An invigorating start to the year

Posted: Sunday, January 02, 2000

While some Juneau residents were just waking up after New Year's Eve and wondering what forest animal had lodged in their mouths overnight, others were testing the waters of the new century and glad to be alive.

Roughly 50 shrieking adults and children, out of a crowd of about 100, ran into Auke Bay at 1 p.m. Saturday in the annual Polar Bear Dip, a growing tradition since the mid-1990s.

Their feet, churning the surf, created a sound like a big rolling breaker in the placid 38-degree water. The air temperature was about 25 degrees under a windless, pearly blue sky. Whales offshore blew foam into the air. The mountains were frosted with snow.

``It's a nice day for it,'' said Barb Greening, one of the dip's founders.

It was, indeed, good to be alive in Juneau.

``It was the best,'' said Sandi Woods after her first-ever dip. ``Oh, it was so cool. I just loved it.''

Her Tibetan mastiff, a big furry dog that could afford to spend some body heat, barely had his legs moist. ``His policy is, `I don't get my belly wet. My mom's dumb, but I'm not.'''

Before the dip, participants searched for explanations of why they were doing it. A lot were first-timers. Some were corralled into it by friends.

Richard Forst of Sitka was in town to ski at Eaglecrest Ski Area. ``Things aren't going too well over there, so we decided to jump in the water instead.''

Micki Stahl, who was dubbed the bravest bear for wearing a hot pink bikini, sometimes takes dips in the winter ocean, but this was her first official polar bear dip.

``It's just a thrill. It's just yell and scream and run into the ocean,'' she said.

First-timer Scott Petsel said he's swum off Horse Island in the summer and that was cold.

``We have no idea what we're getting into,'' said his wife, Katy.

``Gotta celebrate the new millennium. Start out the new millennium the right way,'' Scott suggested.

An observer didn't have the heart to mention it's not really the millennium yet.

``I just think it's a cool way to start the New Year,'' said Juneau-Douglas High School senior Marianna Carpeneti.

It's funny the word cool, used figuratively, was on so many people's lips.

``I don't plan to stay in long enough to do any swimming,'' Carpeneti advised. ``Gosh, it's cold out here.''

Brynith Ensor-Estes, another JDHS senior, helped talk Carpeneti into it.

``It's very invigorating,'' Ensor-Estes insisted. ``It reminds you you're alive - at least for that couple of seconds before you get out of the water.''

Paul Smith, an emergency medical technician with the Auke Bay volunteer firefighters, was on hand to make sure everyone stayed alive.

As dozens of people lined up in their swimsuits at water's edge, Smith said, ``This is cool. This is cool that we're standing on the side and not jumping.''

Walter Hill didn't just dip. He stood in the water waist-high for a while, his hands clenched as if in prayer, long after nearly everyone else had run back to shore to change clothes or hover near the fire.

``I figured if I was going to go in, I'd make it worthwhile,'' he said afterward, although he confessed he ``kind of numbed up'' in the water. ``OK, I can't feel my toes,'' he announced.

Janice Ogle of Anchorage has spent eight years traveling to polar bear dips around Alaska. This was her first one at Auke Bay.

``I like getting away from the city of Anchorage,'' she said, ``and polar bear dips are a great excuse to see the real Alaska.''

She's submerged herself through holes in lake ice in Naknek. But she impressed the crowd around the fire when she said she's dipped in Barrow. Everyone said, ``Oooh.''



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