True Northern Michigan: Polar bear dippers are proving their cold mettle at winter festivals across the North these days, so we checked in with the most inveterate polar bear dipper we know—Bob Sutherland (owner of Cherry Republic, BTW). Sutherland has hopped into the waters of Lake Michigan at least once a month for nine years (108 consecutive months … and counting). Most people think he’s nuts, but when we spoke with this guru of icy swims, human Popsicle jokes fell by the wayside. Here’s a glimpse inside the physical and spiritual world Sutherland taps into with one bracing leap.
So how did this habit of yours start? Lose a bet? A dare? Temporary insanity?
Nine years ago I was [cross-country] skiing along Lake Michigan. I’d worked up a good sweat, and the lake was calm and beautiful. I just climbed over the snow and jumped. It became this thing—to see how many months I could go in a row—but now, it’s a rhythm. It’s just what I do.
No offense, but why?
It’s quite personal. I don’t participate in big polar bear dips. I come at it from a naturopathic standpoint. The cold water really charges your metabolism and gets blood recirculating.
Do you have a name for that freezing second when you come up for air?
The happiness maker.
This is starting to sound like a Zen discipline.
I can go on a two-week canoe trip and really immerse myself in my surroundings. This is the closet thing I’ve found to that sort of connection with nature. When I come out of the water, I’m right there, in the moment. I’m hyper-aware of the lake and trees and dunes. Everything is crisp, vivid. When I’m someplace like Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, I get this deep gratitude and understanding about why I live where I do.
What do you wear?
Most of the time, nothing. I do own a Speedo, but lots of the dips I do are spontaneous, like if I’m out skiing or if I finish playing basketball on a Thursday night. I’ll just go jump in without thinking about it much beforehand.
Advice for novice dippers?
When taking a shower, turn the water as cold as you can for the last 30 seconds. I do that everyday. I never go in deeper than my waist, and just dunk and get out.
One last selling point?
It’s not about the act. It’s about the finish, when you’re on the beach, with life force bursting out of your pores. That’s the moment you’ll want to repeat again and again.