My Morning Polar Bear Dip

Alternate Post Titles – “Otters in My Basement” or “Why the Movie Cliffhanger is Bogus!”

Our basement floods. Not in the yucky sewer-sludge-backing-up kind of way. It’s more of a spring snow melt thing. The water seems to rush in through the cracks in the floor and into the sump well. I know what you’re thinking, ”Just put a sump pump down there to pump it out!” Well, as we discovered the first spring that we lived here, we do not have enough battery capacity to run a sump pump 24/7.That first year I watched the battery voltage drop precipitously even though it was a sunny day and I realized that the sump pump was running, non-stop.

The water that comes in is cold and clear and you could drink it, since it’s just snow that has melted and trickled through our lovely sandy soil. I believe it has something to do with “hydrostatic pressure.”  We have just resigned ourselves to having an indoor pool in the basement for a couple of weeks. I would prefer it if this occurred in July or August when it’s hot and humid and I might be tempted to swim in it, but such is life. It is just an unfinished concrete cellar so we don’t have to worry about carpet and big screen TVs getting wrecked.

A couple of days ago as the water rose there was stuff floating around that I decided to retrieve. I put on high rubber boots but the water was over the top of them, so I retrieved much less stuff than I had anticipated. It turns out that ice water is really cold! We have a door that goes from our basement out to our woodshed and so we opened it up and carried some items out that way. As I discussed whether or not I could face another trip through the icy water to close this door, Michelle suggested, “Well if we don’t get the door closed the only wildlife we would have to worry about getting in would be otters.” That would be awesome! I LOVE otters!

cam in flooded basement

A number of years ago we did buy a freezer and we put it in the basement. Anticipating the spring flood, we put it up on a pad of two rows of big concrete blocks. This has been fine most years. This year however, with the unprecedented amount of snow that hasn’t melted one little bit since November, we knew there was the potential for worse flooding than usual. We kept checking the water level and sure enough, one morning we realized that the water was now lapping along the bottom of the freezer. So we needed to get it up higher.  I put on my bathing suit and waded in to the icy water. I held up one end of the freezer while Michelle slid a wooden block underneath it. She was able to stay relatively dry while doing this, but I was knee deep in icy water. By the time I had waded to the far side of the freezer it was getting pretty painful. By the time Michelle had the second block in place I basically leapt on to the stairs and raced upstairs to get my legs in front of the woodstove fire.

The next morning the water was again lapping the bottom of the freezer. We needed to add another layer. So we tried a second block of wood but the first one now floated, so that didn’t work. After a few minutes of waiting for the feeling to return to my frozen feet, I went outside and grabbed two concrete blocks. Again I tilted up one end of the freezer while Michelle placed the concrete block. It went fine on the first end but as Michelle struggled to get the second concrete block under, I kind of lost control of the freezer and it fell backward into the water. It wasn’t my finest hour, but hey, it’s amazing how little control you have of your body when it’s rapidly becoming numb. So I wrestled the freezer back onto the pad and rushed back to the woodstove to thaw my feet and legs!

After a minimal thaw, I went back into the water and retrieved the concrete blocks. Then a few more minutes of fireplace warming and back into the water. This time I was much calmer and I lifted the freezer with less panic and Michelle was able to expertly manoeuvre the blocks into place. I didn’t even rush out of the water this time because I had reached the point of no return when my legs were so numb they couldn’t possibly have been any more painful.

Finally on the third day, I had the brilliant idea of wearing a wet suit into the basement. I hadn’t worn my wetsuit in years, not since I used to windsurf. This time the freezer was fine but I did want to go and retrieve the sump pump to make sure it is working just in case we get more rain and the basement water level gets any higher! The wet suit helped a little but my feet were still numb!

Cam in wet suite

cam with sump pump

Many years ago when I lived in the city and was looking for ways to escape, I went on a canoe trip with a guy I didn’t know all that well. It was in the spring shortly after the snow had melted. He was at the back steering the canoe when we came out of a stream into a lake. He promptly steered our canoe straight into the middle of the lake with whitecaps hitting the canoe sideways. I told him we should stay close to the shore but he insisted that we were fine. If we had capsized we would have been dead in a couple of minutes. He was lucky I didn’t smack him in the head with the paddle as soon as we go back on the shore. I never spoke to him again after that trip and have rarely allowed myself to be put in a situation where my fate is in some moron’s hands.

In the movie “Cliffhanger” Sylvester Stallone plunges into ice and spends about 7 minutes under the ice dodging bullets and pulling bad guys down into the ice with him. I am good at suspending disbelief when I watch movies, but that scene is definitely one of the most unrealistic ones I’ve seen. You simply couldn’t function in ice water after a minute or two.


In 1982 a plane crashed into the Potomac River in Washington D.C. Most people died but eventually a helicopter rescued a few of them. I remember watching a news report that showed a man in the water pass the rescue line to a woman. I think he did it more than once and eventually he drowned. In 1982 I was in my early 20s and I remember being in awe of this man. I believe he was the personification of the word hero. After having my legs immersed in ice cold water for several minutes, I can’t comprehend how incapacitated he must have been, and yet still managed to help fellow human beings to be rescued.

I learned this spring that I will never again canoe in a freshly thawed lake. I will never risk being on thin ice again. There is no margin for error. You would be incapacitated in minutes. Every New Year I watch people take “polar bear” plunges. I’ve always kind of wanted to do it. Now I can pretty much say that I have and I don’t want to do it again.

* * * * * * *

Meanwhile outside the snow was quickly melting and the “ladies” were enjoying a planter full of fresh green pea shoots.

chickens enjoying peashoots

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2 Responses to “My Morning Polar Bear Dip”

  • Ron and Mari:

    About 50 years ago this spring I waded into a knee deep trout stream a little over a mile downstream from a 300 foot high hydroelectric dam in NW Arkansas. I had just removed my waders from a day of trout fishing when I dropped a tackle box into the 55F water. My unprotected legs felt as if they’d break off at the knees before I could get back to the river bank with my retrieved tackle box. All this in under one minute. The pain was excruciating, and I can still “feel” it 50 years later.

    If one thinks he can withstand this type cold water (unprotected) for more than a minute or two at the most, he will immediately make a transition of phase from present to past!

  • Robert Hammond:

    As always a fascinating column. One that will send a shiver down the spine of anyone who has waded deeper than their boot tops while diagnosing a clogged sump pump! Or at least it did for me.

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Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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