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Polar Bear Plunge has origins farther North

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 31, 2019

A polar bear plunge participant exits the water on Sanders Beach in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho on Jan. 1, 2019. The water temperature was 40 degrees Fahrenheit with an air temperature of 29 degrees. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
A polar bear plunge participant exits the water on Sanders Beach in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho on Jan. 1, 2019. The water temperature was 40 degrees Fahrenheit with an air temperature of 29 degrees. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

Lisa Pantages was 3 months old when she participated in her first polar bear swim in the icy saltwater of English Bay Beach, in Vancouver, Canada – a little less than 17 years before Speedo-wearing high schoolers took to Sanders Beach to do the same.

The Polar Bear Plunge has brought an icy jolt to the new year for 40 years in Coeur d’Alene, but the real deal farther north is celebrating its centennial. Pantages is the granddaughter of Peter Pantages, whose obsession for ocean swims started one of the first polar bear swim clubs, in 1920. Similar clubs were started out of Coney Island in 1903 and Boston in 1904.

Peter Pantages emigrated from Greece to North America when he was 11 to help his uncle, Alexander Pantages, set up his theaters. Alexander Pantages is the man behind vaudeville houses across North America, including one in Spokane that was the center of an anti-discrimination lawsuit which caused the company to change its segregation policy.

When Peter Pantages moved to America, he promised himself he would continue his daily ritual of swimming in the ocean. Every day meant every day – he would travel by steamship, and had an agreement with the Union Steamship Co. to stop every day so he could dive overboard, Lisa Pantages said.

“If the captain deemed it impossible for them to do that, then he would have them draw him salted baths that was the same temperature as the ocean that day and write him a letter of confirmation to say that he had indeed done his half-hour dip in the salty waters,” Lisa Pantages said.

Peter Pantages’ steamship behavior brought him international attention, but Lisa also had a dip catered to her, though not by request. She has spent only one New Year’s Day away from English Bay Beach, to surprise her then-boyfriend – who was in the Canadian Armed Forces – by taking him to the Playboy Mansion for New Year’s Eve.

“Hef, of course, had heard the stories about my grandfather, he was a great historian – appreciated history in all its forms,” Lisa Pantages said. “So he surprised me by lowering the temperature of the pool at the Playboy Mansion. He didn’t add salt to it, but he did lower it to the exact same temperature to what the temperature was here in Vancouver in the ocean, and we did our polar bear swim there.”

Lisa Pantages said one of the best aspects of the Vancouver Polar Bear Swim Club, of which she is president, is the community it has created. But Peter Pantages started as a young man swimming solo. A few of his close friends saw how enthusiastic he was about ocean swimming, and he challenged them to join him.

“It grew from there as my grandfather grew in the community of Vancouver,” Lisa Pantages said. “He realized what a great thing this was to bring people together. That there were no expectations. That people could just come down and watch them, but more and more people participated.”

Like the swim on Sanders Beach, participants come dressed up in a variety of costumes, including Santa and all of his reindeer every year. This year, she said they have about 3,000 registered swimmers and expect anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 spectators. Several hundred swimmers usually participate in the Lake Coeur d’Alene plunge

Lisa Pantages recommends always wearing something on your feet, and said her grandfather swore by coating his body with olive oil.

“Stay warm and keep the skin happy,” Lisa Pantages said. “We do not recommend alcohol before a swim, that can increase the chances of hypothermia. But there’s nothing wrong with a little refreshing elixir afterward.”

This tip was not observed by the group from the Pine Hill neighborhood gang who reigned as timekeepers for the Sanders Beach plunge from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. It was a matter of practice to fortify themselves with Bloody Marys before piling into a van and heading off to the beach.

The timekeeper was a battered Coca-Cola wall clock.

“People would go, ‘Here they come, here they come!’ because we would start the countdown,” Larry Skogen said.

A group rule was that it didn’t count if your head didn’t go under, and Kurt Albrethsen said Chris Duane, a 6-foot-6-inch Australian former rugby player who lived in the neighborhood, enforced that rule.

Many of the people from the group moved out of the neighborhood. Duane returned to Australia and the baton-clock was never officially passed.

But the Sanders Beach plunge has had a different timekeeper for many years: Chad Bennett, with a stuffed polar bear with a clock.

“And so there was a year to where nobody had a clock and nobody knew when to go in,” Bennett said. “So it’s kind of chaotic. So I just said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna bring a clock in case nobody shows up, in case the original guys aren’t there the next year.’ And that kind of became the norm.”

Bennett and his family hand out Mardi Gras beads to first-timers, and he affectionately refers to the event as “North Idaho Mardi Gras.”

Bennett said he’s not sure why he likes to do the plunge, other than that he likes to do crazy things. Albrethson said he and his neighbors did it because “we just got kind of a crazy hair.”

“When it’s your first time or if it’s your 50th time, the feeling you get after running in that water and running out, that communal positive energy that’s around everywhere, is really the right way to start the year,” Lisa Pantages said. “There’s just something about it.”

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