Polar bear dippers renew themselves

About 70 people brave frigid water to greet the New Year

Posted: Sunday, January 02, 2005

At 1 p.m. New Year's Day, as some Juneauites were just waking up and wondering what woodland animal had lodged in their mouth overnight, about 70 folks plunged into the waters at Auke Village Recreation Area.

That would be the shrieking you heard about then.

It was the 11th annual Juneau Polar Bear Dip, as near as organizers can tell.

It seemed like a bright idea about a decade ago, when some skiers coming down from Eaglecrest Ski Area wanted to prolong a happy day.

"We didn't want the exhilaration of a great day of skiing to end so we jumped in the water," said Barbara Greening.

Bill Platte, who grew up in New York City and was familiar with the winter dips at Coney Island, said he first suggested it that day.

"I'm kind of a cold-water believer myself," he said. "I do it because you really feel better after. I think it's just really good for your circulation. Spiritually, it could be a cleanser for the new year."

Posthumous pleasure might not seem like a good recommendation, but polar bear dips have become common in coastal areas. Sometimes they're tied to charity drives, suggesting that participants are groping for a good reason, or are scourging themselves as mendicants.

The dips, like that in San Luis Obispo County in California, often occur on Jan. 1. And no matter where they are, even in 50-degree West Coast surf, newspapers jocularly comment on how cold it is.

On the Florida-Alabama line, in the Gulf of Mexico, where it was nearly 70 degrees Saturday, the sponsoring Flora-Bama Lounge & Package presents its dip as a wacky cold event.

But some places earn the right to talk about the cold.

On the Ottowa River near Fort-Coulonge last year, sponsors cut a hole in the ice for dippers.

Actually, Juneau participants do enjoy the plunge. It's fun, it's a chance to see the same folks year after year, and it's a ceremony to start a new year, they said.

"It gives you that push to set you up for challenges for the rest of the year," Greening said. "... It's a mental as well as a physical thing. You have to make up your mind this is something I want to do and can do. To charge into that freezing water, you have to have confidence in yourself. It helps you for the rest of the year to hold onto that confidence."

"It's a tradition with our friends," said Marianna Carpeneti, a college student home for the holidays. "We've all been doing it together. It's such a fun way to start the year."

At Auke Rec on Saturday it was cold but warmer than you might think. The sand was wet but soft. The serene cove is protected from wind, and the sun in the all-blue sky was warm. The air temperature was in the mid-20s, and the water felt warmer, dippers said.

About 70 fully dressed dippers and a similar number of friends and family members - the dry people - walked toward the water over the baseball-size rocks, which clanked underfoot.

This was Gail Smith's second time as a dipper.

"It looks like it's going to be painful," she said, eyeing the water. "It's not been this cold in the past, but at least it's sunny.

"At least there's a dog in there," Smith added hopefully, spotting a dog cavorting in the water and serving like a mine canary to show that life could be sustained.

"You run out and you just dive in. But you have to get your head wet, or the karma doesn't fix," she said.

First-time dipper Cheryl Novak, wearing a Wagnerian viking helmet, said the headgear reflected her Swedish and Norwegian ancestors.

"My ancestors the vikings were probably very courageous. And my ancestors the Swedes probably had a good sense of humor," she said.

The dippers stripped down to bathing clothes. Wearing sneakers or sandals, and some already squealing, they lined up at the water's edge, backed by a wall of camera- and towel-toting companions.

At Platte's bell peal, they ran into the water, thrashing it in a roar. Their screams and squeals pierced the air before they dove headfirst into deeper water. Then they slogged back to shore and put on robes and were rubbed dry by friends.

Dogs, themselves wet, protectively barked at people who lingered in the water.

The organizers had a big fire going, and offered cookies and candy, but many dippers stayed on the rocky beach until they were ready to change their clothes.

"I have only one thing to say," Smith, robed and with a towel turban on her head, said afterward. "Brrrr. Brrrr. It's great. I'd do it again."

"It wasn't that cold," said Hal Geiger, who was slow to emerge from the water and who lingered bare-chested on the beach for a few minutes. "I'm surprised. I thought people would stay in there longer."

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