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Lake Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival

This past week and weekend, Selkie Sam and I flew from Oregon to Vermont to participate in the Lake Memphremagog Winter Swim Swim Festival. Sam signed up to swim all of the events, and I signed up to volunteer.

The Winter Swim Festival is a social event that happens to have some ice swimming interspersed each day. The event organizers changed the schedule this year to extend the festivities and swims over an extra day, so there are 3 days of swimming events. Earlier in the week, Phil White's crew saws a 25 meter long, 2 lane wide pool into the ice off shore from the Eastside Restaurant, inserting two wooden platforms with stairs at both ends of the pool so swimmers can climb in and out more easily. The air temps are usually between -5 and 32 degrees F, and the water temp is 30-32 degrees.

There are flags of the different countries and states participants are traveling from, as well as Pride, club, and fun flags to create the backdrop of the event.

There's always a stellar hat competition, and the competitors up the ante every year. The hat competition is the first event of the weekend, and draws a crowd!

After the hat competition, the events are timed and participants eligible to win maple syrup, beef jerky, and a woodle as fastest finishers. The organizer, Phil White, has opened the event's competitive categories to womens, mens, non-binary, trans, and para/adaptive to ensure all swimmers are represented.

The event requires quite a few volunteers to run smoothly and safely:

Escorts: volunteers who help swimmers walk across the ice to the pool, and then back from the pool to the warming hut. There need to be a minimum of 6 escorts, especially for the faster events (25 free, 25 fly, etc.) as the next heat of swimmers emerge from the restaurant as the previous heat starts their swim.

Strippers: volunteers who help remove swimmer towels/parkas/coverings before their event and redress them as quickly as possible once the swimmer emerges from the water. There need to be a minimum of 6 strippers (3 strippers per lane) for longer events, and ideally up to 5 strippers for shorter events. This year, the strippers also fought to keep the exit stairs/ladders as ice-free as possible, as on Saturday and Sunday, the water running off the swimmers as they exited the pool almost immediately created sheets of ice on the wood.

Hookers: experienced volunteers who patrol the edge of each lane with a giant pool hook. These volunteers are responsible for hooking a swimmer if they're in distress and pulling them out immediately. This year, the ice was thinner than usual, and the edge wore down, requiring the hookers to be less mobile. There are 2 teams of 2 hookers on both long sides of the pool, tied together.

In addition to escorts, strippers, and hookers, you'll also see timers, a pool coordinator ("go go girl" - that's what I did this year), warming hut "Mom" (Suzie Dods this year), starter (saying "ready, GO!" 85 million times per day), and all of the coordinators inside the East Side Restaurant herding all the participants into their heats and sending them onto the ice in some semblance of an organized format. After each race, all of the racers' times are inputted into a spreadsheet by a volunteer to facilitate awards on Saturday and Sunday.

Note: If you're curious about ice swimming, or have a friend who wants to go, consider volunteering! I had a great time and met some wonderful fellow volunteers.

Now having both been a swimmer (2 years ago) and a volunteer (this year), I've seen some sh*t, and I'm dedicating this article to all the ice swimming virgins who plan to come to the event next year.

My words of wisdom:

  1. Yes, absolutely, you should do it. You'll meet the most wonderful people and have an experience of a lifetime.

  2. Bring the veteran-recommended stuff (see the packing list below). There were a handful of virgins that realized they brought the wrong gear or weren't prepared, and had to get super scrappy. Putting plastic bags around your feet won't keep them dry, and wearing 7,942 layers to the pool actually makes you more cold, not warm, because of the time it takes to shed and reclothe them all.

  3. Do your best to train for the cold temps, but recognize that most of the races are short (and optional). If you're only able to train down to 40-50 degree water, you can swim only 1-2 events, or volunteer, to ease into ice swimming.

  4. Don't take altering substances before your event to calm you down. Having heard that a competitor had taken some "calming" meds (not part of their regular regimen), all the volunteers, especially the hookers, were on high alert and nervous. Do the volunteers a favor, and don't take anything that may alter how your body responds to the ice water.

  5. Wear the bare minimum down the water - towel, parka, unlined-slippers. I watched a ton of swimmers get stuck in their various clothing, and the strippers sometimes struggled to juggle the many layers. Prioritize getting out and getting to the warming hut with material that simply shields you from the wind.

Packing List/Recommended Equipment

  • Crocs, or a similar bare slip-on shoe. Don't bring a pair that is fleece or fur lined, as it's really hard to dry them, and your feet end up getting even colder with the ice that forms due to soggy lining.

  • Yaktraks or other shoe traction - you're walking on literal ice, need I say more?

  • The number of swim suits equal to the number of events you're swimming - you don't want to keep any wet suit on your body, and the wait between events can be 1+ hours, depending on the number of heats in each event. Strip off after each event, and put on a dry swim suit. Looser swim suits are easier to remove when you're cold and fingers aren't working well, so save your old suits to use at the Winter Swim!

  • "Slap on" towels - thin towels that can absorb moisture and dry quickly that you can wrap around yourself when you get out of the pool. Some swimmers have used velcro, clip on, or t-shirt towels for the simplicity of getting them to stay on without dexterity in your fingers.

  • Ear plugs - no one wants ice water in their ears

  • Clear and tinted/shaded goggles - when the sun comes out, it's blinding on the snow-covered lake, but some days, it is a little gloomier. Have options so you don't get sunburnt eyeballs.

  • Lotion - Lake Memphremagog is one of the windiest lakes in the region. The ice water, wind, and dry climate combine to inflict super dry skin that feels like it's cracking by the end of the weekend.

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