Personal Statement: A Meditation on Polar Bears
Every summer growing up, my entire extended family went to a tiny summer camp on a tiny lake in southwestern Michigan for one week. Normally, swaths of children from grade school to high school occupied the campgrounds, but we went for what's called "Family Furlough," the period when only families were allowed. Each summer I'd anticipate that second week in July when I could spend my days adventuring with cousins — catching toads on wooded paths, floating in canoes to catch map turtles in the marshes and diving off the floating dock at the deepest part of the lake.
But there were always limits to my adventurous zeal. There were always those adventures that were ultimate, rising above the others in daringness required and prestige acquired after conquering them. For me, this ultimate adventure was jumping in the lake with the group of campers and counselors who went each morning before breakfast.
Each night at dinner, one of the roving young staffers would remind us enthusiastically that “polar bears” — the lake jumpers — would meet on the beach at 6:30 a.m. This band of brazen souls amazed me. Not only would they wake up at 6:30 — they would wake up to jump in the freezing morning water. Sure, it was July, but the sun still made a difference for the Midwestern freshwater.
What the polar bears did always seemed so unreachable. I couldn't fathom how they willed themselves out of bed and mustered the hardiness to expose their bodies to the elements like that. I so badly wanted to be one of those brave ones, but none of my cousins ever went in the morning, and I was too shy to go alone. I imagined the freshening rush they must’ve felt, emerging from the water and wrapping up in a towel, warming in the quiet camaraderie of experiences shared in the early hours.
Though my family still goes to camp every year, I've yet to become a polar bear — by the time I'd grown confident enough to go, I figured I was too old. I had resigned to the fact that polar bears would just never be my adventure the way toad-catching, turtle-catching and dock-diving had been. Even so, I still feel the pang of longing when the 6:30 a.m. wake-up call is announced at dinner.
Not unreasonably, I kind of thought that would be it — that my chances to jump in a lake surrounded by woods with a group of people in the summer were pretty much over. Last summer, however, I found myself in a situation similar to camp in many ways, while partaking in the University of Michigan’s New England Literature Program, where students take college courses in the unconventional setting of the New Hampshire wilderness.
The program was housed at a summer camp whose grounds were sprinkled with cabins centered around a big dining hall, not unlike the one we dined in during Family Furlough. The other students and I were there for six weeks from early spring to early summer, which means it was still pretty cold. Despite this, the lake that bordered the grounds seemed to dare me to swim in it. This could be my second chance.
At our first dinner all together in the spacious, high-ceilinged dining hall, one of the younger instructors, Everett, announced he'd be jumping in the lake at 7:30 every morning, and that anyone was welcome to meet him on the steps of the dining hall to come with. It wasn’t 6:30, but the significantly colder water made the idea of jumping in just as ultimate, just as untouchable.
I turned to face my new friend, Liam, and he pre-empted my question by stating immediately that he'd be on those front steps bright and early. Since his bed was next to mine in our cabin, I told him he should wake me up when he went and to make me come with him. I knew it wouldn't be easy.
That night after dinner we did our reading by lamplight and went to bed plenty early so we'd have enough for the task that would be before us come morning.
I woke up to Liam tapping me on the shoulder, standing over my bed wearing the clothes he had on the night before — it was so cold inside our unheated, fireplace-less cabin that it wasn't even worth changing before going to sleep. I whispered a groggy "good morning" and looked above my head at the spring light leaking through the cracks in the shutters of the window, shining through the cabin door. With a quick stretch I peeled myself out of my sleeping bag, letting the 40-degree air welcome me to the waking hours. I told Liam I'd meet him there, grabbed my swimsuit and towel, then rushed to the bathroom to change, knowing if I didn't exit the cabin soon, I'd fall back into bed.
I tumbled half-awake out of the cabin into the day-lit woods, hearing the echoes of woodpeckers in the distance and the songs of milder birds nearby. After changing, I ambled over woodchip paths to the front steps of the dining hall, where Everett and Liam sat exchanging what few words they could in this cold morning hour.
We went to the front steps of the dining hall to meet Everett, then the three of us went down to the dock.
Standing on the wooden planks we stared out at the water as yet undisturbed by boats or swimming bodies, then looked at one another solemnly, accepting our inevitable fate. It was time. Flinging off our shoes and extra layers, our breath made steam clouds as we jogged in place to work up the adrenaline for the jump.
"Ready?" Everett said. Liam and I nodded very seriously. "One. Two. Three." A blood-curdling scream emerged from my lungs and echoed through the morning air for a split second before I was totally submerged. All at once, the cold rush enveloped me, the lake welcoming me to its silent depths. As soon as my body caught its bearings, I pushed myself upward, and right when my head escaped the freezing quiet of underwater, Liam and Everett's shouts of nonsense profanities echoed through the dry air. Soon I joined in as we all lunged toward the ladder to get back onto the dock.
We did this every morning, and it wasn't long before our friend Caroline joined and we became the four most consistent jumpers. We started this tradition with Everett and Liam singing the "Rocky" theme song while Caroline and I pretended to hum along, all four of us jogging in a circle, doing random arm motions to get pumped up before the plunge. There were mornings over those six weeks that I didn't want to go — I was too tired, I didn't want to be cold, or I had too much reading to do. I did skip some mornings, but never without regret.
I wasn't quite sure why I was doing this thing. I didn't care about polar bears that much, but jumping in the lake each morning felt significant. My great friend who led me to this literature program in the woods also loved jumping in water at daybreak, something she told me before I left for this place. Although polar bears and my friend's account had to have influenced my thinking, I don't think these are the real reasons I kept jumping in.
Thoreau, whose work we read as part of the program, jumped in water too. In “Walden,” he writes:
“Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself. … I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did. … Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again.”
Maybe that was it — I relished in the daily renewal. Now, at school, my heart aches for that invigoration. When I wake up, I roll out of bed, clothe myself and stride onto the sidewalk only to sit in a library or classroom for hours, bent — albeit happily — over a book or my keyboard, reading and writing away. I miss the severe, utter, intense sensation with which I began each morning in the lake, making myself breathless in desperation to get out of the cold, cold water.
This summer I'll be settled in the land-locked metropolis of Columbus, Ohio, unfortunately a car ride away from any large bodies of water. But before I settle into the rhythm of summer jobs, my family has a trip planned for my grandparents' anniversary. We'll be staying in a house on a lake in Maryland, and I think the water will be pretty cold. I'm looking forward to jumping in each morning, and it's likely only my grandma will be awake with me. I know I'll miss Liam and Everett and Caroline, but I wonder if these solo jumps might be a little more like Thoreau's when he lived in solitude those couple of months in the woods. Either way, the simple touch of water and the struggle of emerging anew, back onto the land again, will be enough for me.
Regan Detwiler is an LSA junior and a former editorial page editor of The Michigan Daily.