There's a middle-aged man you can spot most days at sundown on the north beach of Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. Wearing just his swim trunks, he wades into bone-chilling waters, calmly breathing and smiling, until his toes can't touch the ground. Then he swims.
He is the furthest thing from a triathlete in training. His technique looks like a cross between a front crawl and a doggie paddle. But he puts in his 100 strokes every day, a celebrity among eccentrics. In the local ice-dipping community, they call him Ricky Lake.
"Woo-hoo!" Ricky shouted last week from the 41-degree water, holding his hands in prayer. "Just another day at the beach."
On Friday, Ricky Lake (his real name is Richard Pelletier) completed his 1,000th daily consecutive swim. It's a streak that started during the pandemic, and he's still going. This year alone, the 56-year-old Minneapolis resident has plunged into 22 lakes and three rivers in Minnesota and Wisconsin. He has battled not only snowstorms and ice, but algae, milfoil and goose poop.
"My name is well-deserved — Ricky Lake," Pelletier said. "I know my lakes. I know all the beaches in town and which one to go to, depending on what time of year it is and which direction the wind is blowing."
Pelletier said it all started around 2008, when his niece, who was then just 6, spent the summer with Pelletier and his mom and sister. Over 61 straight days, little Jada and her Uncle Ricky biked around Bde Maka Ska and Lake Harriet and cooled off with a swim. Pelletier remembers tearing up when he and his niece parted after their sweet summer together, but he got the idea to keep going with the daily swims.
Pelletier says getting outside every day is his "personal health insurance program," keeping him physically active, but also warding off depression. He's always felt at home in the outdoors and calls it a blessing to live in the City of Lakes.
When he dunks in water this cold, Pelletier says his natural alarms go off. "Your body is telling your mind, 'I'm gonna die. This is not right,' " he said. "After you get out, you always feel a sense of joy — adrenaline, endorphins, dopamine. You're naturally rejoicing because you didn't die."
He started his current swimming streak on March 14, 2021, wading in at a time when many ice dippers were stepping out for the season (most prefer to be done by late spring when the water warms up).
These so-called "submergents" swear by the social and health benefits of polar plunging. They might seem bonkers to the general public, but they claim the dips, which last just a few minutes, have invigorated them, improved their immunity and given them new perspective, making less arduous tasks like loading the dishwasher suddenly seem like a breeze. Scientists from Rockefeller University's Cohen Laboratory of Molecular Metabolism investigating the production of brown fat — which keeps humans warm in the cold — are studying Pelletier and other regular ice dippers through ongoing bloodwork.
But Pelletier is in a league of his own.
"Whether it's sun, winds, snow or rain, light or dark, he's out here dipping," said submergent Ianthe Zabel, wearing a one-piece swimsuit and a pair of yellow choppers. "His commitment is incredible."
Pelletier can't always be part of a group dip and often shows up at Lake Harriet whenever it fits into his schedule. He works 60-hour weeks driving trucks and setting up signage at trade shows during his busy season, and he also cares for and lives with his 82-year-old mother and sister, who has multiple health problems.
When the lake becomes soupy and potentially dangerous in the summer, he plunges in with goggles, nose clip and earplugs to protect himself from bacteria and parasites. When the lake is frozen, he chips at it with an ice chopper or saw and scoops out chunks with a giant fishing net.
Zabel remembers that last winter, Pelletier was hitting the lake a handful of times at 10:30 p.m. after he got off his shift. It worried the group, which abides by the mantra to "never dip alone," especially in dicey conditions. The solution they agreed on was that Pelletier would take a video selfie after his swim and message the group that he was OK.
"He'd send his proof of life," Zabel recalls. "We mommed him into it. Everyone cares for him."
You can now find his proofs of life just about every day on Instagram, where Pelletier documents his dips with the date, the length of his swimming streak and a peace sign. When he was going through a rough patch in 2022 after losing his job, the submergents pitched in to buy Pelletier a dry robe from England to keep him warm.
Fellow dipper Cindie Kouamé said Pelletier has been a trailblazer not only because of his dedication, but with what she calls "The Ricky Lake Method." That's his system of drying off by stepping into an oversize reusable Ikea bag loaded with dry towels, which keeps the sand contained. She said Pelletier has been a warm and outgoing constant in the ice-dipping community.
"He inspires me to keep going," she said. "He's just so joyful to be around."
Swimming is not the only streak Pelletier has been on. He's also more than 20 years sober.
After he toweled off last week, I probably kept Pelletier too long in the cold, but he answered all my questions without complaint. A glorious sun dipped behind a distant tree line and Pelletier, teeth chattering, headed up the steps back toward his car.
"Goodbye, Ricky!" the submergents shouted, waving their chopper mittens just above the frigid water's surface.
Ricky Lake waved back at his friends. He knew that the Minnesota lake he loves would soon freeze over, and that he would be back again tomorrow.
For just another day at the beach.