There was only one rule handed out to a tiny group of polar bear swimmers – no swimming.
“In and out,” Maureen Kehler said.
She and a few others had gathered on the sandy banks of the Fraser River, at the Yale waterfront. For some, this Polar Bear Swim has become a tried and true annual ritual. For others, well, there’s a first time for everything.
They came loaded with large, thirsty towels, warm blankets and plush robes. A handful of supporters — family, friends and neighbours — got busy building a small fire, sheltered in the lee of a rock bluff.
Eleven swimmers — or plungers, more accurately — all stood at the top of a sandy dune staring at the gently rolling river before them. There was no doubt it would be cold, with snow on the ground just metres above this valley. The air was a cool three degrees above zero, and the wind was strong enough to push through clothing.
And then, just past noon, they all stripped down to the bare essentials — swim trunks, bikinis, oversized sunglasses.
And into the water they ran. Quickly. There were shrieks, shrills and splashes. Even a dog joined in the fun. And just like that, they were all on dry land again.
Rudy Kehler was the first one in, jumping the gun over the others by a few seconds.
He and Maureen have been coming to the Yale waterfront since 1998, and before that, it was Lake of the Woods.
A polar bear swim isn’t really a swim. It’s just a quick dip, in very frigid waters, to start off the new year. Yale’s swim typically sees somewhere between three and 20 swimmers, and starts at about noon to allow everyone to wake up from the previous night’s festivities.
And while Vancouver’s English Bay plunge attracts thousands of brave souls each New Year’s Day, the city couldn’t draw these locals away from the icy waters of the Fraser River.
There was no crowd, no mass of onlookers to cheer them into the water. Instead, there was the beautiful view of mountains all around, the flowing river and rocky outcrops.
“Look at this view,” said Brian McKinney, a first-time Polar Bear. He decked himself out with large star-shaped sunglasses and a homemade cloth diaper.
“I’m the New Year’s baby,” he joked.
His wife Tara McKinney also jumped in for the first time this year. And for her, it was no small feat. Even on holidays in tropical places like Cuba, she is known for taking a good half hour to fully submerge.
Like many others before her, McKinney said the plunge was a way to start of the new year with a fresh start.
“I just want to change the luck,” she said. “Make it a better year.”
And starting off by doing something completely out of character could hold a bit of promise, she said.
Maureen Kehler knew exactly what to expect from the icy plunge.
“It was wonderful,” she said, visibly exhilarated while warming herself by the fire.
“Best way to start the new year,” she said.
“Everything is working. Everything is alive.”
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