We were Cold, We were Numb – and It Was Really, Really Fun

So, we’ve turned the page to 2017, and I hope your first week back in the office was great – and that you enjoyed marking the New Year.

With many cities and countries experiencing cooler than typical winters (did you see images of Vatican fountains with frozen water?), I thought I’d share with you the New Year’s Day tradition we’ve now maintained for five years. Unlike many sane people, we tear ourselves away from our cozy living room in order to run screaming into the waters of English Bay. We usually do this with a couple of thousand other Crazy Canucks.


Here’s a look at English Bay earlier this week. After a soggy Fall, Vancouver has had more than a few breathtakingly beautiful Winter days such as this one.

That wasn’t the situation, however, on New Year’s Day. To add insult to injury, there was actually a light layer of snow on the beach. This just doesn’t happen (at least not typically) in Vancouver.


The land temperature was 2 degrees Celsius (35 F), and it was a balmy 7 degrees Celsius (not quite 45 F) in the waters of English Bay. We wore costumes for our first Polar Bear Swim, but now head to the beach dressed in plenty of loose layers. What about other people? Well, you can see me here pre-dip with a reindeer, a polar bear and a small colony of friendly penguins.

No. We didn’t know each other, but people who are willing to hang around in these cold temperatures for the privilege of racing into the water aren’t likely to be awfully reserved.


Take these faux sumo wrestlers, for example. The costumes are half the fun. We dressed up our first year, and then I learned from a colleague the next week that a photo of us emerging from the bay had made it into more than one newspaper. The past four years, we’ve stuck to bathing suits or other gear that can be more quickly removed once you’ve return to soggy sand.

Watching the Brave - 2017 Polar Bear Swim Copyright Shelagh Donnelly

This year marked the 97th annual Polar Bear Swim at English Bay, and you can count on crowds waiting to watch the zany, costumed or not. I think that there were actually fewer observers this year than in past, milder winters. In any case, these people had no intention of doing anything so crazy as exposing themselves to cold water. Ready to cheer on we loonies, these people remained bundled beachside, above us on the street, and in the comfort of nearby restaurants and condos, where they could enjoy the show.

2017 Polar Bear Swim Vikings Copyright Shelagh Donnelly

Some even got in on the fun by posing for photos with Vikings …


…or providing moral support and having dry clothes at the ready. The trick is to stay covered up and warm as long as you can, and then strip down as close to the 2:30 start time as possible. We pile our bags, towels and dry clothing together, mark the spot, and then make the mad dash (which can be a relative term) for the water.

Changing Post-Polar Bear Dip Copyright Shelagh Donnelly

This is not an endurance event! You don’t have to stay in long; the idea is to get wet and get out. Post-dip, people scramble out of the water and back on the sand for a quick, communal change back to dry clothes.


I think this may have been our coldest Polar Bear swim of the past five years, but it’s a New Year’s tradition I’m glad to maintain. There are loads of laughs, and – if you bring a donation for the food bank – you can warm up pretty quickly after drying off by making your way to the waterfront Cactus Club restaurant. There, a gracious crew is ready with friendly smiles and steaming hot chocolate in exchange for donations.

Shelagh's 2017 Polar Bear Pin Copyright Shelagh Donnelly

Besides, look at the great badge collection I’m building!


However you chose to mark the outset of 2017, here’s hoping you make this year a great one.

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