Veterans of Coeur d’Alene’s annual Polar Bear Plunge were in agreement about one thing: We were in for a colder-than-average year.
The forecast called for a not-exactly balmy high of 25 degrees at Sanders Beach, forcing me to take notes using a pencil after the ink in my pen froze.
Though I was debating the wisdom of this year’s editorial decision to force a reporter into the lake for journalistic purposes, most beachgoers appeared more enthusiastic than apprehensive.
Lisa Brown told me her 35-person group of family and friends has been taking the plunge for 11 years. It began when Brown, her husband and toddler son came out to watch the plunge and had so much fun they decided they had to participate the next year.
Since then, their group has grown in size, and the annual tradition now includes a pre-plunge brunch and time in a hot tub afterward.
“When you’re done, you feel like you’ve climbed Mount Everest. It’s an adventure,” she said. Last year, her son and some of the other teenagers went out on the dock and kept swimming in the lake long after the official plunge was over. One of her group members was in a wetsuit and wearing a snorkel, making me seriously question whether I had prepared adequately for this event.
Novice that I was, I neglected to bring a beach towel, but met up with one of our Web developers, Dan Gayle, who was more prepared. We staked out a spot amid the thousand or so other people who were intent on freezing to death, and waited for the official countdown to hit zero.
That countdown was done, with enthusiasm, by Chad Bennett, a Hayden man who’s taken the plunge for two decades and been timekeeper for 15 years. That started when the plunge’s original founders – guys who began the tradition in the 1970s – didn’t show up one year, he told me. He vowed to take up their mantle, and has since attended with a megaphone and signs proclaiming how much time remains before the charge into the water.
This year, Chad was decked out in a blue wig and wielded a pole with a polar bear and clock perched atop. A whiteboard dangling from the apparatus informed us the water temperature was a comparatively warm 40 degrees.
“Ten minutes!” he called out. The beach got anxious, with some more-seasoned plungers starting to remove clothes. At five minutes, most of the beach was in odd states of undress – pantsless but wearing a down jacket, for example, or bundled up in a scarf, gloves, a hat and a bikini.
I’d opted to wear my one-piece bathing suit with socks on advice from a friend, who warned me I’d have sand sticking to my feet otherwise. With a layer of snow on the beach, my toes were already covered in a granular, frozen mess of icy sand.
Finally, it was time. As the clock turned to noon, a line of people ran toward the water screaming, though I wasn’t clear if they were in pain or just excited.
Adrenaline stopped me from feeling much until full submersion, but once my head was under, my lungs protested the sudden temperature change. My breathing came in short gasps, and, after trying to right myself, I realized I was in water too deep to stand in. Fortunately, my swimmer instincts kicked in, and I made it back to shore about 30 seconds after first going in.
All in all, it was a less painful experience than I had imagined. Aside from my feet, which lingered in a state of partial frozenness for a few hours, the pain and suffering inflicted by the lake was minimal.
Next year, though, I’m bringing a real towel.
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