By Alex Kirk –
I am a summer person without question. The instant the winter temperatures roll around and it drops below fifty degrees, I throw on a jacket.
Yet on the first day of each year, at the strike of noon, I head outside, take off all my warm clothes in the freezing weather and go for a swim.
But I don’t do it alone.
The Willow Springs quarry in Myerstown, PA, has hosted its annual Polar Bear Plunge for the last twenty-two years. Every year, hundreds of humans of all shapes and sizes gather around the frozen bank of the water and await the countdown to noon. Once the clock hits noon, the crowd, including myself and my group of loyal polar bears who plunge annually, charges into the brisk water.
The objective is to swim about ten yards, in water that is approximately forty degrees, out to a floating dock. Polar Bears then must completely submerge their bodies before returning to shore.
Why participate in such a frigid activity you might ask?
The cost to plunge is $20. Upon entering the gates of the quarry, each car must pay this fee in order to park in the facility. These funds all go to the Developmental & Disability Services of Lebanon Valley Foundation. According to their website, this charity is all about empowering children with developmental delays and persons with disabilities to lead more productive, satisfying and or independent lives.
“We believe that through greater independence, individuals are able to experience a higher quality of life,” according to the foundation’s web page.
After parking the car, we stake out a spot big enough for our group of twenty or so on the far right of the bank.
There is waiver signing, hand stamping, and interviewing conducted by the local news stations that cover the event. The TV crews of Fox 43 and Channel 8 both do interviews of all the interesting characters preparing for the plunge.
I have been asked many questions by reporters regarding why I do the plunge every year and what the charity means to me.
“A little sacrifice is the best way to start off a new year,” I answer them.
Next comes the most unbearable part of the escapade.
Everyone strips down to the clothes they plan to plunge in five minutes before noon. The temperature change is shocking. The worst part of the whole day is standing half-naked on the river bank in January, waiting.
First, your toes go numb. Then your feet follow.
And at last, you hear the dreaded countdown until noon.
Pins and needles stab your legs from every direction as you rush into the cold. If you hesitate, you risk getting pushed around. So we ran as fast as possible until we were waist-deep in the water and could not run any longer.
I submerged my entire body under the freezing pool of water. I felt completely breathless for about ten seconds after resurfacing.
Twice as fast as I was in, I sprinted out of the water for dry land and warm clothes. Some tougher polar bears stay in the water for a much longer period of time. I have tried to stay in longer with the veterans but find it almost impossible.
As I dry off and regain feeling in my limbs, which is very painful I might add, I feel a great sense of self satisfaction. My $20 and uncomfortable dip in ice water is helping a kid, who would be otherwise unable to do so because of an irreversible disability, live a more normal life.
To me, that is what sacrifice is all about.