History was made in Tacoma on New Year’s Day with the city's first officially sanctioned “Polar Bear Plunge.” Approximately 350 participants and observers gathered at the Point Defiance Marina for the noon plunge into the frigid waters of Commencement Bay. Children 10 and under did a "Cub Plunge" at 11:30 a.m. This Metro Parks event marks Tacoma’s entry into the fraternity of communities nationwide in which citizens celebrate the New Year with a refreshing dip.
A similar plunge in Olalla has taken place since 1984 while others in cities like Seattle and Kirkland are over a decade old. In Vancouver, B.C. the New Year's plunge draws thousands of participants each year.
The turnout in Tacoma was surprisingly large considering that this was the event's inaugural year. Clear and sunny weather no doubt contributed to the large crowds.
According to NOAA, the water temperature was a balmy 45 degrees that day. Kyle Kennedy, a Metro Parks administrative program assistant, said that it is intended that the Polar Bear Plunge be an annual event.
"We are thankful to see that so many people decided to come down and have a great time while staying safe," he said. The aquatics department of Metro Parks Tacoma provided lifeguards and the Tacoma Fire Department was on hand to keep an eye on things.
This reporter can attest that there is indeed a pent up demand for such an event in Tacoma. I have long envied the Polar Bear plungers of other locations that are shown on news broadcasts every Jan. 1. It seems like a crazy, refreshing way to usher in a new beginning. When word came of Tacoma's entry into the ranks of communities in which the New Year is welcomed with a polar bear plunge, I jumped (literally) at the chance to join in.
I arrived at the boat launch to a festive atmosphere. People in bathing suits and costumes were crowded onto the floating docks that line either side of the concrete boat ramps. There was a woman in a wedding dress, a man in a "Tigger" costume and lots of party hats.
I personally wore strings of beads over my striped shirt. I wore summer shorts and had bare feet (a mistake since the concrete and asphalt is quite abrasive against chilled feet). At noon, with whoops, yelps and enthusiastic cheers, people began to leap from the dock and rush down the boat ramps into the frigid water. I marched forward down the ramp, blowing a ceramic horn that I'd used the previous evening to make noise at midnight. Once I was in up to my waist, I dropped beneath the surface, blowing the horn as I went under water.
I'd expected a breath-taking jolt of cold but the water did not seem as chill as what I'd braced myself for. I came up to the surface again to a scene of bodies churning the gray surface of the water. Arms were flailing and splashing as people made their way to the boat ramps. I again blew the horn as I waded out of the bay. Everyone around was shouting happily. People were excitedly telling their own personal experience of the event to one another. There was instantaneous camaraderie among all those hearty (or foolhardy) souls who'd braved the chilly plunge. These are the ones who now have the distinction of calling themselves Tacoma’s "Original Polar Bears."
There was a tent with a big heater and a table with hot drinks to take off the chill as everyone began to towel off after the plunge.
The plunge into the cold water was a joyful ordeal; a happy baptism to symbolically wash away the debris of the old year and make a clean start on the year to come. It was a crazy adventure that set the year off with a happy start.
Traditions of winter swims and ice bathing have a venerable history in northern European countries where they are often associated with the customs of the sauna. Even in the United States there are organizations such as the Coney Island Polar Bear Club in which winter swims have taken place since 1904.
I plan to make this a regular event for myself. Next year, however, I shall wear a festive hat and some kind of footwear. I will jump off the dock. And I will go in sounding a horn.