"Change, when it comes, cracks everything open."
Dorothy Allen

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Polar Bear

So, the other day, I posted about my goal for the year.  Fierce. I want to live fiercely. 

My first step towards that was to complete a challenge for myself.  I wanted to do a Polar Bear Dip. 

For those that don't know, a Polar Bear Dip is traditionally a charity event, where participants don their bathing suits, or costumes, or whatever, and take a dip into an open body of water.  The catch is that this dip usually happens at the beginning of January, either New Year's Day or (in my case) the first weekend of the new year.

Last year, about mid January, I saw an article in our local paper, about the Polar Bear Dip that took place in Fort Erie.  I read it and looked at the pictures and for some reason, it clicked with me.  I thought about it, and thought that this was something that I would possibly do.  The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it.

A day or so later, I was going to a movie with my friend Bill (yes, the jerk that moved to Ottawa).  We were on our way, chatting about various things.  He turned to me at one point and said that he wanted to ask me a question.  Then he started talking about this idea that he had, this crazy thing that he wanted to do, and Barb didn't want to do it, but he was wondering if I wanted to...it's this thing where you jump in the water in January..

So, yep, I agreed in about 3 seconds flat and we committed to doing this completely ridiculous thing. 

Throughout the year, we continued to mention it, so that it didn't get forgotten about or move out of our stream of consciousness.  It was always there.

When he moved to Ottawa, there was a wrinkle thrown into the plan.  There is a polar bear dip in Ottawa.  There is also something else in Ottawa- crazy, ridiculous cold.  Like, -27 without the wind chill cold.  Plus, he was going to have to work New Years, and there was a million other reasons that this wasn't going to work.

Anyway, the universe lined up and things worked out and he was able to come down and we were good to go.

There were a couple of dips in this area- one in Chippewa and one in Fort Erie/Crystal Beach.  We had heard rumors of hot tubs at the Fort Erie one, so that decided for us. It was $5 to dip, plus they had a chili cook off. 

We talked a bit about what to wear.  The site recommended wearing something on your feet, since the ground is rocky.  My decision was pretty much solely based around what I thought I could get out of as quickly as possible, when it was soaking wet and my hands were freezing cold. I opted for tank tops and hospital pants that were cut off.  I wore my big Sorel boots, and brought big t-shirts and yoga pants to throw on afterwards.

For the morning before, I was feeling good.  I really wasn't nervous, but was excited and was thinking about how much fun it was going to be.  I had a small moment of worry when I let the dog out in the morning, and realized that it was really fucking cold.  Not as cold as the day before, when it was -17 degrees.  But still, -9, in a tank top, when you know you have to jump in a fricking lake, is cold.

We picked up Bill and he hung out for a bit in the morning.  He did ask me at one point, if there was any chance of him talking me out of this.  I told him no, he was free to back out if he wanted, but there was no way that I was not going.  Personally, I was starting to get butterflies, and a bit freaked out by the cold. But I do this thing.  I post the stuff that I want to do to Facebook.  Sometimes, people see it and get excited or at least respond to it.  And if that happens (and it did with the Polar Bear Dip), then I can't back out.  Even when I want to.  Even when it is really cold.  Silly, but effective.

Geoff's mom wanted to come out and watch too.  Geoff had toyed with the idea of doing the dip too, but he came down with a cold on the last day before the dip and figured it probably wasn't a good idea to dunk.  It was, as Bill put it, a one way trip to pneumonia. Even though Geoff wasn't doing the dip, Kathy wanted to come out and see us crazies do our thing. 

We picked her up, after bundling the kids up in their warmest clothes, and headed out.  Sawyer was very excited, and even brought her sand bucket, because she was bound and determined to build a snow castle.  I knew she was serious, since she willingly put on her snow pants.

We made our way out to Crystal Beach.  The whole way, those butterflies in my stomach got bigger and more active.  I was getting nervous.  I wasn't scared, I knew I wasn't getting hurt, I couldn't fail because I couldn't do it. But still...it got to me. 

Whenever it got bad, I would look over at Bill.  He would be looking out the window, or playing on his phone.  If he had ever looked up and frowned, or shook his head, or ever furrowed his brow, I might have asked if he was willing to forgo.  But each time, he smiled.  Just smiled, and I smiled back and it was all good again. 

Finally, we got there.  Gathered the kids, and trekked over.  Bill and I got registered and figured out where we were going.  They had change rooms set up so we each headed in and got set.  When I went in to change, there was a young girl in there, with her mom.  I started talking to them.  The mom had done the dip the year before, and this was the girl's first year.  They were both in bathing suits. At that point, all my nervousness was gone.  If this little girl could do it, then so could I.  When I saw the 80-something year old out front waiting, that sealed the deal. No more complaining. 

Before the dip
My good friend, Shannon, decided to come out and watch too.  Geoff had looked for her a couple of times, but I finally found her when Bill and I made our way out to wait with the rest of the lunatics.  She was excited for us, and practically hugged me a couple of times (this is a big deal.  Shannon isn't a hugger. :)  I love her for that).

Bill and I hung out in our shorts and crocs.  It actually worked out to our advantage, and helped us get used to the cold.  I laughed and remarked that I could see the hair growing on my legs.  I had shaved that morning, but the goosebumps were bringing it all back.

These were the moments that were the best and the worst.  I was crazy excited at this point.  I had adrenaline starting to pump through me.  I knew that it was going to be scary and horrible and awesome.  I love the anticipation of something.  The wait, however, kills me.  I knew it was coming.  And at this point, I just wanted to start.  I was cold and crazy, and I wanted to just do it.

