Oakville polar bear dip cancelled, after Toronto event nixed

The extreme cold weather alert may have ended for parts of the GTA, but organizers of the annual polar bear dip in Oakville have cancelled today’s event.

Cold temperatures, ice build-up cited as safety concerns

Organizers of the cancelled Oakville polar bear dip put cones along the beach to try to keep people out of the water. (Yanjun Li/CBC)

The extreme cold weather alert may have ended for parts of the GTA, but organizers of the annual polar bear dip in Oakville have cancelled today's event.

The move comes a day after organizers in Toronto also cancelled their charity swim.

Organizers of the Oakville event, known in full as the Courage Polar Bear Dip for World Vision, said that emergency services personnel recommended that they cancel it outright. As many as 700 people had been expected to take part, with thousands more spectators on hand to watch.

Organizer Todd Courage said Monday that although the dip carried on in cold temperatures in 2010 and 2014, conditions at the beach itself changed and made it unsafe to carry on with the event.

"Unfortunately, overnight the beach shifted and what ended up happening is you had more ice form and rocks had changed, and it's just made it unsafe for dippers going in," Courage told CBC News.

The event has been going on for 33 years, and it's the first time it's been cancelled, he said.

Fundraising is still ongoing, he added. This year, money raised is going to a water project in Mali, Courage said. The fundraising goal is $120,000 and by midday Monday about $100,000 had been raised, he said.

Tyler Walczak didn't let the official cancellation of the Oakville polar bear dip stop him from taking a quick swim. (Yanjun Li/CBC)

Despite the cancellation, one swimmer did make it out into the water until Courage and other organizers yelled at him to "bring it in."

Tyler Walczak wore shoes, swim trunks and a blue Santa hat for his quick dip. Asked why he still went into the water, the Mississauga resident said it was in part about "washing off the old year" as a new one begins.

"It's New Year's, you know? Life is but a daring adventure," Walczak told reporters at the scene. "You dress accordingly and it's not bad."

He did agree with the decision to cancel the event, however, given the risks and potential liability.

Cold weather alert cancelled

After a days-long deep freeze gripped much of Ontario, Environment Canada lifted its extreme cold weather alert Monday morning for Toronto, as well as Halton and Peel regions. It remains in effect for York and Durham regions, and other parts of southern Ontario to the north and east.

But that doesn't mean it isn't cold out. In Oakville, the temperature was -11 C as of 11 a.m., but felt more like -17 with the wind. The forecast high is only -10 C for Monday, but will feel like -26 when the wind picks up midday.

In Toronto it was also -11 C at 11 a.m., but felt like -22 with the wind. The forecast high for the city is -9 C.

Organizers of Toronto's polar bear dip, which raised funds for the Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Centre, also cited beach conditions as a reason to cancel their event. It would have been its 13th year.

Keith Jolie, a founding member of the Toronto Polar Bear Club, said on Sunday the decision was "disappointing" and "heartbreaking" but was made over safety concerns.

Jolie said there was also ice building up on the beach, located in the west end at Sunnyside Park on Lake Shore Boulevard West.

"We've not cancelled in the past. We've had some pretty cold weather," he said. "But due to ice conditions and out of consideration for the safety of participants, we've decided there's no way to safely move forward with the event this year."

Tips for a dip

While polar bear dippers are typically a hardy bunch, one expert had some tips before news of the Oakville cancellation broke that may be good to keep handy for next year.

Dr. Stephen Cheung, an expert in human physiology in extreme environments, said it's important for people to stay warm while they wait to jump into the water.

"Don't strip down into your swim trunks and be sitting around for 20, 30 minutes on the dock because then you're going to really start getting cold."

He advised that participants get out of wet clothes as soon as possible.

And although dipping into an icy lake might sound like fun to some, Cheung said it's important to stay away from alcohol.

"It may make you feel warm, but that's because your skin blood vessels are opening up. What that means is you're also losing heat due to the cold faster that way," he said. 

Cheung also recommended that anyone with cardiovascular problems simply avoid the activity.

"The two main things you will feel is that your heart rate will go up really rapidly. You can go from 60, 70 beats per minute up to 150 beats per minute almost instantaneously. The other thing is this hyperventilation response where it's really hard to control your breathing," he said. 

With files from Salma Ibrahim and Muriel Draaisma