The sun was shining and the temperature a few degrees above freezing, making this Boxing Day almost balmy — certainly one of the warmest in the memory of Penguin Dip regulars.
But if it appeared a plunge in the lower Niagara River was merely refreshing on this mild winter day, those taking part were quick to dispel the notion that the water was anything but breathtakingly frigid.
Literally. Submerging takes your breath away, makes you feel like your heart might stop, and numbs your limbs, they say.
Yet each of the 20 stalwart dippers for 2019 took the plunge at Ball’s Beach three times, as befitting any Niagara-on-the-Lake Penguin, and most were vowing to return next year.
Veteran dippers Chris Bjorgan and Pat Quinn, both aged 62, would actually prefer to see a little snow and lower temperatures, just to make the dip look a little more challenging than it might appear to spectators, who outnumbered the swimmers about three to one, as they enjoyed the sunshine.
Bjorgan, who has taken on organizing the event, would also like to see the numbers rise — more in line with 40 to 50, as in some of the best years — but a change in the press late in 2017, he says, when the Niagara Advance closed, Boxing Day 2018 only brought out about a dozen diehards.
Andrew Ball, at 33, is also a veteran — he took his first dip at the age of 19.
While it’s good to see the shoreline protected with the addition of large boulders along the beach, it doesn’t make the Penguin Dip easy, he says.
“We used to walk on sand, but there is no more sand, just rocks. It makes it pretty hard on the feet. Proper footwear is important. But we’re hardy and we can adapt. It’s not going to stop us.”
There were helpers on hand to assist the penguins as they climbed down the boulders, and even more important, stepped up onto them with numb legs and feet on their way out of the water.
Ball echoes the others who say the air might have been warmer than usual, but the water was not.
“The water never gets warm. It’s still cold. That’s why we do it.”
But at least there was no need for a rope, as there has been in other years, for swimmers to hold on to prevent them from slipping on ice.
Clare Cameron, a Niagara-on-the-Lake town councillor, and her husband Mackenzie decided to try the Penguin Dip for the first time, and took their three dips with the veterans.
To become a member of the NOTL Penguin Club, they’ll have to repeat that two more years, although it doesn’t matter if they are consecutive.
Both are up for the challenge, they said, determined to become official Penguins.
“Other communities do this, but not three times, like NOTL. This is just another way this town is exceptional,” said Clare, adding the time between plunges in the trailer was actually the hardest part.
“This was actually way more fun than I thought it would be.”
Mackenzie called it “a little more intense” than he expected, saying he admires those who have been doing it for years — they’re the tough ones.
“I aspire to do it again next year,” he added, as the spectators drifted off and the 2019 participants headed off to a local establishment to warm up, also part of the tradition.
Coun. Erwin Wiens was there with his wife Dorothy to cheer on the town councillor, as was Coun. Gary Burroughs, who was a regular Penguin about 20 years ago.
Steffanie Bjorgan, there to watch and gratefully accept donations to Red Roof Retreat, is not personally a fan of plunging into the freezing river, but said she’ll go in next year if all of town council gives it a go.
“That’s not going to happen,” said Burroughs, when he heard of the challenge — adding his Penguin days are over.