There are two ways a man can become a polar bear.
First, don a furry white suit and hunt seals.
The other way is to jump in a lake in the dead of winter.
Every year, on the eastern seaboard or in the Midwest, thousands of Americans join their local Polar Bear Club – ushering in the New Year and stunting for good luck by diving into the nearest, coldest body of water on New Year’s Day.
Finding myself in Milwaukee, Wisc. as 2012 dawned, I accepted the challenge of swimming in 34 degree weather – sweetened by wind gusts of 40 mph that pushed the wind-chill closer to zero. For more than 30 years, the local residents have gathered at the city’s Bradford Beach along Lake Michigan.
On this day, an estimated crowd of 3,000 people of all ages and fitness levels braved the biting breeze, stripping down to bathing suits and bare feet to splash out into the near-freezing water at precisely noon on New Year’s Day. A few were even sober.
There were costumed Santa Claus(es) and Superman(s). Men in caveman outfits and women in foam rubber wigs buddied up to college kids pushing the drinking age and even-tempered senior citizens who made the plunge countless times before.
I was particularly struck by the wildly varying attitudes the faces around me displayed prior to the dive. Most were nervous, while some were wild-eyed with intoxication. But I was drawn to those folks who seemed locked into meditation – transforming this huge party into a spiritual transition.
How is it ideally done? I advise following the plan I was given by Polar Bear Club veterans. Dress in loose layers that you can in and out quickly. Stay near a heat source as Milwaukee’s Finest turned a blind eye to illegal beach fires on this day.
Just prior to show time, strip down to your bathing suit. Don’t think about what you’re doing as the wind first numbs, then tortures your skin. When the horn sounds at high noon, don’t hesitate. Run in at a full splash. It’s up to you if you want to roll around in the slushy surf, but get in and get out at a full run.
How does it feel? At first, the water was actually a relief from the frigid wind burn the gusts were grinding into me. But that sensation quickly gave way to thousands of needles pinching everywhere the water touched me. My heart rate shot up, and my breathing was too sharp and rapid for a scream. I think I managed a ridiculous Ric Flair “Woo!” before it was time to go.
Once out of the water, the experienced Bears pointed me to a beach changing hut where my shivering muscles wriggled out of my wet trunks and immediately back into my dry layers. The lingering aftereffects were nothing more than a sharp headache – with the supposed good luck pending.
Rather than allow the Polar Bear event merely to degrade into debauchery, Milwaukee bars and businesses (including G Daddy’s BBC, Hotel Foster and Hooligan’s Super Club) added charity interests to the event, raising funds for the city’s Children’s Oncology Center.
According to Dr. Jenny Hoag, a children’s pediatric psychologist at Milwaukee’s Children’s Hospital, “The financial support provided through the sale of 2012 Polar Bear Dip apparel is greatly appreciated by everyone who works with these sick children.”
The thought of somehow helping a kid with cancer helped to make every shiver worthwhile.