I tried cold-water immersion – and was vigorously courted by a catfish | Jessie Cole

I felt his body glide against my back. Why does this whiskery creature want to get so close?

This summer, after a bad run of migraines and perplexing ill-health, I decided to try cold-water immersion. And yes, it’s possible I had listened to a few too many podcasts on the topic but, also, I was looking for an achievable goal.

The property I live on in northern New South Wales is bordered by a creek, which, despite being summer, stays remarkably cool. There is a water hole, and I’m hopeful that if I create the cold-water immersion habit in warmer weather I can move into the cooler months. I’m planning ahead.

To catch the water at its chilliest, I get up early and head straight down to the water hole. This means treading through the rainforest my parents planted when I was a baby, down steps carved from the earth by my father’s hands. The air is warm, even in the early morning. I watch the ground, on the lookout for snakes. Barely awake, the walk feels dreamlike, even though this is a path I have walked my whole life. In a few minutes the water hole comes into view. It is a forest pool, dark and mysterious in the dawn light. I know that the trick is to strip off and rush straight in. Still dreamy, I do.

It is chilly and I gasp on entry, but it is not quite as exhilarating as I suspect is required. I swim towards the colossal rock across from the bank and choose a submerged ledge to perch on while I attempt to get cold. I choose this spot as it is as far away from the catfish nest as possible.

In northern NSW, freshwater catfish nests are usually found in the shallows, in slower-flowing sections of creek. They are visible from above, if you know what you are looking for. An oval-shaped formation of rocks, polished clean, with a catfish patrolling it. Catfish are biggish, easy to spot, often about 40cm in length. Ours are grey-brown and mottled, with a long, swishing “eel tail”. Catfish nests are to be avoided because catfish are territorial and, if you stand too long on their nests, they attack.

It is many years since I’ve been attacked by a catfish, as I never stand on their nests, but unsuspecting visitors sometimes do. They’ll be standing in the shallows, feeling confident and – bang – the catfish will whack an ankle with some force. This is a warning blow. A strangled yelp from our visitor, the frantic tussle to eject themselves, a jump in the air perhaps, and if they aren’t quick enough, a second whack, which may draw blood.

I have never seen a serious catfish injury, but I have seen a lot of high-stakes squealing and slapstick attempts to scramble out of the water. It is, of course, hard not to laugh. I may have, as a younger woman, brought tentative love interests down to my water hole to watch them flounder. Can he laugh at himself when he is upturned by a fish? How else to judge a man’s character? Nowadays I’m more circumspect: someone might break a hip.

Submerged up to my neck, sitting on my rock ledge, I feel safe. I watch the flickering leaves above, take in the slow tick of the forest, the tinkle of the nearby rapids. My mind is deliciously empty. And then there is a brush against my thigh. Just feather-light, but I’m submerged so it’s definitely creepy. I look down and it is the catfish. He (or she?) is brushing against me like a cat! I have swum in this water hole my entire life and I have never known a catfish to approach so far from the nest. Time’s up, I think, and paddle to the bank.

On waking the next morning, I am undeterred. I do the same routine, the sleepy walk down the forest steps, the no-prevaricating entry, but when I swim towards my rock ledge, I see the catfish is already there. Hovering near the surface, as though in wait. Geez, I think. Maybe it’s his spot. Staying submerged, I choose a sandy patch further along and mind my own business. A minute or so goes by and I see him slink towards me. What is he doing? I am not scared of catfish; they are slow and sleek, with whiskers! I have known them my whole life. But I don’t want to actively commune. Again, the catfish slides against my legs. Does he want a pat?

This dance goes on for weeks. Now, when I think of my morning immersion, all I can focus on is how to avoid the catfish. I alternate between spots. Once submerged, I watch the water around me uneasily. I try to relax. It is not relaxing. I choose a place closer to the faster flow hoping that will discourage him. It does not. I force myself to sit still and breathe. He has shown me no ill-will thus far. Perhaps we can just cohabitate? I feel his slimy body glide against my back. It is too much! I swim to the bank and am out in seconds, wrapping myself in a towel.

I live in a house in the rainforest. I have found snakes in my drawers, lizards in my sheets. I once lifted a cushion from an outside chair and a host of microbats flew out. I am used to the wild and the wildlife, but this fish is getting under my skin. Why, after years of concomitant circumstances, parallel lives, does this fish want to get so close?

The last man I loved avoided closeness, avoided feeling. Sometimes I think of him, like a fish out of water, flapping about in the air, gasping for breath, when there was a whole body of water right beside him. It seems a cruel irony that now I should be pursued so vigorously by an actual cold fish. But, perhaps, for me, this is the medicine? Cold-water immersion is supposed to build resilience, to teach you that you can overcome discomfort, to widen your parameters. I am nothing if not committed. My water may not yet be cold enough but I run the gauntlet of an inquisitive, personal-space-defying fish. I take my warm, sleepy body to the waterhole and take my daily dose. Me and my animal body, learning to commune.

• Jessie Cole is the author of four books, most recently the memoirs Staying and Desire, A Reckoning. More about her here


Jessie Cole

The GuardianTramp

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