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Originally published Thursday, December 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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"Polar Bears" say "Happy New Year!" with a plunge into icy waters

New Year's Day can be spent scrawling repentant lists of resolutions, or nursing hangovers within arm's reach of the remote control —...

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New Year's Day can be spent scrawling repentant lists of resolutions, or nursing hangovers within arm's reach of the remote control — or running pell-mell into the nearest, coldest body of water. This is actually how a brave — some say crazy — segment of the population upholds its standing in a club with unaffiliated members all over the world. For these "polar bears," Jan. 1 is not complete without a frigid swim. With Lake Washington water temperatures shivering around 50 degrees — and air temperatures usually lower — "why?" is not an unreasonable question.

"I think it's popular because there's enough daring to it, you know how people like extreme sports. You can feel you're taking a risk, but a safe one," said Janet Wilson, Meadowbrook Pool manager, who coordinates the annual Matthews Beach Polar Bear Plunge and takes the dip herself. "Once you do it, you can't not do it again. It's such a rush, and there's something bonding about it. And it's a great alternative to getting drunk and blowing noisemakers!"

More than 600 people turned out at this north Lake Washington park to take this Seattle Parks-sponsored dip on Jan. 1, 2005, with even more expected this coming New Year's Day. Those who go in at least neck deep receive refreshments and a "2006 Official Patch of Courage." Costumes are encouraged at this family event, where groups such as the Lake Forest Polar Bears for Peace wear team T-shirts and face-paint peace signs.

Although this is the fourth annual swim at Matthews Beach, the tradition has roots much further back in Seattle history. A Log House Museum display in West Seattle features a polar-bear club card dated 1940 signed by the "Chief Icicle." The Alki Beach Polar Bears made a tradition of hauling their dry Christmas trees down to the beach and burning them in a post-plunge bonfire.

"Wide awake"

Sunday will bring the 39th annual dunk at Clarke Beach on Mercer Island's southeast corner. Betsy Martin, who has been ringing in the new year with a swim here for the past five years, doesn't consider it official until she's gone all the way underwater.

If you go

Polar-bear plunges

Around Puget Sound

Matthews Beach Park, 9300 51st Ave. N.E., Seattle; noon Sunday (registration begins at 11:30 a.m.). For more information, call Meadowbrook Pool at 206-684-4989.

Clarke Beach, 7700 East Mercer Way, Mercer Island; noon Sunday.

Olalla Lagoon, Olalla, Kitsap County. At the intersection of Olalla Valley Road and Crescent Valley Road, north of Gig Harbor; noon Sunday. For more information, call Al's Grocery Store, 253-851-4955.

Vancouver, B.C.

Vancouver also has a longstanding tradition of New Year's Day swims. Vancouver Polar Bear Swim Club's 86th annual swim is at English Bay Bathhouse, 1050 Beach Ave., 2:30 p.m. Sunday (registration begins at 12:30 p.m.). For more information, call Vancouver Aquatic Centre at 604-665-3418.

"One year we were sitting around, and we thought it would be this fun, crazy thing to do with our kids," said Martin. "Now the girls are 11, and it's a family tradition. It's just a hoot!"

You don't have to join a group to participate. Emilie Coulter of Seattle celebrates her birthday every Jan. 1 and has taken a ritual cleanse with friends and family in Seattle-area waters on that day since 1991.

"I started it at a time in my life when I was shaking a lot of things up," she said. "It feels like a new year in every way because it's also my birthday. Your eyes open wider when you come out of the water. It helps me start my year clean and refreshed and wide awake."

There may be something more to the après-swim high than just an adrenaline rush. A 1999 study released in Britain's QJM: An International Journal of Medicine showed that people who make a habit of winter cold-water swimming increase their resistance to disease, especially acute respiratory illnesses. The "oxidative stress" created by regular cold-water dips was linked to improved antioxidant protection when compared with the healthy control group.

It should be noted that hypothermia is a concern when swimming in cold water, so if you try it don't stay in longer than 15 minutes, and never swim alone. Those with heart conditions or other medical conditions should get a doctor's OK before turning polar bear.

"Like a baptism"

The Olalla Lagoon in Kitsap County claims the state's largest polar-bear swim, with more than 1,000 people turning out for the event. A replica Civil War cannon blasts the noon hour signaling the swimmers' rush into Calvos Passage.

John Robbecke, owner of Al's Grocery Store, located across from where the plunge takes place, has been going polar for 23 years. The county recently acquired the formerly private boat launch, so swimmers will be asked not to make their traditional leap off the lagoon bridge this year — an especially unsafe practice at low tide. As an alternative, a raft will be brought in for those who prefer jumping to running in.

"It's like a baptism into the new year," Robbecke said. "That's appropriate, as I'm a recovering Catholic. The cannon goes off, and we start jumping in like lemmings after that."

Swimmers warm up afterward at a bonfire on the beach (county permitted, the store owner noted).

No matter your motivation, the swim is an easy way to achieve a resolution without days of habit-crunching sacrifice. Another benefit: You may forgo those extra eggnog lattes if you know you'll be sporting your swimsuit before next summer.

Kathryn True, a freelance writer who lives on Vashon Island, is a regular contributor to Northwest Weekend.

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