An Unwilling Polar Bear

Christina McDonough

© Copyright 2004 by Christina McDonough


 I was in this predicament because I caved in to Carlos. I was on an adventure vacation on a small Russian research ship sailing near the Arctic Circle. Carlos, the expedition leader, was from Argentina, tall and good looking with an intriguing and engaging manner. He had been pestering me for days to try the dry sauna, which he considered an absolute necessity. My answer to him each time had been something along the lines of, “I’m from Arizona. I came here to not sweat. If I want to sweat, I’ll go home and sit outside in the middle of the day.”

 This just increased his determination to have me try it. After several days, my judgment and resistance impaired by a two-hour visit to the ship’s bar, I agreed to do it with the thought that I would sit there for a couple of minutes, make some excuse and leave. Carlos, of course, wanted me to go during the scheduled co-ed hours so he could join me and further elaborate on the virtues of a dry sauna. The ship’s passengers, crew and expedition staff all shared the few amenities offered on board.

 Sitting on a wood bench, the heat closed in on me making breathing difficult. I looked again at the temperature gauge that listed both Celsius and Fahrenheit. Two hundred and ten it read on the Fahrenheit side. Sweat streamed down my body and dripped off the ends of my hair. I wondered if I should have taken out my contacts and whether they would melt to my eyes.

 A dry sauna is just what the name implies. There’s no steam or humidity. It’s hot and dry--kind of like sitting in an oven.

 The dimly lit room, about the size of an average walk-in closet, had three tiers of wood benches along three of the walls. It was after 10 pm and I was the only woman in there with seven men. We were all wearing the issued white towels and nothing else. I was sitting on the lowest level bench. When Carlos, who was sitting on the highest level, spoke to me, I turned and looked straight up his towel because he had his legs spread. I resisted the urge to giggle. I didn’t know if he was aware of what was visible.

 Because co-ed hours were later, I didn’t think it would be very busy and was mostly surprised to see the men that were there. One that was not much of a surprise, was Larry from New York. Larry was in his mid-to-late forties, tall with dark hair and projected a smug, self-satisfied attitude. He was annoying, socially challenged, seemed to go out of his way to make rude and inappropriate statements, and thought himself to be an expert on every subject. Unluckily for me, he developed some sort of crush on me our second day on board, and taken to following me around the ship. This was noticed by many of the other passengers and the crew, and I was teased endlessly about it. We were twelve days into the fifteen-day trip, and I was completely exasperated with him. Not surprisingly, he had somehow found out I was going to be in the sauna and made sure to be present.

 After a few more minutes of sitting and cooking, Larry and another man got up and left. Carlos explained that you sit in the sauna for about 10 minutes, then go out on deck and jump in the sauna pool, which was filled with continuously circulating sea water. Isn’t that water freezing, I wanted to know. He said that was the point. You stayed in it for five minutes, then walked around deck in the 35-degree night air, which would feel warm after the 30-degree water, until you just started to feel cold. That meant you had equalized. Then you went back to the sauna and started the whole process all over again. You were supposed to do it a total of three times.

 I said I would go out on deck, but there was no way he would get me in the freezing water. He smiled and said that was part of the ritual.

 A few minutes later, as I was wondering who had ever thought of the concept of a sauna and whether I would pass out or not, Larry and the other man came back in dripping wet. Larry told anyone who would listen that he was a member of the Polar Bear Club in New York. This club’s members pride themselves on jumping into freezing water. He gushed about how great he felt and tried to sit next to me. I told him no. With a disappointed sigh, he went back to his original seat.

 Carlos said it was time for us to go out on deck. Larry eagerly offered to accompany me to the sauna pool so he could witness my transformation into a Polar Bear Club member. “No, Larry,” I said testily, “I’m not going in. Just stay on your bench.”

 The night air felt wonderful and not at all cold even though I was covered in sweat and there was a breeze. The sauna pool was on the open deck right outside the door. It was eight feet square and about 10 feet deep. Carlos dropped his towel and jumped in. I was a little surprised and felt like giggling again, so I went around the corner to give him some privacy. He kept calling for me to join him and I kept saying no. He soaked a few minutes, got out and came toward me.

 He tried convincing me how great it was, then tried daring me. I continued saying no, but was actually considering it. He kept pestering me saying I should at least once have the experience of having done this. I got up, walked back to the pool and dipped my foot in. It was so cold it almost burned. I gasped and started to back away. Carlos came over and said no, no, no, just leap in. If I tried to go slow, I wouldn’t do it. I told him to go around the corner and give me a minute; I had to think about this. He said, “What is there to think about, just jump.”

 “Go,” I told him. He did, but kept peeking around the corner to offer advice and encouragement.

 “Go on,” I said and flicked my hand at him. He withdrew and I started to take the towel off. He poked his head around again saying to just jump. I grabbed the towel back around me.

 “Stop looking,” I said through gritted teeth. He retreated. I watched the corner where he disappeared for a minute or so. I felt reasonably sure he would stay out of sight, so I took the towel off, tossed it to a nearby chair and stepped on the first rung of the ladder in the pool. Carlos popped back around the corner and asked if I had gone in yet. In that split second, all I could think was that he could see me naked. I leapt in.

 I didn’t mean for my head to go under, but when I hit the water, I sank like a stone. The shock of the icy water was like a body slap that both stunned and knocked the wind out of me. I couldn’t think or move for several seconds. The water felt heavy, like it was pushing me down. With great effort, I managed to flop my arms and legs enough to move me upwards. I’m a good swimmer, but the cold seemed to numb my memory of how to swim. At that moment, I doubt I could have remembered my own name. When my head broke the surface, I was gasping, coughing and floundering about.

Carlos was at the pool’s edge excitedly congratulating me. I sputtered, “This sucks,” and did an awkward dog paddle to the ladder. As I tried to haul myself out, Carlos started to push me back in saying I hadn’t been in long enough (Really? It felt like I’d been in there an hour). I shoved his hand away. At this point, I didn’t care anymore if he could see me naked. I climbed out, grabbed my towel, wrapped up in it, and stood there dripping and shaking with my teeth chattering. Carlos pointed out how good I should feel and then Larry was there. He had rushed out when he heard all of the commotion.

 “You jumped in for him?’ he said in disbelief. “I’ve been trying to get you in this whole trip.”

 I glared at him and said, “That sucked and I am never doing it again. If you like it, you’re nuts.”

 Larry brightened up and said I was now a polar bear just like him.

 I am a library secretary who writes in her spare time. I often feel like I am on the long, scenic route through life, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I look for opportunities to have different experiences, and believe that life should be an adventure.

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