Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Starting Off The Year With A...Plunge

(I apologize for not getting this post up sooner, but I was perfecting the art of Photoshopping my head onto Matthew McConaughey's body, to make this a prettier post for all my female readers, and that took a lot of practice. I know, I know...I can't believe how much he's let himself go, either. Next time I'll use Jon Lovitz's body instead.)

Remember the scene in National Lampoon’s “Vacation,” where the Griswolds were staying at a hotel for the night, and Clark went down to the pool and found ├╝ber-hottie Christie Brinkley in the water, asking him if he was gonna “go for it?”

Clark stood by the side of the pool, flailing his arms and repeating, “This is crazy. This is crazy. This is crazy!”

I know just how he felt, because on New Year’s Day I stood on the shore of Lake Michigan on Bradford Beach in Milwaukee, wearing only flowered board shorts and old tennis shoes, thinking the exact same thing.

And I ran in...except there was no supermodel waiting for me in the water. I’m lucky there wasn’t an iceberg in there!

Yes, on January 1, 2008, I officially became a Polar Bear, along with my brother-in-law, Mark, who was a good enough sport to join me in the bone-chilling madness.

I’d seen the event make the news in past years. A couple months ago, for a reason I can’t fully comprehend, I began to think it might be fun.

I expected the thought to exit my brain as quickly as it entered, but...there it sat. And grew. In mid-December I sent out a feeler e-mail to some friends (subject line: "Shrinkage"), asking if anyone might care to join me.

One had already attempted this feat, one had plans for this New Year’s Day but expressed an interest in taking the plunge in 2009, and one specifically questioned my mental capacity, but added that if I chose to attempt it in Madison, his arm could be twisted. He just didn't want to make the drive to Milwaukee.

And from the rest...silence. I was beginning to think that this would either be a solo act of stupidity, or else I’d spend my New Year’s Day watching Bowl games.

Before the holidays, I was visiting my sister and her family, and after Mark and I had done a good job of draining an oversized bottle of wine, I casually broached the subject:

“So Mark,” I said, pausing for dramatic effect. “How would you like to become a Polar Bear?”

After another pause, possibly for more dramatic effect, but also to let the question, and the act, sink in, Mark answered.

“Sure,” he said.

“Really? I asked, thinking that the wine had done its job to sufficiently impair our judgment.

“Sure, why not?”

Over the next few days, through e-mails and conversations, I kept feeding him opportunities to back out, not wanting him to feel obligated to dive into the frigid water just because his brother-in-law was loony and wanted a good idea for a column, and a blog entry.

As I pondered, I didn’t know if it was something I could accomplish, but I knew it was something I wanted to attempt.

I spent New Year’s Eve at my other sister’s, which is about halfway to Milwaukee, and since she and her kids wanted to come down to witness the event and get photographic evidence of the insanity, I crashed on her couch, and after she woke me up in the morning with a fitting serenade of the Beach Boys’ “Catch A Wave,” we packed ourselves in the van and drove to Bradford Beach.

The wind was whipping and the temperatures were in the teens as we drove down, and I had serious doubts that I could actually go in the water. One thing I did not want to write was a column and blog post that said, “I thought I was going to become a Polar Bear, but I chickened out. Happy New Year.”

We met up with Mark and my sister and niece in a marina parking lot a half-mile hike away from the beach, and as we got out, we were met with the same cold wind. I would have been content at that point to call the attempt a failure. But off we walked.

A few minutes before we reached the big crowd on the beach, we heard an air horn blast and a big cheer. Thinking that we were too late for the mad rush into the water, I again considered postponing the plunge for another year.

Instead, we made our way into the crowd of people in various stages of undress, some soaking wet, some half dry, some frantically reaching for layers of clothes.

I was beginning to think it might be best just to write about pickles. Or politics. Or something dry, warm and clothed.

Mark proved to be a stellar motivator for this event, repeating over and over as he put his gear down on the snow-covered sand: “C’mon, Gregg. Let’s do this, Gregg. We’ve gotta do it, Gregg. Let’s go, Gregg.”

After much consternation, I took off my heavy winter jacket, and then a sweatshirt, and a pair of wind pants.

Soon I found myself, as I said before, in shorts and shoes, standing at the water’s edge. This was the first moment of the day in which I was certain I was going to officially become a Polar Bear.

I’d heard all the “rules” to becoming a true Polar Bear, and that you weren’t one unless: you went in sober; you went back in a second time to qualify the first plunge; you were an actual polar bear living in a zoo; or you’ve had a seven-figure endorsement deal with Coca-Cola and appeared in commercials during the holiday season.

