Where people swam on Sunday, they skated on Thursday.
The big freeze was on its way on New Year’s Eve but Hope’s polar bear swim organizer, Brian McKinney thought the swim would still be okay.
“When I went there the night before, there was a light slush,” said McKinney last Monday. “I even threw snowballs through it. Last year, there had only been a light skim of ice at the dock.”
Things changed by Sunday, Jan. 1, morning and what still looked like slush had turned solid. McKinney led the countdown on his megaphone and veteran polar bear swimmer Miranda Cowan led the charge into the lake.
“There was a kind of a path into the water but I knew we couldn’t all go to the same spot,” she said. She headed a bit to the right, where it still “looked like slush.”
Cowan’s first few steps told her different.
“It was a couple of inches thick and I didn’t realize I had cut my legs until we got back up to the car. I thought they were just hurting because of the cold.”
Not knowing about the numerous small cuts, Cowan took a belly-flop plunge onto the ice — cracked through — and began an almost-immediate retreat to the beach, followed by her husband Jacob.
“I hit the water and I couldn’t move my arms, so I ran back out,” said Miranda, who figured this was their sixth or seventh New Year’s plunge at the lake.
“Lesson learned for next time: bring a hockey stick to break the ice ahead of me.”
Video evidence shows that McKinney was standing on the boat dock, wearing pants and a warm jacket, when he compelled the others to jump into unknown conditions.
While they were writhing in agony, trying to reconnect with their numbed extremities, he could have announced, “Sorry… I’ve gotta go. My, uh… dog got loose!”
But he didn’t have a dog — and he didn’t have a hope of escaping his frigid fate.
Good sport — and — showman that he is, McKinney had even prepped his swimming hole by shoveling extra snow into it. For extra theatre, he brought a stepladder, held steady by Kevin Plain, dressed as a soggy Superman.
“There’s no more of a picturesque place for a polar bear swim than Kawkawa Lake,” McKinney enthused on Monday. “It’s breathtaking!”
After the crowd of about 50 swimmers and onlookers did the countdown, McKinney leapt from the fourth level of his tower, plunging perhaps two metres under the fractured ice, then calmly strode back to shore, admitting it was, “A little chilly.”
McKinney wasn’t surprised that people didn’t want to hang around to chitchat, due to the extreme conditions.
“Some people said it would be kind of neat if we could build a bonfire and have someone vending hot chocolate,” said McKinney, who anticipates the event “will be bigger and better next year.”