Most people might choose to stay inside, away from the cold on Jan. 1, but not Scott Thorsteinson.
For the past seven years, Thorsteinson and his wife, Kristy, have rung in the new year by taking a polar bear plunge into Lake Tapps. For the past three years, the jumps have been public events at Driftwood Point Park.
“It’s something crazy that we hadn’t done before,” Thorsteinson said. “Every year, we just decided to make it bigger and bigger.”
For the first couple years, when the plunge was limited to family, the Thorsteinsons jumped at midnight. As more people became interested, the event became too large for their backyard, so they decided to move the jump to midday on New Year’s Day, allowing them to use the public park.
The jump isn’t all that will take place at the event. For the second year, the plunge will double as a canned food drive for the Sumner/Bonney Lake Food Bank.
“We’re not just doing it for fun anymore,” said Thorsteinson, who added that they collected 1,000 pounds of canned food last year. “We’re doing it for a good cause.”
Thorsteinson estimates 150 people jumped in the water last year, and about 100 others watched and cheered. He said he has big plans for the plunge attendance.
“My goal is for it to be the biggest one in Washington,” Thorstienson said.
That’s a hefty goal, given that Alki Beach in Seattle is calling for 1,000 swimmers at its plunge this year. Alki’s attendance last year was about 325.
“Costumes are definitely encouraged,” said Thorsteinson, who tried to judge a costume competition last year but found the task to be difficult. “The crazier the better.”
Thorsteinson said people start to arrive at the park about noon, and the plunge will happen about 12:30 p.m. He added many people stay to jump in a couple more times and hang around to socialize afterward.
There will be a fire pit handy for getting warm, and some food will be available as well.
The water can be as cold as 40 degrees. According to the U.S. Power Squadrons, symptoms of hypothermia, such as exhaustion and unconsciousness, could manifest in as little as 30 minutes in water that cold. If swimmers feel uncomfortable or weak at any time, the USPS advises them to get out of the water and get warm.
A study from the United Kingdom also reported that sudden immersion in very cold water can potentially cause heart attacks, especially in people who have weak hearts. That can happen when your body simultaneously tries to quicken your heart rate because it feels the cold water but tries to slow down because you are holding your breath.
The study recommends it’s better to ease into the water and let your body acclimatize to the cold temperature, if you are at any risk for heart attack.
Thorsteinson assured there has never been an incident of hypothermia or heart attack at the plunge, although they had a competition for who could stay in the water the longest one year.
“A few high school kids stayed in for 20 minutes,” said Thorsteinson, who added they suffered no ill-effects from the water. “But we don’t do those competitions anymore.”
For Thorsteinson, the event started off as something crazy but ended as something much more valuable.
“It’s just a good way to get the community together,” he said.