It’s my first trip to the Polar Bear Dip. New Year’s Day 2012.
Hundreds have turned out, many in costumes, to eat, drink and party hearty on the Pilchuck River behind Doc’s Pilchuck Tavern in Machias, Wash. I’m with my wife Toni and our friend, Karen, and we’re meeting my old high school chum, Gordy, and his wife, Tina, who talked us into joining the insanity.
Gordy is the event’s Grand Poobah, making his 36th annual river plunge, and he’s wearing a drum major’s hat with “Grand Pupa” across the front. I’m wearing swim trunks and a tank top under my sweat clothes. My wife’s wearing workout gear under her coat, plus a jingly dance belt from her zumba class, which will earn her spot in the photo gallery published by the local newspaper.
Fortunately, it’s a balmy 48 degrees for this New Year’s Day, under sunny skies with only a hint of hangover. The river, though, is just above freezing and about four feet deep.
Inside the tavern, it’s a mosh pit. The two pool tables are covered with plywood and tablecloths to hold Polar Dip t-shirts and a smorgasbord of potluck items. The Gator Bowl is on TV, but no one is watching. To get to the bar you have to rub through a mass of humanity, and the only lines are those to the two tiny restrooms that double as changing closets.
Outside the back door, there’s a patio overlooking the river and burn barrels every 20 feet or so with warming fires. There’s also a beer station selling $3 cans of Budweiser, and a kiosk selling $2 oysters raw or barbecued on the half-shell. A big man in a woman’s swimsuit with oversized breasts and an overabundance of pubic hair holds court while posing for pictures.
It’s only slightly less crowded outside, with a line forming on the bank below the patio and extending a good 60 yards downstream. At noon, a blow horn signals the start of dipping, and Gordy is the first to plunge into the frigid stream, leaving his “Pupa” hat on shore. For more than two hours, revelers file past to enter the river at the designated spot. Wedding and prom dresses are popular attire, as are diapers, loin cloths and flannel underwear. Everyone wears shoes to handle the rocky river bottom as well as the shore.
I’m in and out in less than a minute, emerging with clenched teeth while streaking for dry pants. Inside, the restroom lines remain long, so I opt for one of the porta-potties in the parking lot. But there’s a backup in those lines, too, so I duck between two parked trucks to drop my trunks.
At that moment, four women happen past and get an eyeful of the naked man.
“Water must REALLY be cold,” one of them hoots.
“You have no idea,” I answer.
“Oh, I think we do,” another voice shoots back amidst group laughter as they move on.
(This was written as a Writers Kickstart prompt, 500 words or less on the topic “Standing There Naked.”)
Copyright, Keith L. Olson, 2013