Polar Bear Plunge

Hundreds of hardy revelers rushed into the Saint Joseph River in Fort Wayne, Ind., joining the Fort Wayne Polar Bear Club in its annual New Year's Day Polar Bear Plunge. Journal Gazette video by Chad Ryan. GoPro camera worn by Journal Gazette reporter Jeff Wiehe.

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Photos by Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette|
Hundreds of swimmers race toward the water after the countdown for the annual Polar Bear Club New Year’s Day swim Wednesday at the St. Joseph River boat launch near Johnny Appleseed Park.
Taking the (polar) plunge

Video: New Year's dip is a reality check for the bravest of brave souls

Josh Enger, center, tries to straighten his chicken hat as he and others race to escape the frigid water in 20-degree temperatures.
Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette|
Brian O’Donnell hugs his daughter Sonna before she and friends braved the frigid waters.

Doug Guerin has been jumping into icy water since the early 1970s.

His buddy Wayne Reeves has been doing it for about a decade – or at least that’s what he admitted to Wednesday.

These are men who know a thing or two about partaking in a Polar Bear Plunge.

And they’re more than willing to dish out advice, especially when it goes to a first-timer shivering on the banks of the St. Joseph River during a 20-degree day.

“It doesn’t count unless you get your head wet,” Reeves says. “None of this sticking your toe in and running out.”

“There’s a difference between cold and numb,” Guerin says. “Trust me. You’re going to feel numb.”

“We try to go for one minute,” Reeves says. “Most of the time, we stay in for one minute.”

And then Guerin looks you right in the eye and, if you’re a man, tells you something you know in your head but were maybe a little too embarrassed to say out loud:

“There’s going to be shrinkage.”

The question from outsiders to these plungers every year quickly becomes this:

Why?

That’s not always easy to discern, just as it’s hard to discern the history of many of these Polar Bear Plunges.

The little winter swims – many of which take place New Year’s Day – have become mainstays in communities throughout North America.

Boston has a plunge that purportedly dates to 1904. Milwaukee has one that is said to have started in 1916.

The Coney Island Polar Bear Club claims to be the oldest “winter bathing” organization in the United States.

Having been founded in 1903, the club swims in the Atlantic Ocean off Coney Island in New York every Sunday from November through April.

Some people speculate that cold-weather swimming has health benefits, including giving one increased stamina and a bigger libido.

Not surprisingly, most doctors and scientists find these debatable at best.

Somewhere along the line many of these swims throughout the country took on the festive – and maybe even a bit kooky – look of what they are today.

Take Wednesday’s plunge in Fort Wayne at Johnny Appleseed Park:

You had giggling high school and college coeds along with steely faced young men – or men attempting to stay steely faced – trying to impress said giggling coeds.

You had hipsters covered in beards and tattoos, bicyclists and joggers. You had people wearing masks and costumes – at least one Batman attended, along with one rooster and someone even dressed up their dog as a polar bear.

And you had plenty of families, men and women with sons and daughters, maybe a few grandchildren, passing down traditions.

One person listed Wednesday’s plunge as their 40th straight on the sign-up sheet.

So why do this?

Maybe people do this for a sense of community or maybe for a sense of history.

Guerin said he always came to the plunge with his father, who rode a motorcycle to the event with a sidecar. Even back then, he said, there was a carnival atmosphere, what with the bikers and the joggers who would show up.

Some might do it for something a little simpler than that, though.

“Because it’s crazy,” said Reeves, a 68-year-old retired teacher who described himself as a bit of a daredevil in his younger days.

He wasn’t above jumping near speed boats in Lake Wawasee back in his heyday or doing just about any dare his friends laid out in front of him.

That attitude especially helped him in the Marine Corps, where “tough, mean and nasty were good things,” he said.

But time marches on, and sometimes a good winter plunge into the icy waters can awaken the daredevil from years gone by.

So when a few hundred plungers raced down a hill and into the St. Joseph, with a few hundred or more looking on, Reeves was not one of those who waded up to waists and then headed back to higher ground.

He waded out near the middle, where the water can really sting your legs and feet, a place where your heart begins to race with what feels like battery acid while the rest of your body begins asking you just what the hell you think you’re doing.

And he stayed out there for the full 60 seconds.

Why do this?

Because it’s a little crazy, because of tradition, and because sometimes a true polar bear must just do what a true polar bear does.

jeffwiehe@jg.net

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