THE SHARK-EAT-SHARK WORLD OF STUNT JOURNALISM
"Witness the Snow Bath: imagine yourself in your bathing suit in the middle of winter at 10 degrees below."
That line triggered this particular gonzo escapade... though Greg Johnson deserves some blame too. I freelance Pacific Northwest outdoor stories for him at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The nicest of editors, he's dead keen on experiential coverage. Don't imagine. Report. Firsthand.
And here I am. In the Quebec Drill House, a grand, copper-crenellated building near the Plains of Abraham, the old battlefield that hosts the Carnaval and one of its crowning events: the Snow Bath.
Eighty-odd revelers file into the gymnasium, flanked with soldiers in camouflage. Roughly five speak English, an usually low number even for Quebecois. The rules blur past in French, then suddenly I'm poked in the ribs. "Stand up," the organizer translating whispers.
I do the beauty-queen wave at the half-dressed crowd; people hoot and applaud. Crazy foreign journalist. Fantastique! Not quite as fantastique, of course, as the other media cameo: a Brazilian television anchor in her thong a few years back.
My bikini boldness is barely an ante in this game. Damn.
I make some nervous noises at the middle-aged woman beside me. She clucks back in French. We continue to have completely nonsensical conversations for the next hour.
We change. Mon ami Pauline dons fur earmuffs the height of trapper-line fashion. I wear a red toque with a black fin, for reasons known only to Sylvain, the Carnaval bigshot. He assured me that some of the press corps will also sport shark hats in a gesture of support.
"Great. I'll be a marked as a member of the media. I probably won't make it out alive. They'll turn on me, like a feeding frenzy," I moaned.
"This isn't America," he reminded me.
Another voice interjected: "Get over yourself. Do you really think anyone's watching you?" snarked a colleague (the type who's blocking an indie film in his head constantly).
"Aside from the whole press pit and several thousand people, no."
Befinned and bikinied, I join the other snow bathers running laps around the gym. I could have happily gone my whole life without doing co-ed aerobics in a swimsuit and shark hat. But I knuckle down: this is serious business. If I don't hula to Madonna and work up a heat, I might not make it.
The soldiers are terribly professional and pokerfaced. We bumble past, cutting corners just like P.E. class: the gent in the "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" plastic hat; the cheaters in hula skirts; giggling gals in hot pants; the badminton team (man, I wish I had a prop too!).
Twins lead the exercises momentarily. We're help me high-kicking. Some buddies push a groom to the front. As he prompts our jumping jacks, he explains this ritual is part of the stag-party hazing. He's proving his worth for marriage.
No wonder the Inappropriate Beau fled to Australia ...
I kick off the square-dancing do-si-does with Raymond Boutin, a hale 70-year-old Quebecois gentleman who's snow bathed 14 times. We're all swinging like a barrel of monkeys, under the impassive gaze of camo-ed militia. I hope they're not rotated back from Afghanistan; the contrast could really fritz some circuits.
Time's drawing near. I'm in the first group of 20-odd. Our mission: a two-minute dash into the snow. Then a four-minute exposure. Followed by the grand finale of "around ten minutes with the whole mob".
I yank on my glove liners and gigantic "Patagucci" mittens. As I clap, they resemble seal flippers. My aquatic metaphors are mixed, but I don't care. We're all bouncing, screaming our color: "Le Bleu! Bleu! Bleu!"
Hoarse, I shout football chants, the Quebec Carnaval theme, "Le Bleuuuuuu!" I wouldn't recognize myself now. I'm not a jock, a hearty joiner-in. I don't even speak French. But that mob mentality kicks in. Ouuuuui! Whoooo! Let's go roll some hot pink skin in that snow!