Four friends. All firemen. New Year’s ’92 at Camp Barnard. One of them makes a bet to see who has the biggest cojones: jump into the lake and swim with nothing on but underwear.
“I dare ya, let’s go for a swim” said one of them, just before they all jumped into the freezing water.
The following year, the group upped their game. This time, Young Lake was frozen solid, not that it stopped them much, after all, they are firefighters made of sterner stuff; so they broke the ice and jumped in anyway.
After getting out and regaining some warmth back, they realized they were bloodied and full of scrapes from the ice.
“It was just good fun,” recalls Dave Gollmer, one of the friends from the group and a volunteer firefighter. Gollmer, member of some 35 years with Otter Point Fire and Rescue, is also president of the Otter Point Firefighters Association.
The test of personal courage was to be measured again and again, as the event grew into what became the biggest, most daring swimming event in Sooke: the annual Polar Bear Swim held on New Year’s Day.
Gollmer said it was in ’94, when the swim was moved over to Whiffin Spit (where it is held to this day) when Sookies of all ages joined in on the crazy fun.
“We basically told the public, ‘if you want to go for a [New Year’s Day] swim, join us’ and it just evolved from there as more people did it and more wanted to join in,” he said.
The swim ran every New Year’s uninterrupted, except in ’97, when it had to be cancelled due to a massive winter storm that blanketed most of Canada in December of ’96.
As far as how many shop up to freeze their nether regions for fun, well, numbers change year to year depending on the weather. Polar Bear swims in the last few years has seen between 80 to 100 people show up, depending on the weather.
At one time, the swim had more than 100 people join in, some with varying degrees of sanity. Gollmer recalls one particular individual who was so excited that he tried to swim over toward a Coast Guard boat and jump in.
No incidents have happened since then, as swimmers don’t stay in too long. In case they do however, there are crews from the Coast Guard, Coast Guard Auxiliary, and Sooke’s own Royal Marine Search and Rescue squad watching over the waters.
“We keep it real close to the parking lot, because when people come out, they want to get out, get warm and get dressed,” Gollmer said.
Those brave enough are invited to join the Polar Bear Swim on Jan. 1, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The swim officially kicks off at noon with the traditional “cannon start” where a brass cannon fires a shot out in the Strait and launches everyone in the water.