While eating breakfast today, and reading “Born To Run“, I decided to start the year with, as Billy Idol would say, a shock to the system. And with the help of my friend, Kristen, we went to Bradford Beach so I could be part of the 2014 Polar Bear Swim.
I worked at my part-time job yesterday, at Mike Crivello’s. One of the perks of the job is being able to check out equipment from our rental stock. Anyone who knows me from my Helix Photo days knows how much I love trying new equipment. Shortly before yesterday’s hours ended, I checked the rental area and saw that the Canon 5D III and Tamron 24-70/2.8 were both on the shelf yet. I have little experience with either piece, but know they’re well-regarded, so I signed them out. I thought I could take the camera with me to New Year’s festivities, maybe out for a walk in the winter woods, and yeah – down to the Polar Bear Swim – that’d make great photos!
This morning I went to breakfast at a nearby restaurant, and as I watched the rapidly falling snow, I thought more about the Swim, and how it’s been years since I’ve done one…about how I felt like I haven’t really pushed my limits in any recent times – doing something simply because I could Choose It…about how I was reading “Born To Run” – an exciting book about long-distance runners pushing their bodies to the limits…and I decided I needed to take the plunge, if only to remind myself that I have agency, that I can make decisions and do things that others might scoff at or doubt their own abilities to do. I wanted to Choose. So I did.
I still wanted to make photos, though, and couldn’t imagine taking an expensive camera I didn’t own to a crowded, frozen beach, and then leaving it unattended while I jumped in the icy waters. I started texting, emailing anyone I could think of, who I thought may be available. Luckily, I found my friend, Kristen, and she was interested.
We parked on the bluffs overlooking the beach, walked carefully, though quickly, down the hill. I was carrying a small camera bag and an overnight bag stuffed with dry clothes. Kristen and I got to the beach, and saw how much ice there was…I’ve done the Polar Bear before, but never with that amount of ice and snow.
We walked back and forth a little, watching other “Polar Bears” as they staggered through the broken ice to a clear area being maintained by the dry-suit divers keeping an eye on everyone. There were people cheering, making photos, making videos, people bundled up in winter gear as people in boxers and bikinis wobbled into the water. I was hesitant. I was nervous. It was really dang cold and a stiff breeze was blowing. I saw a photographer friend, said “hello” and introduced him to Kristen.
I watched a little more, walked around a little more, stood a little more, finally said to myself, “friggin’ make the decision already.” I told Kristen where I aimed to wade in, started disrobing, tried to channel my chi, and then, barefoot and in my speedo, starting walking across the ice, stepping into other people’s footsteps, and heading for the open portion of water.
Seriously, after I’d made the decision, I can’t remember much. It was cold, but not that cold. The ice was slippery, but didn’t feel treacherous. As I walked out, I saw Kristen back on the shore taking photos, the other people near and behind her watching the spectacle. I think I might have said “Thanks for being here,” to the diver who was nearest me, but I’m not sure. Then I turned around in the just-over-knee-deep water, raised my arms over my head and lowered myself into Lake Michigan.
The cold is incredibly bracing, and it’s amazing how quickly you lose feeling in your toes. My body didn’t feel cold, but it did feel sluggish. I ducked my head beneath the water for a second, and as soon as I stood up, began walking for the shore.
I think I stood on the ice for a second, then began rifling through my bag. I grabbed a blanket and threw it on the ground to stand on, a towel to start getting some of the water off. Kristen remarked, “Troy, you’ve got ice in your ear!”
My fingers began to lose dexterity and I felt a bit clumsy. I grabbed a t-shirt and put it on, wrapped a scarf around my neck, tugged on a long-sleeve t-shirt, grabbed some thick wool socks and struggled to get them on. Then grabbed some workout pants and pulled them on, but had to work to get my feet out the ends. I grabbed my boots and had a very difficult time pulling them on. I couldn’t feel my toes well and the bulky socks made it hard to pull on the boots. Eventually I got them on, though and, in general, was feeling pretty good. I asked a guy who looked photo-savvy to make a photo of Kristen and I and then we began making our way through the crowd and back across the beach, walking arm-in-arm so neither of us would slip. By the time we’d gotten back to the top of the bluff and to Kristen’s car, I was pretty warmed up again, though the tips of my fingers were tingling pretty good.
I guess this was as much a “spiritual shock” as a physiological one. Doing the Polar Bear Swim is a unique event, sure, but anyone could do it. You just gotta make that choice.