Feb 16, 2024 - News

What it's like to cold plunge in Willamette River

Four women and one man in bathing suits taking a selfie with a selfie stick at dawn on a boat ramp to the Willamette River in February

Christina Malango and friends take their ritual selfie before their thrice-weekly cold plunge in the Willamette River at Milwaukie Bay Park. In summer they swim but in winter they immerse for 10 minutes then go for coffee. Photo: Joseph Gallivan/Axios

Open water swimming has taken hold in winter in Portland, linked with cold plunge science and the Wim Hof Method of breathwork.

Why it matters: Portlanders started open swimming in lakes and rivers when the pandemic closed the public pools in 2020, then they extended it into winter as cold plunging gained notoriety.

The big picture: Cold plunging is available in Portland at spas and in cryotherapy tubs, but a free, natural version is available any day of the winter on the waterfront. Current popular spots for cold plunging include:

Zoom in: At 7:30am on a recent Friday, the Milwaukie Bay Peahens ambled down the boat launch at Milwaukie Bay Park.

  • The Peahens wore coats, robes, hats, swimsuits and sandals, but Christina Malango, one of the organizers, said they often skinny dip, or as she put it, "chunky dunk."
  • They come here two or three times a week.

Details: After a ritual selfie, they walked down the ramp into the Willamette River, immersed up to their shoulders, chatting when they could catch their breath.

  • The water was 47°, the air 41°.
  • Three of them stood still, while Sheila McGrane swam a few dozen yards into the river, whooping at the cold.

What they're saying: Malango said the worst part is getting in the water, that never changes. "The best bit is the afterwards. The endorphins. And the community."

  • "When you're in the water, you can't be thinking about a million things, it keeps you in the moment, like mindfulness, or meditation," Malango said.

The bottom line: It's not for everyone. Willie Levenson, open swimming activist and ringleader of the Human Access Project, said he would never cold plunge unless there was a sauna nearby. He came along for the ride, and stayed in for two minutes. The Hens did 10.


Other believers in the health benefits of cold water plunge do it at home.

State of play: Sungho Spark has a 15-cubic-feet chest freezer filled with water in his yard, with an immersion cooler to keep it at 40°.

  • As a software developer, he felt unhealthy sitting for hours at a computer, beset by mental stress but not physical stress.
  • Now he jumps in once a day for two to three minutes.

"It gets me dealing with physical stress in a controlled way," he told Axios. Staying in to push through the mental barrier is half the reward.

Context: In 2017, Spark became a certified Wim Hof Method instructor, named for the Norwegian modality that combines breathwork with cold plunging, and he teaches classes using an inflatable birthing pool.

Don't forget: A fundraiser for Special Olympics Oregon, the Polar Plunge, happens at 10am, Saturday Feb. 24, at Willamette Park.


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Portland.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Portland stories

No stories could be found


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Portland.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more