Milwaukee’s Lake Michigan Polar Bear Plunge
I thought I must be crazy to go to the Polar Bear event at Bradford Beach New Year’s Day.
The temperature was right at the freezing point. There were snow flurries in the air. For a while, I had mistaken the flurries for ashes from some of the campfires some had set up to keep warm on the beach. While the temperature was not bad by Wisconsin standards, it was the wind that was making it brutal. All morning 40+ mile an hour winds were ripping away any heat I seemed to be generating on my own. There was no protection from that freezing wind on the beach. As I walked towards the beach, a man was leaving his car carying a large garage heater. Now that was a bit more like it!
“After 18 years of doing this, you start to learn a few things.” He told me.
I am not one to get up early on New Year’s Day. I was thinking this is crazy. The only assurance of my own sanity was that I wasn’t the one going to jump in the freezing cold Lake Michigan water. I was just here to take pictures and get the story. And watch the real crazy people.
When I arrived at Bradford Beach, the parking lot was nearly full.
We had gotten there at 10:30am and the official Polar Bear Plunge was not to take place till noon. One group had a large fire already going next to their cars. There was a fire truck parked at the end of the parking lot near the beach. The firefighters were nice and warm in the cab of the fire engine. I don’t think they came out all morning. Don’t let anyone tell you firefighters are not smart. I over heard someone telling a friend that they had been there since 8:30am. They got the parking spot next to the beach. Another smart one.
While some were there already, it was obvious it was just getting started.
There were a couple hundred people already there. A few tents were set up. There were several campfires and some more heaters scattered about with small groups near each. There was one large tent just a few feet from Lake Michigan, I couldn’t tell if anyone was in it or not, as it was all sealed up. Occasionally, I would see someone dressed up in a costume for the event. There were several large polar bears walking around. Some in unnatural colors (is it still a polar bear if it’s not white?).
I remember reading about ships crossing the North Atlantic in winter during one of the World Wars.
The sailor who wrote the book said that if they ever had to jump overboard into the frigid water, they would most likely die from the cold temperature before they could be rescued. You could only survive a couple minutes before freezing to death. Lake Michigan isn’t much warmer during the winter. These people had to be crazy to do this!
I had plenty of time to wander around. The crowd started about 10 feet from the water. It continued to grow and grow. There were two types of people there. The first and largest type were the ones there prepared to jump in the freezing water. The second, smaller group was like me. There to watch and take pictures. Maybe not as crazy as the first, but what sane person walks around on a beach in freezing temperatures and 40MPH winds when they could be home with a nice hot cup of coffee?
The crowd kind of resembled penguins at the South Pole.
As penguins as a group approach the edge of the ice they start to push one or two out into the water first to make sure it is safe for the rest. Eventually, they get pushed into the water. If nothing happens, the rest eventually follow.
Resembling the penguins, occasionally, a single person or small group would break out from the crowd and run screaming into the water. Then they would run screaming even louder back out and head towards a fire.
“Hey, who stole my clothes!” joked one man as he got back to the beach.
At least, I think he was joking. He was laughing. Not having dry clothes to change into would not be too funny.
This started to occur more and more frequently (the running into the lake, not the stealing of clothes). I had always assumed there would be lots of alcohol involved in a polar bear plunge. I’d have to say there really were not too many people drinking alcohol. At least not in any quantity. Other than the group by the fire in the parking lot (I’m not sure some of them even left the parking lot all morning), hot coffee seemed to be the drink of choice this morning for nearly everyone. There was lots of wild shouting and running around, but I don’t think I saw anyone that could be considered anywhere near drunk like I would have figured. It’s a family event (although the sight of some of the guys in Speedos could require therapy).
As it got closer to noon, the crowd got larger.
There had to be several thousand people here. Everyone joking and having a good time. I hung out right on the edge of the water so I would have a good place to take photos. I was a little concerned I might get trampled or pushed in the rush when everyone went in.
With about 15 minutes to go, four rescue divers walked down the beach and into the lake. The one nearest me walked along the edge of the water and chatted with the potential victims. The divers were dressed in dry suits and were probably warmer standing waist up in the water then I was. As the diver stood in front of me, a woman ran into the water a little bit away.
“That’s the face of instant regret.” the diver laughed to the group of photographers I was a part of as the woman shrieked from the cold.
Eventually, the divers waded out till they were about chest deep in Lake Michigan. An occasional early bird (penguin) would swim out and high five a diver, pose in the water for a few pictures of his achievement by his friends on the beach. When they got to the beach, they would learn that the water as cold as it is, is still warmer than the air. I don’t know if they tried to stay in the water till noon or tried to wait on the beach.
The crowd was enormous by this time.
I noticed an Asian couple huddling together under a thick blanket. The girl was snuggled up close to him for warmth. You’ll see the before and after photo. After they went in the water, she seemed just fine and had me take a photo of the two of them with her camera. Amazing.
Finally at noon, several air horns went off and there was a huge shout from the entire crowd and everyone rushed into the water!
Some got farther out than others. Some turned around almost as soon as they touched the water. It was noisy. Water was being splashed back and forth. It was truly crazy. When they weren’t screaming, everyone was laughing and having fun. The main rush lasted for several minutes. I think a few got out and went back in (remember, like I said, the water is actually warmer then the air).
A father and his two young daughters next to me were there to watch. The youngest (probably 2-3 years old) told her daddy she wanted to go in the water too. Her father tried to tell her it was too cold. I’m sure she wondered why all the other people could do it then. She looked a little confused. She really wanted to.
The next part of the ritual was getting your picture taken or taking one of your friends.
Some hurried to get dry and try and get warm again. Some didn’t seem to be in any hurry to dry off. Me, I couldn’t wait to get back to the car and warm up. These people are crazy.
If you don’t have anything planned for noon on New Year’s Day, you might want to head over to Bradford Beach in Milwaukee and watch the Polar Bear Plunge. I enjoyed watching it. It really is a spectacle. Maybe you’ll decide to go jump in the Lake yourself.
I am sure this whole Polar Bear Plunge event is something psychologists find fascinating to study.
Was it just one person who started it and then his friends joined him. There must be something involving crowd behavior. What makes so many people do something which can only be considered crazy? There really is no good reason to jump in Lake Michigan when it is freezing cold. It could even be dangerous. Most of the people seemed otherwise normal and well adjusted (maybe not the guy with a sword dressed as a samurai, but most of them). What makes people do this?
I kinda really, really need to know what make people want to do this.
Because I want to do it next year.