Confessions of a Polar Bear: An icy dip starts a new year right

CLEVELAND - “It’s a mouthwash for the brain!”

That’s probably the best way I’ve ever heard those New Year’s Day polar bear swims summed up.

After all, plunging your body into the frigid waters of a lake or ocean isn’t exactly the sanest thing you would ever want to do, which is probably why I do it.

Yes, my name is John and for many years I have been a “Polar Bear.”

Don’t get me wrong, a great outdoorsman I am not. I enjoy skiing, but I do it with enough layers of clothes to see an Eskimo family of four through the harshest of winters.

So why would someone who gets cold stepping out of the shower choose to do this? The rush, the experience, the feeling you get when it’s over!

I was actually conned into doing this a number of years back when I worked in Atlantic City. I agreed to cover a story on the local Polar Bear Club, but I wasn’t sure whether or not I would actually go in.

Oh, I had all the common concerns -- won’t you be cold, won’t you get sick, WON”T YOU DIE? I was assured by the president of the club that no one has ever so much as caught a cold, let alone went belly up.

Even still, I was leery as I headed for the beach that New Year’s Day. I had my towel strategically positioned by the water's edge so that not a second of drying time would be wasted. This brought a good laugh to the experienced polar bears. They assured me that I would not only not need a towel when I got out but I would actually feel warm.

After questioning their sobriety, I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

As I stood nice and toasty all bundled up on the beach beforehand, it dawned on me that the key was not to be warm but to be cold. I had a flashback to my youth (they say that’s common before near-death experiences) and the days when we would play in the snow for hours. We’d be soaked but we wouldn’t feel it because we were already so cold.

As I stripped down to my bathing suit, the wind chill was in the teens and the water temperature was 41. On a count of three, we went. I ran in as fast as I could to lessen the shock (subscribing to the theory that a band-aid ripped off hurts less than the one removed slowly). It didn’t work.

After about 20 strokes out into the Atlantic, the pain became too much and I quickly turned around for shore. As I got out and made my pre-planned mad dash for my towel, it quickly dawned on me those polar bear veterans were right, I wasn’t cold and much to my surprise I didn’t need my towel

Your body, reacting to the fact that you just tried to turn it into one of Mrs. Paul’s newest entrees, is kicking out so much heat and adrenaline that you actually feel, well, warm. It’s like a reverse sauna effect.

For six New Years Days in a row, I did the Polar Bear Swim in Atlantic City. I also did one in Lake Erie.

The coldest technically was Atlantic City in ’98, when the temperature was 4 degrees when I left my then home in the Poconos.

I say technically because the coldest I ever felt was 2003 when I jumped into Lake Erie. That’s because the temperature was around 35 degrees, but there was a rain/snow mix falling and the wind was blowing hard in off the lake.

I got to my car afterwards and could not open the door with my keys because my fingers couldn’t move (I still don’t think I’m warm from that one).

Many folks come back each New Year’s Day; others do it only once just to say they did it. One thing’s for certain, though, while your memories of the other 364 days in a year may one day fade, this is one day you’ll never forget.

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