First comes my
mother," Pablo Martinez Velilla said as he broke off a large chunk of ice
and placed it on his head. "No, God and my mother. Then comes the Polar
Bear Club. Polar Bear Club is my family. Without it I don't feel happy."
Pablo looked very happy as he turned and waved to the crowd. Up where the
onlookers were, the air temperature was 15°, but down where we were, in the
water, the temperature was a toasty 30°. That's why Eli Cohen, who's very
skinny—"You have to look at him twice to see him," says a fellow Polar
Bear—and tends to get cold, was lying in the water. He was trying to get
had formed on the hair on Pablo's chest. As he danced around entertaining the
crowd in all the amusing freezing ways he could think of, the piece of ice
wobbled on his balding head. "Once I had a big chunk of ice on my
head," he said. "It weighed about 17 pounds. It was 20 below zero and
the ice stuck to my head, so I had to go under the water and wait there for it
to loose off."
Pablo spends much
of his life under cold water with the Polar Bears. So does Helene Santini, who
pointed out the virtues of swimming. "With swimming you don't have that
earth impact," she said. "You float. It's nice. It's one sport you
don't need equipment for; you have yourself. It's a sport you can enjoy all
year round. In winter it's just a question of mind over matter; you over-matter
definitely the problem in the dead of winter, which is when the Polar Bears
swim. In the Soviet Union they're called Walruses; in Ireland they're
Forty-Footers (named for the depth of the water in which club members
originally swam); and in America they're Polar Bears. They're people who wade
through snow and ice to swim in freezing water because they think it's good for
them. "If you keep your body at a cooler temperature, you live longer,"
said Helene. "Like keeping meat on ice. That's food for thought."
Last winter, two
nights before I was to drive from my house in western Massachusetts to the
Adirondack region of New York and go swimming with the Coney Island (N.Y.)
Polar Bear Club in Lake George, some pipes in my cellar froze. It was Feb. 1
and the temperature had dropped to—4°. I spent the next afternoon in the
cellar, standing on a chair and pointing a flashlight at the frozen pipes,
while my plumber, all bent over in a tiny crawl space, tried to thaw them with
a propane torch.
think I could get frostbite if I go in?" I asked for the third time.
yeah," he said, chuckling for the third time. "You ever hear of
hypothermia? Damn, another leak." We both watched the water trickle out
through yet another crack in the copper pipe.
your body temperature drops so low your heart stops. Could you shine the light
over there for a sec?" I heard him mutter something under his breath as he
crawled over and began cutting out another piece of pipe.