In Niagara-on-the-Lake, certain events have become winter staples — the Candlelight Stroll, the Christmas Parade and the Icewine Festival are a few which never fail to draw crowds.
But another local tradition, one that may seem rather wild, is the act of submerging oneself into the freezing cold waters of Lake Ontario during the depths of winter. For decades a group of local “penguins” has gathered at Ball’s Beach in Niagara-on-the-Lake to take the frigid plunge on Boxing Day.
Exactly how many years it’s been taking place was a little hazy — perhaps due to the cold water in the ears — but many who have been dipping since the beginning agreed it was the 43rd annual Penguin Dip.
About 12 people participated this year, while a crowd of about 20 people watched.
The number seemed rather low to Chris Bjorgan, who has been dipping for more than 35 years.
Some years have seen as many as 50 people participating, he said.
He suspects part of the reason this year’s turnout was one of the lowest in decades is because there really “wasn’t much of a challenge,” with the temperature being so warm for December.
In 2017, and in most other years, the mouth of the River has been filled with ice, making it much more of an event.
The group also never does much promotion for the event, he said, which could be part of why dippers participant numbers have been dwindling in the past couple years.
Regardless, the die-hard swimmers seemed to enjoy themselves, submerging themselves not once but three times, warming up in a heated trailer in between.
For others like seven-year-old Fin Hartley who was visiting from Australia, swimming in a frigid lake with a bunch of Canadians was something completely new.
He and his father came down to join in after seeing the crowd gathering from a nearby window. It didn’t take Fin long to decide he wanted to join in.
It wasn’t even cold, he said.
Others, like Sam Quinn, who has been dipping most of her life, seemed to agree it was still fairly cold.
According to the penguins, the dip first took place in 1975 on the former Ball property next to the beach. Mary Ball, whose mother owned the house, was in attendance this year.
Originally the “penguin swim” took place in April, she said, but for about the last 25 years it’s taken place on Boxing Day. It was then when the tradition truly came to life, with rules being made that each participant must dip three times, three years in a row, to become an official penguin.
Back then, there used to be a wood furnace in the house, which people would use to warm up between plunges. In modern times, the penguins keep the tradition (and themselves) alive by getting a trailer with a heater to serve the same purpose.
Ball claims she was the first one to call the group “penguins.”
Since then, there have been record books, trophies, banners, shirts and more. Much of it has been lost, but The Lake Report intends to dig up as much information about the dips as possible for a future story.
The group of penguins traditionally ends up heading to a local tavern to warm up and celebrate. This year was no different, with the penguins heading to the Sandtrap Pub & Grill for a bite and a cold one.
Donations were collected after the swim in support of Red Roof Retreat.