-by Anne Farries
On Wednesday, as every New Year’s Day for the past 25 years, the Cameron family and dozens of their fellow Invernessers went to the beach, threw their coats on the sand, and plunged headlong into the icy waves of winter.
Then, lurching, gasping, and laughing, they rushed back out.
“It wasn’t any warmer than last year, I’ll tell you,” said Bob Cameron, retired mill worker, in his faux red kilt – a tartan bath towel with printed sporran – still dripping from his quick, quirky dunking in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Bob started the heart-stunning Inverness tradition in 1995 on a whim with his children and two nieces, but he wouldn’t say whether it was for fun or to defy fear.
“It’s for the sheer foolishness,” said Caroline Cameron, his sister. Wednesday, at the beach, her attire included runners, a puffy winter coat, and a tall, red, Cat-in-the-Hat hat.
“It was Bobby,” she said. “I don’t know why.”
Caroline was among 14 other Camerons and 26 other people who joined Bob the second year. She knows that because the family handed out certificates. The formality was short lived, but the Inverness Polar Dip persisted, becoming an Inverness custom, with several swimmers joining year after year. Nobody knows how many times each has swum except the swimmers themselves.
“I didn’t hit every year, but then I don’t know if anybody has,” Caroline said. “I’d be curious to hear.”
Finding out who might own bragging rights to an uninterrupted record of polar dips would require poring over old photographs, because nobody has taken attendance, handed out application forms, or awarded prizes.
For a while, the dippers used the Inverness Development Association’s beach canteen as a base.
“But then, a couple of years later, somebody said, ‘well, we don’t want any liability,’ so it stopped being an IDA thing and started being an Inverness thing,” Doug said.
Jesse Ryan was on the beach Wednesday for what he estimated was his 20th dip.
“Once you start, you just can’t stop,” he said. “Starts the New Year fresh.”
The event is entirely unregulated.
“There’s no organization.” said Doug, another of the Cameron siblings. “The young people like to do it, then they go to the Legion after. They all get together and brag.”
The relaxed approach is echoed, for example, in the count-down to the plunge. Most years, a random person assumes the task of calling “three, two, one, go,” not because they have been assigned the duty, but because they are tired of waiting in the cold.
Some years, nobody calls it. One swimmer bolts and the rest follow.
“It’s very precarious,” Doug said. “They need to get it over with.”
In the early years, one of the Camerons passed the hat, asking $5 each for the local food bank. But the practice died because “there was too much commotion to keep track of money – people had no clothes on,” Doug said.
Does a dive into ice-crackling water steal the breath and stop the heart?
“It’s always pretty shocking,” Caroline said. “Once you get out and get bundled up, it’s all right. You’re in for such a short time. The worst thing is to stand around in the breeze without any protection. That will cool you right down, but otherwise, it’s fine.”
All are welcome. There are no rules. It’s every polar plunger for him or herself. Caroline had advice for first-time dippers: “Wear footwear,” she said.
“Cover your feet,” agreed Doug. “Nobody will think less of you. Really, it’s too painful on the feet.”
“Don’t strip down until the countdown,” suggested Caroline. And, take a friend, she said. “It’s really important (for the swimmer) to have another person there who will make sure they get a towel around them, because the cold water can give a sort of hypothermia,” she said. “You could get stupid. You really should go with someone else who will make sure you get looked after.”
No one has ever been injured, Caroline believes.
This year, the crowd in the water numbered around 45, with twice as many cheering from the dunes above.
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