Hundreds take the plunge at Birch Bay

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 1, 2014 

BIRCH BAY -- Along a broad crescent of beach in this waterfront community, perhaps 1,000 people scampered over heaps of rotting eelgrass and into the shallow saltwater at noon Wednesday, Jan. 1, to observe the 31st annual Birch Bay Waterslides Polar Bear plunge.

The waterslides, located north of the plunge area and away from the beach, joined the Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce in sponsoring the event this year. Chamber Vice President Marty Stauffer said between 200 and 500 people usually register for the event, and hundreds more just show up and hit the water.

While the local chamber has sponsored the plunge for 31 years, Birch Bay's Pat Alesse said the tradition began several years before that, when a group of local inebriates departed a local tavern after a New Year's celebration and decided to go swimming. Alesse said old-timers disagree about exactly which tavern can claim the honor.

This year's event was far more decorous, with a soundtrack of contemporary Christian music provided by loudspeakers at the Praise 106.5 FM booth.

What gets otherwise-civilized people out for a bone-chilling swim on the first day of the year? You'll hear a variety of explanations, but this year, social media helped to boost attendance.

Bellingham resident Jennifer Hill said she was taking the plunge for the first and last time, after recruiting friends Debbi Bentley and Karen Grimes via Facebook.

"I've watched this probably every year and said, next year, next year," Hill said, adding that at age 53, she thinks its time to get on with the things she's always wanted to do.

"I feel like I'm truly alive," Hill said. "I'm scared. I'm nervous."

Bentley agreed.

"It's called, 'Let's try to do something we've never done before' -- a bucket-list thing," Bentley said.

Ramero Ortiz of Blaine was hitting the water in a Santa Claus suit for his seventh plunge, minus the pillow padding that he wore last year. The pillows became waterlogged when he tried to swim.

Santa Claus outfits were perhaps the most popular choice for those who bothered with costumes, but many people showed more imagination.

Joy Moore and Charmaine Porter made the trip up from Seattle to don their blue octopus costumes. Again, a Facebook dare set events in motion.

Porter said the auspicious phase of the moon -- now in its "new" phase -- helped her to make up her mind.

"It's the best time for new beginnings," Porter said.

Lylia Darling and 9-year-old daughter Randi Roose, Birch Bay residents, have made the New Year's swim a tradition since Randi was 3.

"It's really fun," Randi said. "One year I got sick because it was too cold out."

Kyle Atkinson has been serving in Kuwait with the U.S. Air Force, and got a holiday break to visit wife Kelly and 4-year-old son Kyler in Ferndale. He said the family was on a scenic drive along the bay on New Year's Eve when they saw the signs for the New Year's Day festivities, and decided to join in.

When some acquaintances tried to enter him in the contest to see who had come the farthest for the plunge, Atkinson declined.

"I'm not from Kuwait," he said. "I'm visiting unwillingly for a year."

The distance honor went to an Australian, beating out entrants from Chicago, Ohio and Great Britain.

More than 20 minutes after the mad mob scene in the water, many people were still standing around in their bathing suits, chatting with friends and posing for pictures. The weather was relatively cooperative: Although the temperature was in the mid-40s, the air was still.

"It's a nice rejuvenating way to start the year," said a shivering Diana Trout of Ferndale.

In Bellingham, hundreds more enjoyed a similar thrill as they splashed about in Lake Padden, which is usually cold enough to raise goosebumps in August.

Reach JOHN STARK at john.stark@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2274.

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