I did the 2015 Toronto Polar bear dip, and lived to tell this tale

I had missed hearing the countdown. The people in front of me just started charging into the waters of Lake Ontario. In the chaos of excited participants, wind, bare skin, and a belated realization that we should move closer to where T would be trying to take photographs, the countdown didn’t even register with me. My buddy A and I exchanged a look, and followed on in. The Toronto polar bear dip of 2015 was on.

Why did I do it?

It’s early December. I log into email after the girls have gone to bed. Within moments I get a message from A.


And sure enough, I registered for the dip online right then and there.

“Good heavens,” you’re thinking, “Why on EARTH would you voluntarily do THAT? That’s just CRAZY.” These are all fair statements. I’m actually still not exactly sure why I said yes so readily, as you can see he didn’t have to work very hard to persuade me. Yes we would be raising money for Habitat for Humanity of GTA, but to be honest that wasn’t my primary motivation. Perhaps it was because I was in a whimsical mood. Or some part of me wanted to partake in the closest thing to an extreme sport (i.e. some physical activity that people look at and say, “That’s crazy.”) that I’ll ever get. Maybe I wanted to really wake myself up on New Year’s, physically and spiritually, to reenergize my efforts to transition into my next career. Perhaps I just wanted to prove to myself and others of my roots surviving Manitoba winters and that I really am this brave…and foolish.

Whatever the reason, once I did, I felt this compulsion to keep my word and not bail out of the commitment. Even as the weather forecast turned against our favour.

The leadup

The anxiety was building in the days and minutes leading up to the dip. Nervous laughter frequently escaped my mouth.

  • New Year’s Eve
    • The weather forecast calls for a high of -4°C and winds gusting to 50kph.
    • After the clock strikes in the new year, I listen to those gusts of wind shaking the trees and buffeting the roof. An anxious knot grows in my stomach and I can’t stop laughing from nervousness.
  • Morning of the dip at 9am. Current temperature: -8°C.
    • T: “Whoo! Look at that wind out there!” Looks over at me and starts giggling.
    • E2, affecting the same tone in my voice when I’m warning her about foolish behaviour: “Mommy, it’s cold out there. Are you *sure* you really want to do this?”
    • E1: “”I’m going to tell my friends all about it, my mommy is CRAZY!”
  • Minutes before the dip. Current temperature: -3°C, wind gusts 46kph, windchill feels like -15°C.weather_sign_Jan1
    • Me, while driving to Sunnyside park: “Those are whitecaps I see on Lake Ontario, aren’t they?!”
    • Me, walking from the parking lot to the beach: “There is ICE on the shore!! OMG!”
    • T: “I don’t understand your motivation for doing this, but I’m proud of you honey. You are going to be fine!”
    • Kids: “It’s COLD!! My face is COLD!!”
Here I am willing my body to remember this is nothing compared to Winnipeg winters.

As I’m disrobing down to my bikini, the lyrics of Things I Know Now from the musical Into the Woods rattle in my head, “And he made me feel excited—well, excited and scared.”

A and I gave each other an excited hug and got a muffled sendoff from our families as we headed toward the dip corral zone to join our fellow 600 participants.

The dip – Jan 1, 2015 – noon

Within two steps into the lake the icy fingers of water immediately started leeching all the heat from my the feet. Everyone is doing these ridiculous steps in the water, both high-kneed and rapid, trying to get in to their arbitrary depth of water to satisfy their self-designed missions. All the while I’m pretty sure I’m emitting these high-pitched squeals and “ahhs”. Perhaps my subconsious was trying to help me achieve zen with the cold with some forceful breathing.

Though I don’t trust my concept of time at all, 10 seconds later we are nearly in up to our hips. A and I look at one another again. Did we do a mini-countdown of 3? I don’t remember. We just somehow managed to simultaneously plunge our bodies down into the water to our shoulders.

It feels exactly the way you think it might feel. An immediate sucking of the heat from your body, in a way that makes you gasp. But that doesn’t compare to the needles of pain when you stand up out of the water and the wind buffets your bare, wet skin.

Time to get the heck out of dodge. There will be no faking of a pleasure swim for photo ops, or challenging some unknown soul for a long duration in the water. We repeat our high-kneed steps back toward the shore, this time more tentatively as the loss of feeling in our feet and legs have made us unsteady in our balance.

getting_out getting_out_closeup

Aneil is slowed by the loss of one of his sport sandals. I abandon him to save myself. I don’t even care where T is with the camera at this point or whether he got any good photos of me as “proof” I did this crazy thing. Self-preservation is what I had in mind now.

We were in the water for probably 20 to 25 seconds, although my concept of time during the dip is likely suspect. Thankfully through the preparation advice from A, we planned well, and I didn’t end up a chattering, hypothermic ice cube. I brought a polar fleece bathrobe to put on immediately. My skimpy bikini meant I did not have much cold water clinging to me, and it was easy to dry and take off. My camping booties that are easily slipped into so my feet could start it’s long thawing process ASAP. Those hot pockets started to warm up my numb hands. Two minutes after putting on my robe I actually felt pretty decent, numb toes notwithstanding. In fact, I felt pretty exhilarated that I didn’t chicken out. A and I were laughing.

We packed up quickly as all three kids were whining about being cold in the wind. We headed back to A’s house for a celebratory chilli lunch and to finish thawing out.

Will I do it again?

My mom: “So, how do you feel? Are you ok?”

Me: “Yeah! It was as I expected, but I prepared well so I was ok afterwards.”

My mom: “Hmm. Ok. See, I didn’t donate to you right away because I didn’t want to encourage you in this crazy thing. I hope you don’t get sick. Doing something like this is probably going to make you sick. I have some good cough remedy if you start getting a sore throat, let me know, ok? You aren’t going to do it again next year, are you?”

Good question, Mom. I’ve been mulling that over too. Our fundraising team of 2 ended up collecting the 3rd highest of all the teams, so that’s a great feeling to support Habitat for Humanity. And I feel such great camaraderie with A, it’s great that we now have this added to our shared adventures to look back on in the future.

Sohappy_smiles_after in the spirit of saying “yes” to being open to adventurous experiences, yes, I would do it again. As long as my buddy A signs up first. 🙂


4 thoughts on “I did the 2015 Toronto Polar bear dip, and lived to tell this tale”

  1. Congrats on checking this off your bucket list! Looked like… fun…??? lol. Great job with the fotos, T!

  2. J, I’ve bookmarked the site… will let you know as soon as sign up is available. Let’s grow Team SkyBus! We can totally be the top fundraising team in this thing!!! And next year, we’ll stay in the water longer. And some day in the future, E1, E2 and D will join us…

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