A photo posted to social media Thursday evening depicting the new site for the Bon Soo Polar Bear Swim has caused a bit of an uproar.
Joining the rest of the winter carnival at its new home at the Machine Shop, the Bon Soo board of directors made the decision to relocate the popular event finale, using a tank rather than the St. Marys River for the icy plunge.
Swimmers will now jump into a large dumpster on loan from GFL with a specially constructed platform.
The dumpster is brand new, never used and will be equipped with a new heavy duty industrial lining, Bon Soo board member Sonny Spina told SooToday.
The photo in question of this new Polar Bear Swim setup is less than appealing, agreed Bon Soo Manager Kerrie De Poli, but it’s still a work in progress. The site will be very aesthetically pleasing once it’s complete.
“It’s not a fair reflection of the event. I think people like to get wound up about something and have a bit of drama, and we enjoy the conversation,” she said.
This tank setup is safer, more accessible, and more convenient for spectators, De Poli said, adding that the close proximity of the Machine Shop for participants and spectators to use is an added bonus.
‘Polar bears’ can now safely change in a warm environment within the Machine Shop, something that was lacking at Bellevue Park, Spina added.
And for the first time ever, SooToday will livestream the event for broadcast inside the Machine Shop with video cameras situated above and below the surface of the water.
“Anybody that wants can go outside and view the event or go inside, sit down, have a drink, have something to eat and watch the entire event live on the big screen inside the Machine Shop in the comfort of a controlled environment,” said Spina. “We really think this is the best of both worlds. It’s 100 per cent accessible for anybody to come, it’s completely barrier free, and we are incredibly excited about it.”
“I’m really excited about the feedback we’ve gotten on this event, positive and negative. Even the negative comments tell me that people are incredibly passionate about this event and about this winter carnival,” he continued. “We’re here to listen to what people want. We want to make sure that everybody has the most accurate information available and that they have the best time that they can at Bon Soo.”
Since 1969, the Polar Bear Swim has taken place at Bellevue Park in the St. Marys River.
A hole cut into the ice allowed ‘polar bears’ to jump into a submerged security cage under the close supervision of volunteers from Sault Search and Rescue.
A number of times over the years to ensure public safety, spectators were forced to watch the event from shore due to poor ice conditions. In 2015, Sault Ste. Marie was under a severe cold warning and the Polar Bear Swim was canceled altogether.
“To cancel an event is not the northern Ontario way, is not the Sault Ste. Marie way,” Spina told us. “Our way is to dig in and find a way to get things done. And that’s what our board of directors sought out to do when we were looking at this issue.”
He added that rescheduling the Polar Bear Swim is far more difficult than it might seem as it takes event volunteers approximately 18 hours to properly create a safe and appropriate opening in the ice.
The decision to move the Polar Bear Swim was not taken lightly and for some time, the board has been exploring alternatives to hosting the swim in the St. Marys River where it could be pulled off regardless of weather conditions.
The organization also consulted with other neighbouring events that use dumpsters for similar activities prior to making the decision, and De Poli knows of a number of potential participants that wouldn’t partake in the swim because they didn’t want to jump into the St. Marys River.
“It’s different for us, and different for our community. It’s not that different in the grand scope,” she said.
“We hope that this is a beginning. We’d like to build a custom tank, but that’s a huge undertaking and financial commitment,” she said. “A lot of people are really emotionally invested, and so am I. I’m a polar bear and many many people within the organization are. We don’t just do these things lightly.”
Bon Soo activities kick off at the Machine Shop on Friday, Feb. 3. For a complete list of related activities, please visit the Bon Soo website.