SI Vault
Joan Ackermann-Blount
December 22, 1980
"Great!" say the Polar Bears, hardy souls who love to leap into frigid waters and, sometimes, lure a novice in, too
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December 22, 1980

Baby, It's Cold Outside

"Great!" say the Polar Bears, hardy souls who love to leap into frigid waters and, sometimes, lure a novice in, too

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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 warm.

Little icicles 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 it."

Over-mattering is 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.

"You really think I could get frostbite if I go in?" I asked for the third time.

"Oh 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.

"No. What's hypothermia?"

"That's when 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.

"Your heart stops?"

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