Voluntarily jumping into freezing water in the middle of winter — while seemingly indicative of a death wish, or at the very least a strong desire to get pneumonia — is a tradition with history (dating back to at least 1903 in the U.S. alone) and some would even argue, has health benefits.
According to an article published in 2004 in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health, titled ‘Winter Swimming Improves General Well-Being,’ “Exposure to ice-cold water induces a stress reaction, activating the sympathetic nervous system and increasing the secretion of catecholamines, especially noradrenaline.” The article cites the secretion of these catecholamines as the chief reason for the therapeutic effects of cold water immersion.
In Kitsap, those who wish to take a cold-water dip can do so at three different locations around the peninsula, but it’s important to keep in mind what to expect when you first take the plunge.
According to the National Institute for Cold Water Safety, when jumping into cold water, one can expect to enter a state of cold water shock. This is characterized first by a sudden, involuntary gasp, followed by loss of feeling in the extremities as the blood vessels constrict in an attempt to maintain core body temperature.
This initial cold shock is also responsible for the recommendation that people with heart conditions do not participate in polar plunges.
But for those who wish to experience what Frank Golden and Michael Tipton characterized in their book, ‘Essentials of Sea Survival’ as “one of the most profound stimuli that the body can encounter,” Kitsap has you covered.
The Brownsville Wild Plunge
Entering its ninth year, the Brownsville Wild Plunge is a frigid welcoming of the new year with a charitable twist.
2018’s plunge will mark the third year that donations gathered from the event will go to benefit the local educational nonprofit Wild Society.
Wild society focuses on getting youth engaged with the natural world by offering backcountry hikes, workshops, and community events. The group also offers financial aid to students who wish to participate in classes and hikes, but cannot afford the fee.
It was Jenna Matthews who first decided to gather donations from the Brownsville Polar Plunge to benefit Wild Society. From there, Matthews said, the event has continued to grow.
“It’s kind of been just this snowball over the last decade, turning into something else. But it’s a cool community event,” she said.
Donors this year will also have a chance to thaw out after the plunge with an adult beverage.
“This year we got a donation pack from Silver City Brewery and Taproom. So we’re going to be raffling off tickets for that,” Matthews explained.
In the pack are: two pint glasses, four 22-ounce bottles of Silver City Brewery’s beer, a T-shirt and a 64 oz growler. Tickets are $5 for two tickets and $20 for 10 tickets.
Matthews also helps to organize things with the Brownsville Yacht Club, which opens its doors to the polar plungers.
“We put together some food so that after the polar plunge people can come upstairs to the yacht club and visit and round out that community event feeling,” Matthews said.
Wild Society’s cooperation with the yacht club during the polar plunge is a mutually beneficial arrangement, she explained.
“It’s a good opportunity for the Brownsville Yacht Club to showcase their fellowship in the community, just by opening the doors to their club and giving people the opportunity to mingle.”
As for what she does to psyche herself up to run into Burke Bay in the dead of winter, Matthews said staying busy prior to the plunge eliminates any opportunity for her to dwell on how cold the water is going to be.
“I’m so busy beforehand, it’s about five minutes before that I think, ‘Oh my gosh I have to do this again, I have to run into that water.’”
Matthews also said that donning her polar plunge costume helps her get into the right mindset, as does seeing other polar plungers readying themselves for the run into the water.
“Having many people there also helps motivate me too, it’s kind of a showoff thing, maybe.”
Matthews’ advice for newbies is simple: don’t stop running.
“Just keep going, you can’t stop. You have to go in with that momentum and just give it your all,” Matthews said.
“It truly is invigorating.”
The Brownsville Wild Plunge will take place at noon on Jan. 1 at the Brownsville Marina. Organizers recommend that anyone taking the plunge bring a towel, water shoes, a change of clothes and quarters for the shower.
Olalla Polar Bear Plunge
Tanya Fernandez is the owner of Al’s Market in Olalla. A favorite stop for those looking to take the plunge, Al’s serves sandwiches, pizza, beer and of course hot chocolate to warm up the droves of shivering, purple-lipped swimmers.
The first time Tanya Fernandez saw a group of people gathering on the nearby bridge at Illahee Road, she thought something had gone horribly wrong.
“I just saw people jumping. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, someone’s drowned or something,’”
In fact it was just the annual polar bear plunge.
According to local legend, the tradition began in 1984 when 10 jumpers and two dogs leapt from the bridge near the marina, into the frigid water below. The event has grown substantially over the years, and in times of late has seen attendance of between 200 and 500 people. A pyrotechnic element has been added since the first jump as well, these days a cannon blast from the beach signals the go-ahead for folks to take the plunge.
In the past, Fernandez said, those who jumped in would be greeted with a crackling fire nearby when they got out of the water. Unfortunately this tradition is no more, but not to worry said Fernandez, Al’s Market will provide the all-important fire.
“We have a wood burning stove in our beer garden, so they’re welcome to come in there and get warm,” Fernandez said, noting the fact that all ages are permitted entrance into the beer garden.
As for the owner herself, Fernandez said she has yet to take the leap, but that’s not to say that she won’t ever make the jump in the future.
“I’ve heard it’s a great thing to do, I’m just usually here working in the store,” Fernandez said. “I’d prefer not to go jump and then come back wet to work.”
The Olalla Polar Bear Plunge officially kicks off at noon on Jan. 1, participants will have the opportunity to take home a certificate and sweatshirt commemorating the event, both available at Al’s Market.
Those looking to jump from the bridge will need to wait a bit longer this year, since high tide won’t be until 4 p.m.
Lytle Beach Polar Bear Plunge
If a less formal arrangement is what you fancy in a mid-winter jaunt into the water, perhaps the Lytle Beach Polar Bear Plunge is your perfect fit.
Arnie Sturham is the owner of the Treehouse Café and a regular participant in the Lytle Beach Polar Bear Plunge.
“It’s probably been going on for 15 [or] 20 years now, and it started out much smaller than it’s turned into,” Sturham said.
Sturham said he figures past plunges have seen an attendance of between 100 and 200 people running into the water from the shore.
“It’s grown and it’s kind of become a generational thing, I do it with my kids. It’s definitely a South-Bainbridge or Lytle Beach, Pleasant Beach neighborhood-driven event, yet there’s a lot of people that come from other areas to do it too,” Sturham said.
“It’s hysterical to see your neighbors that you see every day, show up in their bath robes and their slippers on the beach at 11:55,” he laughed.
Weather plays a big factor in the turn out for the event, Sturham said.
“If the weather’s good, everyone from the neighborhood comes down. A lot of people are support crew and a lot of people are swimmers,” Sturham said. “Somebody always brings some coffee down, there’s always somebody with a bottle to nip on if that’s what you want to do … It’s just a fun day where our neighborhood comes down to Lytle beach and does something crazy for five or 10 minutes.”
While the event usually only lasts a few minutes before the droves of shivering swimmers depart for warmer environs, some years revelers will hang around and continue to celebrate.
“It could last for hours, some years it does. I’ve been down there where we’ve had fires, I’m looking around thinking, ‘Oh my god, it’s 45 – 50 degrees, this is amazing,’” Sturham said.
Even though he participates in the plunge every year, Sturham remains incredulous about the supposed health benefits associated with cold water immersion.
“It’s hangover curing if anything,” he said. “I wouldn’t say there’s any health benefits to going into 51-degree water.”