Local Swim Group Creates Community and a Deeper Connection to Acadia


Standing in their snow boots at Acadia’s Sand Beach on a frigid winter morning, the lapping Atlantic waves don’t feel very enticing to most off-season park visitors. While swimmers abound here in the summer, most admire the coastline from dry land in the cold months, ideally while wearing a reliable parka and mittens to stave off the brisk wind. But there are those who seek out the cold water on and around Mount Desert Island (MDI), including an increasingly popular group of intrepid local dippers known as Cold T*ts, Warm Hearts.

Lured by the invigorating effects of cold-water immersion, or perhaps out of sheer curiosity, the group’s members gather near the water’s edge at different locations around the island—sometimes the salty coast, sometimes the icy shore of a frozen lake.

There they shake themselves out of bulky coats and shed warm layers, peeling down to swimsuits and neoprene booties and gloves—to protect sensitive fingers and toes. Then off they go, moving slowly and purposefully into the water.

Members dip in an ice hole at Somes Pond. Photo by Julia Walker Thomas/Friends of Acadia

“All the leading up to it is the hardest part,” said Anne Woodman, a jewelry maker, life coach, and member of the group who lives in Seal Harbor. “Taking your clothes off is hard because it’s really cold outside, and you’re like, ‘I’m cold, why am I doing this?’ After I go in, it just gets better.”

Wading into the 40-degree waters of the Atlantic in the winter is an act that appears simultaneously brave and blissful, and puzzling to the casual onlooker. But for members of this group, it’s about so much more than cold water. These swims are a place
to find community and connection with themselves, each other, and the stunning landscapes of MDI and Acadia National Park.

“My favorite sensation is when you’re absolutely freezing cold, but you can taste the saltwater on your lips. There’s such cognitive dissonance there,” said Lilly Anderson, who lives in Town Hill and works as a park ranger during the summer and coordinates clean air campaigns in the winter. “For me, that’s really what it’s all about, falling in love with winter, embracing all that the season has to offer.”

Members walk back to change after dipping at Ship Harbor. Photo by Julia Walker Thomas/Friends of Acadia

Cold-water swimming has been practiced in Nordic and eastern European countries for more than a century, in some cases hundreds of years. On MDI, this group was informally started in the fall of 2020 by locals Gail Gladstone, Alison Richardson, and Mariah Reading, who were all open-water swimmers and wanted to keep swimming outside, even as air temperatures dropped and snow began to fall.

But those organized gatherings turned out to have additional benefits. It was the first year of the pandemic, and the swims offered a chance to socialize, to revel in nature, and to feel purposeful and empowered at a time when so much of life felt uncertain and challenging.

“It’s been a way to get outside, to get what little sunlight we have and really embrace the natural environment here in the winter,” said Puranjot Kaur of Bar Harbor, an ultra-marathon open water swimmer, cold-water enthusiast, and member of the group. “We’re in such an amazing and blessed place for it, to have all these opportunities and places to get in the water.”

Every swim is an invitation to better know all the marvelous nooks and crannies around MDI and Acadia, while bringing people together in remarkable ways.

“You’re having to support each other through this kind of uncomfortable experience that you’re having for a little bit while you adjust (to the cold water). And that is somehow bonding,” said Heidi Turner.

“It made me connected to this community on this island and with women I feel like I can count on in the water and out of the water,” added group member Rachel D’Angell.

It doesn’t hurt that swims sometimes include cookies and tea or a celebratory birthday cake—or that they might happen under a new moon when it’s easier to see the bioluminescence sparkle in
the water.

The group has created a pressure-free environment that welcomes newcomers, too, whether you end up neck-deep in the water or not. “You can go in up to your ankles and leave and people will still cheer you,” said Melissa Ossanna, a clinical research scientist and outdoor adventurer who lives in Town Hill.

Alison Richardson plunges below the
icy surface at Echo Lake. Photo courtesy Alison Richardson

That sense of welcoming and community has a ripple effect away from the water, too. For the last two years, the group has organized a fundraiser for a local nonprofit. They raised close to $15,000 for the Acadia Family Center in March 2021 and close to $10,000 for the Domestic Violence Project in March 2022.

This March, they’re raising money for the Beth Wright Cancer Center in Ellsworth, in honor of a fellow cold-water swimmer and her husband, who are both in cancer treatment.

The group is open to all, although its members are mostly women, and the regular swims bring together cold-water lovers from around the island: year-round and summer residents, 20-something seasonal workers and retirees, as well as staff from the park and Friends of Acadia.

“Part of the beauty of this group is that there’s a wide range of ages, life experience, comfort with cold, comfort with water,” said Sue Aripotch of Northeast Harbor, a jeweler, painter,
illustrator, and dancer.

While the group swims take place all year, the winter dips are particularly special.

“Many of us in this group really embrace the winter and long for it,” said Kaur. “People are like, ‘When is winter going to get here? I just want snow. I want slushy ocean swims.’”

And let’s face it, it’s also just a very cool way to immerse yourself in the beauty of MDI and its winter community.

Find Cold T*ts Warm Hearts on Instagram: www.instagram.com/coldtitswarmhearts

Editor’s Note: Cold-water swimming has risks. As the Outdoor Swimming Society notes: get expert medical advice before winter swimming if you have a heart condition, high blood pressure, asthma, or are pregnant. Seek out experienced cold-water swimmers who can guide you and make recommendations on proper safety measures, such as neoprene booties and gloves, as well as an awareness of environmental conditions and your own body’s response. Never cold-water swim alone.

SHANNON BRYAN is Friends of Acadia’s Content and Website Manager.