The golden leaves of fall were abandoning trees along Lake Herman on Friday afternoon. Dried, they skittered along the shore at the south beach and collected in footprints which pitted the sandy surface.
Gentle ripples slipped across the surface in the sheltered alcove, although a gusty wind created waves on the open water and along the park's west shoreline.
Into the idyllic fall scene, Sirje Kiin stepped in a wetsuit. The afternoon temperature of 48 degrees Fahrenheit would have discouraged most people from entering the cold water, but Kiin wasn't deterred.
"It's exciting," she said. "It's addictive. You get a burst of energy."
The wife of Dakota State University professor Jack Walters, Kiin has been swimming since childhood. A competitive swimmer in Estonia, she learned to swim in the icy water of glacial lakes.
"We put seal blubber over our body. It was like protection, so your body could be in water long-term," Kiin recalled.
She grew up in a country where winter swimming is a recognized sport. A tourism site indicates "winter swimming is a sport practiced in Estonia by brave souls to get their blood and adrenaline pumping." Afterward, the site indicates, "a portable `banya' sauna was waiting to thaw swimmers."
Kiin said there are a variety of competitions related to winter swimming, which is rooted in the Nordic sauna tradition. The tourism website calls it "the Estonian vitamin" and says "the main focus is on strengthening the mind."
Kiin hopes swimming in the cold waters of Lake Herman will strengthen her immune system against the coronavirus which is driving the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the virus itself which led her to begin swimming there.
A lifelong swimmer, she made a practice of swimming in the pool at The Community Center after moving to Madison in 2005. However, when The Community Center closed earlier this year in response to the pandemic, she was forced to consider other options.
Research indicated that outdoor beaches were safe as long as people engaged in social distancing, so she began to explore the county's many lakes and identified three options. A friend has a house on Lake Madison. The Scott Pedersen Memorial Park on Lake Madison has a beach, and Lake Herman State Park has two swim beaches.
The green algae on Lake Madison made it an unattractive option, and the lack of regular care made the Scott Pedersen Memorial Park less than desirable as well. Lake Herman State Park provided what Kiin was seeking -- clean water and a well-groom beach.
"It's the best taken care of park I've ever been in," she said.
Thus, her swim adventures began. Kiin is a freelance writer and avid gardener with a strong social media presence. Each day she posts pictures of her flowers and describes her literary endeavors, and -- since summer -- her daily swim. She reports the air temperature, water temperature and other factors which affect her experience, such as wind or windchill.
"Usually, I measure the temperature first and then go swimming," she explained on Friday after donning her wetsuit.
She then strode into the water and swam out until her head was little more than a bump on the surface of the lake. Turning, she returned to shore, walking after the water was waist deep. She laughed while telling a story after dressing and donning a stocking cap.
In Estonia, where the water doesn't get much above 65 degrees Fahrenheit, even in summer, she once lured her husband into the sea. She said he walked until the water reached his waist but wouldn't go farther.
"He made it look like he was suffering," she said.
On Friday, she reported her interview on Facebook, saying, "Mary asked many questions, one of them was: why am I doing it? To feel good, to get energy, to strengthen my immune system against viruses and winter, for fun and excitement, too!"
One of her friends commented in Estonian, "Tubli, Sirje, et ujumisega taod Eesti trummi!" Facebook translated that as "Well done, Sirje, that you can get the Estonian drum by swimming!"
On Saturday, when the windchill had dropped to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, she wrote, "First time I felt actual pain from cold right after swim instead of excitement and pleasant awakening -- my legs, toes and specially my pure naked neck, pain thanks to the north wind." She indicated the wind will determine whether she swims in coming days.
She admitted already on Friday that her swims had become shorter as the temperature of the water had dropped. In July, her average swim was around 30 minutes. In October, that time was reduced to about 5 minutes.
Kiin explained she is able to bear the temperature of the water because she became acclimated to it slowly. She does not recommend jumping in now to individuals who did not swim as September and October brought cooler temperatures.
"If you do it gradually, you can do it through the seasons," she indicated.
She admitted that even some of her friends and Facebook followers don't understand why she continues to swim as temperatures drop.
"Somebody wrote to me they were sending men with white coats," Kiin said.
However, followers from Nordic countries -- such as Finland where she taught for 10 years -- are more supportive. Of course, they swim in cold waters as well.
"Only in America do people think I am crazy," Kiin reported.
That may be true because in America, people cannot imagine how swimming makes her feel.
"I feel like I can do anything now," she said after swimming on Friday afternoon. "I feel like queen of the world."
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