LIBBY – The digital clock in Polar Bear Rick’s gym bag, sitting on the frozen river rocks next to Libby Creek on Jan. 15, said 2:04 p.m. The air temperature was a balmy 22.2 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, and the creek itself was bubbling along at 34.1 degrees.
“It’s getting warmer,” Polar Bear Rick, whose given name is Rick Klin, said. “It’s half a degree warmer than last week.”
He stood wearing shorts in the shade under the bridge of Farm to Market Road, while I tried to soak up the sunshine and considered heading back up the path that Rick had carved in the hillside snow next to the road, walking back across the bridge, sitting in my warm car, and forgetting I’d ever heard of the Libby Polar Bear Club.
But, unlike any other winter recreation activity, thinking is the last thing you want to do out here, not when you’ve gotten this far, this close. The swim was supposed to start at 2:05 p.m., sharp, and I’d driven 83 miles to be here.
I started the unnatural process of disrobing in 22-degree weather, shedding my down jacket, sweatshirt, fleece pants, even my socks and shoes. In just hiking shorts and a tank top, I slipped on some old tennis shoes.
Polar Bear Rick, 74, wearing swimming trunks held up by worn suspenders, took off his polar bear hat, announced it was 2:05 p.m., and waded into the creek’s waters. He dove in like a sea lion, submerging his barrel-like body underwater until he popped up in a dead-man’s float. Then, after letting out a whoop, he settled in next to a rock and covered his exposed torso in fresh snow.
Steve Sonju, another Libby swimmer, went in up to his calves, then dove in quickly. Rick cheered and then started blowing bubbles in the creek like an excited toddler at swimming lessons.
I knew then it was my turn.
Snow spilled into my flimsy sneakers as I followed Rick’s path to a pool with just enough depth that I could do a quick dolphin dive and run back out. It would only be about 15 seconds of my life, I kept telling myself; it would be over soon.
Cold air has a way of motivating you when you’re not properly dressed for it, and I figured my feet were already starting to lose feeling, so what’s the harm in doing that to my whole body?
“Plenty of harm!” my brain screamed. “All of the harm you worry about in winter!”
Still, I moved forward. My feet hit the liquid, and I marveled at how the water, while still really cold, felt warmer than the air. This is stupid, this is stupid, this is stupid, I thought.
“No thinking, no thinking, no thinking,” I mumbled fervently as a prayer.
And then I jumped.
The scene under the bridge last week was only unusual in its normalcy. Regular travelers of Libby’s Farm to Market Road could set their watches by the consistency and exactitude of the Libby Polar Bear Club.
Led by Polar Bear Rick, who serves as president of the club, the brave members take to the waters of Libby Creek every Sunday at 2 p.m. from October to April, making sure to catch only the coldest months of the year.
It goes against every natural instinct to coerce your body into water sitting just above the 32-degree freezing mark, and the polar bears here are used to people assuming they’re a few ice bricks shy of an igloo.
Rick doesn’t mind. After taking polar-bear dips for the last 40 years, many of which last at least 30 minutes in the water, opinions about what he does don’t phase him. And he doesn’t offer up much in the way of explanations, other than the simplest kind.
“I do it because I can and it doesn’t bother me,” he said.
He knows there’s little he can say to explain it to people who’ve never jumped, but he loves going in the cold water. Going for these swims has been part of his life since he moved to Montana in the 1970s from his native Illinois, where he’d grown up in Chicago.
Life there was dictated by Lake Michigan’s whims, but Rick didn’t start his specialized swimming until he got to Montana.
“I started when I moved to Montana in 1970, because the water was crystal clear compared to the mucky stuff I was used to,” Rick said. “I rolled up my pant legs and went into the lake in August. I wanted to learn to love the water, because I love water.”
Rick and his family were living in Hamilton in the Bitterroot Valley when they landed in the state, and it was there Rick started his first polar bear club. The family moved to Libby 34 years ago, and Rick brought the idea of the club with him. The Libby polar bears have been swimming together for 18 years.
Rick’s wife, Dorothy, used to come with him, but that was before she had knee surgery; the hill down to the creek is steep and too much for her anymore, Rick said. It’s almost too much for him as well — last week, he said the hardest part about polar bearing is getting to the creek when he needs new knees. His balance is a bit wonky, but that doesn’t matter when he’s floating.
Steve, the club’s vice president, has been swimming with Rick for about 12 years. They’ve been friends for longer, having played volleyball together on a team that traveled to Eureka for games every Wednesday night for 20 years, but Steve didn’t hit the water until January 2004.
He knows the exact date because Polar Bear Rick gives everyone a certificate to mark his or her first leap; if you jump 12 times in a season, you get a membership card. Steve is also straight to the point about his reasons behind jumping into the creek.
“For a while I didn’t want to do it, and I decided to try it. And (Rick) was enthusiastic about it,” Steve said. “I guess I just wanted to come down there with Rick. He does it all the time and after you start doing it a while, you get kind of used to it.”
Building a tolerance over 40 years is how Rick explains his ability to stay in water that sends others into a screaming panic. After starting the club in Hamilton, cold water became part of his life. His son, Ben, 51, said he’s always remembered his dad this way.
“That’s my dad; he’s always been doing it,” Ben said at Rick’s shop in Libby, Tech Appliance and RV Repair.
