The Great Escape

Photographer and Fair Harbor contributor Bryan Derballa explains how he finds happiness taking the plunge

It's not quite 40 degrees outside, and Bryan Derballa is itching to swim. Just two days earlier, the Brooklyn-based commercial and editorial photographer was in the British Virgin Islands, soaking in the tranquil blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, when he wasn't shooting a new ad campaign for a client. But now he's back in the rainy chill of the Catskills, at his wooded retreat.

And that pond just outside the back door is calling him like a siren.

Swimming in frigid water isn't something that comes naturally to most, but Bryan gradually learned to appreciate it when a friend jumped into his rectangular 150-foot pond one cool September day and didn’t rush out. "After about seven minutes in 55-degree water, it started to feel transcendent," he recalls. "So I did it again the next day and the next day, through October."

His dedication continued into the winter, breaking a hole in the ice and eventually adding two aerators to keep the 10-foot deep water from freezing on top. A swim in the summer was refreshing. But winter swims were revitalizing. "Swimming in the cold feels like much more of an achievement," he explains thoughtfully. "Psychologically, I feel stronger having done it. And physically, it makes me feel better." In addition to reducing inflammation and boosting both your immunity and mood, studies suggest cold water swimming produces a rush of endorphins and a sense of euphoria.

Bryan traces his appetite for heightened experiences back to his childhood in Asheville, North Carolina, when he started pushing the limits of skateboarding at age 12. Eventually, he transferred that hunger for exploration and high-octane jumps to waterfalls. "The feeling of swimming is objectively incredible – cutting, weightless, through a body of water," he says. "But the feeling of jumping into that water from the top of a cliff or waterfall is my favorite combination." Bryan has jumped from as high as 70 feet, though these days, he prefers "a good medium height gainer" (a running forward backflip from about 25 feet above the water).

That same attraction to adrenaline often influences Bryan's photography "The feeling of adventure and exploration is a theme I try to convey in my client work," he says of his outdoor campaigns for brands like Fair Harbor, J Crew, and Best Made Co. as well as his work with Rolling Stone and the New York Times. "I'm always looking for the action and trying to capture the perfect moment, just like when I shoot my friends doing a cliff jump."

His Instagram stories (@lovebryan) Winter Antics collection exude a similar reckless joy. There Bryan's hijinks are captured on video and set to music. Wearing only swim trunks, the dark-haired photographer disappears into a small hole carved into the ice and emerges some seconds later in the larger opening in the center. In another, he carries a flaming torch as he ziplines to the pond's center and jumps in. Peals of exuberant laughter punctuate the 90s alternative soundtrack.

Aside from the obvious exhilaration, there are also reflective moments for Bryan when he’s Upstate. He’s become much more aware of the nature around him, and finds pleasure observing even the smallest changes. “I can sit out by my pond and appreciate the way the wind ripples over the water in a way that I couldn’t before,” he offers, noting a deep sense of gratitude for the special place he can enjoy alone or share with good friends.

Just the other day, it snowed big, pretty flakes in the morning as Bryan swam to Prince's ballad, “Sometimes It Snows in April,” before joining friends in the barrel sauna he built in his woods. "It felt almost surreal floating on my back and watching the snowflakes drift down to the pond in slow motion," he recalls. “I don’t take it for granted.”

All photos courtesy of Bryan Derballa