Local Friends Kick Off Each New Year With Private Polar Bear Plunge Into Lake Whatcom

polar bear swim
Chris Comeau invites families over to celebrate the New Year and take the annual plunge into Lake Whatcom.

 

barronChris Comeau grew up in Alaska, so he knows cold.

“I remember, growing up, spending time in saunas and running out into the snow and rolling around,” he says. “That was always around New Year’s. I guess that’s kind of where I got the idea.”

The idea, haphazardly hatched many years ago, was to gather friends together to bound into the chilly waters of Lake Whatcom, near he and wife Susan Kagel’s Bellingham home.

polar bear swim
Chris Comeau invites families over to celebrate the New Year and take the annual plunge into Lake Whatcom.

In the early years, Comeau and just a couple of his buddies would take the plunge the day after celebrating New Year’s Eve in typical young-person fashion.

“But then we had kids and we weren’t going out anymore,” Comeau says with a big laugh.

The event morphed into a New Year’s Day brunch with guests – those who dip and those who just point from dry land and laugh – bringing dishes to share before the big leap.

“I usually smoke some salmon and we set out a big buffet table,” says Comeau. “Everyone sits around, has breakfast, and talks about their holidays. It gives us a chance to catch up before school and work start up again.”

Chris Roselli is one of the brave souls who joins Comeau for the yearly dunking.

“It’s such a fun opportunity to get some really great people together and socialize and celebrate the upcoming year,” Roselli says. His wife thinks he’s crazy, but she watches him go under every year.

The scene plays out similarly each January 1: After the crowd has eaten, caffeinated, and caught up, Comeau makes the official announcement that it’s time to don swimsuits.

“Usually we have at least 30 people there,” he says, “It’s parents and kids, so there’s a lot of chaos, running around of all ages.”

It used to be just about a half dozen adults hitting the water, but more and more kids now take the leap, as well. Toes were dipped tentatively in the water until one bold 8-year-old, after watching his dad, decided he wanted to do it, too.

“I’d say these days we’re getting about six kids joining us,” says Comeau.

The dippers – alongside their bundled-up cheerleaders – walk a short distance to Lake Whatcom, where a neighbor lets the crew use their dock to catapult off of.

“Surprisingly, the weather has cooperated with us most of the time,” says Comeau.

Roselli agrees. “And there have been years – like the time ice crystals were forming on the shore – when the lake was actually warmer than the outside temperature, so it wasn’t that bad.”

Regardless of the severity of cold awaiting them, everyone jumps off the dock, rather than wading in slowly from shore. “Wading in, to me, would be harder,” says Roselli. “Some people jump in and go fully submerged; I always do that and Chris always does – he’s the toughest of us all.”

Comeau usually does the honors and leaps in first, since he’s the host.

“Some people jump right in, and then right back out,” says Roselli, “But Chris? He’ll jump in, swim around, hang out, get out watch everybody else go in, and then he’ll hop back in again just for kicks.”

One outcome is always certain: A lot of screaming and a lot of laughing.

Roselli’s daughters – one a kindergartener, the other in the third grade – joined the tradition last year.

“Lexi and Alyssa both jumped in, which was super fun,” Roselli says. “The girls stood on the end of the dock while I waded in the freezing water, waiting for them to make the decision. It was so neat to see them do it, and then celebrate.”

Both Comeau and Roselli use the word “cleansing” when describing the ritual.

“You’re jumping in and it’s just you and nature,” says Roselli. “It’s very pure.”

Comeau also feels like this tradition is the perfect reflection of his appreciation for the beauty of living in Whatcom County.

“I love where I live and I love the fact that I have the opportunity to enjoy the lake,” says Comeau. “It’s fun to invite friends over. It’s a community gathering, a feast, a celebration of the New Year, and a celebration of where we live, all wrapped up into one.”

Want to join in one of our community’s popular New Year’s icy swims? Try the Lake Padden Polar Dip & Resolution Run or the Birch Bay Polar Bear Plunge.

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