I come from a latitude on this planet where I used to regularly experience temperatures in the 60s in the month of January.
And ever since I embarked on this arctic expedition some would call my undergraduate career, Lake Michigan in the wintertime has only been a beautiful but distant mass of icy gray visible from one of those pod chairs in Norbucks comfortably close to the fireplace.
But for some, it’s so much more. Every year I would hear about dozens of thrill-seeking adventurers plunging themselves into the lake, whether for a cause or just to say they had. I was intrigued but half-convinced my fragile Southern belle heart would immediately stop beating upon impact if I were to try it myself.
But as the years went on, for every time anyone from home would ask why I would elect to attend a university they had never heard of (sigh) in the distant tundra, for every time I would grit my teeth and say, “it’s really not that bad if you have the right gear,” I felt a vacuum I needed to fi ll. The Chicago winter couldn’t purely be something I tolerated; I had to truly conquer it. I had to plunge into Lake Michigan myself. NBN agreed.
How bad could it be?
The anticipation really hit hours before the plunge was to take place. I started googling how to best do a polar plunge effectively to learn best practices before throwing myself out into the unforgiving, icy waters. I found myself glossing past words like “heart attack” and “temporarily paralyzed.” (Turns out, these things only really happen if you have preexisting medical conditions.)
“You read in the press that people died of hypothermia in three or four minutes, but that’s just not the case,” an ABC News slideshow article read, quoting University of Portsmouth physiology professor Michael Tipton.
Good, I thought. An expert saying you can’t die from this.
“People dying in three or four minutes are dying of their cold shock response. They’re unable to control their breathing, aspirated water and drowned.”
Flash forward an hour, and I’m standing on the shore of the lake with two photographers, and a cohort of editors on South Beach. They all assure me that this is what I put into it. Go as fast or as slow as I want; just make sure I feel safe.
After I strip down to a tank and a pair of fl oral print swim trunks, I’ve garnered the attention of several passersby. I take off my socks, and the sand feels frigid underneath my toes. It’s time to go in.
The first few steps into the water were surprisingly tranquil. I waded a few feet into the water, dodging large clods of fragmented ice. The water itself wasn’t so bad, but I did at times feel small shards of ice nipping at my lower shins and feet.
I ran as fast as possible through the shallow water, kind of like Baywatch but dozens of degrees colder and no babes in sight. I was feeling good: could barely feel the water around me. I turned to face my supporters on the shore. They were yelling things at me but I couldn’t hear them over the water and my own heart pounding viciously. They looked incredibly far away. I picked up a chunk of ice about twice the size of my face and threw it as far as I could. I had conquered Lake Michigan.
I began wading back, but when I arrived at the sand, the tune had changed. These same people who had been questioning me minutes before, who had convinced themselves I was going to die were now unsatisfied.
“You looked unfazed.” “Your reaction wasn’t good enough.” “You have to go back in and get your torso wet.”
I had to do this right. I took a quick look at my feet to make sure all of my toes were intact and resolved to venture back out into the water. Wanting to ensure I got my torso wet without getting dangerously too far out, I dipped as low as I possibly could. It immediately felt as though my lungs shrunk to half their original size and someone had wrapped 17 girdles around my chest. I quickly turned myself around and hobbled back to shore.
I only truly understood what I had put my body through upon stepping back onto the sand (also of note, a couple who had been fi lming me before was still there and continued to take pictures for an uncomfortably long time as I put on my clothes). As I pulled my pant leg up, I lost my balance and realized I could not feel my feet. This made putting on shoes diffi cult as well, a problem I solved by stuffi ng my foot inside my sock haphazardly and my socked foot into my boot. Handling my lower extremities felt like wrapping raw meat in butcher paper.
It also took someone else to notice that there was a small stream of blood running down my leg. What was either a particularly sharp piece of ice or a freshwater sea monster had given me a battle wound (which later stopped bleeding pretty easily, and Mom, I washed and disinfected it and everything like you taught me to).
To the couple taking pictures of me putting my clothes back on, to my dear fellow editors and photographers, and honestly to many reading this, I’m just another weirdo who plunged into frigid water for no reason. But to myself, I conquered Lake Michigan, and doing so accomplished as much in the way of closure as completing my fi nal credits to graduate will.