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Becoming a ‘cubbie’

By Staff | Jan 6, 2010

John Carney, founder of the Sanibel-Captiva Chapter of the Polar Bear Club, displays a coconut painted with the group's logo on it before Friday's New Year's Day swim.

It always seems to rain on Island Night in the spring. Last year’s Luminary Night witnessed a rare, steady drizzle throughout the day. So why would anybody think that the annual Polar Bear Plunge on New Year’s Day would be any different?

I arrived at Tarpon Bay Road Beach about 20 minutes before noon last Friday morning, towel in one hand and camera and note pad in the other. For the first time – although I had been invited to do so many times before – I was going to experience what hundreds of others had done here for the past nine years.

I was going to become a “Cubbie.”

For those of you not in the know, that’s the term bestowed upon a first-time New Year’s Day dipper at the Polar Bear Plunge. “Juveniles” are swimmers who have taken the plunge before and “Adults” are bears with multiple plunges.

And, in becoming a “Cubbie,” I would no longer be considered a “Mouse.”

Members of the Hayes family from Greenville, Ohio — mom Margaret and kids Emily, Ally, Annie and Lily — wore custom-made sweatshirts for the occasion.

(I think everyone understands what that translates to.)

As I made my way across the sand to the registration table, manned by event organizer John “Papa Bear” Carney and surrounded by his loyal legion of fellow Polar Bear enthusiasts, a couple of drops of precipitation began to fall from overhead.

A soft rumble of thunder off in the distance appeared to scare away a few would-be dippers, who hurriedly grabbed their beach wares and headed back towards the parking lot, but the majority of the swimsuit-clad contingent appeared eager to take the plunge, rain or shine.

“You’re going to get wet anyway, so what’s the difference if it happens while you’re waiting to go into the water?” asked Carney, the always smiling, always affable gentleman of the islands.

As if on cue, the trickling rainfall seemed to pick up its pace. It was now a steady shower, which triggered a few more exits as well as umbrellas opening. One group of five young ladies – the Hayes family visiting from Ohio – huddled underneath a single umbrella. They appeared to be taking the weather of the day in stride.

Ready to step into the gulf waters, participants turn around to wave goodbye to the "mice" on the beach.

“Anybody can go swimming when it’s warm and sunny out,” said Margaret Hayes, whose yearly visit to Sanibel includes taking part in the plunge.

Several folks – Carney included – began to croon “Singin’ In The Rain” as the top of the hour approached. Others passed around “Papa Bear’s” legendary shell-adorned pith helmet and took pictures of each other wearing it. A few folks laughed at the absurdity of it all.

“The three most important things about this event,” said Carney, “is that it’s smart, it’s fun and it’s silly.”

That laughter grew when “Papa Bear” called together all of his fellow Polar Bears, who gathered in a large circle to belt out the group’s adopted anthem, sang to the tune of “God Bless America”:

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea

One of the three four-legged Polar Bears attending the annual swim, Ozzie is surrounded by some admiring fellow dippers.

Let us swear allegiance to our club that’s free

Let us all be hopeful for a day with sun

As we raise our glasses and we have some fun

God bless the Polar Bears

On New Year’s Day

Despite the rain and cold, writer Jeff Lysiak enjoyed his experience as a Polar Bear.

Stand beside us and join us

To the shore with a roar as we play

From the uplands, to the marshes

To the Gulf shore filled with ice

God bless the Polar Bears – it sure feels nice

God bless the Polar Bears – we’re bears, not mice!

With a quick wave to the mass of “Mice” standing along the shoreline, the eager bears raced into the water, which – after standing in rain-soaked clothing for the past quarter hour – didn’t feel all that cold. My guess is that the Gulf temperature measured about 66 degrees last Friday, only a degree or two below the air temperature.

So there I stood, waist deep in the water, holding my camera high above the waves flowing onto shore. Dozens of people of all ages passed by me – some walking, some swimming – giggling aloud at what we all decided to do on this New Year’s Day.

And somehow I knew that this would be a moment I wouldn’t soon forget. How could you?

As we made our way back onto the sand, I and my fellow bear clansmen (and clanswomen) grabbed our belongings and slowly exited the beach, soaked to the skin but still laughing all the way back to our respective vehicles. It may be some time before my flip-flops dry out.

The Polar Bear Plunge here on Sanibel is one of those things that until you try it for yourself, you can’t quite describe the feeling of it to others.

Next year, I’ll hope for sunnier skies.

But I couldn’t wish for a better experience!