The nerves really started when the ambulance drove by.
I was sitting in my car near Auke Recreation Area, mentally preparing to jump into 37-degree water in a few minutes. This was about half an hour before the annual Polar Bear Dip, where dozens of Juneau residents gather on New Year’s Day to leap into the frigid water at Auke Rec and get their year off to a (literally) breathtaking start.
I was about to get out of my car and walk down to the beach when the ambulance drove by. Just in case someone might need it.
Still, I got out of the car and walked down to the beach. Even with half an hour until it was time to go, the beach was flooded with dozens of people.
According to the event’s website, the tradition began in 1992 when a group of friends wanted to find a new, “invigorating” way to ring in the year. That initial group, according to the website, was just six people. The secret got out long ago, and adventurous souls young and old gathered in the 35-degree weather Monday just before 1 p.m.
Rosie Ainza and Mari Carpeneti, who stepped in as organizers this year, stood with a megaphone and a script ready to direct the crowd. Monika Walker, who runs the show most years, wasn’t able to make it this year and left Ainza and Carpeneti detailed instructions on what to announce to the crowd and when.
Ainza and Carpeneti have done the dip for about 20 years, and plunging into the frigid water has taken on a symbolic meaning.
“It’s a really good way of washing off all of the things that have happened in the previous year and going into the new year,” Ainza said. “It’s almost like a pseudo-baptism in a way.”
Carpeneti admitted that she still gets nervous in the moments leading up to the dip. This made me feel a little bit better about the fact that my chest and stomach were tingling with anxiety.
There’s also Rod Morrison, who stood out from the crowd in his red-and-white striped, old-fashioned bathing suit. He’s done it almost every year since 1996, when a friend challenged him at a Christmas party to do it. I asked him what the draw was.
“It’s unique and it’s fun,” Morrison said. “It’s cold when you’re in the water, but when you get out, you’re warm. Your body’s circulation goes nuts.”
Ainza’s five-minute warning sent people scrambling to their positions on the beach. I placed my coat on the snow and stood on it, stripping down to just black adidas athletic shorts and slip-on shoes.
Ainza’s voice announced the two-minute warning as people began to inch closer to the water. Some looked confident and ecstatic. Others, myself probably included, looked like they were reconsidering this decision. The thought crossed my mind to text my parents and my girlfriend to say I loved them, in case I went into the cold water and never came out. I also considered texting my editor to say I deserved a raise for doing this.
Suddenly, I was jerked out of my thoughts by the 10-second countdown beginning. As the countdown reached zero, people moved toward the waves at their own speed. Some sprinted, some walked, some moved gingerly forward and others stood frozen in place.
I took a couple of slow, hesitant steps and then sped up as I hit the water. Those first few steps weren’t too bad, and even when I was into the water past my knees I was still feeling OK.
Then I decided to go all the way under. I tried to dive, but my shivering and nervous body ended up doing more of a belly-flop. My face smacked the water and my mouth, wide open in shock, filled with salty water.
Earlier, Carpeneti had said that when you hit the water, the only thing you can think about is how cold the water is. She was exactly right. My mind was blank for those moments underwater and in the first couple seconds after I came up.
I breathed hard and fast as my body tried to adjust to this sudden shock of cold. For a brief moment I doubted whether I would ever be able to catch my breath. I staggered out of the water, relieved to reach the beach. Being shirtless in 35-degree weather has never felt so good.
People up and down the beach were whooping, screaming New Year’s greetings to each other as they rushed to their towels. Even before toweling off, many people grabbed their phone and snapped a selfie. I was one of them.
For that few minutes, everyone — the young, the old, the veterans, the first-timers — caught their breath together. It reminded me of something Ainza had mentioned.
“Everybody that’s doing it feels the same way,” Ainza had said, “and it brings about an even deeper bond of community.”
Progress was slow from that point on as I dried off and changed my clothes, wrapped in my towel. Carpeneti came around to people who had dipped and gave them cards that commemorated the fact that they’d accomplished the feat. The card reads, “Off the couch and in the sea, that’s the place I want to be!”
I trudged away from the beach, slowly starting to regain feeling in my extremities. There had been plenty of opportunities to decide to turn back and not go in that water, or to just dip my feet in and not go totally under, but I had done it anyway.
Maybe that’s part of the reason people do this, I thought, is to remind themselves what it’s like to throw caution to the wind and totally immerse themselves in something that’s out of their comfort zone. And there’s no better time to do that than the first day of the year, when we’re all trying to reinvent ourselves in one way or another.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.