January 2, 2013

A piercing plunge

Daily Citizen photographer shares her experience of jumping into a frigid lake on New Year’s Day

Misty Watson

— There was a moment of “What did I get myself into?”

Followed by, “Oh my gosh! I’m not going to make it and someone is going to have to save me!”

And there we were, about 45 of us, swimming in the lake on Fort Mountain participating in the inaugural Black Bear Plunge, which organizers promise is going to become an annual event. The event was organized and sponsored by Fort Mountain State Park.

Time slowed down. Every movement was intentional. Every breath was thought out and forced. My chest was getting tighter. I raised my arm to take a stroke, and yet it didn’t seem to get me closer to my destination.

“Focus and breathe,” I told myself. “Hyperventilating isn’t going to help you. Deep breath.”

I finally reached out and touched that yellow line — the line organizers said “counted.”

I looked over and my lifelong friend Melinda Flood was still by my side as we turned to swim back to shore, towels, dry clothes and warm drinks.

Someone checked the water temperature and reported it was 39 degrees. A thermometer my friend Erik Gallman (who owns Fiddleheads Garden Center on Walnut Avenue) lent me for the occasion read around 46 degrees for the air temperature.

I’m still not sure what possessed me to jump in a mountain lake in a swimsuit at 10 a.m. on New Year’s Day. I’ve always said if there was a Polar Bear Club around here, I would participate. So I did.

I’m just glad I wasn’t alone in my desire to temporarily, voluntarily become an iceberg!

“We do anything crazy,” said Debbie Blakely, 44, of Ringgold. She and her friend, Suzi Gass, and some of their friends had come to participate.

It was refreshing and exhilarating, and there was a whole lot of laughing.

“We’ll definitely be back next year,” Blakely said. “I thought if I stopped I would literally freeze.”

Gass said it was an “awesome” experience.

“It was literally breath-taking,” she said.

That seemed to be a description everyone could relate to. The cold water took your breath away and tightened your chest.

Melinda, who works for the state park, grabbed my hand at the start and we took off running through the sand on the beach. I paused momentarily to yell to my husband, Chris Wheeler, who was playing photographer for me so I could participate. The first few steps didn’t seem so bad, but then as we got deeper, movement slowed down. My body went numb. I couldn’t tell if I was kicking or not.

After turning back for shore, we seemed a long way from the beach. The water was too deep to walk through and swimming was difficult.

“It was harder than I thought it was going to be,” Melinda said after we got dry clothes on. “I’m glad I did it. I hope we can continue to do this each year.”

The idea for the plunge came about as state park employees were trying to plan at least one event for each month of the year, Melinda said.

“I started looking for something we could do in January and February and ran across the Polar Bear Club,” she said.

She checked at the state level to make sure there would be no problems hosting the plunge and found out one other state park allowed a group to host a similar event, but none had planned one.

Bob Spear, the part-time naturalist at Fort Mountain State Park, once participated in the Polar Bear Club on Lake Michigan.

“I only did it once,” Spear said. “It was in 1985. There must have been a thousand people there. Someone was on a bullhorn and said ‘On your mark, get set, go!’ and everyone went running. I ran down there, dove in, came up and was freezing. It was 28 degrees outside. I came out and ran to the car.”

Members of the Polar Bear Club take their annual dive seriously, Spear said.

“They were out there swimming,” he said. “I would have been more involved, but I didn’t live there long enough to do it more than once.”

On Tuesday, Spear gave the instructions to participants. He said it didn’t “count” unless you swam out to the yellow line that separates the swimming area from the boating and fishing area of the lake.

Spear led the charge to the lake but only waded in to his thighs.

“I’m a coward,” he said laughing. “Being 72, I didn’t want to take any chances.”

Bea de la Puente, 15, a foreign exchange student from Spain at Murray County High School, said no one where she lives does this sort of thing.

“I loved it,” she said. “I really loved it. It’s a great experience to tell people in Spain about.”

Kim Curtis, 35, a member of de la Puente’s host family in Murray County, said she wanted to participate to “make memories.”

“I thought it was wonderful,” she said. “We’ve been so excited. We’ll come back next year.”

I didn’t talk to a single person today who regretted their decision to swim in the lake. Are we crazy? Maybe.

But there’s no doubt in my mind I’ll be back next year (as long as I’m healthy and physically able). There can’t be many more exhilarating ways to begin a new year.