I was tired of the same old New Year’s routine — drinking champagne, lighting a few crummy fireworks, watching the ball drop. I needed a new tradition, and jumping into a half-frozen lake seemed as good as any. So I signed up for a polar bear swim—an out-and-back 50 meters in a mountain lake on the first day of the new year.
Hung over and half asleep, I drove two hours through the mountains and arrived at Lake Chatuge just before noon. Sixteen other shivering swimmers huddled around a campfire along the shore, trying to stay warm in 30-degree weather and flag-whipping winds. I squeezed in between a crew-cut army cadet, two teenage girls, and an overweight man wearing Spandex.
“Do we tip-toe into the water or dive in?” asked one of the girls.
“Gotta hit it hard,” the cadet said stoically.
At least one hundred spectators lined the lake, waiting to see a bunch of half-naked Southerners act like Eskimos. Some watched from the warmth of their cars. Minutes before the start, the organizer pulled a thermometer from the water: 46 degrees Fahrenheit.
The cold truth was starting to sink in: I really had to go through with this. I had to get in that water and swim 50 meters — two full swimming pool lengths. Though I’d competed in dozens of triathlons, I had never felt more nervous than at the starting line of a mere 50-meter swim. My teeth were chattering, my arms twitched, my goose-pimpled skin shook uncontrollably — and I hadn’t even touched my toes to the water yet.
Waiting made it worse. Just thinking about the swim made me cold. I jumped up and down, pretended to stretch, and even ran a few barefoot sprints along the rocky, frost-covered lakeshore to stay warm. Then, back at the boat ramp, I listened to a wife berating her husband as he undressed.
“You warm up your shower water before you get in every morning, for Chrissakes! How are you going to swim around in a freezing lake?”
But the husband would not be dissuaded. He quickly stripped off his clothes, handed them to his wife, and joined the other swimmers milling around on the boat ramp making jokes.
“Weather’s bit nipply out here, wouldn’t you say?”
“It takes some balls to be out here.”
“Yeah — blue, shriveled, marble-sized ones.”
At high noon, the organizer yelled “GO!” and we herded into the lake. Swimmers whooped and shouted as they plunged in. I high-stepped out as far as I could, then dove headlong into the lake. When I popped up, my mind completely shut down. I was all body and instinct. Panic poured through my muscles. I was hyperventilating and hypothermic. Frantically I threw my arms in front of me and swam toward the orange buoy. It looked a lot farther away than a pool-length.
I was breathing too rapidly to put my face underwater; instead I was splashing across the lake with a spastic, all-arms, head-out-of-the-water stroke. Frenzied swimmers collided with me as we rounded the buoy. Trickles of laughter from onshore spectators drifted across the water.
On the long swim back to the boat ramp, my adrenaline-fueled muscles slowed. Icy blood coursed through my veins. My arms slapped against the water. I floundered forward, meter by meter. Finally my knuckles scraped the sandy bottom, and I felt my brain click back on.
I climbed out and felt rejuvenated. After numbing myself in the lake, I felt the glow of life so much more intensely. Every sensation was heightened. Scalp tingles surged electricity down my spine.
Blue-faced and panting, I put on my clothes and watched the rest of the swimmers slugging toward shore. Rescuers in oar boats threw life jackets and float rings to struggling swimmers. Two guys had to be helped to shore. The teenage girls stumbled out of the water together, holding hands and hugging each other. The army cadet was close behind.
After three minutes, everyone had made it back — except three especially cold-blooded polar bears. They were still wading offshore to see who could stay in the lake the longest. One kicked his feet in the air as if lounging in a warm bathtub. Their breath visibly condensed in the frozen air. After five minutes, nobody had flinched. Finally, to break the tie, the three swimmers raced back to the boat ramp.
Afterward, we all crouched around the bonfire sipping hot chocolate. I warmed myself inside a circle of other hardy, grizzled beasts. I was one of them now. I was a Polar Bear cub.
I couldn’t wait to get back home and hibernate.
January 1: LAKE LURE, N.C.
January 17: WESTMINSTER, MD
January 25: BLOWING ROCK, N.C.
January 26: CHATTANOOGA, TENN.
FEBRUARY 1: VIRGINIA BEACH, VA.
FEBRUARY 9: MORGANTOWN, W.VA.
FEBRUARY 16: LAKE LANIER, GA.
FEBRUARY 25: RALEIGH, N.C.