Going polar

  • Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
  • Saturday, December 29, 2001 9:00pm
  • Local News

Full-body immersion in Puget Sound in late December ought to count. I’m at least an honorary member of the polar bear club, a chill-seeking collection of nuts around the world whose idea of a happy new year is a swim in frigid waters.

The point of all this is a fresh start on the year, an invigorating way to wash off the old and perhaps kill a hangover in the bargain. I was cold sober Thursday when I jumped into the 40-something-degree waters of Port Susan at Kayak Point County Park north of Tulalip.

I did it before Jan. 1 as a service to you, dear readers. Those planning to seize the day in a similar fashion may want to ask, “How’s the water?” In all honesty, I can’t quite say, “Come on in, the water’s fine.”

This started as a notion I made the mistake of mentioning to my editor and a photographer. By midweek, I couldn’t back out.

The night before my frosty leap, my daughter called from the Marysville home of her “nice young man” (as my mother, who dislikes the word “boyfriend,” would say). I found out just how nice 19-year-old Nathan Clay can be when my daughter said, “Mom, Nathan wants to go in with you.”

That I got in at all is probably more Nathan’s doing than mine. I’ll usually stand around 20 minutes or so thinking about getting wet before sticking my toe in the drink.

Well, the instant we got to Kayak, Nathan stripped off his sweats and ran. His head disappeared for a second, then he was on his feet in waist-deep water. He wasn’t smiling.

I had no time to think. The poor kid was going to freeze if I didn’t hurry my fraidy-cat self into the surf.

So how is the water?

I was under, head and all, less than a minute. It was long enough to numb my toes and fingertips. I had an icy pain at the top of my head. My breathing was jerky. I was glad to be in the shallows and understood why people who fall in often don’t survive.

I have to tell you, though, I’d do it again. I will do it again.

Once out of the water, we felt absolutely great. Thursday’s air temperatures ranged from 38 to 49, but post-dunk the beach seemed downright balmy. I put on a sweat shirt, poured tea from a Thermos, and sat on a log grinning.

After a hot shower and a bowl of soup, I was restored, relaxed and ready for the day – and for 2002.

Polar bears make perfect sense to me now. You go in scared and come out confident. You feel alive. No wonder it’s a time-honored tradition.

In South Boston, members of a swim club called the L Street Brownies have been diving into the Atlantic every New Year’s since 1902.

“It’s all about mental and physical courage. You’re getting high on life,” said Brownies member Asa Hubner in an Associated Press article from New Year’s 2001.

The Boston Herald last Jan. 2 told of John DiMaggio. When he died at 88, the father of 12 was buried in his swim club jacket with a bottle of saltwater at his side. His granddaughter said he swam New Year’s and every other day of the year.

No need to go to Boston to find someone who makes a daily practice of defying logic. Bruce Campbell, a hardy Northwesterner whose home overlooks the water near Kayak park, swims at 6 each morning. He’s done it for 15 years. In winter, it’s a quick plunge. In summer, he’ll stay in a half-hour or more.

It started when his wife, Linda, visited the then-Soviet Union and saw people cutting holes in the ice to swim.

“They strongly believe it builds the immune system,” the 56-year-old Campbell said of the Russian swimmers.

A Marysville School District curriculum specialist, Campbell said he has no doubt the daily dips enhance health. “If I have a cold, I still go,” he said.

He doesn’t wear a stitch, and he’s not afraid of the dark. And he often has company, his two big Tibetan mastiffs.

“I don’t do it for the exercise, I just do it for the thrill. It’s a big adrenaline rush every morning. It’s a great way to start the day,” Campbell said.

That’s an understatement, I can now attest from experience. It’s a fabulous way to start the day.

There are all sorts of things I’m tempted to do at least once in life. Bungee jumping? No. A marathon? Maybe, but more likely a half-marathon. A polar bear swim? It was always on the list. Now I can check it off.

I’ll jump in again, but I do agree with Campbell on this:

“The real thrill is getting out, of course.”

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