Hundreds of people chatter near the boat launch at Bald Eagle Lake, about 25 miles northeast of State College. But children aren’t swimming. Their parents aren’t lounging on beach chairs. There are no boats in the lake’s docks.
Its 9:30 a.m. on December 1. It’s 36 degrees.
For me and 170 others there that day, every degree over freezing is a godsend. Because in a few minutes, we’ll glance over the frigid lake. We will take off our scarves, gloves, hats, and strip each layer...coat, sweater, long johns..... and jump in.
Winter temperatures have marked the beginning of plunge season since as early as 1904, when a group called the L-Street Brownies jumped into a freezing Boston Harbor. Last year, 36,000 Dutch submerged themselves in icy seawater in an event I can’t pronounce, but which translates to “New Year’s Dive.”
For me, it’s the Polar Plunge. The tenth installment of an event organized by the YMCA of Centre County. Half party. Half spectacle. With half naked people jumping into a freezing lake.
After two years as a plunger, this was my first as a “super plunger.” When other participants submerge themselves in the arctic abyss and run out...I’m running back in...and then back out...and in again. I become one with a kind of nature humans were not designed to experience.
Plungers are in the water for maybe 15 seconds. But while my shoulders are breaking the surface and my head submerges into the muddy lake, it feels like an eternity. Every cell in my body panics. My brain has one thought, “Get out!” I hear the screams of my fellow plungers, all with gritty, chattering smiles on their faces.
At one point, my brain stops working. My body is on autopilot. Step 1: Turn around. Step 2: Get out of the water. The air that made me shiver moments before now feels tropical.
I find my fellow plungers and we celebrate. “That wasn’t so bad.” I’ve heard stories of plunging in snowstorms and dodging chunks of ice floating in the water. This year was a breeze…a harsh bone-chilling breeze.
People often ask, “What would possibly possess you to do such a thing?”
There are as many reasons as the water has degrees. It’s the charity, the community, the challenge, and the camaraderie. It’s the brain freeze all the way down to my toes. It’s the warm towel waiting for me on the beach.
For me, the plunge represents where I’m from. Pennsylvania resides in the high latitudes where plunges are possible. I grew up with some fierce winters in the Poconos and the plunge allows me to shed the bulky coat and scarf persona and dive into something out of the ordinary.
And as the earth slowly warms, it makes me wonder if the days of polar plunging in Pennsylvania are numbered, if the luster of the spectacle will melt away as our winters become less fierce.
On a future December 1 at Bald Eagle Lake, it may be my great-great-grandchildren swimming and lounging in the sun. But while I’m here, and the temperatures are frigid. I’ll be plunging.