Jumping into icy water might sound crazy, but raising money for a worthy cause makes perfect sense.
By Terri Blazell
Maybe it was a midlife crisis. I was turning 50 and wanted to do something to commemorate it, but joining AARP did not cut it.
Or, maybe it was a book I read by Helen Thayer, the first woman to walk solo to the magnetic North Pole. She walked more than 300 miles in 27 days while enduring frostbite, polar bear attacks, and living without food or water for the final seven days of the trek.
And she did it when she was 50.
Thayer captures her saga in frigid detail in Polar Dream, which I read when I was 49. That same year I attended my first Polar Bear Plunge for no other reason than to watch 300 insane people plunge into freezing water.
A Polar Bear Plunge is when a group of seemingly normal people don swimsuits or costumes in the middle of winter and jump into an icy body of water. Then they raucously herd toward shore, where they quickly put on their clothes again while shivering in front of fire pits. If the event starts at 1:00 p.m., it’s usually over by 1:02.
Since there was no chance I was going to walk to the North Pole, I had to find another way to “make a splash” for my 50th birthday. So, I decided to join a few other “bears.”
Our plunge took place on New Year’s Day at Long Lake Park in Lacey, Washington. As my fellow plungers arrived, many were in kooky costumes. One group was dressed as the characters from The Wizard of Oz. Another contingent was decked out in Star Trek uniforms. Also among our eclectic crew were a pirate, a polar bear, some ballerinas, and a Santa Claus. I recognized the Wizard of Oz group as the same people who the year before dressed as Bavarians with green suspenders, kneesocks, and bathing suits. In fact, the Polar Bear Plunge becomes an annual tradition for many attendees.
Every winter, a plunge is held in nearly every U.S. state. The colder the spot gets in winter and the closer it is to water, the more likely you are to find a Polar Bear Plunge there. Most are small, with just a few hundred participants or less, and many are fund-raisers. Millions of dollars have been donated to Special Olympics at plunges throughout Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin “” and many other states as well.
The largest Polar Bear Plunge in the United States takes place at Sandy Point State Park, located on the west side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge near Annapolis, Maryland. It funds Special Olympics activities in that state. In 2010, approximately 12,000 plungers, age 2 to 82, raised $50 each for the privilege of “freezing their fur off.” An additional 25,000 to 30,000 spectators came for the live entertainment, carnival rides, and sand-castle building “” all in a heated festival tent, of course.
The next plunge at Sandy Point State Park is set for January 29, 2011, with mass plunges at 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. Expect to park at a satellite parking lot and catch a shuttle in. More information can be found at www.plungemd.com.
Another big Polar Bear Plunge is in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where the 2011 event will take place February 4 and 5. It began with 30 participants in 1993 and now attracts more than 3,200 plungers and 10,000 spectators. The event has raised almost $1 million for Special Olympics. Booths and activities line the boardwalk, and there is an access fee to watch from the beach. Plungers must raise $100 in donations to participate. Last year, one individual raised $20,000 and a college team raised $25,000. Visit www.polarplunge.com for more information.
If you decide you like taking the plunge, and once a year isn’t enough for you, consider joining the Coney Island Polar Bear Club (CIPBC) in New York. Founded in 1903, this is the oldest winter bathing organization in the United States. Club members swim in the Atlantic every Sunday from November to April, even in snow and blizzards. Each week about 100 swimmers show up to wade into the chilly water. Some brave souls stay in as long as 20 minutes, but for most, two to three minutes is it. “This is not a competitive event,” said club president Dennis Thomas. “There’s no prize for staying in the longest. We want people to be safe.” The CIPBC takes safety very seriously. They do not allow children under 18 to participate. Lifeguards are nearby, spotters are in the water, and no one goes in over his or her head. Bringing an RV to the swim is not recommended. Mr. Thomas suggested taking the subway, but you also may find car parking available, since it is less crowded in the winter. Anyone can join in the swim, but to be an official member you must participate in at least 12 swims in a season. Visit www.polarbearclub.org for more information.
One thing all plunges have in common is safety. All events have lifeguards, professional divers, and emergency medical technicians on hand. Drinking is discouraged, pets are not allowed in the water, and children must be old enough to enter the water themselves. Experienced plungers also suggest wearing something on your hands and feet. The extremities freeze first.
Even though most of the plunges take place in large public places, crowds can make RV parking difficult. Take your towed car or look into public transportation, which is sometimes set up just for the event. If you do plan to stay in a campground in your motorhome, check into availability ahead of time, as many campgrounds are not open in cold-weather areas at this time of year.
Even if you don’t plan to jump in yourself, it is fun to attend as a spectator. But, seriously, if an 85-year-old and a 5-year-old can do it, so can you.
The day of my jump in Lacey, Washington, was quite mild: a balmy 52 degrees, with a water temperature of 45. (By contrast, Chicago plungers faced a 19-degree air temperature, and ice on Lake Michigan had to be chopped up and pushed aside just to accommodate everyone.) A record total of 733 of us “polar bears,” ages 4 to 85, filed onto the dock, which began to sink under our weight. As I prepared to jump, I realized I was standing next to someone dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. I wanted to chicken out, but I couldn’t be a cowardly lion! At the count of three, we all plunged in at once.
The water closed in over my head, and I never felt so cold in my life. I began dog-paddling to the top. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. After what felt like an hour, I finally bobbed to the surface and began making my way to shore along with the waves of others. Most seemed to be laughing and splashing. I, on the other hand, just wanted to concentrate on living and reaching a spot where my numb feet touched the ground. I rushed onto the shore, toweled off in front of a fire pit, and quickly donned my sweatpants and robe. By the time we got into the car heading back, a mere 20 minutes had passed. Freezing temperatures must make everything operate in dog years.
To find a Polar Bear Plunge near you, type the name of your state and the words “Polar Bear Plunge” into an online search engine. You also can contact your local Special Olympics office or check with your local parks and recreation department. Even Hawaii holds plunges “” although they do it artificially by filling swimming pools with ice.
Will I take the plunge again this year? I haven’t yet made up my mind. Maybe I will. If not, I’ll definitely be there to watch. How about you?