“Poooooooollllllllllllllllaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrr Beeeeeeeaaaaaaaaarrrrrrr,” Jason chants loudly and all eyes turn to him. “Who’s ready?” he asks, his eyes challenging each and every one of us. I glance down. Ever since my first visit to Chewonki, when I learned of these magical early morning swims, I told myself that I would do each and every one. And yet here we were, the end of the semester, and I had yet to participate in any of them. Slowly, I raised my hand, unsure of what possessed me to do so.
There are two minutes until we were due at the waterfront. Kate and I are ripping our cloths off in the dark of Gordy Hall, and reaching in our sea of cloths, searching for the synthetic fabric of our swimsuits. Neither of us can find our water shoes, and my flip-flops broke the second week of school, so we both pull on muddy converses.
We’re running down the lower field, ignoring the laughs at our attire, which consists of just bikinis, as we didn’t have time to pull on cloths on top. For some reason it doesn’t even feel cold, despite the fact that snow has piled on the ground. My blood is pounding in my ears and the air is sticking to the inside of my throat, but neither of us dares to stop.
We’ve made it. A cluster of students has just started to shed their layers, pulling towels around themselves to try and keep the warmth in. I glance down at the water, and almost scream. Ice sheets are gliding gracefully across on top of the water and I start to realize how crazy this all is. It’s December 10th, 27 degrees, but it feels like it’s 4. And we’re planning on running into the ice-covered water and dunking beneath its frigid surface. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been as bad if we were jumping off a dock, because then at least when you’re in mid-air there’s no turning back, no regrets. But running into the water offers the possibility of turning back, of running out before you can dunk your head.
Francesca, Catherine, Laura and Tyler are the first to go in. They have bravely, or in my eyes “crazily”, attended every polar bear in our semester. And they do it with style. Instead of casually walking in, they sprint, and Catherine elegantly dives under the surface and disappears momentarily. And then they’re out of the water, shivering but smiling. And I realize that Kate, Jake, Aidan and I are the closest to the stairs, which means that we will be the next group.
We’re standing in a row, feet already in the water. I clutch Kate and Aidan’s hands, shivering slightly. Kate is pumped, and makes us all raise our entwined fingers about our heads, like we’re champions. And then we run.
After two steps, my legs stop functioning and I unconsciously let go of Kate’s hand and watch as she tumbles into the black water. Aidan and I stumble in, and I hear voices shouting from above, but everything is murky in my head. My vision. My hearing. Even my feeling. But some part of me is awake enough to propel my body forward and let myself crash down.
And then I’m up, on shore. Shaking, but alive. Oh, more alive than I have ever been. My senses, which had just been muffled, are now more alert than I can ever remember. Everything is brighter, and the snow and ice reflects the light so that all I can see is rainbows of beam across my vision.
And then the cold hits. It happens when I realize I can’t feel my toes and that walking barefoot in the snow is actually more comfortable than walking in my converses, which are stiff with ice. I leave the waterfront prematurely, hearing gleeful screams as other groups as they complete their final polar bear, but I need to get warm. Soon.
I bury myself in the mountain of towels that covers the bathroom floor. I can hear Francesca and Catherine turning on the showers in the background, but I’m more concerned with wiggling my fingers and toes to the point where it feels normal. Because, while they are moving, they feel dead, like they’re not a part of me. A rush of pain spreads into my joints as my warm bloods starts to circulate properly to them again. At first it hurts so much that I curl into a ball just to keep myself from yelping in pain. But it quickly dulls, and just becomes a light throb.
“There’s no hot water!” my cabin mates complain, stepping out of the showers. No hot water… Great. Despite that, I still turn one on and rinse the salt from my hair. Even though it’s not warm, the tepid water is still warmer than how I’m feeling, and I savor it. But before long, it starts to feel cold, so I stagger out of the stall, dry off to the best of my ability, and make my way to Gordy Hall.
It’s cool in the cabin, as I strike the first match. The flame erupts and swallows the head of the match, before shrinking back to a small flare. I toss it into the crumpled newspaper. As the alight, warms spreads though me, and I close my eyes. It’s magical how the warmth mixes with wintry skin and I sink into a daze. The pain in my joints ebb away and I feel stronger, vibrant and refreshed.