By Stefano Mazzega
A lot of funny stuff happens in Canada!
In the Vancouver area, as in a number of other areas, where cold air and colder water are a natural part of winter, a New Year's Day tradition has emerged that baffles even the most open-minded logician. It's called The Polar Bear Swim. Swim is actually a misnomer, because no one is really in the water long enough to swim; however people do don bathing attire and occasionally more bizarre costumes, and plunge into English Bay for a few microseconds. Then they return to dry land and celebrate their survival with a quick shot of something warming that they may have been drinking the night before as well.
As a keen observer of questionable human behaviour, I am drawn to understanding this odd phenomenon. My initial thoughts about the impetus behind this strange tradition center on the excessive use of alcohol the night before which, we can agree, is an even more established tradition. There are many theories. The first simply postulates that those who participate are still in advanced stages of inebriation and therefore do not have any clue as to what they are doing. They just attach themselves to some screaming herd of equally inebriated persons, and en masse head in a random direction, which ends up at the low tide mark of the local beach. However, evidence does not support this, for if it were true, we would expect to see other random herds of drunken people doing equally stupid things like cramming into busses naked or riding the baggage carousels at the airport. We don't see those, or at least not often, so clearly the New Year's dip is not a random drunken event, especially since we see it repeated reliably each and every year.
Another possible explanation is cold water as counter-irritant therapy to a severe hangover. However, this does not make a lot of sense either. I liken this to sitting on a soldering iron to distract from the pain of a toothache. In the most severe cases of post partying pain, attempting suicide by drowning might seem plausible but if one's mood were that low, one would not likely wear a Spandex Grinch costume to one's demise.
There could, perhaps, be a more spiritual explanation. The New Year symbolizes a new beginning, re-birth, starting over etc. This could provide a plausible explanation, with the ocean being the metaphoric baptismal font — a celebration of life. The fact that a number of emergency vehicles, with resuscitation equipment, are present might cloud that theory. However, it might also be supported by the fact that most men's private parts have already begun to shrink down toward neonatal proportions just by thinking of the cold water ahead.
All of this questioning and considering has now led me here, on the beach in my neighbourhood of Port Moody, where a smaller clone of the English Bay event is being celebrated. It is called the Penguin Plunge. Against my better judgment I am here with my Nightmare Before Christmas T-shirt, and my red Santa booties.
The ratio of observers to participants hovers around 6,000 to one, indicating once again, that jumping into freezing water is a questionable pastime enjoyed by only a special few, and that voyeuristic sadism is a very popular form of entertainment. We are relegated to a roped off area of the beach while the observers are stationed high above where they can't be splashed by any errant drops. The semi-naked shivering people around me are attired in Christmassy water themes.
There are only two emergency vehicles here. This disturbs me very much. I think that there should be a hell of a lot more. I am also deeply concerned that if someone should expire, they may face the eternal humiliation of meeting St. Peter while half naked, wearing felt reindeer antlers and a Little Mermaid life-ring.
The countdown takes place. I nervously turn and look at my wife Barbara, who is there with our dog Rebus, just in case some family emergency arises that would sadly take me away from this. She smiles and waves her gloved hand back at me in encouragement. Rebus is next to her in his doggy hoody and matching booties. He looks at me oddly — oh God, maybe he is unwell, maybe I need to rush him to the vet right now....
The run begins and I pray to St. Darrell, the patron saint of silly buggers. I need his help like last year in Pamplona. He must protect me. I hit the water screaming with all the others. One million stinging needles shatter my body and I feel death trying to snatch me — and then the water hits my knees and it is much worse... and then I am frigid, and iced and glacially frozen but I am not cold.
No — I am, in fact, very cool!