Polar Bear Plunge happening tomorrow

The year has come to a close, and a new one looms. Many are likely happy to see 2020 go, just as many are also likely eager to see what 2021 has to offer. In either case, this Friday afternoon offers a chance to celebrate in Wrangell fashion; with the annual Polar Bear Plunge. The event will take place at Shoemaker, at 1 p.m.

The plunge has been a local tradition for over 20 years now. It had humble beginnings, long ago in the year 2000. In an interview with the Sentinel, Clay Hammer said that he and his family were just spending time at home on New Year's Day, and he suddenly got the idea to go swimming. It was the beginning of a new millennium, he said, and he had the urge to commemorate the day.

"That all started basically in the year 2000, the big Y2K," Hammer said. "It's the year 2000, we should do something special and crazy!"

So, Hammer went down to Shoemaker and hopped into the water, surrounded by snow and whitecaps. It was "the most exhilarating 60 seconds of my life," he said, but the cold water didn't allow for a long swim. When his friends and other relatives heard about his adventure, they said they wanted to be invited next time. And so, a new Wrangell tradition was born.

Hammer has been the main organizer behind the Polar Bear Plunge for many years, he said, but it has changed hands several times. He ran the event for the first 16 years, but eventually it grew too big for just him alone to organize. The Garnet Grit Betties took over for a period of time, he said, but then he stepped back in as organizer. The chamber of commerce briefly managed the event, and then Wrangellite Aleisha Mollen. This year, the Polar Bear Plunge is being put together by Liz Buness.

"It's nice to see somebody keeping the tradition going," Hammer said. "It's a pretty darn good time."

Buness said that this year's event will look somewhat different compared to previous years. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said that the Polar Bear Plunge will not have a refreshment table nor a sign-in sheet. She asked that people wear face masks and stay within their social bubbles while participating. Masks will only be mandatory, however, if someone stands in the shelter at the park. Masks will also be provided at the event.

There will not be a door prize this year, either, she said. Instead, this year's plunge will be focused on giving, rather than getting. Participants and onlookers are asked to bring shelf-stable food to the Polar Bear Plunge to donate to the Salvation Army's food pantry, to help them restock after the holiday season. Buness also said that volunteers are welcome, as well, to provide firewood and to announce when it is time to get into the water.

Those participating will be expected to head out into the water, chest deep, and then dunk themselves. They will be allowed to come out of the water and warm up after one minute has passed.

"It really wasn't my plan to be in charge of it," Buness said. "We have to do this, it has to happen. It's a very significant part of the new year for me."


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