Small group braves chilly temps on New Year's Day

For the 24th New Year's Day in a row, a group of intrepid people celebrated the new year by taking the plunge. Fifteen souls went bravely or insanely into the chilly waters of Shoemaker Bay, depending on how you look at it.

Despite the warmer mid-40 temperatures, the wind was gusting through Wrangell, stirring up two- and four-foot waves. The tide was lower than it was at the same time last year, causing the dippers to make a slightly longer trek to the water over rocky terrain.

Clay Hammer was among first-time and repeat polar plungers, having started the tradition nearly a quarter-century ago. He and his wife began taking the plunge on New Year's Day when they found the holiday a bit boring. Others like Don McConachie joined in subsequent years. Though McConachie stopped taking the dip due to health concerns in recent years, he offered to keep track of the time, while Hammer offered a blessing for "this crazy group" before joining 14 others in the drink last Sunday afternoon.

Brenda Schwartz-Yeager, one of the 15, has been going into the chilly water almost as long as Hammer.

"(I've been going in) every year," she said. "I missed one year in all the years because I wasn't in town. It's good when you live and work in this country in the water to get into it once in a while and remember how cold it really is."

Participants stayed submerged up to their necks for a little over a minute before making their way back onto land.

For several years, someone would organize the polar plunge, making it an "official" event. This year, no one volunteered to pull the event together, leaving some to wonder if it would continue. However, people still showed up to jump in, including Kelsey Leak, who endured a boating accident in late November, which left her stranded and claimed the life of her boyfriend, Arne Dahl.

She credited participating in the polar plunge the past few years for helping her survive, and she felt it was necessary to continue with the tradition. After coming out of the water on Sunday, Leak said she was feeling "alive, electrified, cleansed."

And depending on how you look at it, the polar plunge might not be so foolhardy.

"There's only one way for life to go after you do this during the year, and that's up," McConachie said.


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