A chilly revel -- with a cause

Climate-change protesters plunge into the Chesapeake during second annual swim

January 21, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,sun reporter

Near-freezing temperatures and 20-mph gusts provided an unlikely backdrop for a protest against "unprecedented warm weather," but about 70 people nevertheless plunged into the frigid Chesapeake Bay yesterday to raise money for climate change awareness.

Organizers said the 2nd annual "keep winter cold" swimming party at an Annapolis beach raised $40,000 for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a nonprofit that promotes its global warming message in Maryland, Virginia and Washington.

"Yeah, a week ago would have been much more symbolic," said the nonprofit group's director, Mike Tidwell, referring to unusual spring-like conditions that confused flowers into bloom across the region.

"But that is why we are here," Tidwell said. "We are here to say, `This is the kind of weather we want to keep.' Because if we don't, there are going to be a lot of negative consequences for everybody and everything."

Not everyone was so sanguine.

"Wouldn't you know, this would be the one day that global warming fails us?" said a shivering Lise Van Susteren, 55, after returning from her brief dunk. "But it was lots of fun," added the Bethesda psychiatrist and former Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

Before the group plunge, Tidwell gathered the swimmers and their blanket-bearing supporters for a lengthy pep talk, in which he pointed to recent crop freezes in California and hurricane-force winds in Europe as evidence that climate change -- caused, he said, by energy production -- could have ominous consequences for both polar bears and mankind.

"I am trying to keep talking," he told the crowd, "so I can delay the moment we have to go in."

But his voice was drowned out by cries of "let's go!" from the gathered, who were being lashed by sharp winds gusting across the beach.

And so moments later, Tidwell led the charge into the water. Men, women, children and dogs splashed into the tide, screaming and screeching as their feet went instantly numb.

Several turned back immediately into the outstretched arms and blankets of supporters on shore, but many waded dozens of yards out into the shallows, dunking, diving, even body-surfing into the water.

A pair of activists attempted to unfurl from the water a Green Party banner for the cameras but were thwarted by the wind.

Jeff Hopkins, a climate change economist with global mining company Rio Tinto, used a boogie board to skim across the surface of the bay. "It was cold but exhilarating," he said. "The worst part is coming back; it just felt like it took forever. My feet, they just felt like lead."

After the brief swim, the pack separated by gender into two heating tents set up on the beach in front of the headquarters of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Inside the men's tent, old and young scrambled for a spot around a blazing heating torch. They wriggled out of their bathing trunks and exchanged anecdotes while feasting on doughnuts and coffee.

For Paul Burman of Arlington, Va., the plunge was the second time in recent months he has sacrificed his personal comfort for the anti-global warming movement.

In October, he occupied a 25-foot ledge at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration to protest what he called "the suppression of scientific information coming about global warming there." Burman stayed on the ledge for four hours until he was arrested.

"Getting on a ledge was easy compared to this," said Burman after the swim. "I think I would rather be arrested again by a SWAT team than jump back into the Chesapeake Bay."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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