Monday, February 4, 2013

Ice Water for the Soul

 Super Girls, 2013
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Coney Island has its Mermaid Parade. Places like Green Bay have Polar Bear Clubs whose members jump into whatever bit of icy water is close by on New Year’s Day. In Virginia Beach, we have the Polar Plunge, where in the middle of winter people foolish enough to do so throw themselves into the Atlantic Ocean for the benefit of charity.
When I was a child growing up by the ocean, I knew of adults who swam in the ocean every day, not matter how cold it was. They’d not only jump into the ocean on days when there was snow, but also swim out so far from shore that you couldn’t see them without binoculars. From there they’d swim up and down the coast for a mile or so. And get this? They did it for fun.
They weren’t sleek. They didn’t put on a show. The just threw one arm in front of the other, kicked their legs and pulled themselves steadily along, a testimony to endurance.
I’ve purposely had little experience with icy water. The closest I got was jumping into the St. Lawrence River up on the Canadian border. It was July. We were staying with friends in a summer colony where the tradition is that men bathe in the river and let the ladies enjoy the indoor showers with their limited supply of hot water.
As anyone who’s ever jumped into a cold shower will tell you, it’s not wise to ease yourself into an icy body of water. Common sense will get the better of you and you’ll never make it all the way in. In that spirit, I followed the rest of the guys in our party down the hill, bar of soap in one hand and razor in the other, to the boathouse and out the other side, where they flung themselves one-by-one off the end of the pier.
Like lemmings, they were. And like lemmings, they were smart not to think about anything more than merely following the person in front of them. I now know that if they’d thought about anything else or even about what they were doing they’d have changed their minds and stayed on the pier.
But I didn’t know that then. As I approached the end of the pier I didn’t think twice, either. I just followed the person before me and did my best running broad jump into what I was sure would be a comfortably warm body of water.
Which, of course, it wasn’t. The river temperature was more like 40F. My rapid descent into the St. Lawrence River was followed by an almost equally rapid ascent back out of it. People who were there will testify that I stayed in the river long enough to wash the important places. I apparently even shaved much of my face. But this is all hearsay because I don’t remember a moment of it. It felt like my heart stopped when I hit the water and didn’t start up again until I was back up on the pier collecting by breath while the sun dried me.
All of which is a long way of explaining why I’ve never taken part in Virginia Beach’s Polar Plunge. They do have a costume contest before the big plunge, however, and although I was too cheap to pay the $5 admission fee to get into the big heated test to see the actual competition I did have some time to photograph some of the contestants before it started.
Framed, 2013

1 comment:

  1. I'd always thought that people were crazy who did this. ( and I hate the cold). But for some reason about 10 years ago, I decided that as a personal challenge I would get in the ocean at Nags Head at least once each calendar month. December was the first real challenge. The water was "only" 57º and it was only a leap in, submersion, and then out. You described it perfectly: one's lungs and chest seem to freeze up and shout NO, I will NOT be doing any breathing here! BUT, and I hate to admit this, the feeling when you get out is terrifically invigorating. Every cell in your body seems to be hollering, hey, I'm alive, I didn't DIE! I have always been annoyed by cold-weather-loving types who proudly declare: "the cold makes you feel so ALIVE!!" But in this case, I get it. It's not the cold that makes you feel alive, it's your recovery from it!