When my friend asked me a few months ago if I’d like to jump in a lake in the middle of February in support of Special Olympics, I immediately felt the only answer a Canadian could reasonably offer was, “Absolutely.”
So last Saturday, I stood on a dock along with a few girlfriends and my stepdaughter Gabrielle in advance of the Polar Bear Plunge, an annual event on Lake Cumberland that attracts dozens of divers and raises lots of money. Though it was a sunny day, it was a chilly 43 degrees, with the wind off the water neatly scooping up strands of my hair and depositing them in my mouth whenever I happened to open it.
“I, umm, don’t want to do this,” Gabrielle announced as she watched two jumpers emerge from a houseboat wearing ballerina outfits. “This was a terrible idea. I don’t … I just don’t know what I was thinking.”
Her lack of thought made me somewhat thoughtful, and as we watched the ladies plug their noses, jump in and emerge with shocked looks on their faces, I was brought back, way back to my childhood, when going for a swim was a lesson in hypothermia management.
Back then, I was a scrawny, knobby-kneed kid whose best friend Kristin was about the most beautiful, strong swimmer in the water. Nearly every weekend from June to September we’d head up to her cabin in Moose Lake, our mornings starting when her dad Ken would call out “Krissy!” from underneath the loft.
We’d hurriedly pull on our swimsuits, panting in pain when the still-damp Spandex coldly sucked up against our bellies. We’d run outside and down to the dock, where her dad had already turned on the boat, the smell of burned oil familiar and exciting.
At that time in the early morning, the surface of the water was like milky glass, and we knew it would offer the very best surface on which to waterski.
The thing now was to just get wet.
Jumping in, especially in June when the water had been a block of ice just a month before, was never easy. Each drop would icily descend down my lifejacket, my toes would feel prickly, and my skin would spit out hard, plaintive goose bumps. I would immediately start trying to swallow my chattering, while Kristin, who never got cold, smoothly pulled on her slalom ski and swam toward the rope her dad had thrown her. I’d slip on my two skies and Kristin would hand me a second rope.
“Hit it!” she’d yell and her dad would stomp on the speed, hauling us up like fish.
I thought of all that while I stood on the dock with Gabrielle Saturday as she, though nearly 12, clenched my hand tightly.
“Please don’t make me,” she said so earnestly I was about to give in until she saw a 6-year-old appear, jump and flail in the water.
Then her cool, preteen self was back.
“OK. I got this,” she said.
When the jumpers with yellow wristbands were called, we headed to the back of the houseboat and changed into our swimsuits. The room had been entirely draped with clear plastic and dripping jumpers exchanged advice and war stories with those still dry.
“I can’t feel my feet,” one warned as Gabrielle’s eyes opened widely and she placed her hand back in mine. But when we stepped out on the deck, we knew there was no turning back. Giggling nervously, my two girlfriends jumped in and surfaced, wriggling to the ladder with blanched faces.
Then it was our turn. I looked at Gabrielle.
“On three, ‘kay?” I said. “One, two, three!”
We jumped together and the punch of the cold was as jarring, as exhilarating as it always was. I opened my eyes and saw the underworld through a pretty, green lens. I let myself sink for just a second, reveling in the familiarity of it all, then broke back to the surface to my adult life.