Days before the Polar Vortex, Chicagoans make a splash at the Polar Plunge

Polar Plunge

By Emma Goodson
Medill Reports

The high hovered at a frigid 14 degrees, though the sun glazed Oak Street Beach as hundreds of people gathered there on Jan. 26.

Some stripped down to bathing suits to participate in the annual Polar Bear Plunge. Some wore costumes, including a polar bear outfit, of course.

Ice and snow covered most of the sand where participants laid their towels and layers of clothing before lining up to take a dip in Lake Michigan. The lake, though not frozen, lapped the shores at a chilly 30 degrees – only two degrees warmer than the North Atlantic on the night  when the Titanic sunk in 1912.

“Standing in line waiting to go in the water your adrenaline spikes so high that honestly, I didn’t even feel the water when I went in,” said participant Chris Cadeau, a graduate student.

Organizers of the Chicago Polar Bear Club, which hosts the plunge, visited Oak Street Beach to check the conditions and spoke with the Chicago Park District throughout the week leading up to the plunge. They considered the weather forecast, the wind chill, water temperatures, and whether or not the event should go forward.

“Our event is all about ridiculousness and having fun. But the most important thing is that everybody gets home at the end of the day safely,” said Brian Marchal, chief polar bear and founder of the Chicago Polar Bear Club. “We do take it very seriously and want to make sure that we’re doing right by all of our participants and everybody that volunteers.”

More than 375 hearty plungers showed up the Saturday for an event that raised over $35,000 for three Chicago-based families in need. Forgetting the cold for a minute, the beach looked as if it were a sunny day in the middle of July, with groups of friends and families spreading out blankets and towels.

“This was pure winter. If you did this, you could never say you just caught it on a warm year and it wasn’t that hard,” Marchal said. “I was so proud that so many people came down and just decided to take back the winter.”

Participants had to bring shoes to wear in the water, a partner to help them get changed out of wet clothes, two towels for standing and drying off, and warm hats and socks. There were changing tents available for people to get out of the wind, five to seven lifeguards from the park district on-site along with an ambulance with a defibrillator. Three of the organizers wore hip-wader boots to trek into the water in case anyone needed a rescue.

“We feel like we did everything we can to make this event as safe as possible. We’ve been doing it for 18 years now, we think we know where people have had problems or if people would have issues,” Marchal said.

Marchal, who now lives in London, started the plunge in 2001 as a way to meet people and make friends after moving to Chicago. He and two friends participated that year. The next year, a family member needed help with medical expenses, so Marchal and his family decided to raise money by inviting friends and more family to join the plunge. After that, the group began raising money with the Chicago Polar Bear Club and annual plunge for other local families going through situations like they had. Since then, they’ve raised over $400,000 to help 30 families in 17 years as a nonprofit.

“Our whole group is so proud of what this has become. It’s about showing these families that people care, that there is somewhere to go and there’s someone out there who’s willing to help you,” Marchal said. “It’s about doing something crazy and good. Combining those things, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

Photo at top: Participants run into Lake Michigan at the Chicago Polar Bear Club’s annual Polar Plunge. (Emma Goodson / Medill)