CANSO — “Wear sneakers.”
That’s the simple – yet important – advice Mike Geddes provides for prospective participants in the community’s polar bear dip, which will take place on New Year’s Day at the Canso Marina at 1 p.m.
Noting the entrance into the water can be a rocky one, he offered that going barefooted is frowned upon, while prohibited for children who participate; preventing falls and cut feet top of mind for organizers.
Tom Curry, who has rang in the new year with a plunge at Mahoney’s Beach in Antigonish County for more than a decade, provided similar foot-related counsel.
“If you can wear water shoes, do it,” the highly regarded entertainer and music therapist said, noting it can “get slippery” on the dash to and while in the water.
From head to toe, both men agreed that the annual swim is a whole lot of fun.
“It is a great time – a great way to ring in the new year,” Curry said.
Geddes added, “People really look forward to it.”
As for the Canso celebration, it will mark its 34th anniversary on the first day of 2024.
Although there are few specifics on its genesis, Geddes said the local polar bear dip – by most accounts – was born of a pledge made amidst the revelry of a New Year’s Eve on one particular year. Some of those who voiced their interest came through on the following morning.
Similarly, the Mahoney’s Beach swim is the result of a party to ring in a new year. One of those who participated in that conversation – and made that inaugural dip – is Peter Murphy, a filmmaker from the Antigonish County hamlet who became the de facto patriarch of the celebration. His wife, renowned artist Anna Syperek, and their daughters – Rosemary, Susie and Noella – have also been mainstay participants over the years.
Reflecting on the annual rite, when asked to share some memories, Susie told The Journal, “A few involve dressing up as Celtic warriors – Braveheart style – and getting pumped up before running in.”
She added, “I think there were a few wooden staffs and some whiskey involved, too.”
The Syperek-Murphy family home, which overlooks the popular beach, became the place to be for many swimmers, including Curry, for post-plunge festivities.
“It has become a really great tradition,” he offered of the Antigonish County swim, while adding the specialness of bringing together not only friends and family, but also the community.
In Canso, after the plunge, people gather inside the Canso Marina building – participants and spectators – not only to get warm and dry off, but also to enjoy refreshments and entertainment.
“A lot of people bring their guitars,” Geddes noted.
Curry added, at a symbolic level, the dip is a way in which to “wash away the previous year and cleanse ourselves for the one ahead.”
When it comes to memories of previous swims, he recalled making his way to Mahoney’s Beach on the tail end of a blinding snowstorm.
“It was treacherous,” Curry said, noting that – up until only a few minutes before the usual 2 p.m. start time – he and one woman were the lone people on hand.
With the clock ticking, he recalled happily, plenty of “familiar faces” and newcomers arrived to take part in the tradition.
“I will always remember that day,” Curry added.
Like most polar bear swims, participant numbers vary at these two venues; each contingent made up of all ages, ranging from the old-faithful to first-timers.
“There have been years with seven or eight, while in other years as many as 30,” Geddes said, noting factors – such as weather – influence the turnout.
He, along with resident Lucy Avery, have never missed making a splash since the swim’s inception.
What’s much easier to predict – whether in Canso or Mahoney’s Beach – is that spectators will outnumber swimmers.
“I think everybody in town arrives,” Geddes said, noting how parked cars dot every possible spot in the area of the marina.
Along with his foot-related advice, Curry offered, “Try to keep calm and control your breathing.”
And, he assured, “It is cold, but you are going to warm up.”
Both polar bear swim participants encouraged people, especially first-timers, to give it a try.
“There is always room for more,” Geddes said.
He added, from what has become a traditional pitch, “And, bring a friend.”