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 über-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 almost...comfortable...to 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 real...it 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??
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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!"
I know that it’s tiiime,
for a coo-oo-ool change.”
—Little River Band