Thousands of people across Canada shrieked, shivered and smiled their way into a new year on Monday as they took part in the long-standing tradition of Jan. 1 polar bear dips.
Canadians have been marking New Year’s Day with plunges into lakes, oceans and rivers made frigid by typical January conditions since at least 1920, and scheduled events in cities spanning Halifax to Vancouver were poised to maintain the ritual.
Joanie McNally, from Sackville, N.S., lost no time in kicking off this year’s polar dips when she ran into the icy ocean water at Queensland Beach on Nova Scotia’s South Shore at 9 a.m. Monday morning. In doing so, she also fulfilled a long-standing personal goal.
“We’re always at this beach, but this is the first time (swimming) when it’s on the more frigid side,” she said moments before taking the plunge.
“It’s a bit of a challenge to start the new year on the right track.”
The temperature sat around -5 C as McNally and 11 other swimmers stripped off their winter jackets, mittens and hats and went off into the icy waves.
McNally’s husband and daughter, along with a handful of other spectators, cheered and hollered for the group as they ran from the frozen sand to the chilly water.
Dave Morash, also from the Sackville area, said it was the coldest polar plunge he’s done in at least six years.
Morash and a small group of fellow high school teachers have been doing the plunge together since 2018, but he says this was the first time since then that the temperature has been below zero on New Year’s Day.
“It’s invigorating, it’s like all of your nerve endings start tingling,” he said immediately after the dip.
“I always refer to it as a reboot, you sort of reboot your system like a computer. So here we go, here comes 2024,” he said with a laugh as he dried off.
Monday’s swim, while launching new traditions for some, also marked a departure from New Year’s Days past in Halifax.
For many years, swimmers jumped into the ocean from a city wharf as part of the Herring Cove Polar Bear Dip. The non-profit organization that put on the event since 1994 cancelled the 2021 dip due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has not resumed since.
A recent social media post from the Herring Cove Polar Dip organization said it is “hoping to look at options going forward” for future events and asked for volunteer support.
When Halifax resident Darrell Robert found out there would not be an organized dip yet again this year, he suggested in comments on social media that people meet at Queensland Beach for an impromptu swim.
“It’s nice to corral people and motivate each other to do something new on a new year,” he said, adding he was pleased to see so many faces show up at the beach Monday morning.
“I like to see people get together as a community, I think it’s great and it’s a great start to the new year.”
Small groups of cold-water swimmers were expected to do their own polar plunges throughout Nova Scotia. More than 20 swimmers in Halifax took an icy plunge into the Northwest Arm at Sir Sandford Fleming Park.
The weather was warmer and the crowds were substantially larger on the other side of the country where thousands of people plunged into Vancouver’s English Bay.
Outside temperatures for the city’s 104th event sat at 6 C and organizers said the water was about two degrees warmer, as participants, some dressed as Elvis or wearing hats shaped like rubber ducks, took the plunge.
This year was Anne Rainbow’s 20th polar bear swim. She said past New Year’s dips have come with snow on the ground.
“That’s when I learned to wear shoes,” she joked, noting the red, bare feet of other participants who had just exited the water.
She said the relatively warm weather this year meant she was able to go in for a second dip.
“I’m addicted to it. I love it,” she said. “Just the energy, the cleansing. The feeling of making you feel like you’re ready to start a new year.”
Rainbow’s friend Cindy Wells has watched the event in the past but decided to participate for the first time this year.
“I needed to start new for 2024. It was a crazy 2023,” she said.
Similar events, many of which were intended to raise money for charity, were set to take place in locations including Charlottetown and Saint John, N.B.
In Oakville, Ont., a city just west of Toronto, the return of sub-zero temperatures following days of unseasonably mild conditions proved no deterrent for the roughly 850 people who took part in a plunge at Coronation Park. The swim in Lake Ontario was intended to raise money for charity World Vision Canada.
CEO Michael Messenger said this year’s dip has so far raised $100,000 towards projects that help provide clean water in developing countries.
The 39th annual Oakville plunge marked the first such dip for 11-year-old Luca Tarabokia.
“I’m pretty excited for it because the waves look awesome and I like the waves,” Tarabokia said.
“It’s my first time. I want to do it again next year if it goes well.”
His mother, Jane Moran, called Tarabokia the “cold water representative” for their family.
“You’ve got to have a certain fortitude to be able to do this and I really, really admire those who are able to do it, but I’m not one of them,” she said with a laugh.