And so, at last, I jumped in the river. And it was goddamn cold. Breathtakingly cold. Heart-stoppingly cold, bone-chillingly, lung-achingly, skin-numbingly cold. I popped out of the water and tried to scream, but my voice came out as a loud wheeze. I have heard, many times by past Polar Bear Plungers, that "you sort of black out." Not completely, but your primal brain kicks in, taking control of the situation. Your body responds to sheer instinct: Get out of the water, now. Go, go, go!
That's exactly what happened. A dreamy, semi-conscious scramble for shore. Then, suddenly, my nails dug into the concrete fissures of the Mon Wharf, and I was lifting myself into sharp January air. My clawed hands grasped my bathrobe, and somehow it wrapped over me and the belt tied around my waist. And then we all started shrieking like victorious Huns.
For two years, I have come to Downtown Pittsburgh on Jan. 1 to take pictures of the Polar Bear Plunge, which draws hundreds of jumpers and all kinds of local media. I have supported friends, I have photographed and written about the event, and I have even thrown towels over shivering jumpers. But each year I chicken out. Actually, I don't even chicken out; I leave my house without any intention of getting wet. Next year, I think.
But I've always loved the idea of jumping, this battle of Human Nervous System vs. Cold & Cruel Nature. I love how many people start their year this way, as if exorcising past demons or telling The Future to get ready, you ain't scared of nothin'. As dares go, the Polar Bear Plunge is fairly tame and short-term. Where eating habanero peppers will linger in your mouth and possibly give you a heart attack, and lying on highways at night is pretty much a death-wish, the Plunge is downright healthy and refreshing. So I thought, Why not? But wait, seriously, why not?
It was a good sign that the morning was bright and sunny. A better sign that every stoplight along Fifth Avenue turned green a second before I bombed through the intersection. Parking was easy. I didn't forget any of my gear (bathrobe, swimsuit, Vibram Five-Fingers, extra change of clothes). And when I arrived, I met my friends Bill and Eric. Bill is my longtime outdoorsy co-conspirator, and he's plunged several times in the past. He wore only a white tuxedo jacket (with tails) and a speedo, which is fairly typical attire for such an eccentric bunch. Eric is one of my former students who has gone on to graduate school in the United Kingdom, and he decided to spend some of his short winter break jumping in a highly polluted urban river with his former professor. Unlike me, Eric hadn't hummed and hawed for two-and-a-half years. When Bill and I invited him to jump the other night, he didn't hesitate for a second to say yes.
As we trembled on the wharf, I felt all the sensations that veterans had always described—thrill, euphoria, headiness, and total invincibility. Somehow I managed, with quivering fingers, to shoot a picture of Eric in mid-jump. When we all stood together on the concrete, laughing and hollaring like madmen, Eric said, "I think I'm going in again."
"Well," he said, "I feel like I should do a cannonball."
Bill and I guffawed, but somehow this made perfect sense. Why wait another year, when we were already here? I'd decided that 2012 should be dubbed the Year of Awesome, and now that I am fully submerged in my thirties, seizing the day seems all the more important. We approached the edge, threw off towels, and counted off. None of us waited for "three."