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About a dozen brave souls take polar bear dip at Melmerby

Bill MacEachern, left, helps a fellow swimmer out of the waters at Melmerby Beach following a polar bear swim Monday morning. This was MacEachern’s 19th consecutive year taking part in such a swim.
Bill MacEachern, left, helps a fellow swimmer out of the waters at Melmerby Beach following a polar bear swim Monday morning. This was MacEachern’s 19th consecutive year taking part in such a swim.

MELMERBY BEACH, NS

There are a few things in life you need to do right or you can’t say you did it.

You have to cross the finish line to say you ran a marathon.

You have to put the puck in the net to say you scored a goal.

You have to go completely under water on Jan. 1 to say you did a polar bear swim.

For Bill MacEachern, on Jan. 1, 2018, he did just that. He scratched another one off his bucket list working his way to his goal of doing 25 years of consecutive polar bear swims on New Year’s Day.

He credits his daughter Kyla with getting him started on the New Year’s tradition while they were living in Cape Breton. She was only 10 at the time and, hearing about the swim, asked if her father could take her to it.

“We lived in Louisdale and the polar bear swim was just outside of Sydney. She said she wanted to go. I thought about it, I said, ‘OK, it’s a two-hour drive so if we go down and drive you all the way to Sydney, you are going in.’ I said, ‘I will have to go with you.’”

They had worked out a strategy on how they were going to do it, making sure they were in completely over their heads in the water.

“Our deal is, as long as you go, you have to go an inch under the water,” MacEachern said. “If you go an inch under the water you are good, if not, you get crapped on all year. We drove down and, of course, at 10 years old she got very nervous. There were probably 40 people at our first one. I told her when they say one, we run in, which was pretty much to her waist and we threw ourselves backwards. After that, we headed back for the warm vehicle pretty quick.”

From there, MacEachern never looked back and never missed a New Year’s polar bear swim. When the family moved back to Pictou County, he and Kyla continued the tradition with Melmberby Beach as their swim site.

“This is about five or six years at the Merb,” he said. “The first two years, it was just Kyla and I who did it. We aren’t trying to organize it. We just did it. I told a couple of people. I said, ‘We are doing the first swim. Go with us and come down.’ It is informal so no one is liable or responsible to organize it. It is 10 a.m. sharp. Show up or don’t show up.”

On this particular New Year’s Day, a large crowd gathered on The Merb to watch about a dozen brave souls follow MacEachern’s lead in the icy waters of the Northumberland Strait. A rope was nearby for safety reasons and sand was shovelled onto the icy shoreline to help give people some traction as they enter and exit the water.

Before MacEachern welcomed everyone to the beach and gave a few pointers, he took a moment to share a hug and a few words with Kyla, who opted not to jump into the water this year, but was still on hand to support her father.

He said some of the polar bear swims are more memorable than others. The first one with Kyla will always be special, but there was a time in Louisdale where they had to clear a path through the snow to get to the water.

If there was ever a time to call it quits, that would have been the year, he said, but instead they persevered. On this particular day, MacEachern said the weather is favourable. He expected it to be cold, but it wasn’t stopping him from making the plunge.

“Four years ago, we were here and it was minus 17 and wind chill of minus 26,” he said. “When you ask about the cold, that one hurt a little bit. That one stung.”

There were a few screams, but lots of smiles as everyone took a quick plunge in and out of the waters on Monday. MacEachern was the last to exit, making sure fellow swimmer got to shore safely.

Some participants said it was the coldest year yet while others said it might be awhile before they try anything like this again.

MacEachern said his feet were cold, but overall it was a good swim. Before he entered the waters, he said it is important for participants to be in the right frame of mind.

“It is a big rush and it is cold. You feel the rush, you have to have your mind set that you’re going. You can’t go in halfway and stop and then go rest of the way,” he said. “I just usually go in now and dive. I try to go under twice.”

To put it all in some perspective, MacEachern said he’s not someone who is afraid of cold weather. He is an avid marathon runner, completing a total of 88 full marathons so far, and works outside in all seasons.

“I have been running 39 years and run all winter in shorts,” he said. “If I threw a bucket of water on you, it would be worse than going in. You get back out before your body temperature drops too low. One you get your shoes and clothes off, you warm up pretty quick.”

After the swim, MacEachern continues on with his day as usual, looking forward to whatever the new year has in store.

“LIfe is for living,” he said, adding it was a friend who described the swim as something that makes a person feel alive. “It is my goal to do 25 polar bear swims. We started off first doing the one and then we had five, then 10 and we had 13 so we said we might as well do 15. The 15th one was the coldest one we did so we said we got through that so let’s do another.”

MacEachern said he doesn’t know if he will actually quit doing the swims after he reaches the 25 mark, but until he gets there, he is going to live up to the challenge and continue to fulfil his yearly New Year’s resolution.

“I keep my same resolution for many, many years,” he said. “I just to try to be a better person than I was last year. Just to be a little better. I tell people if you meet someone new today and you put a smile on someone’s face today, you had a good day. What more do you want? That is pretty easy to do.”

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