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'Creekman' Swims for Ukulele Kids Club in Daring Stunt

Todd Bookman for NHPR

Last weekend, as the first snowflakes of winter fell on New Hampshire, a local icon on the Seacoast was setting out for an afternoon swim. "Creekman," as he’s known to some, has been making long distance cold-water swims for charity for a decade now. But as NHPR’s Jason Moon reports, those swims are more than displays of physical prowess – they’re a chance for a beloved character to come alive.

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On the banks of Portsmouth’s Peirce Island, a small but musical crowd has gathered to witness a living legend.

Gary Sredzienski, better known to some as Creekman, is just moments away from embarking on a three-mile swim around Portsmouth Harbor.

Approximate route of Creekman on Dec. 9 2017

This is Sredzienski’s 10th long distance cold-water swim to benefit a charity. In years past, he’s taken to the water for everything from brain injury victims, to wildlife, to lighthouses. This year, the money raised is going to the Ukulele Kids Club.

“This is a cause that means a lot to me because I’m an accordionist, I’m a musician, I work in healthcare settings. And the beautiful thing is this group brings ukuleles to children in hospitals and what a great way to get their mind off what they’re going through.”

When he’s not swimming in icy waters, Sredzienski is host of the popular show Polka Party on the UNH campus radio station.

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

Today though, he’s sitting in the passenger seat of a car keeping warm while he waits for the precautionary trail boat that will follow him during the roughly two-hour journey.

To deal with the cold temperatures for that long, Sredzienski has created his own wetsuit. It’s a mix of surfing gear, scuba gear, and homemade gear – Creekman’s own superhero costume.

“I know it looks ridiculous! I totally understand that but I’m warm, I’m warm.”

The outfit takes care of everything except his face, which he covers with a few finishing touches – a pair of large goggles and a handful of Vaseline that he smears all over his cheeks and lips. “It really helps a lot. It prevents windburn, from your skin burning. And you know what’s weird – the water is so cold that the Vaseline falls off your face.”

Credit Todd Bookman for NHPR

Now fully suited, Sredzienski makes his way down the slope toward the frigid water. Then, with a final sendoff from the crowd of admirers, Creekman trudges off, straight into the ocean.

Among those nervously watching from shore is Sylvia Pollock.

“That’s a bad current. Look at him, he’s swimming as hard as he can and he’s standing – [sighs].”

As Creekman slowly makes his way out to sea, Pollock remembers the first time they met. It was the day she was moved in next to him.

“He came out of his garage looking like this with his wetsuit. It was December 20th, that’s when we moved. And he walked right in front of our house and I thought ‘where’s he going? It’s only the water down there.’ And he walked right into the water.”

A few hours later, Pollock says Sredzienski returned from his swim and introduced himself. The two went on to become good friends.

Pollock was there on Saturday as Creekman emerged from the water again -- this time at the Elks Lodge in 

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR
Gary Sredzienski plays accordion after completing a two hour swim in frigid waters.

Portsmouth, where a party was waiting for him.

“I’m all right, a little tired. But it’s good, I feel great.”

Sredzienski’s day wasn’t over, though. He was still scheduled to perform with his band, the Serfs, to keep raising money for the charity.

But not before he and the legend of Creekman got a musical tribute of their own. The featured lyrics:

“Swimming creekman! Swimming creekman! // Putting on his wetsuit and jumping into the bay!”

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.
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