Polar bears numb stress in chilly Green River

It’s 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and you’re in the library working on that problem set or English essay. Glance outside, and it’s pitch black; you can’t see the frozen cracked ground of our beloved campus that may or may not be coated in snow. Instead of clicking absently through your friend’s new Facebook album while taking a “study break,” you could be plodding down past the power plant to the Green River, on your way to a numbing, jangling, toe-tingling experience: the winter polar bear swim.

If you’re a WOC member, you’ve definitely skimmed over that weekly email: “Polar bear swim, come for a refreshing dip!” But how many people have actually peeled off their clothes in Berkshire winter temperatures and taken the plunge? Abby Martin ’11, the treasurer and naturalist of WOC, has only missed 10 polar bear swims in her three years at Williams. “Polar bear swims in the winter are the best study breaks ever,” Martin said. “I’m most efficient homework-wise during the winter.” The greatest number who have ever gone on the swim in the winter to experience its miraculous impact on study efficiency was a whopping crowd of 40 during Winter Carnival last year.

So the polar bear swim is the equivalent of a cup, or perhaps a few large cups, of coffee in the middle of Tuesday night. It’s a wakeup call for obvious reasons: The sheer frigid temperatures shock swimmers out of any library-induced stupor. Fiona Wilkes ’12, whose name you might have seen listed as the contact for the polar bear swim (because of the steel-like intensity she brings to each outing), revealed the measures to which the polar bears sometimes resort in frigid weather. “It’s always memorable when we have to bring out the ice axe to break off chunks of ice from the river,” Wilkes said. The plungers have also had to resort to other special outdoorsy methods. “We bring sleeping pads, lay them out and stand on them – otherwise, our feet would freeze into the snow,” Martin said.

While a large part of polar bear swims revolves around nakedness, an absence of clothing is particularly important in winter polar bear swims, because clothes are cold and wet afterwards. The nakedness, it cannot be denied, is also just inherently fun. “The reason we all get naked is it’s way more comfortable,” Wilkes said. “We embrace nudity.” Groups each week vary drastically in terms of boy-girl ratios, so one week a bunch of girls could be dipping naked together, and the next week one boy and one girl could find themselves on an unexpected skinny-dipping date for two. “I’ve been on two person polar bear swims with guys, and that’s kind of fun,” Martin said.

The dark inky rural nights in Williamstown, it seems, should allow the naked polar bears sufficient privacy, but this is not always so, according to Lindsay Olsen ’12, who is officially in charge of the “Wilderness Pleasure” part of WOC. “Sometimes there’s this light that’s up by Water Street that makes everything really bright, especially in the winter when there’s white reflective snow and no foliage,” Olsen said. “So often it’s not as dark as would be optimal.” And, of course, there was that polar bear swim on Mountain Day – yes, that would be during the daytime – that blatantly disregarded any petty worries about nudity. “Keeping with our Siberian theme, we did a polar bear swim in the sunlight,” Martin said. “And there was roadwork being done on the bridge right next to the river, right next to us.”

After the adventurous polar bears strip off their clothes in freezing temperatures, they must take part in the traditional polar bear swim chant: “In, in, in we go, in through the ice and snow, even when it’s 10 below, because we’re polar bears!” Chris Sheahan ’13, a newbie to the polar bear swim who decided to venture in with the aforementioned regular WOC swimmers and a group of his entry-mates, was surprised by the chant. “I knew I would be naked and everything like that, but I didn’t know we would stand and chant while we were naked,” Shehan said. He went in the first place because he was just “really feeling it,” and the chant actually heightened his experience. “I felt great! I had such a good time,” he said.

The actual process of entering the water can sometimes be quite challenging when the river is frozen. “When there’s ice, you have to sort of force your body into the river,” Olsen said. “But first you have to gingerly step across other ice, because you don’t know if it will hold your weight.” Likewise, Sheahan remembered having to work hard to cover his body in water. “We went to a shallow part and tried to flop around in the water,” Sheahan said.

Of course, to mix things up there is always the 10-second challenge, in which people try to stay in the river for 10 seconds. Then there is the multiple-round contest. “When people are really hard-core, we have several rounds,” Martin said. “People will run in, people will say ‘round 2’ and run back in, and, ‘round 3’ and run back in.” During the process of immersing one’s body in water “screaming is generally considered good,” Olsen said.

The extreme cold temperatures of the Green River threaten to immediately give any Eph – resilient or not – hypothermia in the winter. Of course, every polar bear takes careful measures to stay warm, like immediately donning socks and hats and sipping from cups of hot chocolate. For most, however, polar bear swims ironically seem to warm them up. “You actually feel very warm when you get out because of the difference between the water and the air temperature,” Martin said. “It’s kind of like [the opposite of] going into a sauna and coming back out.” Kevin Lawkins ’13 agreed that the temperature wasn’t too bad. “Yeah, it was cold, but it was a great feeling,” Lawkins said. Wilkes admitted, however, that her hair has definitely frozen after swimming. And sometimes, Wilkes gets so cold that she loses control of her mouth. “I start saying things that are really weird,” she said.

Whether you’re an adventurous and curious first-year or a seasoned hardcore wilderness pro, the winter polar bear swim is probably worth a try, in these last days of the season or in the bleak midwinter next year. Mull over your Tuesday night plans: working on your lab report versus plunging into a stimulating icy adrenaline rush. “It is definitely something everyone should experience before leaving Williams,” Martin said. “It’s an adventure that’s always fun as long as you have warm socks and a hat.”

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