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Polar Bear Dip

Childhood friends trade ice skates for swim trunks for charity

Thirteen degrees below zero. Twelve centimeters of ice. A sharp axe.

5 min read
caption Koko McNeill in the water.
Mario Terzoli

Three friends determined to find a fresh approach to the traditional polar bear dip chopped a swimming hole in frozen Paper Mill Lake last week — and then dove in.

It was day 17 of a 31-day fundraiser that involved a daily swim in Nova Scotia’s wintry waters. The trio had already tried the usual locations: Herring Cove, Black Rock Beach and the Dingle, but wanted something new.

caption Hippern, McNeill and Fraser skating on Paper Mill Lake.
Mario Terzoli

Mitchell Hippern, Koko McNeill and Sid Fraser, who have known each other since childhood, kicked off their afternoon with a quick skate and game of hockey. Eventually, it was swimming time so they swapped their sticks for axes to cut into the lake.

caption Hippern and McNeill weigh options for where they’d like the hole to be.
Mario Terzoli

Their goal is to raise $10,000 for the family therapy program offered by Phoenix Youth, a non-profit based in Halifax. The program ­— led by licensed therapists — offers counselling services to young people aged 11 to 24 with issues such as challenging family relationships, peer conflict and emotional difficulties. The service is free, and referrals are taken directly from the youth themselves or their families.

For Hippern and McNeill, raising money for Phoenix Youth is rooted in personal struggle.

caption Hippern before the swim at Paper Mill Lake.
Mario Terzoli

Hippern has Tourette syndrome.

“I grew up with a lot of mental health issues and some I still deal with today,” says Hippern. “But I’m not a victim to them. They are a part of my journey and my struggle … I believe that we need to encourage people to grow and to shine, and to do that we need to encourage them to be honest about their mental health.”

caption McNeill is shown at Paper Mill Lake.
Mario Terzoli

McNeill hopes the fundraiser will further mental health discussions.

“When I was younger, around 12 years old, I dealt with mental health challenges. I was lucky to get the right support and I was able to overcome a lot of pain,” says McNeill. “Since then, I’ve always wanted to help other people and this fundraiser is allowing me to do that.”

caption Fraser checks to make sure the ice will hold.
Mario Terzoli


caption McNeill uses an axe to smash into the ice.


caption McNeill walking back after his swim.
Mario Terzoli


caption Hippern prepares for the dip.
Mario Terzoli


caption Fraser undresses for his swim.
Mario Terzoli


caption Fraser strikes a pose in the water while McNeill films him.
Mario Terzoli


caption Fraser is in good spirits after his swim.
Mario Terzoli

For Fraser, the daily swims are improving his health and well-being.

“The dips completely elevate my mood … I have second thoughts, but I push past them and dig deep,” he says.. “It’s just temporary pain, but when it’s over the rest of my day is easier. I’m more present and I just feel great.”

caption The friends getting dressed after their swim.
Mario Terzoli

After the dip was over they got changed and went back into their warm cars.

The fundraiser has made over $6,500 so far. Funds are being raised primarily through an online fundraiser. The friends are also accepting in person cash donations on their daily dips. The fundraiser will end on Feb. 2, 2019.

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