2019-04-01 / ReBooted

Cold Comfort

It burned, burned like I’d been set on fire. And then, very quickly, I couldn’t feel anything at all. Next to jumping out of a plane, leaping into the frigid waters of the Arctic was the single most intense experience of my life. As with skydiving, the first step was the doozy. Force your unwilling body out of the aircraft or into the water, and it’s all instinct (or gravity) after that. Maybe that’s why after I dragged my beet-red/purple, quivering body from the sea — a sea in which icebergs were casually bobbing — I turned around and did it again. But I suspect the decision had more to do with the need to prove myself, to myself.

I was sailing through the Arctic with the legendary expedition travel company Adventure Canada. We’d set off from Nunavut, Canada, heading north for a while and then west to Greenland. Along the way I’d seen orcas and polar bears, walruses and beluga whales, but I hadn’t thought much about what it would be like to swim in the same water, cold and black as deep space, that they did. It was a rite of passage on every voyage Adventure Canada took into the Arctic, apparently — donning funny hats and diving into the waves.

When our expedition leader announced the time had come to do so, I dutifully put on a purple octopus chapeau and lined up to take the plunge. I couldn’t not do it. Fact is, I’d recently turned 52, and I was beginning to wonder if I was getting too old for this sort of thing. I desperately wanted to discover I wasn’t.

I’d done similar things before, even waded into freezing surf on Christmas Day in Ireland. But the Arctic was different. The water looked cruel, as if it would like nothing more than to grab your ankles and drag you forever down into its bleak and terrifying depths. As I watched the passengers ahead of me scream and splash, I pondered the temperature. I’d heard someone say that the water here in summer could be 40 degrees Fahrenheit, or lower.

And then, it was my turn. I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about going in, but I didn’t dawdle. I knew if I thought about it I’d lose my nerve. When I hit the water, the feeling was like what I imagine getting struck by lightning must be like: an all-consuming shock to your system that boots with a mighty kick any sense right out of your head. The leap drove me deep beneath the water, so there was an endlessly long moment of panic when I was sure I would never surface.

I finally rose, sputtering, into the air, my lungs frozen; the breath had been knocked out of me. I was about 10 feet from the platform, where an Adventure Canada staffer was motioning me forward urgently. I tried to pretend I wasn’t panicking, that I could breathe, that, hey, this was no biggie — I jumped into Arctic waters every day. But when he reached out I paddled gracelessly toward him as fast as I could. I was amazed I could climb the ladder myself.

Someone handed me a couple of thick towels. The adrenaline was starting to hit, and I felt absolutely joyous, the physical pain vanishing. So, I decided to push my luck, the way I have for most of my life, and do the whole thing again, something few others — except for our fearless expedition leader, who I believe was part seal — dared attempt. If I thought it might be easier the second time, it wasn’t. It hurt again. I lost my breath again. But that euphoria was a marvelous thing. I think it came less from any physiological reason than simply proving to myself I wasn’t past my prime, that I could still adventure.
People keep telling me that age is a state of mind, not a number. It sounds like a platitude, but I swear I actually emerged from that water more youthful than when I went in. I don’t think I’ll be hanging up my daredevil boots anytime soon. •SCM

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Jill Gleeson is on the biggest adventure of her life. Follow her journey on her blog at

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