The shop is papered with photos from previous polar bearing expeditions, with a special section dedicated to the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Rick said they got in touch with him after they found him online while they were stationed in Iraq. They told him their water heater had gone out three weeks earlier and they were taking cold showers for the better part of a month; they wondered if they could be honorary members of the club. Rick obliged, taking a picture with an American flag and a message for the division during his next swim.
Polar Bear Rick is also a recognizable figure at the annual New Year’s polar bear swim at Lake Coeur d’Alene, where he’s known to float and splash for half an hour when the average swimmer stays in for about 16 seconds.
Other polar bears noticed Rick’s absence at the event this year, since he’s been there for the last 14 years, but that was because New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday this year. If it’s Monday through Friday, he’ll go to Idaho. But if it’s Sunday, he’s at Libby Creek. Even Easter Sunday, on which he wore bunny ears over his polar bear hat.
“Once every seven years, New Year’s Day falls on Sunday and I stay here,” Rick said.
It also has to be Libby Creek, Rick said, and not the Kootenai River, which may be easier to access. But the Kootenai flows from a dam, and runs about 8 degrees warmer than the creek. Another rule is that no one, not even Rick, is allowed to swim alone.
“We do the buddy system: One standing, one swimming, or two swimming,” Rick said. “If I went in alone, my wife would kill me.”
Rick’s affinity for the cold expands beyond his Sunday afternoons. He wakes up each day to take a cold shower before work, and can’t stand hot drinks like coffee. He also won’t swim during the summer – the water is too warm.
“The cold water has no effect on me whatsoever,” Rick said. “It doesn’t feel like anything.”
His routine on Sundays is both precise and lax. The group, which ranges from one person — Rick is always there — to seven or so, always goes in at 2:05 p.m. It used to be 1 p.m., but folks had trouble getting there quickly enough from church.
Once he’s in the water, Rick takes a little time to himself.
“I just walk in and sort of dive in like a little whale or a fish, you know — I stretch out and I do a dead-man’s float,” he said. “I just look around with my eyeballs open and I finally pop up and I sit in the water up to my neck and watch everyone else jump in.”
Then, he likes to roll around in the snow or rub it all over his torso while swimming. When it’s time to get out, Rick only towels off his head so he can put his hat back on, and leaves his body to air-dry. He wears gloves and booties only to combat Raynaud’s Syndrome, which affects circulation in the extremities. Last Sunday after the swim, he stood on the bridge in his suspendered swim trunks, polar bear hat, and little else while talking to passersby he knew.
Of course, there are safety considerations for all swimmers, especially the new ones without four decades of tolerance built into their systems. (When asked what he thought would happen if I tried to stay in the water for 30 minutes, Rick immediately responded, “You would die.”)
A page of club recommendations for swimming tells prospective plungers about the risks, and advises against jumping for those with bad hearts or kidneys, or poor circulation. Shoes are also required, because a swimmer might not be able to feel if they cut their foot otherwise.
Both of his doctors approve of his swims, Rick said; studies conducted on cold-water swimmers in San Francisco showed that the swimmers are healthier than the average American, but they can’t say whether that’s due to the cold or the regular exercise.
But again, Rick doesn’t quite care about all of that. When asked if he thinks the cold water helps with his knees, he said he didn’t know, hadn’t thought of it.
He just likes to swim.
My head was first to go underwater, and I was aware of every millimeter of skin on my 5-foot-10 frame that followed afterward. There was a sense of cold, like I expected, but it was cold unlike I’ve experienced it; childhood ice-fishing trips to Georgetown Lake flashed in my mind.
Instead of cold that slips down your neck and makes you shiver, this hit my system in a flash of alarm, all my natural defenses hitting the highest klaxon levels as I slipped through the creek’s weak current.
I can’t tell you now if I even touched the bottom with my hands, or where I ended up. All I know is that when my head came back through that water and into the frigid air, Polar Bear Rick was cheering and I was no longer in control of my torso.
Sounds like those from an enraged, hooting owl escaped my lips in the pattern of a triggered car alarm, and my ribcage flat-out refused to expand beyond the sharpest, tiniest breath. I assumed I’d have control of my facial expressions, but I very much did not as what I’m sure was pure animal panic flashed across my features.
Polar Bear Rick kept floating in the water that had just rendered me useless.
I fumbled in my bag for a towel, marveling again at the difference in air and water temperature. I felt the oily, seductive voice of hypothermia calling to me faintly, trying to convince me I could also stand on the shore of the creek wrapped only in a damp towel and soaked clothes. But I knew it was deadly cold out there; I just couldn’t feel it. My whole body was numb.
Slipping what I then assumed were no longer my feet but instead solid blocks of ice out of my shoes, I made myself put on more layers. The severity of the situation hit me when my towel kept flash-freezing to the river rocks under my feet.
A quick glance at the clock in Rick’s bag told me it was 2:09 p.m.
I ran my towel through my frozen hair, my body electric as blood pumped hard and fast through my veins. There was something my limbs and core liked about this, I realized, a certain rush and primal euphoria of being extremely present in one’s own skin. But I knew this was a tenuous place, that if I stayed still and enjoyed the feeling, I’d start shivering, and then I’d be close to trouble.
Saying my goodbyes to Polar Bears Rick and Steve, I trekked back up the hill and across the bridge to my car. I was able to start feeling my individual toes about 10 miles down the road, and even as I reveled in the heat pumping from the car’s engine, I could already feel the seed of another bad idea taking root.
“Maybe I’ll do this again sometime,” I thought, as my body thawed out on the drive back to Kalispell.
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