Panhandle Frolics Plunging Into The New Year Hundreds Brave The Cold For Annual Swim, Fun Run

Shrieking as one, 125 stalwarts plunged into the chilly waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene Sunday, continuing a New Year’s Day tradition called the Polar Bear Plunge.

“We never quit screaming while we’re in the water,” said Paul Ferguson, minutes before taking the plunge. Hundreds of spectators, many toting cameras and camcorders, crowded Sanders Beach for the noon event.

“It’s crazy. I don’t think I’d ever do it,” said Gerard Mathes of Coeur d’Alene.

Dozens in the crowd wore costumes - leis, polar bear suits, aluminum foil hats, trenchcoats and leftover New Year’s Eve fezzes.

First-timer Mark Vore of Hayden Lake showed up in a fur hat, bathrobe and snow boots. He decided not to test the water temperature beforehand, for fear he’d chicken out.

“You just gotta do it. All or nothing,” said Hayden Lake’s Laurie Bauman.

Why do it at all?

“Because it’s there,” she said, gazing at the water.

Her legs were covered with goosebumps.

“If you can do this, you can do anything,” said four-year veteran plunger Mike Norman of Coeur d’Alene. “Anything that doesn’t require brains.”

Norman’s advice: “Get in and out within nine seconds.”

His friend Travis Burgan agreed.

“At 10 seconds - cardiac arrest,” said the self-described “fair-weather jumper.”

Burgan’s advice: “Try not to get in front of anybody. Hold your ambition in check.”

In the minutes before the plunge, Kurt Albrethsen held aloft the official clock - a battered Coca Cola wall clock in its fourth year at the event.

“It’s like a walk in the park,” said veteran Larry Skogen of Coeur d’Alene.

“Yeah, a walk in the park naked at 10 degrees,” chuckled Albrethsen.

The six plungers from Albrethsen’s Pinehill Drive neighborhood were going to wear thong bikinis, the numbers “1995” written on their backsides, as a statement on the recently shot-down thong ban in Coeur d’Alene. But by the time the idea struck - 10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve - stores were closed.

At precisely noon, the Pinehill Drive timers shouted “five, four, three, two, one!” and the crowd on the beach separated in two. The swimmers, screaming, plunged into the icy water. The rest of the crowd, cheering, stood on the beach, in hats, boots and winter coats. A passing sailboat blew its air horn.

Within seconds, most of the plungers ran back out of the water to waiting towels. A few hardy souls paddled around in the water for a minute or so.

“I was afraid of freezing something off,” said Carrie Ingraham of Hayden, shivering in a towel.

“I did it because everyone else did,” said Bill Heaton, also of Hayden. “I felt like being stupid for the first day of the year.”

Burgan and Norman said their getin, get-out strategies worked well.

“I had good traction coming out,” said Burgan.

“Yeah,” laughed Norman. “On the backs of people.”

After the plunge, many of the swimmers rushed back to warm cars, showers and hot tubs. The beach quickly cleared.

Earlier in the day, in a testament to either health awareness or raw willpower, more than 500 people ran or walked the New Year’s Day “Hangover Handicap.”

“I partied longer than I should have,” said runner David Weeks of Coeur d’Alene, after crossing the finish line in the five-mile race.

The 18th annual event raised more than $3,000 for TESH, Inc., a nonprofit job training agency for the disabled. There was a record turnout, with 530 registered runners and walkers according to TESH director Ken Korczyk. Another 70 or so participated, but didn’t register. Last year’s turnout was about 400.

The chilly morning air wasn’t a problem, Korczyk said.

“It was probably our best year yet, weatherwise,” Korczyk said. “Last year, we had two inches of slush. I’d rather have the cold.”

Barbara “B.J.” Reynolds, who is disabled, walked in the event to help pay the agency back for helping get her a job, an apartment and an independent life.

Reynolds still works at the job the agency found for her 13 years ago.

“They helped me a lot,” she said. She’s a dietary worker at a Coeur d’Alene nursing home.

Another New Year’s tradition also came through Sunday morning: the first baby of the year.

At Kootenai Medical Center, Vincent Mooney, 8 pounds, six ounces, was born to Brandy Mooney at 10:06 a.m., said nurse Pat Dutkovich at the KMC nursery.

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