Island Senior| The Polar Bear Plunge

By Peggy Sue McRae

Journal contributor

Every New Year’s Day a few hearty souls will start the new year with a brave sprint into ice-cold water. In Seattle last year over 1,000 participants lined up on Alki Beach for a mad dash into Puget Sound. In other parts of the world like the Nordic countries cold-water swimming is a time-honored cultural tradition.

Here at home I recently saw a glorious photo on Facebook of my friend Trish Lehman up to her neck in the chilly waters off Jackson’s Beach! That caught my attention. I barely dipped my toe into this subject before discovering that quite a few people I know and love right here on San Juan Island are regularly dipping into our chilly waters and loving it.

Seniors, before you go cannonballing into the bay, if you are over 50 please check with your doctor before plunging into cold water. In cold water blood vessels constrict as the body forces blood from the limbs to the heart and brain. While this process releases the endorphins that make us feel happy it also places extra stress on the heart. This can be dangerous for anyone with an underlying heart condition.

A tragedy from the past serves as an illustration. One summer day in the 1960s a woman fell overboard in the harbor. A man dove in to save her. She survived but he had a heart attack and died as soon as his body hit the cold water.

If you can manage to climb over this winter’s fresh supply of driftwood without breaking a leg and get yourself into the water without having a heart attack you still need to keep in mind that hypothermia is nothing to mess with. It can happen quickly in our waters and you may not realize when it’s happening to you. Don’t do this alone and don’t stay in cold water longer than a few minutes.

Warnings aside, those devoted to the practice sing its praises. What I heard most frequently and perhaps most significantly was that brisk sea bathing can ward off depression. The word “reset” is often used to describe the immediate results. Cold water dipping is also said to be good for reducing inflammation, boosting your immune system, improving circulation, and reducing stress.

It’s been a few years since I’ve experienced the fully alive and euphoric feeling of all my cells tingling after a dunk in the Salish Sea. I have fond memories of youthful summer days building makeshift saunas on the beach out of driftwood and tarps as a counterpoint to exhilarating sea plunges. These days I need to take care of my heart. I don’t think it’s for me but if you are looking for a way to jolt yourself out of the winter blahs you might consider taking a polar bear plunge!