How dunking in the icy waters of Lake Champlain helps one woman grieving the loss of her husband
I am standing in my water shoes, in the snow, behind the St. John’s Club in Burlington. I’m here with Gisela Veve.
Gisela is 50. She’s lived in South Burlington for three decades, and before that, she grew up in Puerto Rico. Getting used to Vermont’s cold, dark winters took some adjustment, she says, but she’s come to love it here, especially now that the lake is a year-round thing for her.
For almost a year now, Gisela has been a member of the Red Hot Chilly Dippers. She joined shortly after her husband died.
As one of the group’s regulars, you’ll likely see her on a given winter day, somewhere along the Burlington shore of Lake Champlain. The Chilly Dippers are pretty easy to spot — they’re the people in hats, booties and bathing suits, wading between ice chunks.
On this December night, they get together because Gisela is throwing a birthday bash for her friend Kika. And what better way to celebrate than to shed our layers and walk into the 42-degree waters of Lake Champlain?
The evening sky above us is cloudy and a pinkish-orange reflection of the city lights. In front of me, Gisela’s daughter Gigi gets hot water poured in her shoes by Kika, who brought along a thermos for this purpose.
Like me, Gigi has never dipped before. She verbalizes my thoughts exactly as a dozen or so of us begin walking into the purplish-grey water: “Oh my god, it’s happening.”
Gisela tells her daughter to breathe. Gisela demonstrates, pushing air out of her mouth in sharp bursts. From a small group out in front of us comes the assurance, “Gigi this is nice, I swear!” Then they cackle.
It is … not warm.
“Wakes up the soul!” Gigi observes.
A circle forms, most people sinking down so the water is up to their shoulders. In the center is Kika, whom the group serenades with a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday.” Then the countdown begins.
"Five, four, three, two, one!"
Kika plunges her entire head underwater as everyone shouts encouragement. Then she does it again. And again, plus another two times — five times total, one for each decade of her 51 years.
According to emerging science, putting your face in cold water can provide stress relief. Chilly Dippers describe it as a “reset.”
A reset, and a final loss of any lingering body heat. Kika is out of the water, and so is Gigi. Gisela and I follow shortly after, once Gisela does her own head-under dunk.
Through chattering teeth, Gisela asks me how I’m feeling. Truthfully, I answer, “Numb!” I’ve only gone up to my waist in order to protect my recording equipment, but cannot feel a thing in the lower half of my body.
We’re back on the snowy beach, but the dip isn’t complete without a picture to prove it. Kika and Gisela pose in their bathing suits and wet hair. Then they gotta get dressed again.
“Well, I didn’t bring a bra,” Gisela says.
“Who needs a bra?” Kika responds.
“Who needs a bra,” Gisela confirms.
Bra or no bra, this marks the end of the ritual. Dozens of people, mostly women, perform it regularly – sometimes everyday – in Vermont’s cooler months. People tend to do their own thing in the summertime, but once the temperatures drop, the Chilly Dippers gather, and get cold.
“Almost a heat, it's a fire that comes from within, almost. Your body goes through such a shock, and you do recalibrate.”Gisela Veve, Red Hot Chilly Dipper
It’s all for the post-dip feeling, which, on the night of Kika’s birthday, I experience as a rush of warm blood accompanied by a floaty sensation, my legs seemingly feather-light.
Gisela describes it as energy. It’s what she noticed after her first time going in the lake with the Red Hot Chilly Dippers, in March of 2021.
“I didn't realize right away — it was when I came back home, and I was content, and I was energized,” she said. “Almost a heat, it's a fire that comes from within, almost. Your body goes through such a shock, and you do recalibrate.”
Gisela explains that this recalibration came after three months of “darkness.”
“A lot of grieving and darkness, not only because it was winter, a lot of internal darkness,” she said. “So my husband passed away on Dec. 22, . And after that, it’s just almost like, I can't even describe, because nothing makes sense. The house doesn't make sense. Your bedroom doesn't make sense. You walk outside, you look at the stars, and you're like, ‘Is he looking down? Can he sees what I'm doing? Can he help us of how are we feeling?’ It's just, life takes 180-degree change. And it's impossible to deal with that at the moment.”
Enter the Chilly Dippers.
“The Red Hot Chilly Dippers was what opened my brain to know that I was going to be OK,” Gisela said. “That I could have friends that were going to support me, and lift me, and do things and be there. And that was the first time for me that I had to feel intensely all these changes.”
She added, “I met this girl, woman, but she — I mean, our difference in age is probably 25 years — who lost her mom. And then I lost my husband. And we had a connection, that it wasn't either of crying together and hugging together. It was mostly of laughing again together.”
… and skinny dipping together.
“So yes, we did have a skinny dipping, with full moon, on my birthday,” Gisela said. “And we had fabulous cupcakes.”
For Gisela, that day would be a kind of rebirth.
“My whole life had been flipped upside down. And so I decided, if I'm going to be baptized, I'm going in all the way,” she said. “So I dove in like a whale – and I splash everybody!”
Submerging oneself into a lake, in the wintertime, doesn’t necessarily get easier. No matter how many times you do it.
“Every single time you go in, you go through a trauma, of shocking your body, every single time,” Gisela said. “Yes, your body gets acclimated and all that, but every single time, you know, you're putting yourself through that very dramatic experience.”
And that, she added, is where the change comes.
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