Polar madness

There’s something about icy cold water that seems to bring out the come-on-I-dare-you factor among some people.

Local volunteers are taking a dip into the freezing waters of Green Lake at 2 p.m. Saturday to raise money for the Special Olympics of Minnesota. This is the sixth year the Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office and Willmar Police Department have co-sponsored the Polar Bear Plunge as part of Spicer’s annual WinterFest celebration.

Some co-workers here at the West Central Tribune participated in the Polar Bear Plunge a couple of years ago. According to them, jumping feet first into a lake in January isn’t all that bad. “Exhilarating” is how a couple of them described it.

Uh huh. Whatever you say.

The human body is reasonably well equipped to survive a dunking in chilly water – but only up to a point. An article published awhile back by the Wilderness Medicine Society outlines the physiological response to cold-water immersion:

We now appreciate that sudden immersion in cold water (less than 60 degrees) initiates a series of incapacitating reflexes that increase the risk of drowning. Indeed, the most common cause of death from accidental cold-water immersion is drowning, not hypothermia.

The initial response, which affects breathing, heart function, and muscle strength, is called the Cold-Shock Response. This is a series of reflexes that begin immediately upon sudden cooling of the skin following cold-water immersion. The initial phase of the cold-shock response peaks during the first 30 seconds, and lasts just 2 to 3 minutes. During this time, blood pressure, heart rate, and the workload of the heart all increase, making the heart more susceptible to life-threatening rhythms and heart attack. Simultaneously, gasping begins, followed by rapid and deep breathing. These reflexes can quickly lead to accidental inhalation of water and drowning. This rapid and seemingly uncontrollable over-breathing creates a sensation of suffocation and contributes to feelings of panic. It can also create dizziness, confusion, disorientation, and a decreased level of consciousness.

The author, Dr. Michael Jacobs, warns people to “be prepared for violent shivering and intense pain” if they fall into cold water. And once they manage to get out of the water, hypothermia can quickly set in.

Cold water robs the body of heat 32 times faster than cold air and can “quickly numb the extremities to the point of uselessness,” points out the U.S. Search and Rescue Task Force, which has done more than its share of cold-water rescues. The task force’s advice: “If you should fall into the water, all efforts should be given to getting out of the water by the fastest means possible.”

With the Polar Bear Plunge, of course, we’re not talking about accidental immersion. The participants tomorrow are doing this on purpose. The water isn’t deep, and EMTs will be on hand in case anyone gets into trouble. I’m told there’s also usually a hot tub available where the volunteers can warm up afterwards.

But they’re still subjecting themselves to a fair amount of discomfort – and all for a good cause. In case you’re wondering, the weather forecast for Saturday calls for a high of 13 degrees and a wind chill somewhere between 8 below and 2 above. The least the rest of us (who are either smarter or more chicken-hearted, depending on your point of view) can do is support them by donating to the Special Olympics on their behalf.

West Central Tribune file photo by Ron Adams

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