The day dawned cloudy, snow and sky matching one another to create the feeling of life within a cottonball. Looking out of the bedroom window I noticed the jagged portcullis of icicles stretching down from the eaves had melted away completely. A thaw had begun, bringing with it relief from the rictus of ice and a whole new set of problems, evident in yet another power outage.
I skipped breakfast, grabbed my camera and jumped in the jeep. The Polar Plunge started at 11am and I knew from past experience that just a couple of minutes delay would mean missing the whole thing – scantily clad people don’t hang around for long on snowy beaches.
The drive was a quick one. The powercut meant no traffic lights – something that no longer fazes me – and the usual conscience regulated turn-taking at all the intersections. Minutes later, when I pulled into the gravel carpark across from Lake Ontario there were no more than one or two people around, though cars aplenty were parked up.
I crossed the road and gingerly navigated the snowcovered icefield, heading as the crow flies to the water’s edge. The legacy of our recent icestorm was evident – each footstep was like putting my boot through a window as the thick pane of ice gave way beneath its snowy mantle. I kept my camera in my pocket when I tackled the slope down to the beach. All around lay evidence of the storm’s quiet cruelty; branches littered the ground they’d shaded selflessly in summers past, brought down by the weight of the ice and its rigid chokehold that meant a breeze could break instead of bend. For days the snapping and cracking of straining wood had filled the air – a long wordless cry of arboreal pain.
The lake looked stern, forbidding. The odd whitetop broke the heaving expanse of gunmetal grey but the water seemed tractable enough, limber but lounging, like a vast reptilian predator lying in wait. I picked my way through chunks of ice to the water’s edge and gazed up and down the shoreline, allowing the roar of the surf to cast its hypnotic spell on my senses.
Within moments my reverie was interrupted by a Monty-Python-esqe crowd that emerged from the nearby Heydenshore Pavillion and scurried in one body toward the shore. I half-expected to see cartoon dustclouds in its wake. Like a mash-up of illustrations from a Grimm brother’s fairytale, incongruous characters mingled in the mob: a costumed superhero here, the flash of a tousled rainbow wig there, a gentleman in a bowler hat and brightly coloured undershorts, and even Father Christmas himself.
They hit the beach and the disrobing began. There was some posing for photos, some good-natured banter and a plaintive eight-year-old voice that squeaked, “I’m scared”. Its owner wore a blue Polar Plunge 2013 tshirt and a worried expression, eyes scanning the lake. His parents bent towards him from either side with loving reassurances and words of encouragement and the next time I saw him his face was plastered with a triumphant grin as he staggered out of the frigid waters.
As always, the event was over in the blink of an eye. At some unknown signal, individuals turned and ran, like a bevy of startled deer, into the frothing water, yelling as the cold bit in intimate places. Up to their shoulders they went before giving in to survival instincts and making for shore with all the crazed urgency they’d exhibited seconds before heading in the opposite direction.
St John’s Ambulance, the fire service, and amused onlookers – myself among them – watched as dressing gowns, towels and blankets swaddled shivering bodies and the crowd made its way back to the welcoming warmth of civilised existence, having taken on Nature and proved themselves a worthy match.
I think that’s what I love so much about Canada and her weather – the extremes she tests us with are not inconveniences sent to torment a tyrannical adversary, they’re a natural expression of the world’s encouragement to challenge ourselves and grow. Every storm, every snowfall is wonderous affirmation of the beauty of our world and its nurturing, tender, yet freeingly dispassionate gift of life in all its myriad forms. I can’t think of a better way to answer in kind than the Whitby Rotary Sunrise Club Polar Plunge.
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