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.
A Growing Family Tradition
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.
History of the Polar Bear Plunge
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 Personal Challenge
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.
Why Do the Polar Bear Plunge?
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.
Choose Your Metaphor
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.
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.
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.
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.