Archive:  Year 3 - March 19th, 2009 "Polar Bears and Boxers"

The past couple of weeks on the River have been among the most chaotic and dramatic I’ve experienced down here.  The temperatures bobbed continually – jumping 70 degrees in two days; and every boat is alive with maintenance and Spring preparations. 

Perhaps it was fitting that Winter landed one last closed-fist blow - to both Gracie and I - before leaving for good.  

On Saturday March 7th, I emceed the Minneapolis Police Department’s Polar Bear Plunge into Lake Calhoun.  This is an annual event and fundraiser for Special Olympics and the second year I held the mic.  Over 1,000 people expected to show up, strip down and (in an orderly manner) jump into a big hole cut into the 2-foot thick ice.  Last year I had a great time emceeing, but flatly refused to plunge.  The constant threat of falling in to ice cold water is simply too imminent for the idea of jumping in deliberately to sound fun to me.  It’s my nightmare, frankly.  

This year, however, I made a miss-timed challenge to one of the officers - if he would plunge, so would I 

Guh.  He would.

It was a relatively warm Winter day – low 30’s, but it was overcast and there was a steady breeze blowing across the lake.  At 11AM the first plungers go in – among them, the Mayor, local tv news personalities, a mascot or two.  The next couple of hours are a steady stream of people – sometimes individuals who are plunging alone for a cause or a loved one; sometimes groups of friends in matching speedos… it’s quite a parade.  My job is to announce the teams’ names, and their last words.  In the downtime, I remind the crowd of the sponsors, the beneficiaries, and sometimes try too hard to be funny.  

We had decided that Sgt. Sheldon and I would jump last.  The swan song, if you will.  Having watched the technique of so many plungers before us, I concluded that a full-submerge was the most impressive.  The water is only about 3-4’ deep, so one can sort of Polar Bear hop into the water and scurry to the climb out.  Your arms don’t even have to get wet. 

Diving is out of the question, of course, but doing a proper and complete plunge was important to me. 

When my head came up from under the water, I couldn’t breath in or out – as if I had jumped into cork.  I shuddered and sputtered and for a few seconds it felt as if I was being sliced by a thousand razors.  A very unattractive, zombie like tumble to the steps and equally ridiculous scamper to the hot-tub… and the rest was high-fives and cocktails.  Not bad.

Less impressive was the plunge that Gracie took into the River about a week later.

On Monday, a surprising break in the weather granted we - the pasty white and disgruntled river people - a welcome chance to sit in t-shirts and drink beer around the firepit.  The ice is totally gone from the River and a majority of Her banks, but the Marina remains crusted over with a persistent 3-6” of slushy ice.  The dogs were running around off-leash, as usual, as we talked idly and gazed at the summer-ish landscape with a great sense of accomplishment.  

I looked around and called fro Gracie, wanting to give her a treat -  some token she might understand of the goodness of the moment…  Gracieeee.   


No Grace.  No familiar jangle of her collar.  

So I got up and looked around – hoping she was not rolling in anything or taking herself on a walk down the beach.  No.  Not there.  Not there either… and my heart started to sink.

A couple of other boaters also started to call for Gracie and I was just heading down the dock to see if she – totally out of character – had gone home early.

And then…  “Oh my god, Dawn – I see her.  Oh no!”

I followed Linda’s pointing finger out into the marina and saw Gracie struggling and splashing in a hole in the ice.

Blind panic.  I could not get to her, I could not throw anything to her – the only moderately safe option was to go all the way around the marina – ½ mile to the other side, closer to where she was, and with a shallower bank.

I threw what I was holding and ran to the boat to get my keys just as I heard Linda shout – “Dawn, come on – I’ve got my keys.”

I yelled to Captain D – looking on in equal horror “watch her.  Keep watching her.  She can’t go under!”

Linda’s car barreled a Duke’s-of-Hazard-inspired haul to the opposite shore and before it had even stopped, I was out and running down the embankment to the edge of the water.  Gracie was still splashing in the hole she had fallen through – about 20’ from where I stood – and I immediately began to crawl out on the ice towards her.  

The ice was slushy, but thick, and Linda was on the dock, watching it and me with great diligence.  A concerned fisherman had pulled over and was at the edge of the ice pleading with me not to keep going.

“Ma’am, please don’t do this,” he cooed.  “Ma’am – please, you can’t help her if you go in.”

I wasn’t able to articulate what some part of my brain was aware of – that yes, he was right; this was ill-advised – but that there was simply no way I could let my dog drown.

Instead, I got down on my belly and began to soldier-crawl toward her and said to him sharply – “You will have to get me.”

Seconds later, I got to the hole in the ice, took hold of Gracie’s collar, and pulled her to me.  We scooted, indelicately, to the dock where Linda and I lifted her up, and then the three of us collapsed in exhaustion.  It was okay.  Everything is okay.

Within moments, Gracie shook off the water and was wagging her tail - grinning at us un-phased.  As for me, my knees are still shaking.  

We both had bacon when we got home.

The whole thing brings into focus the greater truth about what Spring is all about, however.  Like most transitions, it carries with it inherent trauma.  Already, the otters have used the open patches of water to catch giant carp – leaving their huge carcasses for the crows to pick clean.  It’s hard to miss that everything is waking up… even the dark and dangerous things.  It’s part of the bargain.

That being said, I don’t know what I would have done if the River had taken Gracie.  Like when that woman’s Chimpanzee in Connecticut ripped her friends’ face and hands off… 

Instead, however, it seems as if the relationship between the three of us is undamaged.  I eyed up my kayak this afternoon…  If we’re going to go in anyway, it may as well be in style. 

I’ll take it.

Next Post: April 17th, 2009 "On the Road Again"

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