On New Year’s Day, I celebrated the arrival of 2024 by taking the annual Polar Bear Plunge into Lake Washington. This time — my sixth — my husband AND my daughter joined me. I can’t think of a better metaphor for bringing in a new year than diving into the unknown murky depths and proving how resilient the human spirit is.

My sixth New Year's Day Polar Bear Plunge in Seattle's Lake Washington. The air temp was 49, lake water 43 F.
My sixth New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge in Seattle’s Lake Washington. The air temp on Jan. 1, 2024 was 49 F, lake temp 43 F.

I spent my childhood in Shorewood, WI, a block off of Lake Michigan. We almost always had snow by Christmas. Sometimes the shore would be covered with windblown jumbled slabs of ice. In that much snow, well… let’s say there were faithful Plungers back in the 70s, but I wasn’t among them. Out of curiosity, I tuned in to Milwaukee’s Youtube plunge video to see what it looked like this year. No snow, clear sandy beach.

When I moved to the Pacific Northwest in the 90s I didn’t even think of the ancient tradition. Our earliest New Year tradition was to spend a day birding at Canada’s Reifel Bird Sanctuary (see last week’s post about the wood duck) or in the Skagit Valley. In 2015 and 2020, we welcomed the New Year from New Zealand. But starting in 2019, if we’ve been in town on the holiday, we take the plunge.

Take a DEEP breath...
Take a DEEP breath…
...dive UNDER and...
…dive UNDER and…

According to a Canadian source, “The polar bear swim started in Vancouver in 1920 by a group of swimmers who called themselves the Polar Bear Club.” Led by Peter Pantages, the group would take a swim. They would probably scoff at the masses of people who follow suit today, jumping in the cold water for less than a minute.

Another website indicated it started even earlier, in 1904, by the L Street Brownies in Dorchester Bay, Massachusetts. Some plunges draw as many as 12,000 participants. Others hold events as fundraisers. The one we do at Matthews Beach is simply for fun.

A beautiful morning at Matthews Beach, with no precipitation, and blue skies on the horizon.
A beautiful morning at Matthews Beach Jan. 1, 2024, with no precipitation, and blue skies on the horizon.

This year, I did two things differently. I went in not only once, but twice, the first time in a wool cap and long-sleeved swim shirt, the second with no hat or shirt so I could go all the way under.

Next year, who knows? I might hold my breath underwater for twenty seconds. Or I might wade out until I can no longer reach the bottom with my feet.

My daughter and I mark the occasion with a silly hat, polar bear stuffy, and polar bear sculpture.
My daughter and I mark the 2024 occasion with a silly hat, polar bear stuffy, and polar bear sculpture.

Explaining why I like to do the Polar Bear Plunge is a bit like telling someone why I love to hike. For many reasons. I plunge because it is playful and appeals to my inner child. It’s a bit of a crazy indulgence that allows me to test my resilience, get outside, and mark the change of the year in a unique way. Fortunately, we get to warm up by soaking in our hot tub.

We go well before the official noon kick-off time to avoid all of the crowds. Still, we enjoy marking a new year by doing something most people would call unusual. Fortunately, the six times I’ve done it have been relatively dry and clear days. My husband even asked ahead of time: If it rains, will we bail? To date, I haven’t had to answer that question.

C-C-C-COLD! The author taking the 2021 Plunge.
C-C-C-COLD! The author taking the 2021 Plunge.

I just can’t help it, I’m a writer. We think in metaphors. I also like keywords. For 2024 I have chosen as my keyword “Overcome”, with “Turn obstacles into opportunities” as my tagline.

Triple OOO.

Whether you prefer last week’s wood duck metaphor (for going with the flow, channeling your inner wood duck to embrace change) or this week’s polar bear plunge metaphor (for plunging into the unknown), find one that works for you.

The author after the 2023 Polar Bear Plunge.
The author after the 2023 Polar Bear Plunge.

Do something unusual this January. Set some intentions that gently move you out of your comfort zone. Last year, mine was doing 52 rambles with Ajax. This year, I released myself from the power of addictive tendencies.

Just today, I deleted a game app from my phone. I realized while journaling that I started playing it as a coping strategy for a health event I’ve gained closure around. The gaming behavior no longer serves a purpose. It only annoys, angers, and irritates me whenever I can’t move past a level. Who needs that? The world is angry enough without my contribution. We need more light, more joy, more empowerment. In its place? Consistent hiking on Tuesday mornings.

This year I swapped a phone game app for more time in the mountains with my best canine buddy. I will be hiking on Squak Tuesday mornings in January if you care to join the fun. Email me or leave a comment below for details.
This year I swapped a phone game app for more time in the mountains with my best canine buddy. I will be hiking on Squak Tuesday mornings in January if you care to join the fun. Email me or leave a comment below for details.

Change is hard. But setting up a symbol that works for you can help. It helped me. I’m plunging into the unknown without my crutches, aware that it will be hard. But I also know I have wood ducks and polar bears to emulate. If they can do it, so can I. My track record is strong. I can do this. So can you.

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

4 replies on “Polar Bear Plunge: A Metaphor for a New Year”

  1. You’re amazing. I love to try the plunge….maybe in 2025.

    Questions about the plunge? How do you approach the plunge? Slow or Fast? What are the risks of taking the plunge from a curious mind? 😉

    1. Ah these are great questions. On a walk with Ajax yesterday I thought about adding a paragraph about my particular experience. There are those who will dash in and dive under then race out to get it over with. I admit I’m a bit more cautious — as I am with everything in life. It’s a matter of how you approach everything, really. I walk in, feeling what it’s like against my legs. I shake my hands out to keep circulation going as I go deeper, and I monitor my breathing to make sure it’s not going to overwhelm my CNS. When I get in up to my waist, I focus on my breathing, then throw my hands in the air and dip down to my chin.
      The second time I went in, I was more bold and knew I didn’t want to be in for too long. I went farther, faster, and took several deep breaths in anticipation of going all the way under. Then, plugging my nose to make certain no frigid water would go up my nose, I dropped my head back and quickly went under. Rubbed water from my eyes. And, starting to shake, I made my way to shore and to my warm coat.
      So, whether you go slowly or fast is up to you. In TRULY frigid (33 degree) water you want to limit your exposure for sure. The lower the temp the more drastic you’ll feel it. Lake Washington is usually about 40-45 F this time of year so I’ve never been too worried about hypothermia. The event had fire pits and hot tea/cocoa available to help warm people back up, and a good soak in the hot tub is always my next step as soon as I get home. Without it, I would shiver for quite some time. Try it, you might really enjoy it!
      Thanks for your question and happy 2024!

  2. I love this! I’m not a Polar plunge person, but I did used to dive in the waters of Puget Sound in just a wetsuit. I’m going to add dancing back into my life this year. I used to dance all the time, but it’s not my husband’s thing. He has promised to give it a try, however, so that’s our big out-of-our-comfort-zone event for the new year.

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