The full creativity of the Inland Northwest was on display Monday at Sanders Beach, where hundreds of people gathered for the annual New Year’s Day plunge into the icy waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Polar Bear Plunge participants brought inflatable palm trees and unicorn rafts, donned Viking helmets and American flag Speedos and waited, shivering, in various stages of undress as noon approached.
First-time participant Josh Andrea stood on the beach with his girlfriend, Amanda Barnett. He’s lived in Blanchard, Idaho, for 30 years but has never been able to make the plunge because he works putting up power lines.
Usually, his work takes him out of town on New Year’s. But this year, as luck would have it, he was home.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said.
Chad Bennett, the Plunge’s unofficial timekeeper for more than 15 years, brought his usual clock and a sign displaying the weather: 21 degrees on land, 40 in the water. This year, he added a cart to the mix so people could grab Mardi Gras beads off of it and pose for pictures.
“It’s kind of like the northwest Mardi Gras,” he said. “It’s the closest we’re going to get to something crazy.”
Clad in two leis, a blue bikini and bathrobe, Heather Long waited for her second plunge with her friend, Christine Sorenson. The two are running buddies. Long said Sorenson didn’t need much convincing to join her.
“We’re doing the Spartan Race together, so this is a good start,” Sorenson said.
As noon hit, hundreds rushed into the water in small groups, shrieking and shivering.
“Why are we doing this?” one man said to a friend.
Most got wet, turned around and ran back out at twice the speed they had gone in. A few stayed to swim or lounge on pool rafts.
“It felt like I got pelted with just pure ice,” said Trent Carlton, a three-year plunge veteran from Spokane.
A late trio ran into the water, clad in polar bear onesies, a few minutes after the crowd began to thin. Holly Hill, a recent transplant to Orofino, Idaho, from Ohio, joined her teenage daughter, Brigid, and her friend, Kennedy Howell.
The white bear suits hung limply off their bodies as they shivered on beach towels.
“These are very heavy now,” Howell said, laughing. But all three wore smiles on their faces.