COEUR d’ALENE – The crowd on the beach chanted, “Five, four, three, two, one … “
As the second hand on the official “Polar Bear Plunge” clock neared noon, women in red bathrobes tossed back shots to fortify themselves. Men’s bare chests, women’s bikinis and a mass of legs emerged from underneath coats and blankets.
And then they were off. Hundreds of people sprinted across Sanders Beach to celebrate the New Year with a brisk dip in Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Bathers shrieked and hollered as they hit the 39-degree water. Snowflakes melted against chilled skin. Friends and relatives captured the mayhem on home-video.
“It’s expletive-deleted awesome,” crowed a self-censoring 53-year-old Bob Golden of Spokane, as he emerged from the lake.
The ultra-hardy actually swam. Others ducked in and out as quickly as possible.
“I was in 1.3 seconds,” said David Lindsay. “I go in knee-deep … spin around, do a push-up and sprint back toward the shore.”
The Polar Bear Plunge is a 10-year tradition for Lindsay, his wife and daughters. This year, relatives and boyfriends came, too. The family has one rule. “For it to be official, you have to dunk your head,” explained Lindsay’s daughter, Andrea.
Hence the push-up in Lindsay’s routine.
“Now we’ll go home, get in the hot tub and start watching football,” he said. “We’re sluggish Americans from here on out.”
Chad Bennett and his wife, Denise, were also part of the fun. The Rathdrum couple brought the “official clock” – a battery-fired model mounted on a tall pole, and held by a stuffed polar bear.
The annual event focused attention on recent legal battles over the popular beach.
Members of the Sanders Beach Preservation Association, who support public access to the beach, used the plunge to rally support for their cause. For a donation, association members gave out T-shirts that said: “Polar Bears for a public beach. Don’t sink this great tradition.”
A hundred T-shirts were snatched up.
“Public access to Sanders Beach is in imminent danger,” said board member Dave Moseley. He encouraged Polar Bear Plunge participants to attend Tuesday night’s Coeur d’Alene City Council meeting and voice their views.
The City Council will have its first chance to discuss whether to challenge a recent state Department of Land opinion that private landowners own the 10-foot stretch of beach above summer lake levels. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
In October, the city and Kootenai County filed suit, asking a judge to – once and for all – establish the ordinary high-water mark. The high-water mark dictates where private beach ends and where state-owned waters begin.
The city should fight for a high-water mark to establish ownership, Moseley said. “To blatantly give away the beach property is an abdication of the state’s role as protector of the public lakebed,” he said.
Many plunge participants were aware of the controversy.
“I hope it all works out so we can still have access to the beach,” said Hollyanne Baisden, a four-year veteran of the plunge. “It would be sad if we couldn’t.”
Baisden sported a zebra-print swimsuit. But it was hidden under several layers, including a shocking orange bathrobe. “This is my granny’s,” she said.
The ambient air temperature was a crisp 27 degrees.
Nearby, Richard Polillo clasped a quilted Carhartt jacket to his chest. A pair of aqua shorts peeked out from underneath the coat.
“My wife talked me into it,” he said. “This demonstrates true love.”