Funny the places you find yourself. Stripping down to swimmies in March at the loch-side of a Christmas Tree farm just outside of Blairgowrie? Nope. Didn’t really see that one coming.
If you haven’t seen wild swimmer Kelly McIntyre’s video circulating on Facebook about the ‘Wild Doukers’, do yourself a favour and watch it now…
They’re a cheery, hardy group who dunk themselves in the chilly loch waters around East Perthshire just for the sheer, wild, wonderful thrill of it. And they’re into tray bakes.
Of course I wanted a piece of it. Who wouldn’t want to get involved? Not so many as it turned out. Despite a shout out on social media to see who was willing, friends seemed to be busy washing hair, sorting laundry, folding laundry. You get the picture.
My sister Fiona Maclean didn’t need persuasion. She’s an extreme triathlete so happy throwing herself into the unknown and painful. Both of us like loch swimming – the kind where you cover every body inch with thermal neoprene. Yet, joining these Wild Doukers, it felt wrong and a bit cheaty to don the wetsuits. If we were going to do this, we weren’t going to do it by halves, dammit.
Videographer, photographer, Christmas tree farmer and chief Douker Kelly has always loved outdoor swimming and began plunging in Loch Marlee, conveniently situated just by her farm, last year. It didn’t take long before others heard about it and started joining her.
I’d stay five minutes in the water. No more, no less. I told my kids. My husband. Anyone who asked.“It’s all about the swim, the positive feeling we get from submerging ourselves in icy water and the well-being rush you get afterward,” says Kelly. “ But also, the social aspect is huge, as is the connection to nature, the great outdoors and the sense of freedom when out in the loch hanging out with the birds – although not sure how much they appreciate our constant chat though.”
We were invited to join in too. We picked up Laura, who’d seen the Facebook video and wanted to try winter swimming too, on our way Blairgowrie-wards. We met Kelly and the friendliest group of strangers at her farm before a short walk to Loch Marlee. Amongst them there were mums, bakers, a musician, a veterinary assistant and a potter. There was a jumble of ages, accents, dogs, woolly hats, muddy boots, hot water bottles and bags laden with cosy clothes. Mostly, mostly, there was a fanfare of laughter.
The day was pretty dreich so Kelly had put up a gazebo for us to get changed under and she began throwing wood on the fire. “We don’t usually get this kind of treatment,” someone laughed. I was certainly grateful for it.
I tried snatching advice as I peeled off my layers. We’d been told to bring water shoes. I didn’t have neoprene gloves so Douker Debbie kindly offered me hers.
So what’s the best way to enter the water? What should I expect to feel? What’s the hardest part? Tall girls (like me) may find it harder as it takes longer to get submerged advised tall girl Jud. Noted. I gathered up all these golden advice nuggets. But at the end of the day this was my douk. No one else was going to experience it like I was.
And here’s a little something about me. I’m a competitor. I like goal setting, racing, challenging, winning, celebrating. When I do stuff like get into a loch in March in just a swimsuit, woolly hat and someone else’s gloves I do it to test myself. So of course I’d set myself a goal…
I’d stay five minutes in the water. No more, no less. I told my kids. My husband. Anyone who asked. Of course I’d have to stick it out no matter how tough it was. Otherwise what was the point?
As soon as the water hit my shins, a warning flare shot up to my brain. Around me the Doukers were wading further out, whooping and hollering as bare skin met cold. There was a constant reassuring thrum of chatter and belly laughs.
I found myself clutching Fiona’s hand. Douker Donna was keeping a watchful eye on us. With the water now at our knees, I felt my whole body igniting, could sense the chaotic dart of sleepy hormones standing to attention, blaring loudly on tiny trumpets – YOU ARE OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE!
At this point I would gladly have turned back. Others were fully submerged, swimming and thrilling. The water was up to my chest. The cold was on the verge of heart-stopping. ‘Swim around a bit, keep yourself moving,” Deb encouraged.
So I did. My feet left the loch floor and I kicked around a bit. Everything evacuated from my head. That five minute goal? Vanished! I was completely overwhelmed by the cold water. It was intoxicating but also, well, breath-stealing. I had to get out.
You feel elated and alive, like you can do anything. There’s nothing else in your mind when you do it except being in that moment.Strangely once I’d left the water I was warmer instantly. Relief will do that to you. I chattered endlessly while still soaking in my suit. But honestly, honestly, I was disappointed in myself. What about that goal?
I forgot myself once I’d pulled on my clothes, strapped on the hot water bottle and was sipping on hot chocolate. The Doukers had baked cakes and treats and were sharing them from tins and the chat around the fire as we all warmed up was totally five star. Whether you’d been in one minute or ten, everyone was electrified from the swim.
So just what is it that has kept them coming back to these lochs all winter? “It’s therapy,” someone said, “You feel elated and alive, like you can do anything.”
“There’s nothing else in your mind when you do it except being in that moment. There isn’t even room to think about the Tesco shop!”
Hang that Tesco shop! After saying goodbye I had a chance to reflect on the day. Fiona had planned to get out of the water with me, also overwhelmed by the cold. But instead she put her feet on the ground again and stayed an extra few minutes longer, explaining that once she’d got over the brutal shock of cold, she went numb and then, strangely peaceful.
“I can’t explain it,” she said, “But I ended up really loving it.”
I looked at my own disappointment at only lasting a measly couple of minutes and realised something. Wild swimming isn’t about goal setting or challenges. It’s not about how long you can last or whether you’re tough enough. It’s much purer than that. I’d wanted to time myself otherwise what was the point? But swimming like this has no benchmark by which to measure yourself apart from being unapologetically raw and free.
To do it you have to toss all caution to the wind and reset your thinking. You’re sort of stripped bare and not just in the swim suit sense. You have to be kinder to yourself. And by going with the flow, you can properly immerse yourself in the whole experience - not just the water!
Did I love the cold? Not really. Did I love the experience? Completely. Will I try it again? Absolutely. And that’s not just the tray bake talking.
Follow Kelly on Instagram @mc_digital_hillbilly for amazing wild swimming pics, videos or to drop her a line if you fancy a douk yourself!
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