Shivering at One-Mile
CN&R writer takes the plunge on New Year’s Day
The moment a person is immersed in cold water the body responds with an involuntary inhalation, a mad gasp for air immediately followed by shallow, rapid panting to compensate for the body’s inability to hold breath.
Blood vessels constrict to save heat, causing a spike in blood pressure, and blood rushes from the body’s extremities to its core, leading to weak, numb limbs and a lack of motor coordination. If immersed too long, hypothermia sets in, which can cause a person to stop breathing entirely, or his or her heart to stop beating.
At least that’s what numerous Internet sites warning against cold-water swimming proclaim.
This information, of course, did nothing to stop hundreds of people from plunging into Sycamore Pool at the One-Mile Recreation Area for Chico’s traditional Polar Bear Plunge at 1 p.m. on New Year’s Day.
The event has been happening—without the benefit of official organizers or much pre-publicity—since at least 1981. It is a grassroots, homegrown event that continues to grow annually, fueled by word of mouth and YouTube videos of past plunges depicting waves of humanity crashing into the icy waters of Big Chico Creek.
I decided this, my third New Year’s Day in Chico, should be the occasion to finally make the leap. Website warnings be damned, there are no bragging rights to be won from something if there isn’t at least a slight chance of death or real bodily harm involved. Besides, my research revealed very few medical incidents associated with earning polar bear status. What’s the worst that could happen? Oh yeah, that whole heart-stopping thing.
This year’s event was both blessed and cursed with clear skies and sunshine. On the upside, it brought people out in droves and made for a beautiful day at the park. On the downside, the lack of cloud cover made for a particularly chilly afternoon, with the temperature hovering around 43 degrees and the high winter sun offering little warming relief.
The park was packed with an incongruous mix of scantily clad swimmers shivering as they made their way to the jumping-in point at the north side of the pool and others bundled in winter wear settling on the south side. Hoots and hollers from both camps were audible, and a palpable sense of anticipation filled the air. Crossing the One-Mile bridge felt something like rushing into a fire, a steady stream of brave men and women edging toward glory as an alternate stream of onlookers headed for the opposite shore.
Despite the park’s strict no-alcohol policy, a fair number of flasks and small bottles were being passed surreptitiously among the revelers.
I pushed through the crowd and was fortunate to find a small group of friends clustered near the creek’s concrete edge. Knowing some of them had participated before, I fished for some advice. They had none to offer. “Once you hit the water, all bets are off,” my friend Ryan told me.
Much of the crowd near us began bouncing in unison in an effort to stay warm. Some college-age women kept their coats and sweat pants on until the last possible minute, then shed them quickly, revealing two-piece bathing suits.
“If my legs don’t work and I can’t jump, pull me in,” I overheard one woman tell her friends.
Then, with no countdown or fanfare, I heard the first splash, which instantly grew to a constant roar of bodies hitting water. The crowd surged forward, and without a second thought I followed.
That gasp came the second my body hit the 40-degree water, and I think my heart may have stopped for half a second. I thought to myself, “This isn’t so bad,” but only for a moment.
My logical mind told me swimming would be the fastest way across, but my body wouldn’t respond. Instead I half-hopped, half-dog-paddled through the frigid water. The occasional expletive rang out over the laughter and shouts of mostly smiling swimmers, though some grimaced as if they were being boiled alive.
Everyone was smiling on the south shore, where I stood giggling and shivering in wet trunks. I was physically invigorated, but the plunge did even more for the soul. I felt a bond with my fellow swimmers, camaraderie with perfect strangers born of a shared, intense and singularly Chico experience.