Milwaukee’s Polar Plunge: A One Hundred Year Tradition of New Year’s Lunacy
For over one hundred years, Milwaukeeans have used New Year’s Day as an excuse to charge headlong into the freezing waters of Lake Michigan. The tradition continues this Sunday at noon at Bradford Beach, as thousands of people – young and old – will take the polar bear plunge.
The practice of the New Year’s plunge seems to date back more than a century, when (as detailed here by Yance Marti) a local printer named James G. Brazell and a friend named Frank Sutter began a tradition of a Sunday swim in Lake Michigan throughout the winter season that just happened to coincide with New Year’s Day, 1911. A 1957 article on the “Milwaukee Polar Bear Club” and their New Year’s dip claimed that their annual holiday plunge had a 45-year tradition in the city. It was still a fringe activity, however. Only 20 people made the plunge that year, but a few thousand turned out to watch. By the late 1980s, the event had grown so popular that a off-shoot of the Polar Bears Club began holding an early bird plunge at midnight on New Year’s Eve, but the late-night version (technically illegal, as it was after the beach closed to the public) seems to have been short-lived.
This year, thousands of people are expected to take the plunge, while thousands more watch from the (relative) warmth of the beach. Years past have seen the event, in true Milwaukee style, develop a tailgate atmosphere, with music, bonfires, and grills loaded with burgers, chicken, and brats. If you go to plunge, the event’s organizers recommend wearing layers that are easy to get in to and out of, for before and after the dive. Wear some kind of footwear, as the bottom of the lake will be rocky and icy. Be sure to enter the water slowly and, per the website, “prepare yourself for your body to feel like it’s going into shock.” As always, the Milwaukee Fire Department Paramedics will be on hand and in the water in case anyone needs assistance.
If you only plan to watch, dress warm and prepared to hear a lot screaming and perhaps even some new swears as first-timers stagger back from the lake. The “unofficial” start time for the plunge is noon on Sunday, Jan. 1 at Bradford Beach.