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by Lee Carlson

March 1, 2008

Have you ever swum a different meet or a different event at a meet solely on impulse? Of course, there are many things I’d never do on impulse? Into this category you can put hang gliding, parasailing and ski jumping.

But on the last day of 2007 I learned about a Lake Washington polar bear swim. Time and place: noon, January 1, at ClarkBeach. It just so happened my wife Dee and I planned on spending New Years Eve and Day with friends that lived about 10 minutes from the swim.

Why not, I thought. A polar bear swim is on my bucket list (things to do before I kick the bucket). Stealthily, I packed my jammer, goggles, cap and nose-plugs. No way was I going to tell Dee that for sure I’d be taking the icy plunge. That way, if I changed my mind I wouldn’t lose face or be accused of being wishy-washy like some presidential candidate. 

At our New Years Eve celebration dinner, I mentioned I might do the swim. The response: “You must be joking.” That response made me hold my tongue and become more determined to do the swim. And this determination may have been reinforced by an extra drink or two during our year-end celebration or watching the Space Needle’s fireworks explode and thinking, “Hey, you need to enjoy life to the maximum; com’on, take a few risks.

In the morning I again said I was planning on doing the swim. Everyone gave me that “you-must-still-be-under-the-influence look.” Our hosts then said, “Okay, let’s go watch you do this.” Now there was no turning back.

We arrived at the beach at 11:40, walked down to the water. I was the first one there. Shortly, another couple joined us and we all checked out the beach. Concrete steps to the water, a roped-in swimming area and an L-shaped dock for those preferring to dive into the water. An experienced polar bear veteran advised us not to jump in because the wait to get up the ladder is terribly cold. The best approach, he advised, was to walk down the steps, dive in with a shallow dive and swim about 10 strokes or go to the ropes and then get out. 

By 11:50 there were about 20 of us swimmers nervously pacing around, together with an equal number of smug-looking observers. Five minutes later, Niles Clark, the sponsor of this event, announced it was time to get ready. Off went the pants and sweatshirt, on with the swim cap and goggles. By this time, about 30 swimmers were present. We split up, about half going to the dock and the rest to the concrete steps. Following a final countdown of 10…9…8…we went to the unknown cold water. 

At first it felt like I was sliding in cold snow, icy, but not impossible. But as I took several strokes, the water felt like a vice tightening on my chest. Though the water was warmer than I expected, it was definitely cold. I learned the next day from former Mercer Island teammate and fellow polar bear swimmer Peggy Pomeroy that the water temperature was 45 degrees. A tad cooler than the water at the Anacortes and OakHarbor pools where I regularly swim.

After I emerged from the water, Niles Clark and I chatted briefly. He’s been doing the swim since 1968. Many participants have been doing it five or more years. In fact, I remember my family talking about the swim being a Scandinavian tradition, though no family member ever claimed to have embraced this tradition.

After the swim, I found myself wondering about myself and my fellow swimmers. Are we fitness gurus, off-balance exhibitionists, pain seekers or just a group that likes to scream on entering the water? I felt good doing it, better getting out and best remembering it as an adventure. Isn’t this what life is about ― the journey where you head down some new roads?

As I reflected more on my experience, I thought of fellow Masters swimmer (and past PNA President) Jeanne Ensign, who frequently swims in Lake Washington until late fall. I also thought of current PNA President Steve Peterson, who has swam across Puget Sound and around BainbridgeIsland as part of a relay. And I’ve noticed that more towns, cities and park districts are sponsoring polar bear events. As PNA meets chair, I even wonder whether our organization should sanction such an event. Even if we never do, I’m glad I acted on impulse and took my first ― and maybe not last ― swim with my fellow polar bears.