Mark and I decided to heed only one rule, the most important rule: You’re not a true Polar Bear unless you go all the way under the water.

My sister got some good advice a few days before from a friend at work who was a veteran of the event, and that advice gave me great pause. It said, “Run in, go under, then run out while your brain is still able to tell your legs to move.”

Oh, boy. What about those Bowl games I’m missing?? Let’s go find a TV!

As we both stood by the water, Mark bolted first, high-stepping into the water, and before he took his head-first plunge, I got up the courage to make my feet move as well and in I went.

I got up to mid-thigh and decided it was deep enough to dive, so as fast as I could I dove under, got my footing back under me and started the sprint back to the beach where we had blankets and towels laid out.

With wet shoes on slippery snow, I wiped out on my way through the crowd and heard someone above me yell, “Man down!” but I got right back up, a towel with which to dry myself the only thing on my mind.
As we stood on the blanket, drying off and adding several layers to our torsos, it was only then that it hit me what had occurred in the last half minute, and that I was soaking wet and very inappropriately dressed for January in Wisconsin.

And the cold water had apparently taken its toll on some of the participants, because we heard one of the guys near us say, jokingly I hope, "I think I have a mangina!" Maybe he won't be a Polar Bear next year.

After I had a couple sweatshirts on, it was very easy and stand on the beach in wet shorts with bare legs, and sip a little hot chocolate and people-watch. For a short time.

Five or ten minutes later, my toes started to get cold, signaling the time to don the five-dollar socks I’d purchased specifically for the event, and to get some dry clothes on my bottom half.

I expected cramping, or an uncontrollable head rush, or the inability to make my legs move, or chills for three days post-plunge. Instead...I got an overwhelming sense of accomplishment that it was official. I had a kinship with my favorite animal at the zoo. I was a Polar Bear.

We wandered among the crowd for a bit, taking in the sights, and then trekked back to the vans.

I’d like to think that participating in something so unique to begin 2008 was a symbol for a new beginning, a time to recharge and reinvigorate...that I dove into that icy water to shed some bad stuff, and that this year will bring great changes in my life, all because of those 10 frigid seconds in the water.

That’s what I’d like to think.

But let’s be was just a crazy guy, near a big body of water, with an equally crazy brother-in-law. And a good idea for a blog post.

The next meeting of the Milwaukee Polar Bears convenes on January 1, 2009. I’ll be there, in flowered board shorts, at 11:30 a.m. Who’s coming with me??

— • — • —

I found this quote in late December/early January, and I don't remember where it's from. So if it's from one of your blogs, please tell me and I'll give you all the credit in the world for finding it. I don't even know the author, but I thought the message made for a great mindset heading into the new year.

Great words to heed and move forward with after thawing out from a dip in one of the Great Lakes in January.

"Life is too short to wake up in the morning with regrets. So love the people who treat you right and forget about the ones who don't. Believe that everything happens for a reason. If you get a chance, take it. If it changes your life, let it. Nobody said it would be easy, they just said it would be worth it!"

“It’s tiiime for...a cooool change.
I know that it’s tiiime,
for a coo-oo-ool change.”
—Little River Band


  1. As you know, I've been checking your blog regularly for this post - and it was worth the wait!! I've seen it on tv many times and - thankfully - have never said, "I'm going to go do that." But, props to you for actually doing it - and thanks for the pictures - proved just how crazy you are!!

    See you there in 2009 - or maybe not ;o)

  2. Nice write Vach. And I agree, worth the wait. Except for the Mangina part, I felt like I was there.

    I'd like to think growing up in Manitowoc (and swimming in said lake many times) I know a little something about swimming in cold water, but after reading this...I don't (I also will never live anywhere again where the weather forecast concludes with, "colder by the lake").

    As i was reading I was thinking to myself man, if it wasn't New Years Day (read; greatest college football day of the year) I could be talked into this if i was drinking...then I got to the part about being sober. Booooo Sober!!! Hurrah Beer!!!

    But kudos to you buddy for doing it!!! I know Upper Post Lake isn't Lake Michigan, but i'm all for you starting an Upper Post chapter of the Polar Bears Club during Winter Festivis 2008 in a couple weeks...i'll be right there on the dock, beer in hand, supporting you!!!...(...fully clothed of course).

