Even the polar bear took the plunge.
And he didn’t even get his fur wet.
But he did delight hundreds of people lining up along Double Bluff Beach Tuesday for the annual New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge.
Many of the 150 participants registered for the fundraising event began 2019 the way they’ve started many years on Whidbey Island — cold and wet.
“This is my 13th time,” declared Karen Jeffers, 76, as she sat in her car keeping warm before the noon dip. “It’s tradition. My kids think I’m nuts.”
Some wore bathrobes with beach shoes, others walked the sandy beach in fluffy slippers. Many were layered in easy-to-ditch clothes with bathing suits underneath.
Thankfully, none wore birthday suits, as is the custom in other places where news photographers presumably aren’t sent for New Year’s Day photos.
Unlike this reporter and photographer who was assigned to cover the perennial plunge that’s sponsored by South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District.
The $15 registration fee paid for a cool blue T-shirt, lots of cups of hot chocolate and coffee and bragging rights, of course.
Money raised benefits the Island County 4-H Teen Leadership Club.
Young members on hand to help Tuesday said the funds help them travel to leadership events around the state.
“It helps 4-H kids go to different conferences, such as the Know Your Government event in Olympia,” said Samantha Ollis, a 17-year-old junior at South Whidbey High School. “We learn a lot and I really like everyone’s positivity.”
Polar Bear plunges were not part of my upbringing even though I was raised in the frozen tundra of Buffalo, N.Y.
I don’t mind cold. In fact, I prefer snowy fields to sandy bluffs.
But I’m not a big fan of cold and wet as it tends to lead to death. Any outdoors person knows that. Which is probably why I’ve avoided the frivolity of diving into frigid waters on a cold winter’s day.
But as the noon countdown drew near on the first day of 2019, the sun came out and the water glistened. It began to seem like a beach day after all.
“It’s all mental,” said Irma Leahy, who drove from Lynnwood to “swim” into the new year. “The sun is out so you think it’s warmer than it is. But then it makes the water seem even colder.”
In reality, only a few degrees separated air and water temperatures.
“Air temperature reached around 50 degrees, water temperature, 47 degrees,” Carrie Monforte, recreation supervisor, told me.
Getting in the water ahead of the plungers is best, I was told, in order to aim my lens at the mad diving dashers. The water is shallow for a long way, which is why the “plunge” is typically splash in, splash out.
I roll up my pants, put on a windbreaker, don my favorite ski hat with ears, and wade into the liquid abyss. I then immediately wade out, only faster.
I look up and down the beach at the line of young and old, grandmothers with grandkids, families holding hands, relatives and friends sitting on logs content to watch and take pictures and laugh at the foolishness of others.
Up on a snag, a bald eagle peers down.
An alligator (costume) wanders by.
I wade back out farther this time, dig my heels into the sandy bottom and take a stance I hope withstands the turbulence of the bathers and the torment of the temperature.
I “acclimate” for a good five minutes before the 10-second count rings out.
Click, click, click, swerve right, click, click, click, swerve left. I continue click click clicking as people whiz by me splashing, screaming, splashing.
They turn around and run back to shore. I keep clicking.
Until I notice I really can’t feel my lower legs. I crab walk into the cold sand with beet-red legs and toes.
Swirls of towels and blankets and robes grasp onto dripping bodies in waves up and down the beach.
The polar bear trundles along, stopping for cameras and cell phones and selfies.
The white bear told me earlier that he, the polar bear, had never actually done the Polar Bear Plunge in his seven years of playing Ursus maritimus.
“Actually, I’ve never been in the water,” he admitted. “All the photos are taken of me in the five minutes before and after the plunge.”
As I limp my way barefoot toward a warming fire, hot drinks and my dry reporter’s notebook, I spy a pile of plush white material discarded on the ground. And a white head.
That polar bear’s fur sure looks warm.
Maybe next year, we can trade places. I can pretend to be a fuzzy Arctic bear and he can parade around as a cold, wet photographer.