It’s a thick, white, dense moisture, clinging to the ground, obscuring the colours of the trees. I zip my jacket to my chin and pull up my hood. We have an hour’s ride to Stechlinsee, nestled as it is amidst the rolling forests of northeast Brandenburg.
In the preceding weeks, Anne and I have resumed our regular weekly swimming, dipping into our nearest lake in the early mornings, in hopes of acclimatising before the truest cold sets in. But as the temperature drops, long bike rides like today become less feasible: by the time we swim, we’re already cold, never a good thing. But we press on anyway, knowing that in a few weeks, it will be too cold to venture this far.
Anne follows me out of the station, onto the cobbles that lead to the bike lane and up past a campsite. From here, the road narrows and winds through a forest, orange with autumnal oak, so we bike languidly, singing ‘Hey Jude’, laughing. When we reach the end of the forest, we turn onto a freshly-paved road, gearing up for the final stretch before we reach Stechlin.
We’ve come in part because I’ve grown fascinated by this lake, one of Germany’s most famous, from which Theodor Fontane’s novel Der Stechlin takes its name. The lake is a curious place, awash with myth, but also the subject of extensive scientific research: the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries has a lab here, floating in the lake’s centre. They were drawn here in part because Stechlin once received the outflow of cooling waters from the nearby Rheinsberg nuclear power plant, now defunct. Beyond that, the lake is famously remarkably clear. As we bike towards it, I wonder how today’s fog will change things.
The forest is silent when we reach it, pervaded by the kind of haunting stillness that lingers over winter lakes.
It is November, but the whiteness of winter seems prefigured in the wet air, the lake pale in mirror of the sky. It’s cold; we walk the final stretch, wheeling our bikes, in hopes of warming our hands and feet before the swim.
At the lake’s edge, we gather our nerve. Slipping out of our clothes in the cold is never enjoyable. I take off my leggings, but keep my sweater on until the last minute. At this point in the season, my woolen toque never leaves my head.
Anne and I take turns. I slip down into the shallows, the cold burning my feet. It’s crystal clear, but the lake ahead of me is still swathed in thick white. I walk out a way, and then take a deep breath and plunge forward, exhaling as I swim. The temperature has plummeted in the past weeks; the water is no more than five degrees. I count my strokes, swimming forward until I reach thirty, reaching the shore again by the time I’m at sixty.
I clamber back to shore, feeling drained from my body, clumsy with cold. As I dry off, a rush of warmth comes over me, spreading joy into my limbs.
Once I’ve forced my numbed limbs back into dry clothes, Anne steps forward for her swim.
She’s been swimming more often than I and seems more attuned to the cold. She slips a good distance out into the lake, her dark winter hat bobbing at the surface of the water, a speck on the bright horizon. I can hear nothing but the gentle course of water moving as she makes each stroke, the sound of a small splash as she turns back to shore. By the time she returns, I am warm again, the flow of endorphins having returned life to me. We dress and unbox our lunches, clutching our thermos cups close for warmth.
I look at Anne as we pack up for ride back to the train—an hour away in the cold—and smile.
‘We’re completely nuts, aren’t we?’
She laughs, shrugs, and wanders back out of the foggy woods.
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