Although the Boxing Day Penguin Dip was cancelled to avoid crowds of people gathering at Ball’s Beach, veteran Penguin Chris Bjorgan says there was an official 45th annual swim, albeit a small one, to ensure the annual tradition carried on uninterrupted.
“It would have been sad to see that come to an end,” he says. “Now we can say it’s been continuous. It was an official swim.”
Bjorgan, 63, and two friends took their customary plunge, with no crowd to watch except for a few passersby. One of them stayed to watch, and took some photos for them, he says.
His two fellow swimmers were also long-standing veterans and official Penguins, having done their three swims “over and over again,” a requirement to be a member of the club. They asked not to be named, although, as Bjorgan points out, they weren’t breaking any lockdown rules by being there.
“There was nothing we did that was even remotely against COVID restrictions,” he says. “We were all just out getting a little exercise, which is what the government is encouraging us to do.”
It was a good day for a swim, he adds. There was a little bit of snow on the ground, there were no waves or wind, and although it was a crisp winter day, “when you come out of the water, it feels quite comfortable.” The water “does something to your skin” so that the air temperature feels warmer than it actually is, he says. “It felt really good.”
There was no large, heated truck to warm up in, as there usually is, so he left his truck running in a private driveway near the beach — parking at Ball’s Beach is nonexistent, “although that’s another story.”
The improvements at the beach made for a good dip, he says. “It’s nice and sandy down there now.”
In recent years the swim has been a fundraiser for Red Roof Retreat, which was founded by his sister-in-law Steffanie Bjorgan. The milestone anniversaries have been the best, bringing out a bigger crowd of swimmers and spectators, and raising much-needed funds for the organization which provides overnight care and day programs for children and young adults with special needs.
Bjorgan was disappointed that this couldn’t happen this year, at a time when all fundraising events have been cancelled, but those who would like to help out can still donate at https://www.redroofretreat.com/donate.
Bjorgan says he heard there might have been some swimmers at Ryerson Park, but he hasn’t been able to confirm that.
There were, however, two official Penguins who took the plunge at Lion’s Beach, as the locals call the strip of sand by Queen’s Royal Park.
Sisters Rebecca and Rachel Saylor first joined the event nine years ago, with their uncle Rick Mills and some of their cousins.
They have been back every year since, except for one, making the Ball’s Beach event part of their Boxing Day tradition.
“Our first dip was in 2012,” says Rachel. “As a family, my sister and I, with Uncle Rick and his son Alexander, did three years in a row to become official penguins. Then my sister and I continued on. We did miss one year in 2017. Yesterday marked our eighth dip in nine years.”
This year, they wanted to see the tradition continue, but that was only part of their motivation.
“We had talked about it when we found out it was cancelled,” says Rachel.
“Part of what we like about it is doing something not everybody else is doing. We like the tradition, and we like that it’s a community event. So much else during COVID has been taken away from us or changed, and we figured this was something we could still do. We didn’t have the community present, but it was still fun.”
Their mother Kim was at the beach to take pictures, so the women would have proof they had done the dip. They saw only one other person, who was parked near the beach, and stayed to watch. “He gave us a little ‘good for you’ when we got out,” says Rachel.
They chose to go into the water by Queen’s Royal Park because they found last year’s event at Ball’s Beach a little challenging. There are large boulders there now to climb over in order to get in and out of the water, “and when you’re coming out and your legs are numb, it’s difficult. Rebecca had a little slip, and didn’t realize she’d scraped her leg. You can’t really feel anything,” says Rachel.
“Lion’s Beach is easier to get in and out of, and it’s sandy.”
The only problem is that the water is shallow, and the women had to go a long way out to take the plunge. They did that three times, although they didn’t come all the way back to the beach between dips.
“It looked really cold, with the snow, and we were psyching ourselves to get in. Once we were in, we thought, it’s not that bad, but then the numbing starts and it’s hard to catch your breath. But it’s very refreshing, and I always come out feeling good.”
The Saylor sisters say they both missed their grandmother, Vi Mills, who passed away last February. Mills taught swimming, life-guarded and supervised the local public swimming program up until her retirement at 80 years of age, in 2014, teaching generations of children how to swim.
They followed in her footsteps, teaching swimming and life-guarding for the Town, with Rebecca taking on the job of supervisor of the summer swim program in recent years.
Rachel was working at the YMCA pool at the McBain Centre until December, when staff was laid off due to COVID. With the exception of some Niagara Falls city staff who have offices in the building, the centre is closed, and Rachel is uncertain what the future holds for her. “I have to believe something better will come along,” she says.
Rebecca is working as a supervisor in child care for the YMCA.
Mills used to go to the beach to support her family members and cheer them on when they joined the Penguin Dip, says Rachel, and in the last few years, would be at home on Castlereigh Street waiting for them when they were finished. “We’d get out of our frozen bathing suits and she’d have hot chocolate waiting for us. We definitely missed her this year. She was on our minds.”
They were close to their grandmother, she says, and have missed her presence this year.
Their grandmother never participated in the dip, says Rachel, “but loved to bundle up and come watch her family.” Plus, she knew many more participants in the community, including the Bjorgan family, and having her there was part of the tradition.
COVID, which began shortly after their grandmother’s death, “hit us hard. It numbed a lot of things for us. There was no candlelight stroll, no Christmas Parade, and we always did those things with her.”
Although they miss their grandmother, it feels good to think about her, says Rachel, and to know they were able to carry on one of the traditions that reminds them of her.