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Zen Vuong/MEDILL

Chicagoans dressed up and joked while they shivered in 33-degree weather.

Some discomfort but no danger in being a ‘Polar Bear’

by Zen Vuong
Jan 31, 2012


Zen Vuong/MEDILL

While waiting in 33-degree weather to plunge into Lake Michigan, nearly 600 people showed off their muscles and winter-white skin.

Why would nearly 600 Chicagoans strip down to their beachwear and splash around in Lake Michigan during the winter? Aren’t these crazies afraid of freezing their toes off?

At noon, the water temperature around Oak Street Beach was about 40 degrees – that’s close to ice temperature – estimated the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But hypothermia consultant Dr. Alan M. Steinman said people who participated in the 11th Annual Lakeview Polar Bear Plunge Saturday really weren’t in much danger.

Steinman’s view contrasted with those of the Chicago Park District. One lifeguard warned participants not to stay in the water for very long for fear of hypothermia. Even though it was 33 degrees outside, it felt like 25 because of wind chill, reported the National Weather Service.

“Plungers” put their bodies through a whole bunch of reflexes, said Steinman, a consultant who was director of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Health and Safety Department for four years.

“There is a sudden inhalation of air, and you start hyperventilating,” he said. “There is a sudden spike in blood pressure and heart rate, and that creates a danger for people who have a heart disease. It may put a strain on hearts that aren’t up to it: elderly people, people with heart disease or a heart arrhythmia.”

The adrenaline spike is experienced during “cold shock,” a natural reaction during the first two minutes of exposure to cold water.

For most people, hypothermia – a drop in core temperature to or below 95 degrees Fahrenheit – won’t occur for at least 30 minutes, Steinman said. “It might occur faster for children or small adults, but absolutely not in the few minutes that the polar bear club members are in the water,” he added.

Dr. Willard Sharp, who does research on therapeutic hypothermia at the University of Chicago, agreed with Steinman.

“If you just go in and your ankles are immersed, then there’s no danger to that,” he said.

Brian Marchal, founder of the Lakeview Polar Bear Club said that on Saturday, “the atmosphere was amazing with so many people in costumes, in Speedos, dancing around, posing for photos, and just being nervous about what was to come.”

Marchal said he usually stays in for a minute because he enjoys watching everyone’s “freak-out moment.” This year, he ran out after 30 seconds because he took the plunge with one of the ill children who will benefit from the charity event.

Donte Mearon, a 33-year-old Chicago Bears fan, said he went down to his head and was probably in and out in 6 to 7 seconds.

“My gram and Walter Payton both passed away from cancer,” Mearon said. “If they can suffer through the pain of cancer, I can at least splash around in the water for 30 seconds.”

The plunge and after-party event at Sedgwick’s Bar & Grill raised about $25,000 for two families with sick children, said Marchal. Though some people shivered and squealed, the lifeguards and paramedics on standby had little to do but watch the revelry.