As the sun came up with a pink hue over Devereux Beach, the good news was that the water temperature was twice the air temperature. The less-than-good news was that the air temperature was only 20 degrees. No matter the mercury, the Marblehead Wolfpack was there, ready for their twice-weekly dip in the Atlantic.
“This is my coldest day yet,” said Nicole Parkman, one of more than 60 people about to walk into the ocean at 8 a.m. The Wolfpack is a club of hardy locals who immerse themselves — up to the chest or shoulders — in the ocean for at least two minutes every Wednesday and Friday. The group has about 100 members.
“I keep myself distracted by chatting with people,” Parkman said with a laugh.
It was a special day for her. Along with 15 others, she received her honorary Wolfpack beanie for logging her third dip. The recipients all kneeled in the sand to receive the blue hat with a wolf-and-wave logo and be knighted by Wolfpack co-founder Brendan McKernan with a Star Wars lightsaber.
“It’s a very proud moment,” Parkman said with a big smile.
“It’s legit,” added Holly Ripley-Boyd, who also received a beanie. “This means I can persevere, basically. I feel great afterwards.”
The Wolfpack was born in March of 2021, when people started noticing McKernan and his wife, KyAnn Anderson-McKernan, walking into the ocean every morning at Devereux. Anderson-McKernan is a two-time breast cancer survivor and her husband suffers from chronic back pain. They had started cold-water immersion with their trainer Nathan Irizarry a few months earlier for health reasons.
“You get a dopamine release, which is very evident,” Anderson-McKernan said. “After you’re done, you feel like you have a runner’s high. And it fights inflammation. Your body and your joints feel less achy.”
Studies show that cold-water swimmers can see significant improvements in overall cardiovascular health. There’s also data that immersion in cold water may reduce cholesterol, boost the immune system, help treat autoimmune inflammation and ease the pain.
“I haven’t had a cold for four years,” said Jim Zartman of Swampscott as he walked out of the ocean that morning. He has been cold-water dipping since 2018 around the North Shore.
“I just had gut surgery in June, and this really helps with the inflammation,” said Kelly Hayes of Marblehead. “And I have two prosthetic hips and my physical therapist says she can see my inflammation going down.”
Wolfpack members also talked about the mental health benefits.
“Afterwards, I feel so good for the rest of the day,” said Kelley Braun. “It’s contagious.”
“It’s a community where you feel like you belong,” Anderson-McKernan said. “People show up as they are, and everybody gets along. There’s an effervescent joy that is just magnetic. There are very few opportunities like that, I think, with all different types of people collectively supporting each other in something difficult.”
Anderson-McKernan said her Wolfpack dips and friends were extremely helpful as she grappled with her mother’s illness and death.
Wolfpack members range in age from 20-somethings to octogenarians. Millice Kane is 80 years old and comes to dip with her son (who is one of her 10 children).
“I thought I’d just stick my feet in at first, but I go all the way in,” said Kane, who was wearing a headband with wolf ears. “It uplifts me to be here. The people are so loving and supportive.”
Everyone is welcome to join a Wolfpack dip, Anderson-McKernan said.
“There’s a standing invitation, but safety is really important to us. We make sure everybody checks with their doctor ahead of time. People need to listen to their own bodies.”
The Wolfpack members arrived at Devereux wearing bathing suits covered by bathrobes and heavy winter coats. Many wear neoprene gloves and booties. At least one brings bottles filled with hot water to clutch for warmth.
And then there are the beanies. They are bright blue with the Wolfpack logo — a wolf and a wave. So far, 91 people have earned beanies by dipping at least three times between the day after Thanksgiving (they call it Blue Friday) and the first week in March. They have become so popular, McKernan is now limiting beanies to 40 this year, and there are only 14 left.
After the beanie knighting, people started walking toward the water.
“Let’s go!” shouted one man with encouragement.
The key is to walk in slowly — no running starts, no jumps. People screamed “Aaaaah!” with each wave that rolled in.
Back on the sand, people quickly wrapped themselves in towels, bathrobes and winter coats.
Hayes was already looking forward to her next dip.
“There are the health benefits, but it’s the sense of community” that keeps her coming back, she said. “I love the way it makes you feel connected to the ocean. When I drive by the beach later in the day, I’ll say to myself, ‘I was in that this morning.”
Leigh Blander is an experienced TV, radio and print journalist who has written hundreds of stories for local newspapers, including the Marblehead Reporter. She also works as a PR specialist.