The great New Year’s sleeping in was thwarted this year when I had to pick a tween up from a party. Awake and curious, I woke my youngest two and drug them to North Beach for the annual Polar Bear Plunge. No, we wouldn’t test the Chesapeake waters, though Elise protested. We’ll watch… and then, may be next year (though probably, definitely not).
So while sane people slept in, relaxed, and recovered from New Year’s Eve celebrations, I stood on a cold sandy beach and waited for the crowd who would begin 2014, Polar Bear style.
Like many of the plungers, the girls and I headed to our favorite bakery for something sweet and a hot beverage to warm us up from the inside. Flakes of coconut filled my scone. The girls had cocoa. I had a cinnamon vanilla latte. Then we walked back slowly along the boardwalk to see how the crowds were. It was only 11:30 and it wouldn’t begin until 1:00. We were too early.
I asked the guys helping out if they’d done the plunge.
“Yeah, once. When I was younger. It’s one of those things you only do once. Like skydiving.” The other just shook his head as if he, like me, thought the entire concept was totally insane.
But later I found out that wasn’t necessarily the case. There are some serious Polar Bears in Calvert County.
While my girls played on the big boat structure on the beach, I paced along the water’s edge looking for shark teeth until a few more people ambled down, then I stood out on the rocks, claiming my place while I waited for it to start. Occasionally splashed by waves, onlookers with cameras milled about while plungers stayed warm until 12:30.
Then, as if called onto the sand all at once, a crowd came from the boardwalk and congregated on the sand along the water’s edge. Families came, plungers and non-plungers huddling together. With just twenty minutes to wait, some began to strip down to their swim clothes and pose for pictures. Girls in bikinis, boys in speedos, funny hats and strange costumes… they were all ready, and cold. It was just below 40 outside. The water was 37.
A few of them dipped their toes in the lapping waves, then shook their feet and jumped up and down to warm up. The lady next to me shook her head. “That’s not smart.”
With five minutes to go, the mayor announced the water temperature and time. A cheer went through the crowd that now filled the beach.
Then, as we had just 13 hours before, we all counted down together, the crowd cheering as they went.
“10, 9, 8…”
May be it’s like peeling off a band-aid, but those feet ran fast. Some were already running out when the last of the crowd was running in. Some just jump in, immerse themselves, then run out. Some try to be the last ones swimming.
A group stood out past the rocks arms in the air as if claiming champion status. Cheering and playing like any summer day. Two older men stayed in half-way. One wore a fur cap – something reminiscent of a Russian style. I asked him afterwards if he was cold since he stood talking to friends and hadn’t even toweled off yet. “Probably, but I’m too numb to tell.”
I saw friends there. The Ducketts moved back here from Russia last year, so when they saw last year’s posters, they thought it would be a great tradition. This year, they brought their kids. Leo ran in and out as quickly as possible. Standing later by the fire, I asked him if he’d do it again. “No way, never.” His sister, Lily, on the other hand, just might. Her dad “drug” her in and she was soaked from head to toe, but she stood there with a smile on her face as she shivered and drank her cocoa.
Apparently the Russians do this for health reasons and to ring in the new year. It’s a popular tradition in Canada and The Netherlands as well and the largest Polar Bear Plunge in the US is just north, in Annapolis, in a couple of weeks.
Though it isn’t for everyone, there aren’t any rules about age. Young kids running in with their parents, groups of friends going in together, and older folks far braver than I, running with enthusiasm towards the 37 degree waters of the Chesapeake Bay. I suppose there are worse ways to begin a new year. For me, I’m happy to watch, cheer people on, and enjoy a hot cup of coffee.
Anyone can participate in the Polar Bear Plunge for free and without registration; however, if you’d like a t-shirt, then you need to pay a small fee and register. You can register in advance or beginning at 11am on the day of the plunge. The crowds began to gather in earnest just 30 minutes before the event, but I’d get there an hour early anyway and grab a coffee at Sweet Sue’s. DRESS WARM.
The less you wear, the faster you’ll dry and warm up. It would help to have friends on the beach waiting with warm towels/clothes and warm socks and shoes. Tradition states that you must run in and submerge yourself though not everyone does. It’s up to you. Kids can go. Stay with smaller ones as it gets crowded and people push a bit.
There’s a fire pit on the adjacent beach with marshmallows (while they last) and free hot cocoa. It’s available for all spectators and plungers. Calvert Kettle Corn is there and most shops nearby are open for the event. Also, take advantage of the free model train display just across the street at Tans. It’s worth it.