Life in Vancouver’s West End is a colourful affair. As I turn on to Denman Street a thronging river of people drains toward the ocean.
This is the coldest winter Vancouver has had for decades. Crowds gather on the beach with snow underfoot. Warm pink toes turn deathly white within seconds of touching down on the churned up mess of snow and sand. Voices are loud, spirits high. Bottles circulate through the crowd. Friendly faces thrust champagne in my direction, which I dutifully swig before sending it into the hands of a hula girl, and on to Father Christmas himself.
Sporadic cheers erupt from the mass, and the mass expands. Apprehension wafts on the breeze. The air temperature sits barely above freezing, and yet the thermals are stripped back, exposing warm flesh to the kiss of the bitter winter chill. Salty ocean spray reaches my nostrils and adrenaline spurs me to shed layers. This is not what I envisaged doing on the first day of the new year. But here, the crowd draws me under it’s spell. The urge spreads like a fever, and others who came as spectators find themselves stood in nothing but underwear, laughing, mystified as to how they ended up semi-naked on a beach today, of all days.
I meet a girl of nine who comes here every year, although this is the coldest it’s ever been, she tells me. Regardless of the conditions, she’s wearing flip flops, wrapped in a dressing gown. Kids in Canada are made of tougher stuff, it seems. Whole families are eager to embrace the day, and the coming year – whatever the two may bring. Somewhere in the throng Viking warrior lungs blast into a horn, building the frenzy, enticing it to it’s climax.
Subtly at first, with increasing momentum, something shifts. The group unites in a cascade of whoops and cheers. As if a void has opened up in the North Pacific we are sucked towards it as one. Dressing gowns are cast to the ground, thousands of frozen feet are in motion. The frontline charges on an unsuspecting sea and cheers morph to shrieks, sharp inhalations and wide eyes. Instinct kicks in and we turn, dragging ourselves free of the waves, screeching back to the sand. In chaos, we retreat.
In barely minutes, the ritual is over, the year of yesterday washed away and the soul sharply awakened to the possibilities of the next trip around the sun. The hardy Viking continues to wade in the water, impervious to the temperature. I shiver in my towel, glad to have braved this symbolic new year celebration, in Vancouver style.