“So, are you crazy?”
This was the first question I was asked by a journalism student who interviewed me last week for a weather story, after hearing “through the grapevine” that I had taken a plunge into Lake Michigan recently.
It all started last weekend, when I woke up early to hop on the El and head downtown to film an event for my journalism class. Obviously, I was thrilled to be getting up at 9 a.m. to awkwardly interview strangers. But when I stepped outside, all my sarcasm blew away on the warm breeze. It was sunny, the snow was puddling glossily on the sidewalks, and dormant birds had awoken to sing me songs. It was 50 degrees, and hibernation was over. It was The Best Day Ever.
The event I was filming was not just any event. Twenty-four year-old participant Rafael Pozo put it best when he said, “This was the polar bear plunge, baby!” At noon, Pozo and 200 other “crazies” charged into Lake Michigan, clad only in bikinis and swim trunks. Many of them brought water wings and beach balls, adding to the surreal image of swim wear juxtaposed with snowbanks.
What’s really cool about the Polar Bear Plunge is the story of how it began. Eight years ago, then 23-year-old Brian Marchal decided to turn what would have been just him and two buddies doing something crazy into a way to raise money for his cousin, who needed a lung transplant. Marchal, now 31, has watched the event grow, with this year’s exceptional weather drawing a record crowd.
The question I kept getting asked while filming was, “when are you getting in?” Though I truly did want to toss my tripod onto the sand and dive into the sparkling water, I held off, knowing I’d get my chance.
When the forecast predicted a 63-degree high for last Tuesday, I knew this was it. Blaring music and barbecue smoke drifted from the frat quads, where boys were tossing footballs and girls in short skirts were laughing. A frenzy of what were surely rabid squirrels zig-zagged erratically, finding all their stashed acorns. The smooshy dead grass beneath the now-gone snow was even a vague greenish color. It was The Best Day Ever, part II.
During the course of the day, I somehow managed to jump in Lake Michigan a total of four times—at South Beach, at North Beach; three times in the afternoon and once at midnight. And of course I had to get completely underwater every time, which is necessary to be a true polar bear, according to Marchal. I guess this is how you get a reputation as “crazy.”
The reason for my midnight plunge was Northwestern’s own Polar Bear Club, a small but dedicated group of crazies who jump in the lake every single month, including last January, when they had to chisel through the ice to get in. On Tuesday, though, the 63-degree high had melted almost everything, and despite the chilly wind, it was still a pretty mild experience. I even convinced two of my very unprepared friends to join me, assuring them they could share my towel. For the record, they were both thoroughly invigorated by the experience and we’ve decided that once a month is not often enough to make the polar bear plunge.
So yes, it may sound crazy, and I may have looked a bit crazy when I stood outside of the locked McCormick Tribune Center at 12:30 a.m. in only a towel and swimsuit in February, but like Marchal told me, “When other people say it’s crazy, that’s a good thing.” The truth is, a lot of the best bits of life — first kisses, conversations with strangers, skinny dipping — are things we either avoid or get nervous about. My heart always stammers and my stomach always fills with heavy dread before I have to interview strangers, and I felt the exact same way edging over cold sand towards the lake. But once I dive in, I’m filled not only with relief, but an indescribable high. This is why people go sky diving and hop on stomach-turning roller coasters. There is a time and place to walk on tip-toes and show restraint, but so often, great things are just around the corner– you just have to breathe in deep, and take the plunge.