One New Year’s tradition I look forward to each year is the Polar Bear Swim.
Cancelled three of the last four years due to safety precautions, I had high hopes because of a mild start to the winter and calm conditions the day before at Simmons Island Beach House, 5001 Simmons Island Road.
The New Year’s forecast called for afternoon snow. When I arrived around 9 a.m., the snow from the previous day had melted, but a strong north wind (16 mph) made the 31-degree temperature feel like 19.
According to seatemperature.info, Lake Michigan was 42.8 degrees, the highest Jan. 1 temperature in the last 10 years. The closer I got to the lake, the bigger the waves appeared.
Kenosha County Scout Leaders Rescue Squad Dive Team divemaster Brian Vaccaro determined conditions — including high waves and dangerous undertow — were too treacherous to allow people in the water.
Brian’s father, Dan Vaccaro, affectionately known in the community as “Diver Dan,” has organized the event for the past 54 years. Dan Vaccaro concurred with Brian’s assessment and officially cancelled the event for the fourth time in five years.
Dan told me that the Polar Bear Swim in Kenosha started back in the late 1960s when he was a member of the local Explorer Scout Group. The Explorer Scouts started Lake Michigan plunge events to raise funds for its organization.
The scouts would find pledges to raise money, based on how many minutes they could stay in the cold water. He said some of the scout leaders were also members of the Midwest Amphibians, which was a diving organization associated with the Polar Bear Club of Milwaukee.
Dan Vaccaro said the Midwest Amphibians officially brought the New Year’s Day Polar Bear Swim to Kenosha in 1966.
Dan took over from his scout leader Jerry Bernhoff in 1969 and has organized the event ever since. He said the event really grew from the initial fundraiser because people would show up to watch and eventually asked to participate.
Since it was a public beach, anyone could join in on the fun. And they’ve been showing up ever since.
Dan, 70, hasn’t dipped a toe in the frigid water in years. He credited Brian for picking up the reins and taking more responsibility of the event. Brian provides divers as well as emergency services through the Scout Leader Rescue Squad.
The Dive Team remained in the area well after the event was cancelled.
“We stay because you can’t stop someone from going in, but you can inform them the event was cancelled and discourage them from going in the water,” Brian Vaccaro said. “We’re all about safety.”
There can be dangers associated with cold water immersion. People with heart conditions or poor health are discouraged from participating because the heart is put under greater stress than normal when immersed in cold water.
The heart and body have to work harder just to keep everything warm. Most participants in these events run into the water and then turn around and make their way back to shore which is perfectly fine for a healthy individual.
Some people may take unnecessary risks or overestimate their physical wellness.
There are a variety of reasons that people participate in these events. Some participate as a means of solidarity to pay tribute to people who have influenced them in their lives or who have passed on.
Some do it for spiritual or mental health reasons due to the clarity the experience is said to give the senses. Others do it for health reasons, which might seem contradictory but does have some science behind it.
It’s been published in medical studies that there are both mental and physical benefits derived from cold-water swimming or submersion.
These studies have confirmed that even a cold shower can elevate the amount of mood regulating and painkilling hormones in the bloodstream. These are the body’s own naturally occurring chemicals that have been proven essential in combating depression.
Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder, a mood disorder common in the most northern latitudes where sunlight can be scarce during the winter months.
This may actually be the reason for why Nordic cultures have incorporated traditions like ice swimming into their annual traditions. There are also many wellness spas around the world that have embraced the Nordic regimen of taking a hot sauna followed by an ice-water plunge.
While there is a certain degree of bravado involved in the ritual, it does require a great deal of fortitude too. Believe it or not, there are many regular ice-water swimmers out there that state the thrill of the chill increases their energy levels and definitely sharpens the mind.
It’s a proven fact that a dip in cold water will boost a person’s hormone production in a way that adds an edge to a person’s fertility and libido. The benefits of increased libido include many positive attributes like having more confidence, a higher degree of self-esteem and an enhanced mood.
Kenosha’s Shay Majors has participated in the Polar Bear Swim over a dozen times and wasn’t about to let a few waves stop him in 2022.
Majors said he woke up and heard the wind howling and forced himself to go. He said it’s a motivational thing and challenged himself in the past to keep it up consecutively as many times as possible.
Shay live-streamed his plunge into the water to wash away 2021 and offer a new start for 2022.
I commend him for sticking to his convictions, but hope Mother Nature cooperates with Kenosha and lets us continue with the annual tradition next year.
Hopefully this article will also spark new interest and we see even more swimmers. See you all next year.
Happy New Year, everyone!