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My First Polar Plunge

Polar plunge. Penguin swim. Polar bear dip. Whatever you want to call it, it’s an experience you’ll never forget on an Arctic or Antarctic expedition! Here, Adventure Canada botanist, author, and artist Carolyn Mallory describes her one and only polar plunge, jumping into Baffin Bay off the coast of Greenland.
Guest polar plunge jump snow Arctic

© Mark Edward Harris

An Adventure Canada guest braves the snow and the cold to make her polar plunge.

It’s one of those things that maybe if I’d been a teenager, I wouldn’t have thought about twice. But when you’re in your early forties, you take a minute to reflect. Do I really want to jump off the gangway of a ship into the freezing waters of Baffin Bay?

Let’s be honest: it took me days to persuade myself that this was a good idea. Even walking down to the gangway, I might not have persisted if Marc and I had not made our pact to jump in hand-in-hand. Marc St-Onge was the geologist working on the same expedition trip that I was that year as one of Adventure Canada’s botanists. We made a pact for geology and botany to come together in one epic leap into the icy cold water.

On the way down the stairs, Marc asked me if I was nervous.

“Oh no, not me,” I said, almost smiling. I was not nervous—more like terrified.

Kevin Major polar plunge socks

© Dennis Minty

Author and historian Kevin Major is known to dress to impress during his polar plunges.

As we approached, we could see people jumping in and screaming, then clamoring to get out of the water as fast as possible. There were two able-bodied seamen to help, one on each side of the gangway, and we were assured that the doctor was on standby just in case.

The metal gangway hurt the bottom of my feet as I stood there in my bikini waiting my turn. I swear I can feel it still. It was not a warm day, hovering around 5° Celsius. My robe and towel were at the top of the stairs, waiting for my shivering body to return. Marc looked at me. I looked at Marc.

We looked behind us—the lineup was a long one. Everyone was eager for their turn. Of course, being on an adventurous expedition ship, the polar swim was promoted, aggrandized—indeed, almost exalted. People were primed. There was no going back up that staircase without first going in the water.

Guests Arctic polar jump

© Dennis Minty

Two friends make the leap into the frigid depths on a particularly beautiful sunny day.

We were now at the bottom of the gangway where we could feel the cold air coming off the water. One step closer to the plunge. The able-bodied seamen gave us the thumbs up. Marc and I quickly grasped hands before either one of us could change our minds, and then we jumped.

All at once I was submerged and time seemed to stand still. Cold water not only enveloped me, but it embraced me, held me in its icy grip, and evicted a scream caught in my throat. Surfacing, I was not far from the gangway, but all I could see were the Arctic waters, all the way out to the horizon.

It took only a moment to turn around and swim back to the gangway, but Marc was slightly ahead of me. (There was no consideration for ladies first, let me tell you!) He climbed up onto the ship as fast as he could manage and just as quickly headed up the stairs for his towel and robe.

Tom and Cara water splash

© MJ Swan

Musician Tom Kovacs and his partner Cara feel the shock of the first splash.

At the edge of the gangway, there was a small ladder to climb up until you could reach the helping hands extended to you. I was in a hurry to get out of the water, but it felt like I was moving in slow motion.

Two hands on the ladder. One foot on the step. Second foot on the step. One hand lets go of the ladder and my whole body swings to the right, off-balance. Hands on the ladder again. Up another step. Sailor’s grip and I am finally hoisted aboard. Shivering, one foot in front of the other, up the long staircase to get to my towel and robe. There is ongoing applause as each swimmer is cheered and congratulated. It’s not easy going on those metal steps. I make a mental note to wear slippers if I ever do it again.

John Houston polar swim

© Lee Narraway

Filmmaker and Inuit Art Specialist John Houston enjoys a swim in the great Arctic bathtub.

At the top, I’m rewarded with a towel, a robe, and a shot of vodka.

And then, the magic begins.

My skin vibrates. Every cell in my body hums. My hairs stand on end. Every cell sings. And the chorus is joyful. Euphoria sets in. I’m on fire and so very alive. The singing continues for twenty, thirty, forty minutes. I am radiating my fire for the world to share. I am aglow.

Even now, more than a decade later, my memories of the moments string together like stars in a familiar constellation. Just thinking about it brings a shiver and a warm glow.

About the Author

Carolyn Mallory

Carolyn Mallory

Botanist, Author, and Artist

About the Artist:

Carolyn Mallory is a field botanist, co-author of Common Plants of Nunavut, author of Common Insects of Nunavut, and a watercolour artist.

Her latest publication, Painted Skies, is a picture book about a child’s first experience with northern lights. She is hard at work on more picture books for children, as well as a novel. Carolyn loves to depict the North in her work. She can always be recognized on activities off of the ship, looking down at the amazing Arctic plant world only a few centimetres above the permafrost.

Visit the Art COOP Gallery website to learn more!