I really, really hate being cold. I wear mittens in the house. I sleep a foot away from a space heater. And though I live on the coast, I do all I can to ensure that no part of my body ever comes into contact with the Pacific Ocean, even in the dead of summer.
So what compelled me to agree to participate in the Arch Cape Pacific Plunge, which entails joining dozens of locals for a dive into the frigid ocean on New Year’s morning? Um, I’m not sure. Almost immediately after I’d agreed to participate, I was awash in regret.
Longtime plunger Barb Beemer, who would initiate me into the yearly event, tried to assuage my fears.
“I dread it every year, but it’s actually quite invigorating,” she insisted.
Invigorating, huh? I was skeptical. For one, the polar bears for whom this odd human traditions are named come equipped with nervous systems far better suited to such arctic calisthenics: they’ve got inches of insulating blubber, ice-resistant fur, water-repelling nostrils. We wouldn’t even be allowed wet suits!
Hoping to allay my misgivings with a little education, I got to digging. As it turns out, the Arch Cape Pacific Plunge can be traced back to the aptly named Betty Bridget Snow, who first decided to go for a New Year’s Day swim in the water off Arch Cape back in 1957. She liked it so much she decided to make it an annual event. Over the years, she occasionally managed to convince her grandchildren to join her, though her husband, Berkeley, would only offer moral support from dry land.
Snow continued her New Year’s swims throughout the 1960s, and more and more people joined her. In 32 years, she didn’t miss more than four winter plunges.
When she reached 90, she retired to the beach to cheer on the more than 30 people who by then showed up for the yearly swim. She continued to support them from the shore until her death in 1995.
In 2008, octogenarian Noanie Morrison took on the role of event matriarch. That year, she plunged into the water with her sons alongside 50 other swimmers. That same year, the youngest swimmer was a three-year-old girl who braved the waves in her father’s arms.
At the 40-year mark, the local iteration of this phenomenon continues to grow in popularity.
Each winter, similar events take place across the country, the largest being the Plungapalooza in Maryland, which supports the Special Olympics and draws up to 12,000 participants.
And it’s not just the Americans getting in on the madness. In the icy climes of Northern Europe, ice swimming is considered a healthful compliment to a mid-winter sauna. In the public baths of South Korea, too, plunging oneself into ice-cold green tea-infused tubs after a long soak is common practice. Exposing the body to such extremes is thought to relieve stress, improve circulation, and balance the body’s energies.
Was there any truth to such claims, or are winter swims simply another means we masochistic humans have devised to torture ourselves?
I was about to find out.
Jan. 1 dawned sunny and cold. The air was registering at 40 degrees, the water 46; positively balmy temperatures after a week of well-below-freezing temperatures. Somehow, I didn’t feel too comforted.
Already shivering, I pulled on a pair of board shorts and my blue Converse and got into my car, cursing my bravado.
But as I made my way down to the choppy Arch Cape beach, I let myself get a teeny bit excited. About 50 swimmers and at least that many onlookers had gathered along the shoreline, and a palpable anticipation was building.
Plungers of all ages arrived attired in shorts, suits, bathrobes, pantyhose and sneakers. One father-son duo was even outfitted in Viking hats.
The same questions were everyone’s lips:
“Are you going to do it?”
“So … how cold you think that water is?”
Then, 10 minutes after the hour, shouts, and pointing south. “Here comes the matriarch!”
Morrison was headed for the waves, shepherded along the rocky beach by two sturdy-looking attendants.
Her arrival cued the the crowd. Shrieking clusters cast aside overclothes and make a break for the water.
I steeled my courage and picked my way toward the foamy waves. I dipped a shoe in, trying to gauge just how much discomfort I was in for. Then, noting the hysterical grimaces of other swimmers who were opting to acclimate slowly, I decided to follow the lead of the diehards whose method it was to dive headlong into the first big wave that came along. Like that old adage about ripping off a bandage quickly, the best way to do this seemed to be to do it fast.
So I ran for it. And when the water passed my hips, I broke into a swim. I could feel every nerve ending in my entire body firing off. My muscles cramped in shock and protest. But Beecher had been right: there was something undeniably bracing about it. I paddled out, bobbing among the waves.
Lost flip flops floated by me like capsized sailboats. A golden Retriever swam up, his tongue lolling about as he expertly steered himself among the struggling humans forced to make do with two rudders to his four.
“Amateur!” he barked as he paddled past me.
Or were the hypothermia-induced auditory hallucinations beginning? It was time to head back to shore.
After a whole 2 minutes in the Arch Cape ocean, my entire body had gone completely numb. I dog paddled alongside the retriever back toward land, my waterlogged shoes dragging behind me like anchors. When we reached the rocks, a few onlookers cheered and the pooch paused to shake out his sopping mane.
Back on the beach, disheveled, rosy-cheeked plungers were pulling on dry layers as fast as their shaking hands could manage. The elder Viking had lost a horn. I pulled my beanie down over my icy hair and reached for my towel.
Before I’d even finished drying off, the water had emptied entirely, save a few Nordic-looking types whose whoops could be heard above the crashing waves as they dared each other on. The beach, too, was almost deserted. This is one tradition that leaves participants little desire to linger as the wind gusts down from the mountains and car heaters beckon.
Trembling just a little, I followed Beemer to her house for a round of hot buttered rums, my shoes squish-squishing. Inside, I parked myself next to a heater and chatted awhile with a few new friends. Then, I drove home, took a hot shower, and spent the bulk of New Year’s Day curled up next to my beloved space heater.
All said, it was some good, painful fun, with an emphasis on the good and the fun parts. And, yes, I dare say, even invigorating.
A few plungers are currently at work on a book about the event. Anyone with old photos or newspaper clippings is asked to contact Barbara Beemer Moritz at firstname.lastname@example.org.