Polar bear dippers do their thing

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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Endure icy waters as part of New Years Day tradition

Participants take part in the 90th Annual Polar Bear Swim in Vancouver on Friday January 1, 2010. Hundreds of people plunge into the cold water of English Bay and help the Greater Vancouver Food Bank.  The Canadian Press

Brave souls donned wigs, Santa hats, and, of course, bathing caps as they shrieked and splashed in icy cold waters across the country, keeping up a decades-long New Year's Day tradition - the polar bear dip.
"Absolutely freezing, I'd say the worst part is your feet, they turn to practical ice cubes," Crystall Shortall said through chattering teeth.
Like many who charged the waters at Coronation Park in Oakville, Ont., this wasn't Shortall's first time as "dipper." The 15-year-old has been taking the plunge in Lake Ontario for five years now.
"You always regret doing it after, but for some reason you forget what it's like and you want to do it again," she said, shuffling about inside a giant, decorated cardboard box, which was meant to look like a Christmas present.
Many people dressed up for the event that attracted an eclectic group of 600 swimmers and 5,000 spectators.
Dirk Soeterik wore a spiky wig, and covered himself in balloons. He called himself the "Oakville balloon boy," poking fun at the infamous story that sparked headlines last year.
"I've been spending some nights outside in the back porch trying to get acclimatized," said Soeterik, grinning, as he talked about his strategy for enduring the cold waters.
"I really worked on my mental game."
The Oakville dippers were met with temperatures below -2 C. Snowflakes began to fall while many were still in the water.
The wacky event originated in Oakville 25 years ago when Todd Courage and his brother began a tradition that, today, has become a charity event that raises nearly $230,000 for World Vision to support freshwater projects in Rwanda.
Courage said the first dip into the waters always feels like "little needles" all over the body, but once out of the water people tend to feel like "a million bucks."
"It's one of those things that people want to do, like parachuting or skydiving, at least once in your life," said Courage, adding the only way to warm up afterward is to pile on the blankets.
While Oakville dippers lamented the icy waters, those who took the plunge in Vancouver were pleasantly surprised by the unseasonably warm conditions.
Hundreds of people turned out at English Bay for Vancouver's 90th annual polar bear swim and for a change those on shore might have gotten wetter than those in the water, as heavy rain continued to batter the region.
The air temperature was about 9 C and that was just fine by Wade Westling, who took to the water for the 13th consecutive year, his 11th in an Elvis Presley costume.
"It's actually pretty warm," Westling said of the water. "Not as much shrinkage and not enough shaking going on."
When asked how he chose his particular costume, Westling had an easy answer.
"I love Elvis. Who doesn't?"
While Westling expressed his fondness for the king of rock 'n' roll, Darren Grant showed his for the king of golf, sporting a white shirt with "I slept with Tiger Woods" scrawled on the front.
"25 years of doing this, we look for something that's relevant that we can make fun of and off we go," said Grant, who was also sporting a long blonde wig.
Like Westling, Grant said the water was surprisingly warm.
"This year was balmy," he said.
Added a friend, "This is like Mexico, baby."
The polar bear dip is also a routine in Nova Scotia, where 102 people jumped or dove into the water off the Herring Cove government wharf, a Halifax-area suburb.
Robert MacLellan, the organizer of the event, said the event raised $1,700 for a local food bank.
Comedian Ron James joined two friends for the leap.
"It began with a 70 year-old for the first jump and we went down to a 10-year-old," said MacLellan.
Following the jump, the polar bear swimmers quickly went inside to a warm church hall.

Organizations: World Vision

Geographic location: Oakville, Coronation Park, Lake Ontario Vancouver Rwanda English Bay Mexico Nova Scotia Herring Cove Halifax

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