Real polar bears don’t mind the cold. Perhaps that’s what the human fans of yearly polar bear swims are trying to attain with the annual tradition of hurling themselves into freezing water. In Canada, the polar bear swim (also known as polar bear plunge or dip) is celebrated on New Years Day. At the Vancouver polar bear swim, most participants register, although they don’t have to. Registering, which includes a donation of food to the Food Bank, gets you a small amount of swag and the fuzzy feeling that your contribution is going to people in need. But is this fuzzy feeling enough to keep you warm in the wintry water? In short, no: most polar bear swim participants leave the beach shortly after the dip for the warmth of their showers or hot tubs.
Despite this, the event, which has been going on in Vancouver since 1920, draws at least 1,000 registered participants, while looky-loos who don’t take the plunge number among the tens of thousands. Similar events are held across Canada on January 1 in places ranging from Edmonton, Alberta all the way to Saint John’s, Newfoundland. Also popular in Ontario and Quebec, it’s clear that frigid temperatures are no deterrent for arctic ursine wannabes nationwide.
There is no competition involved in the polar bear swim: you win as soon as you enter the water, even if you promptly run back to dry land and warm towel, yelling obscenities. The point of the polar bear swim is to start the new year doing something challenging. And in the cold Canadian winters, willingly entering the water is definitely challenging. It’s a way for people to show the new year that they’re not going to take any crap, that they have the mental strength to face difficulties, and that they have the tenacity to hold on through whatever may come. Or, maybe it’s just an excuse to run screaming into the ocean with thousands of gawking onlookers.
For some, the polar bear swim is simply about the first swim of the year. In fact, in Abbotsford it’s hard to find a publicized outdoor dip; the Abbotsford Recreation Centre and the Matsqui Recreation Centre both offer what they call “polar bear swims,” but they are held in the balmy indoor pool at nearly tropical temperatures. For attendees of these events, perhaps the draw of the polar bear swim is just to get in the water. Perhaps they would make the trek to Vancouver for the “real” thing, but it’s too far. A small amount of internet research tells me that a group of about 25 people in Chilliwack jumped off the dock at Cultus Lake for their polar bear tradition.
Whatever the draw is, the polar bear swim brings crowds and raises money for good causes. The Cascade’s possibly-insane editor-in-chief Jed Minor attended this year’s Vancouver polar bear swim, which he described as “fun and refreshing,” and said that it had the affect of recharging his otherwise tired self. So maybe the polar bear swim isn’t a weird sport after all, but a tradition of people striving to make a memorable January 1, whatever the zany cost may be. People leave behind the old year on the beach as they enter the shocking cold water, and they subsequently enter a new year with new challenges which they are well equipped to face.