Week 38: Do a Polar Bear Plunge

I’m so over seasons.  I don’t need to see another inch of snow in my lifetime.  I enjoyed skiing the one time I tried it, but it’s not enough to dissuade me from a consistent forecast of sunny with a high of 75.  I think most people who have suffered through this year’s remarkably evil East Coast winter would admit they at times dream of a constant climate of warm spring weather.  All I’m saying is that before we pooh-pooh it, we should at least give global warming a chance.

My distaste for long winters stems from my feebleness when outside in the cold.  I always seem to be taking out my down feather parka a few weeks before the rest of the city does.  It’s odd because I think I’m a warm-blooded person by nature.  I’m comfortable in my office when everyone else says it’s freezing.  I regularly wake up in the morning having kicked the blankets off our bed while Q shivers in fetal position beside me.  I’m trying to rectify that last one.

cutting through ice

But for some reason, perhaps it’s the added wind chill or because I’m always losing my gloves on city buses, I become a certified wimp anytime I leave my humble abode for the wintry outdoors.  It’s time for a change.

I recently saw photos online for the annual Coney Island Polar Bear Club’s New Year’s Day Swim.  Over two thousand people rushed into the frigid waves with wide smiles despite the 40 degree Fahrenheit water temperature.  The goofy costumes and facial hair they wore couldn’t deny the fact they looked superhuman emerging from the Atlantic Ocean.  Maybe I put them on a higher pedestal because the pictures didn’t reveal their shivering limbs or high-pitched squeals, but their achievement was evident all the same.  I regretted discovering this annual event a day after it occurred, but fortunately I found a polar plunge scheduled a couple weeks later in Lake Anne in Reston, VA, that raises money for Camp Sunshine, a retreat set up for children with life-threatening illnesses.  Q couldn’t make the trek down to Virginia with me, but I managed to corral my parents and sister for the event.

waiting in line

Q thinks having my parents in tow while I make the jump will lower the degree of difficulty down to a 0.1.  She thinks that as soon as I get out of the water, they’ll rush to my side with multiple towels, battery-powered hair dryers, and a tub of whatever is in those hand warmer packets.  I remind Q that I’m coming up on a year of doing these manly challenges and I think my parents know better than to mettle.

When my dad picks me up from the bus station, he tells me he’s already picked out the terry cloth robe with which he’ll wrap me after the plunge.  I explain that having my parents wrap me in towels, robes, and hugs immediately after I emerge from the water would seem to cancel out the masculinity gained from this challenge, but my rationalization falls on deaf ears.  I realize I’ll have to be more assertive at the actual event to get my point across.

We arrive at Lake Anne the following afternoon, early enough to register and find a place in line before the 200+ participants show up.  Down at the lake, two men wearing wet suits stand on top of the ice, taking turns chainsawing into the six-inch thick solid barrier between the water and us.  Since it’ll be an unseasonably warm 44 degrees when we jump into the lake today, I was worried that it wouldn’t be a true polar plunge, but my fears are immediately allayed upon seeing these men and overhearing an event official say the water temperature is 33 degrees Fahrenheit.  Hearing that is all it takes for certain body parts of mine to retreat and take cover.

waiting on pier

While standing in line, I realize that over half of the participants are wearing ridiculous costumes; there’s a woman in a full body cow costume, several superheroes chatting over take out coffee, and a group of twenty men and women adorned in matching pink tank tops and tutus, milling about as if it were the dog days of summer.  I’m currently wearing four layers of clothing, including my down feather parka.  I think I’m doing this wrong.

I plan on removing an article of clothing every few minutes, timing it just right so that I will be down to my bathing suit when I’m standing next to the heat lamps the event organizers have so graciously set up at the front of the line.  It will be the least erotic strip tease in modern times.

before impact

But I’m still in the same place in line a half hour after the scheduled start time since we have to wait for the “chicken dipping” to finish, which is what they call it when the kids and parents who are too afraid to jump dip only their feet into the lake.  It complicates my plan of calculated assimilation to the cold because when the line finally does start to move, it moves at a faster pace than I would have thought and by the time I reach the heat lamps, I’m still wearing all my clothing.

I quickly rip off all my layers since I’m close enough to the pier to now have visuals of the unfortunate souls leaping into the icy water to match the shrieks I had been hearing.  I can see the radio announcer who has been introducing each jumper and counting down from three before every plunge.  We’ve been asked to write a little blurb about ourselves on an index card to hand to him before we jump, and I don’t even notice that I’ve crushed it in my hand, perhaps in subconscious hope of transferring some of my cold to this inanimate object.

When I’m down to my bathing suit, I hand over a gym bag full of my clothes to my mom and pass cameras to my dad and sister, hoping they’ll find good vantage points in the crowd to record this manly moment.  My dad pulls the parka out of the bag and tries to give it back to me.  “Put your jacket back on – I saw people wearing theirs until the last possible moment.”

“I’m f-f-fine,” I spit out.  My purple lips give me away.

“You’re freezing.  Put your coat on!”

“NO!” I push him away and scramble down the steps.  I’m not a chicken dipper!  I’m a man dipper!  I have to embrace the pain of the cold if I want to do this manly cleanse right, letting each shiver release a wimpy toxin.  I hand my crumpled index card to the announcer and take my place on the pier next to my fellow jumper, an employee from the smoothie tent who has been giving away free towels all day.

When the radio announcer says my name, I get tunnel vision.  The crowds fade away until it’s me versus the lake, man pitted against nature with no chance to retreat.  The voice of the announcer jumbles together with the noise of the crowd: “Peter is jumping to support Camp Sunshine and to be more manly!”

Right before I jump, my body pulls back reflexively as a last ditch effort to stay dry.  I have to forcibly deny the impulse and swing my body forward into the lake.  I’m completely submerged in the icy water and there’s a split second where I’m unable to do or feel anything due to the shock.  But it doesn’t take long for the cold to take hold.

on impact

It feels like drinking an entire bottle of Cool Mint Listerine while receiving a bear hug.  I open my eyes but the lake is entirely opaque.  I swim up to get my head out of the water, scrambling in a frantic freestyle to the ladders, uncontrollably saying “ohmygod” over and over again to distract from the sharp tingles covering my entire body.  I’m proud of myself for avoiding expletives and keeping the family-friendly event PG-rated.

True to Q’s hypothesis, my family attends to me post-plunge with better treatment than Captain Phillips received.  They pull me aside and search my bag for my coat and extra towel.  But as soon as I feel the sunshine on my skin, I realize their efforts are in vain.  Simply removing myself from the lake is enough to feel completely revitalized and exponentially warmed by any increase in temperature.  I walk steadily to our car wearing only a thin towel and my wet bathing suit, feeling more comfortable than I did the entire time I stood in line.


On the drive home, my adrenalin wears off and the seat warmer in the car seems more appetizing than I want to admit.  Jumping into the lake was not so much of a transformation that I can now run outside in freezing temperatures wearing only a tank top and shorts (or tutu, as it were), but there is a lingering afterglow – not quite the sensation after a first kiss, but more like the fifth or sixth one.  It’s a sort of awakening that feels like it adds a couple days to my life, or at least cancels out the last cigarette I smoked.  I’ll take it wherever I can get it.


I wasn’t scared or dreading this week as I have with some of the other more extreme physical challenges; maybe it’s because I knew one way or another the whole thing would be over with in ten seconds.  But I wasn’t prepared for how revitalized I felt afterwards.  I can see why there’s a club in Coney Island that does this every week.  I’m not saying I’m going to join, but I realize now that they’re not insane to do it.  Only slightly.  3.72.