January 7, 2014

Mark Millican: Plunging into the New Year

As we drove up the mountain I again asked myself, “Are you nuts? What was going through your mind when you pre-registered for this thing?” Sound thinking goes hitchhiking when one falls into the pool of impetuousness, I lamented.

The Black Bear Plunge awaited atop Fort Mountain, a thrill-seeking venture in its second year which some would indeed label crazy since it involves jumping into an ice cold lake at 3,700 feet in elevation in the throes of wintertime.

Last year bronchitis kept me from this longtime quest of doing the “polar bear thing” on a New Year’s Day, and then just after Christmas a couple of weeks ago I was kinda hoping a scratchy throat signaling a relapse would reappear.

But no such luck. Intentionally, I had not told any friends or colleagues of my plan to plunge — just in case I weenied out at the last minute. And even though my wife Teresa would likely have been pleased I turned down a dang good chance at double pneumonia to start 2014, let’s just say there was some male ego at stake in regard to showing my girl I could still “do hard things,” as we tell our grandsons they can do when they excel at something out of the ordinary.

Besides, how could I ever regale the lads with my heroics if they didn’t see me wearing a T-shirt with a bear on it?

But that was the farthest thing from my mind as I skinned down to my Hawaiian-style bathing suit on the beach in 30-degree weather. Looking around me, I took cold comfort in the presence of around three dozen other maniacs doing the same thing. I swung my arms back and forth, trying in vain to warm up as a breeze stiffened.

The senior ranger giving us instructions mentioned he’d done the same thing as a young man up north, where one would assume true insanity involved having to chop a hole in a frozen lake just to get to the water. I was breathing a silent prayer of thanks upon spying a couple of Murray County EMS ambulances on the scene. Then I thought of a line from “Watching the Detectives,” and old Elvis Costello song: “She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.”

I looked at my wife. She had a camera pointed straight at me.

Suddenly the ranger blew the whistle, and like doomed lemmings we dashed for the lake. I splashed through the shallows three or four steps and dove in, the water so cold it felt like my skin had been ignited by flames. I surfaced and in my last moment of sane thinking, said to myself, “Glad that’s over — get outta here!”

But wait. There were a couple of young guys nearby swimming out to some bright yellow pylons that marked the limits of the swimming area. So that’s how you prove your manhood in this thing. Not taking any chances at being called a weeny boy back on the beach, I turned to join them in a mad splash to the pylons several yards away.

It was then I noticed my rapid breathing was conjuring up a severe headache, and after a few strokes I wondered if I had enough strength to make it. Finally, I was able to grab the pylon, hold on and gulp in frigid oxygen.

Momentarily peering around, I wondered why there were no rescue divers in scuba gear like you sometimes see in a triathlon.

“There are none, you idiot,” I thought, “and if you hang on much longer you’re going to die of hypothermia.”

I stroked back as the headache increased and was able to trudge out of the lake. Grabbing a couple of towels to dry off, I had to lean against the stone wall that served as a beachhead because of my disorientation and imbalance. Trying to breathe deeply yet normally, I threw on a jacket, pulled a watch camp onto my head, grabbed some dry clothes and stumbled toward the men’s shower room nearby — which, thank the Lord, was heated.

As Teresa was driving us down the mountain on the Chatsworth side, all I could focus on was finding some hot coffee, then sitting down to those black-eyed peas my mom had promised us for lunch.

My thoughtful wife kept asking me what it was like, probably figuring she had to draw me back into the world of the sane, and I had trouble describing it. In fact, I could hardly speak at all. But inside I was thinking, how could I get better prepared for the Black Bear Plunge in 2015?

Yes, I ... truly ... had ... gone nuts.

Mark Millican is a former Daily Citizen staff writer and is editor of the Times-Courier in Ellijay.

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