Colorado is famous for its splendid mountains, to which John Denver’s anthem is dedicated. Dirk Rohrbach seeks their unique thrills, biking over some of the highest passes in the Rocky Mountains.
For many winter swimmers, this moment is the entire goal, their entire reason to trek out into a winter landscape and break the ice, their reason for slipping into the water when no one else will.
In that kind of cold, I feel most alive.
Getting to the ice, though, is a process. I start in late summer, when the sun begins to wane and warmth begins to fade. The first thing—the most important thing, perhaps—is to keep swimming. Autumn will come and go, and as my body acclimatises to the cut of the cold, the winter will arrive. I’ll swim a few times weekly, keeping conditioned to the season. My toolkit will be simple: a swimsuit, a wooly hat, and a small hammer, convenient for tucking into my backpack on long bike rides and hikes. Between the city and countryside, I will travel by train, bicycle, and foot.
Berlin and Brandenburg sit in northeastern Germany in a landscape known as the North German Plain. It is a flatland shaped by glaciers, which moved across the landscape some hundred-thousand years ago, leaving pitted and crooked pools of water in their wake. In the past two centuries, human use has created even more: gravel quarries, sand pits, clay pits, and opencast mines. These, too, add to the watery landscape of Brandenburg, pockmarked with over three thousand lakes. There are a wealth of forests and shorelines to explore, mostly within half a day’s cycling or an hour’s train ride from the city.
So as revelers stumble out of the city’s nightclubs in the early morning, I set out to the lakes.
There are those that find Berlin cold, those for whom swimming here would feel an impossibility. But I grew up in eastern Canada and am no stranger to plunging air temperatures, snow, and ice. I welcome them. In Berlin, at the very least, one can reliably find a place to swim or dip in winter, even if it is covered in a few centimetres of ice. It is wintry, but it isn’t nordic in its coldness. There is never a season to stay indoors.
Over the coming months, the winter will set in. I’ll spend my weekends trekking with friends to lakes in Berlin and the Brandenburg countryside. I’ll acclimatise to the water and await the ice.
* * *
It’s required when the days curl in to darkness, when the water becomes so cold that my hands and feet ache as I swim. I’ll need to swim regularly and push through the process of preparing for winter.
I want to be ready.
Many winter swimmers begin by accident: they simply keep swimming as the summer turns to autumn, and come December find themselves used to the cold, even enjoying it. When the water serves as a shock, there is a kind of ablution of thought that keeps me going in the darkness. Without it, I worry I’d slip into my bed for months. I’d miss some of the lake’s best transformations.
Today marks the first autumn swim. I take the train to Bernau and meet my friends outside the station, bikes packed and ready for a ride. The lake is just 16 kilometres away, but the final stretch is along a sandy track in the forest. It’s a pain to cycle through, a dry, mineral moat that keeps Hellsee isolated and quiet. We trundle our bikes along it, stepping off now and then to push through thick, grey mounds of Brandenburg sand.
Hellsee was turquoise in summer, but as the weather has turned, the water has, too. What was silken and thin in summer is thick with early autumn plankton, not yet ready to sink with the cold. The water shines green-grey under the clouded sky. The beeches and alders at its edges are tinged with colour. There is still enough warmth in the air to wander the forest for an hour, taking in the beginnings of leafy colour. Enough of summer remains that the peaty, marshy smell of the lake rises as we approach the shore. The scent envelopes us fully when we begin to swim.
We slip into the water easily, the temperature identical with the air, a stagnant warmth starting to fade.
I push out to the lake’s centre, whipped by wind, and float, thinking of the coming months and of the cold.
For now it is windblown but still comfortable. The turquoise of summer days is gone, and all is turning to grey, to brown, to the rust-hued waste of the end of the season. The forest will glow brightly, and then it will be stark, naked, cold, and beautiful.
* * *
I wish I’d worn a hat. I’ll need to in the coming weeks, as I keep my head above water. They say most of the body’s heat leaves through the head.
I stop and put on another layer, a cotton jumper I’d been saving for after my swim. I’d underestimated how quickly the cold weather would arrive. October colour hasn’t fully swept over the trees, but the air forewarns of winter. Everything feels damp.
Bötzsee is a fair distance from town, a glacial lake that sits at the far edge of the Strausberger und Blumenthaler Wald. Most days, a ferry shortens the distance by chugging across Straussee, manned by a captain in a fisherman’s sweater. But today it is out of commission. Repair workers stand on the boat’s roof, fixing some unknown problem. A sign posted on the gates says the work will take seven weeks. So we’ll have to walk around Straussee, then on through the forest. I ask Nell if she’s game: a fellow winter swimmer, she is, of course.
The forest on the western shore of Straussee is mixed: beech and alder cut through with patches of pine, the occasional maple. The flashes of red in the thinning wood reminds me of Canada, of home. But as we trudge along the path, the stands turn to Scots pine, symmetrical and green, ready for timber.
If I come back in winter, their green and red shafts will glow even brighter against the white of the snow.
It’s a long walk. We spend it in laughter, recounting childhood stories and dating horrors. We stop every now and then to look at trees, moss, or fallen nuts, laughing at how in our thirties we have become more like small boys than sophisticated, urbane women. We pull our raincoats tight to our bodies, ready for rain, and trek onwards.
The lake appears as a sliver of shining grey at the end of the trail. We walk along its edge, finding the right spot to settle by an alder tree and a rough-hewn bench. Inspecting the shoreline, we undress, preparing to swim.
When you swim in the cold, preparation is key.
I stack my clothes in the order I will put them on again. I pack a plastic bag for my wet swimsuit and towel. In winter, I’ll lay the towel in the snow and it will become caked and frozen with ice. A plastic bag is essential.
