One cool morning in late October, my friend Bob and I finished our daily run as we customarily had all summer, with a plunge in the lake.
"This could be our last swim of the season, if the forecast is accurate," I said.
Sure enough, a few days later, as predicted, a furious Nor'easter dumped up to 2 feet of snow on parts of the state, temporarily putting a damper on any thoughts of leaping into the water.
I know this sounds a little disingenuous coming from someone with a reputation for polar pursuits – I've used this forum to chronicle winter mountaineering climbs in sub-zero, 100-mph conditions, overnight bivouacs in snow caves and a longstanding annual New Year's tradition that involves running 10 miles and jumping into Fishers Island Sound (by the way, I'll be writing about that event in a couple of weeks) but my dirty little secret is that like most people, I really hate cold water.
And Bob, who has so little body fat than he bundles up with a hat, mittens and parka when the temperature drops below 50, detests it even more. So why do we push the envelope year after year, to see how late in the season we can tolerate swimming in the lake?
A simple answer would be machismo – neither of us wants to give the other any satisfaction by being the first to wimp out – but a more charitable response would be that even an instant of icy immersion accentuates the essence of existence. The heart races, the nerves tingle; you are never more alive.
At least that's what I tell myself when I'm thrashing around and whooping like a lunatic. My rule of thumb is it doesn't count unless you submerge completely and actually swim a few strokes.
Anyway, within days of the fluke Halloween weekend storm, warm weather melted the snow and Bob and I resumed our post-run ablutions. For the most part the season continued to be unusually mild, but after a few hard frosts dropped the water temperature to the 40s in mid-November our bracing swims really became a test of wills.
By the end of the month the wind shifted, bringing down Canadian air, trees lost all their leaves, lily pads withered, and bluegills, which always aggressively nibbled at our toes if we stopped wading for more than five seconds, seemed lethargic.
Once again I found myself saying, "I guess we're done for the season."
Bob was only too happy to agree.
But then one morning a southern breeze brought the temperature close to 60.
"OK, one last time," I said after we finished a 5-mile run.
We loped to the edge of the lake, took off our shirts and shoes, and took headlong leaps. You can't be timid with icy water.
I managed to flail half a dozen strokes before penetrating gelidity induced paralysis of my limbs.
I stumbled back to shore and threw my shirt back on. My hands shook and my numbed fingers curled into a claw so I couldn't tie the laces on my shoes.
"Well, we made it to December," I stammered.
Bob and I have never kept records but I don't think we've ever extended our swims to the last month of the year.
As for the year's first dip, I'm pretty sure we took our inaugural 2011 swim in late March. If you remember, last January and February were particularly brutal, so I seriously doubt we started that early – but now that we've broken the ice, so to speak, with a December swim we may try to dive in at least once in every month during 2012.
Speaking of ice, that could be a problem. The lake almost always freezes over for several weeks, and I don't think I'm sufficiently crazed to smash a hole in the frozen surface just so I can suffer exquisite pain.
On the other hand, it would provide an entire year of bragging rights. Hmmm.
I'll let you know how we fare.