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Polar Bear Plunge Day on January 1 is not for the faint of heart or the very timid. Ice swimming is for the bold and daring. Plunging into January’s frigid waters is nothing short of the most insane yet invigorating way to celebrate the first day of every new year. Those courageous – some might say foolish – souls who don swim trunks and bikinis to splash their way into icy cold winter waters claim they are ‘freezin’ for a reason’ — usually to raise money for a good cause. Then again, there are polar-bear swimmers who just like the idea of doing something wild and crazy that doesn’t involve alcohol to kick off the New Year.
History of Polar Bear Plunge Day
A polar bear plunge, also known as a polar bear swim or ice swimming, is a cold-weather winter event. Participants gather at a designated time on the edge of a local body of water where they all plunge into the water at the same time, usually at the shrill blast of a starter whistle. Most plungers rush to make their way in and out of the bone-chilling water quickly. Others try easing their way in. A few daredevils throw themselves into the icy wetness with abandon, usually the first-timers. Regardless of the speed at which they enter, everyone is eager to leave the water and escape the effects of the biting cold on their naked skin.
Polar bear swim clubs have been around in the United States for more than a century. The oldest-documented New Year’s Day polar bear plunge event took place in 1904 when the L Street Brownies, a swim club founded in 1902 in South Boston, Massachusetts, took their first icy cold plunge together into Dorchester Bay. They’ve been celebrating the arrival of each New Year with a polar bear plunge ever since.
Long before the L Street Brownies discovered the thrill of a New Year’s Day polar bear swim, Scandinavians were enjoying ice swimming. It may seem bizarre, but ice swimming is common in Nordic cultures, and not just on New Year’s Day. Ice-hole swimming — yes, as in cutting a hole in frozen lakes and dropping in for an icy dip — is a traditional Finnish outdoor activity. Denmark has more than 20,000 registered ‘icebreakers’ in more than 75 winter swim clubs. And the Danes, in particular, enjoy plunging naked. But why?
There are both mental and physical benefits said to be derived from cold-water swimming. Some studies confirm that even taking a cold shower can elevate blood levels of the body’s own mood-regulating- and painkilling hormones. These naturally occurring chemicals are essential in combating depression. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a mood disorder common in the most northern latitudes where sunlight can be scarce for extended months, may be the reason why ice swimming has been practiced for many generations in Nordic cultures. Wellness spas around the world have embraced the very Nordic practice of a hot sauna followed by an ice-water plunge ritual on their menu of wellness treatments.
Regular ice water swimmers say the thrill of the chill increases energy levels and sharpens the mind. And although there seem to be some actual health benefits to skinny dipping in cold water, we’ve heard you can achieve the same result just by getting a good night’s sleep.
But then, where is the thrill in that?
Polar Bear Plunge Day timeline
The L Street Brownies, the oldest polar bear swim club in the U.S. is formed.
The first annual New Year’s Day plunge by the L Street Brownies takes place.
In Maryland, Sandy Point State Park’s Plungapalooza raises $2.2 million for the Special Olympics.
The largest annual Polar Bear Plunge in the U.S., the Plungapalooza, attracts 12,000 participants.
Polar Bear Plunge Day FAQs
Can you die from a polar bear plunge?
The short answer is yes. Plunging into icy cold water can be deadly, especially for anyone with a heart condition. Within minutes, immersion into icy cold water can cause a heart attack or drowning because of the enormous stress cold water places on the body. In fact, the body begins a natural response called ‘cold shock’. And submerging the head into frigid water causes heart arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat.
Why do people do the polar bear plunge?
Some do it purely for the thrill or challenge of doing something eccentric to celebrate the New Year, but polar bear plunge events on New Year’s Day in America are usually fundraisers for charity. In Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Finland, ice swimming is not just for New Year’s Day. The practice of ice swimming in these colder climate countries has more to do with traditional health and wellness regimen and is often practiced throughout the year.
How do you prepare for a polar bear plunge?
Under no circumstances should you attempt to ice swim while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, nor should you ice swim if you have an alcohol hangover. Wear your swimsuit under your clothes and water shoes to enter the water. Bring several towels for drying and warm clothes, socks, and shoes or boots that are easy to get into after your plunge. Bring a plastic bag for your wetsuit, too. Having someone waiting on the shore ready with towels, blankets, a warm beverage, and a warm car is best practice.
Polar Bear Plunge Day Activities
Take the plunge
If taking an icy cold swim on New Year’s Day is oddly appealing or has been on your bucket list for a long while, we suspect you have a little Nordic DNA in your blood. Why not go ahead and take the plunge? Most states and many cities and towns now sponsor an annual Polar Bear Plunge to celebrate the New Year and raise money for a worthy cause.
Volunteer to help others take the plunge
Even if plunging into bitter cold water on a cold winter’s day is not your style, you can still be part of the unconventional fun and festivities by volunteering to be a land partner for someone else. Organized events need lots of volunteers to make the event safe for daring plungers and a successful fundraising event.
Visit the polar bears at a zoo
If you have no interest in being in the middle of the madness of ‘human polar bears’, bundle up and head to your local zoo to be entertained by the real deal. Some zoos offer viewing windows where you can watch the magnificent but playful creatures swim and play in the water. Or tune into online polar bear cams if you prefer staying warm and cozy at home.
Five Cold-Hard Facts About Polar Bear Plunging
The body’s natural reaction to sudden cold water triggers a gasp reflex, which may continue as uncontrolled hyperventilation or an abnormal breathing rhythm.
After a few minutes of being in icy water, your body kind of tricks you into thinking you are not all that cold and this condition can easily lead to drowning if you are inexperienced.
Onset of Asthma
Cold, whether cold air or cold water, can trigger an attack in those who have asthma.
Cold urticaria, or ‘cold hives’, is a disorder where large red welts primarily affect the legs after exposure to cold air or -water.
Blood pressure spike
Blood pressure spikes are a normal reaction to a dip in cold water as the body responds to the shock — for someone with undiagnosed high blood pressure or a heart condition, the result could be an irregular heartbeat or a heart attack.
Why We Love Polar Bear Plunge Day
It’s a confidence booster
It takes some nerve to strip off winter parkas, hats, gloves, and boots to get nearly naked with dozens, hundreds, or maybe thousands of strangers and run with reckless abandon into the icy waters of an ocean, lake, or pond in the dead of winter. This has to be, at the very least, a huge confidence builder that will give you a really good story to tell.
A way to make new friends
We cannot vouch for how sane these new friends may be; they are prone to jumping into icy cold water in the dead of winter. But at least you know you have one thing in common, and that is an abnormal start to a new friendship.
Brings happy, generous people together on New Year’s Day
You won’t find miserable, unhappy people at a polar bear plunge on New Year’s Day. These are people who live life one day at a time and enjoy helping others. New Year’s Day polar bear plunges are fundraisers, and these ice swimmers are taking the plunge to raise money for charity. Be happy. Take the plunge.
Polar Bear Plunge Day dates