then we brave some bad elements in order to dip on a special anniversary. A February dip in the freezing rain, to celebrate Stefanie’s 50th birthday, was one of them. Other times we’ve been caught in inclement weather because we put off taking the dip, waiting for a “better day,” and running out of days in the month. At the coldest times we drive to the beach in our dip-mobiles, any vehicle that has a decent heater and will keep idling for the few minutes we need to run in and out of the water. Terry cloth bathrobes and towels are a must. Mardi Gras beads complete our bathing attire. We often bring warm rice bags, hot water bottles and thermoses of hot liquid to enjoy when we’re done, though we don’t stand around for too long. No matter how much we dread it ahead of time, we are always laughing after taking a dip, especially when we manage to do it as a group.

Happy 10th anniversary to my Dip-of-the-Month cohorts, Cindy, Joy and Stef. We haven’t missed a single month and we never imagined going on for this long. We know some (most) people think we’re crazy, but we think it would be crazy to stop having this much fun.