I Took the Plunge with the Bronx Polar Bears


Photo c/o Nilka Martell

What better way to spend Valentine’s Day than by taking a frigid dip in icy water as loved ones look on in disbelief.

Every year the Bronx Polar Bears along with BronxNet, BronxWorks, and the Coney Island Polar Bears take a dip in Orchard Beach. It isn’t just for fun but to raise awareness and encourage charity to address homelessness.

For two weeks I was contemplating joining the Bronx Polar Bears for their annual plunge, especially since one of those weeks was spend in bed recovering from the flu. This would be many participants fifth time but my first…and as the days closed in, I was getting some cold feet.

“You’re crazy” and “Make sure you don’t get pneumonia” were the responses I got from family, friends, doctors, people online, and people I just met. To help with some of my hesitation I researched how to prepare for a plunge, what to wear, and what it’s like in the water.

IMG_7421While the Bronx Polar Bears co-founders Michael Max Knobbe and Valdis Freimanis and his family are seasoned professionals in this area, they do help newcomers with information and articles about preparation. Many who have taken a cold dip before have said that they actually felt colder outside of the water since the air temperature is usually a couple of degrees cooler than the water temperature. Also, many have suggested that they found it easier to ‘rush the water’ instead of slowly wadding in and that neoprene booties and gloves help to contain body heat so that feet don’t feel like frozen blocks. Because the water is still so cold, people will usually let out a ‘gasp’ as their heartbeat increases suddenly.

Maybe I wasn’t really prepared, but then I realized that I was starting to lose the point of this dip.

BronxNet and BronxWorks partnered up for this event to encourage donations that would go towards those who need it. BronxWorks is a Bronx based settlement house that works with groups belonging to different socioeconomic levels to improve their well-being. As part of this mission, BronxWorks has a homeless outreach team that will make contact with homeless people in order to help them get into temporary housing. They continue to help until permanent housing and financial assistance is found.

Before the 14th people had the chance to bring new socks, gloves, scarves, coats, and other items to several drop off20150214-IMG_7428 points or on the day of the dip. That’s when I decided to not just participate but to use this opportunity to represent another organization known for helping homeless veterans, Devil Dog USA, Inc. As the only Bronx non-profit whose mission is to aid in the civilian transition process and combat homelessness among veterans, it only seemed fitting to raise awareness about that too. After getting the organization flag and Gonzalo Duran’s blessing, I had everything I needed.

The morning of the plunge was gray and cloudy with the air temperature around 25 degrees. Despite the cold, a growing number of spectators showed up. “We are celebrating winter culture in the Bronx as well as health and fitness together but also raising awareness of homelessness.” said executive director of BronxNet, Michael Max Knobbe.

Taking a different perspective of the day’s event was culinary ambassador of the Bronx, Baron Ambrosia. Ambrosia compared the dip to a right of passage ritual and as a challenge that makes the person stronger, “Putting our bodies and brains through challenges makes us stronger. When you are out there and feeling it, you’re going to learn something. If you were in a bad situation, like falling through ice, this would be nothing new to you. I give everyone credit who came out today to go through this.”

Luckily, there were volunteers and vendors to lend a hand in this process. Vendors like Chef Michael Sherman who made a fennel soup with calabrian pepper oil and a Russian style boursch prepared by Julia Tsougranis. Beloved Morris Perk was also on hand with hot coffee and cider to warm up swimmers as they got out of the frigid water.

It was announced that the air temperature was about 25 degrees with the water temperature being 22 degrees. After stripping down to a bathing suit top and leggings we all did a few jumping jacks as nervousness washed over me. “Just accept that the water is cold, you can’t control it.” said my friend Twahira. Best advice yet.

Video from Annie Boller:

In a chaotic rush of people entering the water the cold was actually refreshing at first. Almost immediately, my feet became numb and felt like ice blocks but I continued wadding in the water trying to avoid the ice. Other than my feet, the rest of my body seemed to acclimate to the water temperature. About hip-high into the Long Island Sound, and after posing for a few pictures, I made a speedy exit.

11001815_10153772777264657_3627592153716215629_nMany plungers came out of the water with their legs bleeding from the sharp ice but their smile never wavered. It took about 30 minutes for me to gain any feeling in my feet again and more than an hour to really feel warm but it was, oddly, an absolute blast. I would do it again.

Reflecting afterwards, I realized this plunge had multiple lessons to offer. Feeling nervous, being cold, having uncomfortably numb feet was all my doing that day; I choose to go into the icy water. But there are people who do not choose to spend their days and nights outside in the cold. The nervousness I felt before entering the water must not compare to what homeless people, or those struggling with housing, feel when they know that they will be spending the night outside. This dip served as a reminder to my privilege of having a place to go and of having a home.

Donations can be made to BronxWorks at BronxNet’s location on Lehman College until February 27th or at bronxworks.org.

Special thanks to the FDNY Battalion 15/Ladder 61, the lifeguards, and the Parks Department (especially for the heated bathrooms). Also thank you to Trevon Blondet of Black Blonde Images and Nilka Martell for the pictures and Bronx Chronicle Associate Editor, Annie Boller for filming the event.

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