    I can't take credit for that good quote, but it (in typical fashion...) reminded me of an Iron Maiden song with a similar message,

    "There's a time to live and a time to die, when it's time to meet the maker


  3. Wow Vach, very impressive! I love it when people do what they say. So...have you warmed up yet?

    By the way, THE KID, it's 'cooler by the lake'. But I agree, Vach should start a chapter in coordination with Up North Festivus this year (beverages of your own choosing of course...who comes up with this no alcohol crap?)

  4. Thank you Mrs. Jennifer Gerber-Graphos... :)-

    Now that I say it out loud, you are correct though, "cooler by the lake." Thankfully it's been a great many years since i've had to hear that forecast.

    In all our excitement to get Vach to jump into Upper Post Lake it just occured to me that Upper Post Lake (being at deepest 12 foot in areas and all...) is likely frozen over isn't it?

    So that leads me to the subtitle for this year....(when you read it pretend you've got some big orchestra playing some type of Star Wars-like theme music in the background...)...

    Vach's Quest For Open Water

  5. Oh my God, you're both incredibly brave and fantastically crazy. :) Congrats!

  6. Excuse my language, but this post is fanfuckingtastic. Bravo. I stand and salute you.

    To share a secret, I've always wanted to be a Polar Bear. I think I could do it. But after reading this, the Polar Bear dip at Coney Island seems wimpy.

    Shrink on!

  7. I've worked in a morgue. I've been held up at gunpoint. I've been through the birth of three humans and am a father to three daughters....

    ...but I am a fuckin' LIGHTWEIGHT in comparison to what you just did!!!

    My God, Loch Michiguni is a wretched frozen icy hell in July!!! I can't even conceive what it feels like in January.

    (bowing deeply) We're not worthy!!!

  8. OK you upheld your end of the deal and included the "quote of the day"...looking forward to 2009!

  9. Rebecca...I think the first five words of your last line are like, legally binding, or something. Looks like you've just made your own plans for '09! :O)

    Glad I didn't disappoint you by writing a post about how I spent my entire New Year's Day organizing my stamp collection by country.

    TheKid...I guarantee you there were plenty of people on that beach who were far from sober, so that rule is pretty flexible. And Iron Maiden might just be a great motivator to propel you into the water when you do it next year, too. *ahem*

    Gerbs...Surprisingly, I had no lasting effects from it at all. We got back to Mark's place and I thought I'd have to wrap up in some blankets or take a steaming hot shower...but instead we drank beer and ate brats.

    And you two trying to get me to do it TWICE in one month are probably not going to convince me. First of all...from what I hear, Zach and Pops have already organized a chapter up there, and are its only two members, from a couple/few years ago. And second of all, I'll only do it if like FIVE other people do it, too. OK, maybe three. other crazy person. All right, I'll do it, but only if I can have a couple beers first!

    (just kidding. I doubt I'll be swimming in Post Lake in a couple weeks. nice try, though.)

    Mrs. White...I can definitely accept, and even embrace, being "fantastically crazy." :O) Doesn't happen often, but once in a while I surprise some people. Thanks!

    SBW...My advice to you is, do it! If you think you can, then that's more than half the battle. And the whole event was so much more fun and so much less painful than I'd imagined it in my head. So give it a go!

    And if you're afraid Coney Island won't measure up, take a trip to Bradford Beach on Jan. 1, 2009. I'll probably be there!

    Jeff...I think the "held up at gunpoint" thing might trump 10 seconds in cold water. But yeah, it's definitely something to cross of a list of things to do. You're close enough to the action...I expect to see you there next year, too! (yes, I'm on a recruiting kick. don't let me down.)

    Mr. Anon...I didn't think that quote would make the paper, but I knew I'd include it on the blog.

    And that's the right attitude to have about '09. Never say never, right??

  10. Well, technically, I was held up at "fingerpoint" but I handed the cash over anyway. One can't be too careful these days, eh?

    I still managed to fire off a barb... "what, are you gonna' shoot me with a hangnail?"

    Wise ass, even to the end...

    As to joining you and your fellow Bears next year, the wife n' I hope to have a few more bambinos and I can't imagine withering away in the arctic waters of the Great Lakes is conducive to fertility. Of course, we are hoping for a boy at some point and we've tried many methods to achieve one.

    The Polar Bear Gender Selection Method remains untried!

    See you next year dude!

  11. This is freaking fantastic. I know where I'll be next New Year's!!!!!

  12. Man, I have ALWAYS wanted to do this! You have my E-mail address. Why wasn't I on your mass mailer?

    Next year, count me in - seriously. I am so there!