Sawyer and Sebastian were confused by much of this.  Sebastian wanted to know what was going on, and when we could go home.  His biggest concern was that this event was cutting into his picture printing time.  He was thrown off by the crowd.  He is used to me being with him in these kinds of times, holding his hand and checking in on him.  But this time, I wasn't.  I was part of the crazy.  He didn't know what to make of it.

Sawyer was sad.  She wanted to build her snow castle.  I couldn't help her.  I couldn't focus on anything.  I asked her for a kiss for luck.  She gave it, but reluctantly.  Shannon actually took a picture of her following Bill and I down the ramp and into the water.  She too, is used to me being with her during whatever it is that we do.  For me to be distant and not right there with her, was a new experience.   Both of them were disconcerted.  I was vaguely aware of this, but was focused on what was coming. 
Sawyer following Bill and I down the ramp
They called the time, did the 10 second countdown and off we went.  Bill and I shucked off the extra- our boots and coats, and headed down the ramp.  It was completely slick and covered with ice, so we grabbed hands as we headed down.  It was nice, in the crowd and the rush, to have an anchor. 

We hit the water, and the shock I had been anticipating wasn't there.  My legs were already pretty numb from the cold, so the transition from air to water wasn't as drastic as I thought.  However, as we made our way in deeper, it became a definite issue. The cold water creeps up your body.  Unlike in the summer, when you get that instant shock and you gasp as it hits parts of you, this kind of cold doesn't relent.  It tightens and numbs as it works you over.  As you start to freeze, you start to lose focus on what is happening around you and become very intently focused on what is happening TO you.  Bill and I talked about it later.  It's a survival instinct, this tunnel vision.  You focus solely on what it is that is threatening you.  For us, it was the water. I understand now how people die in cold water.  It is painful and breathtaking and it becomes very hard to think and move and even feel.  As exhilarating as it was, it was a bit scary.

In order to get your certificate, you are supposed to do either 3 dunks under the water, or go out and back in 3 times.  Bill and I both made one dunk.  I went under, and had to push myself up and out of the water again.  It's incredibly hard to describe, this feeling.  When I came back up, I couldn't see Bill.  My hand was still in his, but I couldn't see him.  I could see the foot or so of space, right in front of me.  Since he wasn't in it, he was a little to my side, and I had lost my peripheral vision, I had no idea where he was.  He started walking, and pulled me with him. It was hard to walk, and hard to talk. As I was walking out, with Bill still grabbed tight in my hand, I realized I couldn't do it again.  I finally managed to ask him if he was done, or if he wanted to keep going.  All I got was a grunt as he pulled me out of the water and up onto the ramp.   I guessed that meant we were done.  I took about 3 steps out of the water, before I realized that I had lost a shoe.  One of the crocs I was wearing, borrowed from Barb, had disappeared.  I realized I should go back and get it.  I turned around, slowly and started heading back.  Bill grabbed me and hauled me back up the ramp, yelling the whole time to leave it.  I realized that he had lost a shoe too.  He wasn't heading back either.

Coming out of the water.  Notice we each have one shoe on.
 Sawyer and Geoff are there to greet us. Shannon is taking the picture. 
Kathy and Sebastian are just to the side.

as happy and as cold as you can get.

We staggered up the ramp, and back to our group of cheerleaders.  Everyone was smiling and happy.  I was exhilarated, but cold.  I had never been that cold in my entire life.  My hands and legs didn't want to work properly.  It was actually hard to think.  I couldn't feel my lower body, and I actually had no idea if my shorts were still on.  I kept checking, with fingers that actually couldn't feel, to make sure that I was still dressed.  I was trying to put my boots on, but nothing was co-ordinated.  We finally decided that we should make our way back in, to try and get dressed.   The change rooms were packed but we managed.  Frozen fingers don't work well, so it took a whole lot longer than I anticipated to get the simple act of getting dressed done.
Post dip.  Just before we changed back to normal people and not Polar Bear heros.
 When I came out, I noticed everyone mingling around, talking and smiling.  I think it was fun for everyone.  Well, almost everyone. 

Sawyer hung behind the group.  I squatted down, with frozen calves and toes without feeling, and talked to her.  Big tears glistened on her cheeks.  She was heart broken that she hadn't been able to build her castle.  I promised her, right then and there, we could build the castle.  Even on days when it's all about me, it's never all about me.

I sent Sebastian, and everyone else back to the car.  Sawyer and I squatted by a big pile of fresh snow and started to build.  Shannon came back in a minute or so, and helped us build.  She took our picture when we were almost done.  Sawyer was smiling again, and I had a good energy pumping through me.  All was right in my world. 

Snow Castle
After a bit, we headed back to the van, and then we all headed out for lunch.  I was tingling, with all my nerve endings coming back online.  I felt amazing- clear headed, and clean.  Purged and ecstatically happy. 

officially polar bears
After lunch, we headed home.  I had a nice hot bath, washed the Lake Erie water out of my hair (along with most of my hair colour).  I started to get tired, as the rush wore off and I started coming back to normal.

 So, what did I learn?  I learned that I can be fierce.  I learned that I can follow through, even when I am nervous.  I learned that a small amount of discomfort and even pain, can be worth the euphoria and memories that it spawns.  I learned that a good friend will hold your hand and pull you in, or pull you out.  Or both.  I learned it means the world to have people on the outside cheering for you. 

I'm a polar bear.  I am doing it again.  Come with me, if you are feeling up to it. 

I think Bill said it best.  His Facebook status that day was this:

There are times in your life when you step back, look at yourself, look at the situation, and think "What the hell am I doing?"
 The older I get, the more I realize that this is when you make some of your best memories.

Rosie N. Grey
The N stands for "new New Year's tradition, methinks."

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