I’m a nature girl. I could spend all my time running through forests, camping in the mountains or jumping into lakes. The thing is, I’m also a bit of a chicken when it comes to swimming in water with a temperature that’s anything below 30°C. Hot showers all the way! Anyway, the project of the Canadian Jessica Lee really peaked my interest: Living in Berlin now, she is taking a swim in 52 lakes in the city and Brandenburg just for the fun of it. She especially loves swimming in winter… So naturally, I was curious as to what motivated her in the first place – and how long an average swim takes.

Hey Jessica, can you tell us a bit about yourself? 

I grew up in Canada, two hours south of Toronto, in a town called London. I left there twelve years ago and then moved a lot – I lived in Nova Scotia for a while before moving to London (England), then Toronto, then Berlin, then London again, and Berlin again! I have trouble staying still. I’m only 29, but I feel like the past decade has been rather more full than I expected. My passions – swimming, obviously; being in the woods; landscape history; watching Gilmore Girls in bed; toast and butter. I have a pretty indescribable love for my bicycle.

What’s your favourite lake in the whole wide world and why?

That’s a tough one, as it so often depends on my mood. But if I had to name one I’d say it’s the Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath in London. I have swum there for much of the past eight years and, if I’m honest, few places have held so much emotion for me. Good times and tough times, swum out in the peace of that pond. And it’s populated by the most bad-ass women I know – 80-year-olds who swim every day in winter and value the women’s only pond more than anything.

What made you start 52 Lakes?

I had been swimming a lot the first time I lived in Berlin, but for a variety of reasons felt like it carried a lot of emotional baggage for me. When I moved back – feeling inspired by the Ladies’ Pond swimmers – I decided I needed to reset my relationship to Berlin’s lakes on my own terms. So it’s a way of feeling at home here and a way of processing a lot of difficult emotional stuff. And also it’s just incredibly beautiful to be out swimming all the time, getting to know this complicated place – a good break from my PhD work.

Can you explain how the project works and how you choose a particular lake?

It kind of does what it says on the tin – I swim 52 lakes over the course of a year. It works out to roughly one a week, though sometimes I do more and sometimes fewer, depending on the circumstances. I have a little spreadsheet of good swimming lakes around Berlin – it has about 75 lakes on it – and I choose according to their location, size (especially as some might freeze solid in winter), and whether I’ve been there lately. I try to change it up, week to week. I love hearing people’s recommendations and often work those in – some of the best lakes I’ve been to were surprises.

What do you love about the lakes in Berlin?

I love the contrast with the lakes in Canada. Berlin lakes can have this incredibly silky, clear water. Where I grew up the lakes were dark and pretty terrifying. I love the scale of the lakes here – rather smaller than Canada – and the fact that it seems so manageable and accessible. Something about being able to bike to a lake in the woods on any given day – it’s a kind of freedom I haven’t known in many big cities.

What makes a good lake? And what’s a “bad” one?

Again, this is tough. Good would be clean (but not necessarily crystal clear) water. Not too much debris or plant life grabbing at my legs. A bad one would be dirty – Weissensee in the height of summer, say, though that’s never really stopped me swimming there. I guess there’s no bad lake, in a way.

What does swimming mean to you? What does it do to your body and wellbeing?

It’s tough to sum this up. I have swum my whole life, but lake swimming is a wholly different thing; I didn’t swim in lakes until I was about 20, because I was completely terrified. So in a way swimming means freedom, but also fear and love and a whole lot of other things. Being in the water, I feel most at home in my surroundings – I feel closest to the places I swim in. The swimmer’s view is, I think, the most encompassed, the most ‘at home’ in the landscape.

Despite the fact that it’s already October, you still take regular swims in Berlin’s and Brandenburg’s lakes. Doesn’t it get too cold? 

Winter swimming is my favourite part, to be honest. It is cold, but that’s the point. It can be really painful at first – in fact, we’re now in the weeks that I like to think are ‘paying the piper‘, if you will, as it takes a little bit of time to acclimatise to the cold. But once you’re in and swimming, it’s like magic. When you get out of the water, your entire body feels like it’s aglow – it’s magical. And it’s what doctors call cold shock response! I get dressed quickly and never swim too long. No more than five minutes in the depths of winter. It does magical things for my mood.

What lake are you jumping into next?

I’m afraid that’s a secret! But I do have plans to visit some fantastic tiny lakes in the forest before they freeze for winter.

All photographs taken by Jessica Lee