On Feb. 28, St. Mary’s students helped spread global climate change awareness by plunging into this year’s Polar Bear Splash at the James P. Muldoon River Center.
The fifth annual Polar Bear Splash, hosted by the St. Mary’s Enviornmental Action Coalition (SEAC), raised funds for charities while letting the participants show appreciation for the environment. Students raced into the freezing temperatures of St. Mary’s River as their friends looked on and cheered in support. While there seemed to be fewer participants than previous years, the event still had the same effect.
“I’m very passionate about the environment and I’ve done it every year.” Said junior Kat Eisenberg, a member of SEAC. Other students expressed similar feelings about the Polar Bear Splash. Junior Alyssa DiGiovanni smiled and shivered as she recovered from the Splash effects. “It was absolutely freezing and sort of painful, but it’s a great way to spread awareness about the environment. It was my third year doing it,” DiGiovanni said.
The Polar Bear Splash, which is an event that his been held at different places around the world since the early 1900s, has been a tradition at St. Mary’s since 2007. It has been an enjoyable event for students ever since. To minimize the injuries that have been seen in the past, students are asked to wear their shoes. While this year’s temperature was warmer than past years, that didn’t change the cold water or how cold participants were as they bundled up in their towels and drank hot chocolate.
“It was freezing and I couldn’t breathe when I got into the water,” said sophomore Leah Shenfeld. It was Shenfeld’s first Polar Bear Splash but she exclaimed that it wouldn’t be her last. “If we feel this way in freezing waters I can’t imagine how Polar Bears feel in the heat. I’m definitely going to do it again,” said Shenfeld.
While the majority of students left the Riverfront dripping and soaked, a few participants stuck around for more rounds of splashing into the river after the event.
About 40 students and staff and two College administrators jumped into the St. Mary’s River on Thursday, Feb. 18 by the River Center as part of the annual Polar Bear Splash. Proceeds gathered from the event supported relief for victims of Haiti’s earthquake.
The participants, many of whom were decked out with facepaint or St. Patrick’s day regalia, splashed around in the water for a minute before getting too cold. “Feels good, doesn’t it?” said Aaron French, one of the organizers, over loudspeaker. Then the shivering participants left the water to towel dry and drink hot cocoa.
This year’s Polar Bear Splash was the fourth installment of the annual event which occurs every February, arranged by the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC). The event, smaller than last year’s, went off without a hitch despite some worries about injury. Last year’s Polar Bear Splash incurred cuts, scrapes and trips to the hospital for four participants. Many had run into the water barefoot, stepping on shells and sharp rocks.
This year, SEAC set up a First Aid Station on the River Center patio and required everyone to wear shoes before they could participate. “I’m happy that the EMT was unnecessary,” said junior Tara Hutton, a member of SEAC.
Part of the safety concerns included making sure that people were safe when they ran into the water. “[Last year] we told people to wear shoes but weren’t requiring it; that obviously caused a lot of damage to people,” said French. As a result, “this year we had a shoe check.”
Participants made suggested donations of $3 to be part of the Polar Bear Splash, a change from previous years. Junior Johanna Galat, SEAC’s president, said that because the event this year had better publicity, SEAC raised a lot more this year than in previous years. Instead of its usual process of donating funds to environmental activism, the organization plans on donating proceeds to relief in Haiti through the organization Trees for the Future. Trees for the Future is normally involved in reforestation projects, including efforts in Haiti. This year, it will also branch out to provide general relief to victims of Haiti’s earthquake.
Two College administrators, Tom Botzman and Chip Jackson, ran into the water as well even though they arrived late to the event. “They went in as a secondary thing,” said French. “But they went in.”
SEAC organizes other events on campus in support of environmental action. Last year the organization arranged trips to Washington D.C. for the climate conference Power Shift and the protest against the Capitol Power Plant.
On Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009, over 150 students and faculty members participated in St. Mary’s third annual Polar Bear Splash. Over 200 other students and onlookers cheered on their friends as they prepared to make the plunge.
The College’s Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) passed out waivers in order to protect themselves from any liability if injuries should occur before participants in the event were allowed to jump in. The result saw four students hospitalized, and numerous others in need of serious medical attention.
The Polar Bear Splash was started by SEAC in January of 2007 with hopes of raising awareness about global climate change and its effects. Each year since then, the event has attracted a growing number of students as well as media and has been successful. This year, in addition to raising awareness about climate change and green initiatives like the Green Power Referendum, SEAC also raised some green in order to fund their trip to Power Shift 2009, a nation-wide youth meeting in Washington D.C. committed to solving the climate crisis.
“Today is ridiculously windy, but it’s worth it,” senior Marjorie Foley said just moments before she took the plunge. “They’re doing a fundraiser!”
While Foley was being subtle about just how cold it was, even before she ran into the 38 degree water, Patrick Gilbert complained that it was “colder than a witch’s tit” outside. “Everything about it is cold,” he continued, “but we’re raising awareness about Global warming.”
Sustainability fellow, alumna, and participant in past Polar Bear Splashes, Rachel Clement feels that one of the great things about the Polar Bear Splash is that “it gives students an opportunity to make a strong statement to the campus, surrounding community, and the local, regional, and national media that we know and care about stopping climate change, and are willing to jump into a freezing river for the cause.”
“I’ve always wanted to do it,” a soaking senior Kait Gruber remarked just moments after the polar bear splash ended. “We’re really affecting the planet a lot more than we think, and it really is important to raise awareness about global warming.” Seconds after this statement, Kait had to limp away because she discovered the bottom of her feet were severely cut and bleeding profusely.
Countless participants of the splash this year were injured as a result of the oyster shells, rocks, bottle glass and other debris that polluted the sand outside of the new river center. Leading member of SEAC and senior, Shane Hall feels “terrible for all those people who came out to have a fun time showing their commitment to stopping climate change who were injured” especially because of the fact that in previous years the splash has incurred only a few injuries.“Because of how safe the former two splashes were, even for people who refused to wear shoes, we did not anticipate the amount of injuries that occurred.”
“While SEAC repeatedly communicated to the school community that participants should bring a towel and wear shoes, unfortunately many people did not heed this warning,” Hall added. “The other problem is many people interpreted “shoes” to mean flip-flops, which come off easily when you sprint in the water.”
“I was running barefoot – stupid, I know,” recalled sophomore Jamie Phillips about his experience in the polar bear splash a week later, “but I know people who were wearing shoes that still got cut up from the ankle up.” Phillips was outraged as he was “sent away by the Health Center when [he] requested crutches and a brief check-up.”
Because the local hospital had already opened a case for the other students, the health center did not want to “get involved,” said Phillips. “I had to buy my own medical prescriptions out of pocket,” he laments about the situation.
Even though he was one of the few who actually received medical care, Phillips was unable to walk from Thursday night to Monday evening. As a result, he missed nearly a week of classes, and remains still with a limp, a wound to remember deep within his feet, and a hole in his pocket. Jamie is not alone, however, as many students are still feeling the effects of the Polar Bear Splash of 2009.
“I’m still healing,” Gruber said about her injuries from that day.
“We should have done more,” said Hall on behalf of SEAC, but he also contended that while greater safety measures are a must, “I’m positive the hardy, dedicated students of St. Mary’s will be ready to splash again next winter.”
However, some students, including Phillips feel as though it we might just be better leaving the splashing to the Polar Bears. Phillips said, “It’s not well-publicized or dynamic enough of an event for me to want to go down and get injured on a cold February day.”