survive the polar vortex? try these fun, frigid outdoor activities this winter

Embracing winter seems like an antithetical concept, particularly coming off a three-day arctic blast that flooded social media with endless pronouncements that yes, it is really cold out. I mean, check out the temperature gauge on my dashboard, everybody! I've never seen it go into negative numbers before! 
Point being, long winters (and the occasional polar vortex) are just something we have to live with here on the North Coast. However, those bold enough to venture into Cleveland's white waste will find a flurry of unique cold weather activities that extend beyond the usual realm of skiing, inner-tubing and tobogganing. Join me, Fresh Water readers, and I promise not to deluge you with the 200 photos I took last week while driving around on treacherously icy roads.
Brave souls take the Plunge
Every year, hundreds of thick-skinned adventurers run, jump or toe their way into the arctic waters of Lake Erie for the Polar Bear Plunge. The annual rite of winter is billed more as an experience than an event, a sentiment that coordinator Chandra Brode can attest to.
The Polar Bear Plunge is a weekend-long party rather than just an invigorating dash into a frigid lake, says Brode. This year's event, scheduled for the weekend of February 21 at Geneva State Park, includes a deejayed "winter celebration" the night before and an awards brunch that recognizes those who raised funds for Special Olympics Ohio, the plunge's charity of choice.
About 400 human polar bears take the dip each February, when lake temperatures hover near the freezing mark. The colder the water, the better, says Brode, as organizers prefer to cut through ice rather than have plungers splash into open water. The 2012 plunge in ice-free conditions featured four foot waves -- not ideal conditions for even the heartiest of participants.
"Usually, we dig a hole in the ice and it creates a safe little lagoon," says Brode.
As for attire, a regular summertime swimsuit is the way to go. "First-timers think if they wear sweatpants and a long-sleeve shirt, they'll be good," Brode says. "Their clothes just end up getting water-logged."
Most people, including Brode herself, will run in and out of the water in 30 seconds without even dunking their heads. Then there are the so-called "Super Plungers," a specially designated classification of genetically superior human beings who will submerge themselves once an hour for eight hours straight.
"It's a kind of liquid courage," Brode says of the plunge. "It's shocking to the system at first, but then you get numb and it's not that bad."
All that "losing feeling in your body" is for a good cause, adds the event coordinator. Last year alone, the Polar Bear Plunge garnered over $132,000 for the Special Olympics. "It's a cause dedicated to creating joy," says Brode. "Plus, it's exciting and like nothing else you'll do."
Getting fit on the farm
Kelly's Working Well Farm in Chagrin Falls is a nonprofit enterprise that supports farm-to-fork food production while offering educational opportunities for area children. Summer finds the six acres of farmland alive with visitors who want to learn about the chickens, ducks, goats and sheep on the property, or just have a general interest in the thoughtful stewardship of the land.
Though the bulk of activity takes place during warm months, the farm doesn't just shut down come winter. Owned by Chagrin Falls resident Kelly Clark and her husband Bill Rowe, the tranquil space integrated into the woody Cleveland suburb now welcomes folks seeking fruits, jellies, jams, baked goods and handmade crafts.
The property, currently blanketed in crusty snow and patrolled by a friendly farm cat named Scotty, also hosts a weekly series of high-intensity outdoor workouts that proceed even in the face of precipitation and reasonably chilly temperatures.
"If it's 20 degrees or over we're going to run the race," says Rowe.
The workout is a series of strength and endurance stations designed for both men and women, says Betsy Covington, Clark's sister and marketer in everything but title for the self-styled "farm next door." Activities include kettle bell swings, ring dips, air squats and jumps or step-ups onto hay bales.
The combination of jumping, mobility and balance is similar to popular MovNat or CrossFit workouts, notes Covington. It takes about 90 minutes to run the circuit, with a suggested five reps for men and three for women. Don't worry about cutting reps if you're exhausted from scaling that last hay bale.
"There's no shaming here," Covington says.
Winter in the park
Blasting one's quads outdoors is not for everyone, we completely understand. Thankfully, Cleveland Metroparks has less strenuous alternatives for people who still want to get their heart rate pumping in an idyllic winter setting.
The region-wide park system has hundreds of miles of hiking trails to traverse on your own or with the help of a guide, says director of outdoor education Wendy Weirich. Instructors also are available for backpacking and snowshoeing excursions into the nearly 23,000 acres of Metroparks terrain.
Though January and February might not seem like a great time for bird watching, deep snow and crisp cold does not deter finches, waterfowl and songbirds from making their presence known. Bird feeding stations at the park's five nature centers, meanwhile, flutter with cardinals, sparrows and nuthatches. Metroparks also has under its care eight Canadian snowy owls, a white bird made famous by the Harry Potter series.
"People just want to get outside and see what life's around in winter," says Weirich. 
Indoor-loving human are welcome to drop in at area nature facilities to learn about tracking and winter survival. For kids, there are presentations on plants and animals that thrive even during the big chill of Cleveland's lengthy deep freeze. At the Brecksville Nature Center, young nature lovers can even hand feed a chickadee.
"We're the source if you want to know more about your natural neighbors," Weirich says.
More cool happenings around town
For those wanting to avoid those tedious weather-related conversations, here are some additional wondrous winter activities to enjoy:
* Jan. 25-26: 2014 Chinese New Year Celebration
* Feb. 1-March 9: Orchid Mania at Cleveland Botanical Garden
* Feb. 15:  Brite Winter outdoor art and musical festival
* March 1: Ohio Craft Beer Association's Winter Warmer Fest

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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