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Polar Plunge still going strong after quarter-century

December 31, 2018

People of all ages start out the new year by running into chilly waters

By MARY CLOUD TAYLOR

Daily Inter Lake

For 25 years, Flathead locals, visitors and travelers have braved the frigid waters of Flathead Lake for the Jan. 1 Polar Plunge at Woods Bay to earn their “badge of honor” and bring in the new year with an icy splash.

Donning silly costumes and brave faces, swimmers line the shores of the lake at The Raven, run down the hill altogether and plunge into the lake. By anyone’s standard the water is frigid, measuring at an average temperature of 36 degrees in January, according to the Flathead Lake Biological Station.

The event started with Lisa Cloutier, owner and founder of The Raven, on New Year’s Day in 1994.

According to Dax VanFossen, general manager of The Raven, the plunge draws people from across the state and from around the world as a bucket-list item many are eager to check off and some return year after year to repeat.

“In speaking with a lot of the folks that do it, they do it to kind of get that big kick-start to the year,” VanFossen said.

While an average of around 100 swimmers participate each year, the plunge attracts hundreds more spectators who line the shores to cheer for their friends and neighbors.

Having participated in many plunges in other areas, VanFossen joins Cloutier’s husband, Brian Anderson, and event emcee Paul Rana in a private plunge the day before the event to say they did it and accurately encourage participants on New Year’s Day.

Anderson described the experience as a rush, with a build up of adrenaline leading up to the moment when a crowd of people charges the lake together.

The freezing water, he said, takes your breath away in a moment of shock, but nothing compares to the feeling that follows.

Along with a sense of physical rejuvenation, he said, comes a feeling of accomplishment in having tackled the bone-chilling waters of the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River.

“Basically, it’s an exhilarating feeling,” VanFossen added.

Anne Clark, a member of the Flathead Paddlers, has been participating in the plunge in her kayak since 2000 and did not sugarcoat the experience, saying, “It is painful.”

Unlike the plungers who submerge themselves from the shore, Clark and her fellow paddlers take to the lake in their kayaks wearing full winter equipment along with their silly hats to keep warm as they paddle across the bay to arrive at the plunge.

A courageous few then roll their kayaks, dunking their top halves into the lake before rolling back over and heading for shore.

“We just get in and do it just to do it, just to say we can and we did,” Clark said. “It’s crazy fun.”

VanFossen described the sense of community that follows the event as participants dry off and warm up, gathering together again at The Raven to compare their experiences.

“You’ll get everyone from 5-year-olds to 80-year-olds,” VanFossen said.

This year, the plunge will take place at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 1 at The Raven in Woods Bay.

VanFossen encouraged people to arrive early and carpool if possible because parking along Montana 35 is limited.

Registration opens at 10 a.m. at the Raven, and all participants are asked to sign in for the record book.

A plunge after-party will follow across the street at Bonfire with live music by The Bad Larrys beginning at 2 p.m.

For more information, visit www.ravenbigfork.com.

Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.

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