Pages from the Arctic Archive IV

When I was in college at the University of Chicago, there was a tradition to do the polar plunge on the first day of the winter quarter. What is the polar plunge, you may ask? It’s a completely torturous experience in which you jump into the freezing cold waters of Lake Michigan, surrounded by the bitterly cold winds of the early morning and mounds of snow. Obviously, as a completely sane person in my college years, I refused to partake.

And then, many years later, I went to Antarctica, where we lived on a boat during our trip (because, of course, penguins aren’t great at building human sized hotels). Besides the opportunities to see penguins everywhere and whales and seals and such, one of the activities was the polar plunge. Only now, instead of jumping into the freezing cold waters of Lake Michigan, I could jump into the freezinger waters of the Antarctic Ocean. And so, being the completely sane person that I am, I said of course! It was a once in a lifetime opportunity! When else was I going to go to Antarctica?

And many years after that, I ended up in the Arctic, and again, the topic of the polar plunge came up. So on a crisp, cold, sunny day, I, still being of completely sound mind, once again jumped into the very freezing waters, this time on the opposite side of the world. I had to complete my set, after all!

The polar plunge is not an experience I would do in slightly warmer waters. And yet, somehow, I’m perfectly comfortable doing it in the cold waters in the world. It is so cold, that despite me already holding my breath, I lose the ability to breath the moment I hit the water. My lungs feel like they’ve seized up, and there’s a moment, when I’m drifting underwater, that everything stops. All movement, all thought, all function. And then my head breaks the surface and I gasp for air, filling up my lungs in a way that is so breathless, nothing like I’ve ever needed to do before, and I was holding my breath for 10 years as a synchronized swimmer.

Once I’m out of the water, despite my mother’s best attempts to warm me back up immediately and insistence that I’m going to freeze or get sick, none of me is cold. There’s no desire to jump into a towel or a hot shower. It’s as if my body needs to recalibrate back to normal (albeit cold) temperatures. Everyone around me is in coats and hats and scarves, and I don’t need any of that, even though I’m the first one to complain about being cold. Warmth and hot almost burns. It’s almost like pouring hot water over frozen glass.

Would I do it again? Now that I’ve completed my set, maybe, I don’t know. I still wouldn’t do it anywhere else, I don’t think. There’s something special about doing the polar plunge in the opposite ends of the world, and I think I’d like to keep it that way.

And spoiler alert: I did not, in fact, get sick or freeze after not jumping in the shower right away. If there is a next time, it’ll have to be without my mother around so I can actually enjoy the aftermath of the adventure.

From the polar plunge back in Antarctica. Sadly I have no good photos from the Arctic trip!