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Polar Bear Tips

(or Swimming With the Icebergs)

It's time again for your best friends to suggest that you (not them, you!) should join the annual Polar Bear Swim. Real polar bears don't wait for these helpful friends, though. Here are a few simple tongue in (chattering) cheek hints that can turn you into a year-round swimmer (or dipper at least).

As August turns into September and some of your regular swimming friends go missing from the shores (of Drumbeg Park in my case), that's when to start preparing for winter swims. At first it's just a matter of timing, only swimming at high tide when the rocky shores have warmed the water. By October, I only swim when it's sunny, and in November it takes sun, high tide, no wind, calm water, and hopefully even a dry place for clothes. This is good enough for about one swim per week. But by December one can't expect to find dry land by the water. That's when a cooperative, helpful wife or husband (or anyone taller than a pair of pants) comes in handy.

Preparations begin at home with a check of tidetable, clock, sun and wind. The swimsuit goes on at home; and towel, underwear, and goggles go in a small pack. The winter coat that looked excessive in October is no longer enough on its own, so out come the layers: two sweaters, a vest, two pair of socks, insulated rubber boots, mittens and knitted hat. After walking a kilometre in this thermal cocoon, it no longer seems totally Quixotic to swim in December, it even starts to feel like sensible, good exercise, sort of a modified Scandinavian experience.

Anyway, it's time to decide whether conditions are still OK for the swim. If a quick check of wind, sky, sun, water, tide level, shoreline and will-power gets computed as a GO, there are certain procedures that make the experience more pleasurable than it might otherwise be.

First, find the best (driest) shoreline, closest to the deepest place to dive. It's not enough that the land be dry, it also has to be sloped so a dripping ex-swimmer won't wet anything piled on the shore. If it is wet, you'll need either a plastic drop sheet (which will get wet and dirty) or the aforementioned mate. Luckily my wife, Naomi Wakan, the writer, has a sense of humour; she says she ends up looking like someone trying to avoid paying excess luggage charges on a winter flight to Whitehorse.

Set the pack down with the towel sticking out ready to grab. Unbutton your shirt cuffs (not easy with two sweaters and a coat on). Then, even though it looks foolish, reach under the sweaters and unbutton your shirt. There is a sensible order to the disrobing sequence: scarf first (my neck to hers), then the coat over her shoulders, the vest is held by an armhole, and then she gets a bundle of sweaters and an extra hat on her head (I guess it does look a little strange). Next, take the boots and socks off and stand on the boots (after all, rocks are cold). Now, quickly remove shirt and pants and add them to the pile.

Nothing is to be gained by dawdling at this stage (unless one can pretend that the sun is actually warm). But before diving — surely no one but a masochist would voluntarily wade into cold water, inch by inch dying a thousand icicle deaths — take care to avoid: rocks, kelp, driftwood, and jellyfish. The first one is serious, but the last one is a close second.

Nothing to do now but . . . splash! Wow! (Remember to keep breathing.) Wonderful! It never seems any colder than the last swim — or so I keep reminding myself. A few quick crawl strokes away from shore and then 100 or so backstrokes, being careful not to stray too far out nor get too close to shallow water. Swimming fast at this stage and burning calories makes the drying-off stage much warmer.

The whole water phase only amounts to a minute or two, but pay attention to your gradually cooling body — feet and head can get mighty cold. By the time I've finished swimming and found a place to get out, I'm numb enough to have to be careful not to stub or scrape toes, feet, knees, hands, etc. After getting out, it's a bit disconcerting to see blue knees and stomach, but they turn toasty red soon enough. On the short walk back to clothes, use your hands to rub water off your body it keeps your towel drier later on.

Depending on local pedestrian traffic, a decision must be made whether to opt for complete modesty while getting the suit off (at the expense of having your towel soak up water from the swimsuit) or forgo the towel cover while removing the swimsuit. A real moral conundrum.

Once dry, everything is removed from your clothes-horse mate and put on in reverse order — if your frozen mind can remember the order. Then a brisk walk out of the park, once again dressed for the Arctic (and feeling completely virtuous), and warmth doesn't seem like such a remote concept. Besides coming back to a roaring wood fire, a hot bath makes the experience complete and vaguely sublime - those Scandinavians know what they're doing with their saunas and winter dips. I can't imagine anything being much more relaxing (unless it's a nap afterward). So, don't wait for any special Polar Bear day, the swimming's good year round.

Eli returning from Drumbeg swim

Drumbeg Park in big snow of Dec 1997
Drumbeg Park
© copyright 2001 Elias Wakan
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