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Be Good to Your Body

(page 2 of 5)

healing for more than the heart

Polar Bear Plungers make a mad dash into Lucky Peak Reservoir.


Wanna know the best cure for a year-long hangover?

At 11am every New Year’s Day, a gang of post-partiers—some still sporting disheveled tuxedos and smeared lipstick—gather at Grumpy’s Bar and Grill in Ketchum to slosh schooners together and keep the party partying. At high noon Bryant Dunn leads a handful of brave souls who run cheering through the snow to the “Polar Bear Hole” of the icy Big Wood River (located near the Ketchum Skate Park), to strip down to their skivvies and dive head-first into the frigid water.

The “Polar Bear Plunge,” as it is commonly known, is said to be a celebration of the New Year while “washing away” the old—traditionally a sort of baptismal rebirth. And yes, admitted Dunn, they do it to kill off the more persistent hangovers. “Our intention is definitely to cleanse and purify,” he said, either of bad chemicals, bad decisions or just an all-around bad year.

Originating in the wilds of Scandinavia and northern Russia, where ice-swimming is a longstanding tradition among natives, Polar Bear Clubs became popular in the United States and Canada through charity organizations. In places like New Jersey and Minnesota, where participation numbers reach the thousands, money is often donated to non-profits like the Special Olympics—one plunge in 2012 alone raised $2.8 million.  

Boise, Idaho, holds a similar annual “Great Polar Bear Challenge” to support the “Make-A-Wish” Foundation each New Year’s Day at Lucky Peak Reservoir. This year will mark their 10th plunge and includes divers of all ages who participate in wakeboarding and water ski competitions to “demonstrate that we can all brave adversity for the right cause,” explained April Wilbur, the developmental coordinator for the Idaho chapter.

And while the health effects of ice-swimming are still widely debated, many Europeans—where such swims have been popular for centuries—have long claimed benefits for the heart, immune system and skin (and possibly libido). Some doctors frown at the temperature shock to the body, citing constriction of blood vessels, decreased motor skills or potential hypothermia as possible, if infrequent, consequences.

But as Dunn—one of the original 1996 pioneers of the Ketchum Polar Bear Club— explained, anyone can do it: “Our oldest member was 70 and the youngest girl was nine—it’s a family-friendly event that spans the generations. And if you kick back and relax, it’s really not that bad.”

“All are welcome,” he said. “Just meet us at Grumpy’s on New Year’s Day.”

Elbow your way to the bar for a few feel-better beers and join the thousands of crazies around the world for a heart-pumping and literally breath-taking dive, whether you want to do-good for charity or just get rid of that pounding in your brain. Either way, it’s considered to bring good luck for the upcoming year. -Kate Elgee



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