A dip in Flathead Lake is chilly, at best, even in the summer months. But on Jan. 1, as many as a couple hundred people will brave the frigid winter waters for the 23rd annual Polar Bear Plunge in Woods Bay. The time honored tradition was started by Neil and Patty Brown, who had the brilliant idea for an icy jump that has been carried on by Brian Anderson and his wife, Lisa Cloutier. The couple owns the iconic lakeside bar, The Raven, which is directly adjacent to the plunge launching ground.
In the plunge’s early days, between 25 and 30 would venture into the cold waters, while recent years have seen upwards of 200 participants ranging in age from 8 to 88, according to Dax VanFossen, who helps organize the event.
“Honestly, I think it’s one of the coolest things that happens all year in the Flathead,” he said. “There’s at least a couple other plunges in northwest Montana, but there’s nothing that goes into that body of water. It’s cold. I mean, you jump in in July, [and] it’s frigid.”
VanFossen said prospective plungers should arrive early, as parking is scarce along Highway 35, and make sure to bring a towel, change of clothes and their personalities.
“The folks in Woods Bay, they’re a special breed,” he said with a chuckle.
Notable costumes have included a baby Jesus, the token polar bear or yeti and even swimmers clad in Hawaiian shirts in hopes of channeling summer vibes despite the frigid temps. Last year’s event took place in sub-zero weather, and around 100 braved the conditions. This year’s forecast is a little warmer — the National Weather Service predicts a high near 19 for New Year’s Day with a slight chance of snow. The lake water, which VanFossen said is usually in the 30s, is actually warmer than the air — if that helps.
Hundreds of spectators will line the shoreline to cheer on the intrepid plungers, and everyone can keep warm by the outdoor fire pits or head in to The Raven for a beverage and bowl of chili.
“We’ve got t-shirts made up for people that jump in so they can get that street cred when they’re walking around in July,” VanFossen noted — although for some, the story itself is enough. “To jump into Flathead Lake in January, that’s something you can tell your grandkids that you did.”
Andy Kriss, 39, of Columbia Falls has been plunging in Woods Bay for nearly a decade — and for years in Minneapolis prior to his move to Montana.
“It’s probably the most invigorating feeling on Earth,” Kriss said. “The way I think of it is it’s such a great thing for the first of the year, it washes everything off from the last year and you feel almost reborn.”
Kriss said he comes for the plunge and for the sense of camaraderie that’s present both during and after the bone-chilling event.
“It’s wall to wall people before and after, but the people who don’t stick around are the ones who kind of miss out,” he said. “I would absolutely say that anybody who is on the fence … they absolutely should. The feeling afterwords is like nothing you can describe.”
Organizers recommend plungers arrive early — The Raven opens at 10 a.m. and parking fills up fast there and along Montana Hwy. 35. VanFossen said he typically sees a few hundred spectators in addition to the swimmers, along with a hardy crew of kayakers from the Flathead Paddlers Club. To ensure event safety, four divers with Flathead County Search and Rescue will be on site. Cloudier said she couldn’t recall SAR having to assist any plungers, save for one swimmer who’d taken their time in the water and suffered a mild case of hypothermia.
Above all, the plunge is a family-friendly event that embodies the Montana spirit of independence and love for the natural world — no matter how cold it may be.
“More than anything, jut bring that Montana spirit,” VanFossen said. “Only we’re crazy enough to do something like this in the Flathead Lake. It’s one of those rights of passage.”