Nell steps out into the water first, wading up to her waist. She plunges under and disappears momentarily into the silver of the waves, swept up by the harsh wind. I follow her out, pressing into the wind, but it is cold. A dull ache spreads through my hands and feet. But I know to keep swimming, to push past it. The water is no colder than thirteen degrees; it’s warm compared to winter. Acclimatisation will change how I feel the water, toughen my limbs to the cut of ice. But the pain has initiated a now-instinctive response: I’m counting my strokes, keeping track of how long I’m in the water. In winter, I’ll swim a minimum of forty-five strokes, maybe two minutes in the cold. I won’t want to swim more than five minutes.
We loll at the water’s surface a while, moving with the waves. Back on shore, a thermos of coffee and a packed lunch await us. For now, though, there’s the sting of October, the colour of the shining lake mirroring the white of the sky.
We watch the clouds turning to clean white sun, floating and luxuriating in the cold.
* * *
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.
* * *
The last time I swam there, it was hot and swampy in the summer air. I hated it and have not since contemplated returning.
But today we’re biking beneath a blue sky on one of the first truly cold days. Ice has formed on the canals, and smoke barely rises from chimneys but sits suspended in the sunshine. A Christmas tree sits on the top of a canal-side factory. The air sits just below zero degrees Celsius.
We follow a dirt track along the edge of a wire fence by the airport’s runway and then duck into the woods towards the northern shore of the lake. Though shaped by gravel digging in the construction of the airport, Flughafensee is now grown over with reeds and abundant in birdlife. It doesn’t feel as though it belongs in the city.
We settle in a quiet opening on the waterline, sheltered by trees. The remains of summer are wasting into the ground: bottle caps and slips of plastic. But the lake itself is still, blue, and serene. We take turns undressing and swimming out into it.
I step in, pressing my feet into the cold of the sand.
My toes sting momentarily, but then the pain retreats, leaving a dull, thudding ache. As I walk out and submerge my chest in the cold, the feeling goes. I feel only the cold on my arms, on my rib cage, as I make smooth breaststrokes forward, counting under my breath.
I reach twenty-five strokes and then turn to shore. The final strokes take all of my strength. It’s no more than four degrees in the water. My body is ready to get out, though I’m not quite ashore. I focus on counting and breathing. By forty-seven, I’m back. stepping into the dry air.
* * *
Drying off, I press my limbs back into my clothes. Anne undresses and steps out into the water. She swims out, lingers, traces an enormous loop. She is so much stronger than me. When she returns to shore, I shake my head, turning my attention to the thermos of coffee and the box of Christmas cookies I’ve packed.
When we reach the train, our bikes are dripping and coated with grit.
We disembark at Seddin, lugging our bikes onto the snow-covered platform. I slip a third pair of mittens over my hands, and we set off eastwards on the bike path. Großer Seddiner See sits at the edge of a busy road, tucked into an oak wood. On the north shore, it is lined with campsites, the occasional beach wading into the shallows.
The lake is awash in white.
Sticky snow coats its cap of ice. The place is completely still.
I step towards the ice, gingerly pressing my rubber-soled boots onto it. It is thick, but not yet thick enough to walk on. I pause, assess the best route to deep water, and clasp my hammer.
This is the kind of cold I’ve been waiting for.
I undress, piling my clothes on a tree branch, and step towards the ice wearing just my swimsuit and a wooly toque. I make a few small steps, listening to the crackling song of the ice, and then begin to hammer a hole. The first hole takes mere moments, a gap opening wide enough for me to stand in. From here, I reach forwards and begin to hammer another as my feet writhe in the chill of the lake. In the next hole, the water rises halfway up my calves. At the next, it reaches my knees. Shards of broken ice are suspended in the cold. I sweep them away with sideways stroke of the hammer; they’ll cover me with cuts if I’m not careful.
I’ve reached enough depth that I can work on a large section of ice, creating a pool just large enough to dip in. The rest of the lake is completely still, solid, and thick. I stand bent-kneed, one foot in the water, the other on the ice, chipping away with the sharp edge of my hammer. Flakes of ice fly upwards until my glasses are splattered and wet. I feel drops of water gather on the wool of my hat. I hammer for minutes on end until Anne interrupts me.
‘You need to switch legs. Your right leg has been underwater for too long.’
I look down and try to adjust my stance, but the hole I’m standing in is too narrow. I’ve hammered a hopscotch into the ice. I can only use one foot at time. I shake my head.
‘I can’t feel it anyway. It’s okay,’ I reply, though I know I’ll pay for it with mild frostbite.
I keep working until the hole is wide enough to sit down in. When it is ready, I step towards it and plunge, slowly and with precision, avoiding broken chips of ice. When I’m up to my neck, I rest a while, stretching my legs forward into the frozen lake ahead of me. I want so badly to stay here, encased beneath the ice, but I’ve been in for over fifteen minutes.
I should have gotten out long ago.
I lumber back to shore, unable to feel my limbs. When I reach the sand, I see that I’ve got bruises on both legs, already blue-black in the cold. The blood from my many cuts is frozen.
Anne takes her turn while I bundle myself back into my clothes, manually guiding my feet through my leggings so I don’t bend back my toes. My feet are dull, imprecise lumps at the ends of my legs. When I’m back in my boots, I begin to jump in place. I hear Anne swear in the cold. My voice swells to the surface of my throat. I’m cackling, laughing into the silence of the forest.
Endorphins have done their work. I am abuzz, grinning like an idiot.
It’s heady, my breath still quickened, my chest in pure pleasure. I pick up my hammer, still wet from the lake, and clutch it close. I don’t want the feeling to go.
* * *