At 6:45 on a summer morning, Chewonki’s waterfront lifeguards make the rounds. Stationed outside campers’ cabins, they toss two words into the air with operatic flare: “Polar Bearrs! Polar Bearrrs!”
This is an invitation all Chewonki campers and counselors recognize. “Polar Bears, come on out!” the lifeguards urge. The implicit message is: “Come dare to jump into chilly Montsweag Creek with us to start the day.Come enjoy being young, healthy, and at Chewonki!”
In cool or rainy weather, only the most stalwart counselors and campers heed the call. On a bright, warm morning, 30 or 40 people leap from their beds. “Campers either say, ‘Okay, I’ll get up and do it!’ or they pull a pillow over their heads. It’s totally voluntary,” says Assistant Boys Camp Director Henry Heyburn. “The boys grab a towel (if they remember), walk toward the waterfront and down the gangway, jump off the boat dock, and swim to the swim dock and back. It’s ideal when the tide’s coming in—one stroke and you’re there.”
This ritual “plays a singular role in camp culture,” says Heyburn, a Polar Bears regular (some might say, fanatic). “I’m sure all who participate would say it’s a wonderful way to begin the day. It’s kind of an expression of free spirit and a carefree life. It’s so elementally simple.” No equipment, no score, no hierarchy–just the joy of slipping into the cold salt water with a couple dozen other happy, wide-awake people splashing around you under a summer sky..
“It makes you feel alive,” Boys Camp Director Garth Altenburg says. Although he now rarely has time for Polar Bears, he participated in many early morning swims as a camper and counselor. “It’s a way of blasting away any cobwebs in your head. Sometimes whole cabins do it together. I think it captures a sense of adventure, this spirit we embody, whether on the challenge course or on a wilderness trip or first thing in the morning at our waterfront.”
At breakfast after Polar Bears, conspiratorial patter often surfaces during announcements.
Counselor Ben: “Johnny Smith, you are looking particularly bright-eyed and chipper this morning.”
Camper Johnny: “Well, thank you, Ben. Maybe that’s because I swam with the Polar Bears this morning.”
On it goes.
Starting the day with a swim is a practice as old as camp. Werner Rothbacher, who ran the waterfront program for six summers (BC staff ‘73-’77,‘80), was probably the person who formalized it and named it Polar Bears. Rothbacher, an Austrian who first came to America as a Fulbright scholar, was a joyful, no-holds-barred outdoorsman. He coached and taught swimming, skiing, and German at Maine colleges and schools for decades (his wife, Betsy, served as the camp accountant and secretary). Rothbacher’s booming, enthusiastic call for Polar Bears, delivered in a heavy Austrian accent, swept many a sleepy camper out of bed.
“Joining in the fun with others is part of the appeal,” says Altenburg. “Young campers have heard about it. It’s a tradition. Boys see other campers and counselors doing it; it builds a great feeling of community.”
These days, boys are not the only Polar Bears at Chewonki. Girls at our Fourth Debsconeag site often begin the day with a leap into the lake. And Maine Coast Semester students take the plunge once a week right through the winter. (See the blog post about this on the semester website. Brrrr!) So if you can’t wait for summer, there are some Polar Bears waiting to join you for a quick trip to the waterfront.