OAKVILLE, Ont. – Hundreds of hardy Canadians welcomed the new year Tuesday with a splash into icy waters at Polar Bear Dip events across the country.
About 800 participants at this year’s largest charity gathering, the Courage Polar Bear Dip, stripped down to their skivvies or donned outlandish costumes before jumping into Lake Ontario in Oakville, Ont.
According to organizers, the event, held just west of Toronto at Coronation Park, first began in 1995 and has since raised a total of $1,060,000 for the charity World Vision Canada.
This year, more than $120,000 will be donated to fund water projects Rwanda.
While waiting for the dip to begin, event co-founder Trent Courage says the tradition of doing a New Year Day’s dip started with his mother Gaye who “forced” him and his brother into the lake 28 years ago because she heard of a similar Scandinavian practice.
Since then, the family has continued on the tradition, with him bringing his own young sons each year to join in on the fun with hundreds of others.
“It was basically just something to do on New Year’s Day to basically start the year afresh, cleanse the soul, sort to speak,” said Courage, donning a bathrobe on the beach trying to stay warm.
The Oakville resident says the event not only brings together families and adrenaline junkies — it also draws those who come dressed in costume.
Over the years, organizers have seen dippers dressed in wedding gowns, tuxedos and geisha outfits. This year was no exception, a man dressed as Baby New Year equipped with a diaper, sash and top hat and a trio of Smurf characters could be spotted in the crowd.
Courage says participants are drawn by the camaraderie of the event, but also that it’s all for a good cause.
“You run in. It’s exhilarating. You hyperventilate, your feet start to hurt to be honest with you but when you get changed, you start to feel amazing,” he said. “No matter what, it’s always very cold.”
Cathy Sewell screamed with hundreds of others as she charged into frigid Lake Ontario.
On Tuesday, Environment Canada reported temperatures going down to -6 C, with a wind chill of -11.
The 48-year-old Milton, Ont., woman says she had been wanting to do the dip for years and is happy to now be able to cross it off her bucket list.
“I can’t believe I did it. It’s very cold but I did it,” said Sewell, shivering underneath a towel following the event.
“I went down (in the water) just to the thighs and I did a dip. I’m very happy. It’s great.”
The lively event featured live music, prize draws and celebrity guests. Local emergency crews were also on standby in the water and on the beach as a precaution.
In Vancouver, thousands of swimmers gathered on the beach at English Bay, where the afternoon sun penetrated the grey overcast sky.
Organizers pegged the outside temperature at 6 C, with the water temperature around 7 C.
Sean Healy, director of aquatic services for the City of Vancouver, said as many as 2,000 people participate in the event every year, with 18,000 spectators watching.
Jason Aviss, 44, of Langley, B.C., wore a spandex-like tuxedo, and said this was his second plunge and described it as a “cleansing thing.”
He said the tuxedo allowed him to go formal.
Stacy Leech, 41, of Lillooet, B.C., said the swim wasn’t his first but was the first for him in Vancouver after moving to the city to take a job.
Leech said he couldn’t wait for the official start and went in early.
Similar events were held across Canada, in several cities including Toronto and Winnipeg.