It's not every day you'd find me, nearly naked, jumping into a frozen river.
But this wasn’t an "everyday" kind of day.
Apparently, for some people, this is a tradition. For some others, it's a once-in-a-lifetime. To most people, it's flat-out insane. I'm speaking, of course, about the Polar Bear Plunge.
A Polar Bear Plunge is an overly-cute name for an event in which people of all ages, sizes, and intelligences, jump into a lake or a river or some other unheated body of water. It happens every winter across the globe. In Vancouver, they regularly have over 2000 participants, while Maryland's Plungapalooza brought out 14,500 bathers this year and raised 2.5 million dollars!
I made it through my first 29 years of life without ever participating in a polar bear swim – I guess it never made the priority list. But THIS year, I found myself in Perth, Ontario, visiting Scott Ferguson, an old university pal with a great sense of humour and an eye for out-of-the-ordinary ideas. The small town of Perth has an annual Polar Bear Plunge, always supporting a local charity or organization – this year it was Stewart Park Festival. Scott suggested we do it, and convinced his girlfriend Kelly to join us too.
The audience was lined up on the bleachers along the riverbank, just in front of the three ambulances that were parked, engines running. Watching others' pain seemed a sort of modern-day equivalent to a gladiator's arena, albeit with marginally more concern for human safety. The divers in the water wearing military-grade dry-suits and SCUBA gear were both reassuring and unnerving.
We had plenty of time waiting in line to ponder the peculiar safety briefing where the lady (who apparently started the Perth-Plunge tradition in town and was always the first to jump), gave an interesting form of a motivational talk. “It's hard on your heart, it's hard on your body... it's really... NOT a pleasant experience. Okay, let's go do it!” Thanks for the rousing round of inspiration.
The carpet around the swimming hole was a little puzzling (perhaps to keep your feet from getting cold on the ice?), but it was a good setup: Plungers jumped TOWARD the audience, allowing a full frontal view of a very raw emotional response. The water wasn't deep – perhaps only belly-button high, but Scott and I agreed that cannon-balls were in order to ensure we went right under and got the full experience, though Kelly seemed less convinced.
The middle school kids (who had dedicated their jump to their music teacher) tried to play it cool, but they went running, wide-eyed, for their towels like everybody else after popping out of the water. Some wore bow-ties to celebrate the New Year; others wore Braveheart kilts and face-paint. One guy dressed up like Elvis and jumped in - guitar and all!
It was finally our turn, and the MC read our names and our submitted reason for jumping, “They're jumping today because the showers are out of order.” The crowd chuckled, and so did we, and I gave Scott a high five for his humour. We grabbed hands, listened to the countdown, jumped up and into the river.
“Cold” isn't really the right word – it doesn't really accurately describe the experience. It's more like a shock. It bordered on pain, but I'm pretty sure my adrenaline level spiked. We were in the water for less than 5 seconds, I'd estimate, but the shocked, contracted muscles effect sort of lingered on. I can't verify it, but I imagine I probably looked pretty buff for a few seconds - at least for the few seconds before I scampered for my towel, quivering like a baby rabbit.
We high-fived, hugged, ran for our towels, snapped a few extra photos, and went inside to dry off and have some hot mulled cider.
I had been a little reluctant to jump into the water, but it was really about jumping into more than that: the community, the memories, and the refreshing start to a new year! Jumping in had been a good decision.
What will you plunge into this year?
February 3, 2012
"How many women have the courage to start properly with a cold, cold bath early in the morning? I jump in, throw the water, cold as ice, and after the first plunge I am happy."
Polish Entertainer, 1872-1918
"It's been a busy few months - so busy, in fact, that this "monthly" newsletter is turning out to be more like a bi-monthly, or a "quarterly" newsletter. Whatever it is, I'm happy you're reading it now!" - Joel
If you've ever missed an issue, you can always read it in the archive here.
Formerly called "The Beanstalk", the new article series "Excited to be Here!" is an account of Joel's unique travels and wacky adventures: Life is pretty exciting when you're paying attention.
Joel Hilchey is the Founder of The Beanstalk Project. An educator and entertainer, Joel speaks at events across North America, creating social change by juggling, storytelling, and playing with mousetraps.
To book Joel, contact him by phone at 1-877-487-5635 or check him out online at www.joelhilchey.com!
1 Year of DCA!
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A fun, 5-minute activity each day, because our creative muscles could use a daily workout too!
They work great for team ice-breakers & energizers!
Riddle of the Month:
Some think that I'm cuddly, but don't be a fool - I'm actually quite dangerous, big, white and cool! I made the news headlines when Arctic ice broke, and according to TV, I like to drink Coke. What am I?
CALLING ALL HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS: Do YOU want to change the world?
Come to Canada's most engaging leadership “Unconference”
The Beanstalk Project Unconference is happening in Hamilton, March 1,2,3, 2012. Spend Thursday night creating literally hundreds of ideas to make your school or community better. Friday you develop and refine those ideas (as well as let loose at a social and open-mic stage with a hundred new friends), and Saturday we focus on building skills to turn those ideas into actions. You'll have a blast, and hang out with Joel Hilchey & Brandon Love, two of Canada's most engaging youth speakers.