Wednesday, February 01, 2023

The Last Best Polar Plunge: Organizer plans to retire after 25 years

by Kristi Niemeyer
Editor | January 5, 2023 12:00 AM

Dave Bull, Polson dentist and gregarious impresario of the Polar Plunge at Riverside Park, began Sunday’s countdown: “Six minutes people!”

Participants clambered along the snowy shore, over rocks slicked with ice, to find a place where the ice had retreated enough to plunge in. They wore water shoes and bathing gear that ranged from swimming suits to cut-offs and t-shirts, and most had towels nearby in preparation for the exit.

Along the shoreline, pre-plungers prepared to enter 30-degree water on a 33-degree day, gradually shedding layers of clothing to stand shivering on the shoreline.

“It’s a miracle people choose to do it,” said a spectator.

“We’ve got a long ways to run,” grumbled a participant as the clock ticked down to two minutes.

With 10 seconds left to go, Bull began the final countdown, and at zero, plungers lunged, or stepped carefully, into the Flathead River, and the air filed with a cacophony of yells and splashes. “This is how we do it in Polson, Montana,” someone shouted.

And almost as quickly as it began, another New Year's Day Polar Plunge was over.

“It’s better than last year,” said Joy Twite after completing her third annual plunge. “Last year it took my breath away and my feet were really cold.”

In answer to the question on every reporter’s lips – why? “Just kind of to wash off the past year,” she replied. “Anything bad, you just leave it in the lake.”

“I do this because of Dave Bull,” said Kurt Lindeman, a former colleague of the dentist. “He’s had me doing it for about the last 10 years or so. I come down from Kalispell and have a great time.”

Anthony Milkus described the event as “just a good way to start the New Year and get a challenge in.” His daughter Frankie concurred, “I wanted to take up a challenge,” she said while pulling on some warm, dry clothes.

Patrick Weivoda described the process: “You try to run in but you can’t really get that far. Your legs go all numb, then you just flop in. It, like, took the breath out of me,” he told Kevin Mackey, who filmed the event for NBC’s The Montana Moment.

The teenager plans to come again next year. “It seems fun, sounds fun, looks fun and it’s fun afterwards,” he said.

According to Dave’s wife, Connie, the event started when the couple’s oldest son wanted to jump in the wintry lake. Their daughter then proposed jumping in once a month and collecting pledges to help pay for a friend of hers to go to Camp-Mak-a-Dream. According to Connie, they raised enough to pay for three camp tuitions, and the Polar Plunge became an annual event.

“We do this because the world around us gets crazier every year,” said Bull. “The way the world is, you need a relief and plunging on New Year’s Day helps you wash away all your woes.”

Plus, a quick dose of cold water is known to release endorphins, known as happiness hormones. “You get out and feel a kind of euphoria,” Bull said. “Look at all these people with smiles on their faces.”

“Those are not smiles,” some interjected.

“Yes they are,” Bull replied. “They’re just frozen on your face and don’t come off for a long time.”

Over the years, the few accidents have mostly occurred out of the water and involved slips and falls on the ice. Once, a woman broke her collar bone before even getting in the water. Another time, a dad, inspired by his son’s performance, decided to take a last-minute dip. He handed his wallet and watch to his wife but forgot to remove his glasses.

“So we stood there and cordoned off the water, about four of us, and waited for all the muck to clear and we found the glasses unscathed,” recalled Bull. “That’s the longest we’ve been in.”

The coldest plunge on record occurred when the thermometer read minus 4 degrees. The youngest plunger on record is 4, and she went in the day before as part of a group of around 14 who couldn’t attend Sunday’s event.

One of the oldest was diminutive Polson resident Emerald Barker, who walked in with a cane as the other plungers were emerging. Bull and a friend, Dee Barber, offered to lend her a hand.

“Dee says, ‘how deep do you want to go?’ And Emerald says ‘up to my shoulders,’ and Dee says, ‘I’m sure glad you’re not any taller.’”

In reply to a question about whether swimmers need to submerge, Bull explained, “that’s why we call it the polar plunge and not the polar walk-in.”

This year, each plunger was offered a long-sleeve t-shirt and a bottle of sparkling cider to commemorate the 25th year and the end of an era – the last year that Bull will orchestrate the event. Hence a badge on the sleeve reading “Last Best Polar Plunge.”

“It’s been a commitment for 25 years nonstop,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to stop this foolishness.”

While no one has offered to pick up the banner, Bull didn’t seem worried about his legacy.

“No one has stepped forward, but we’ve got 365 days for someone to do that,” he said. “I’d be glad to guide them in the right direction.”

“We get so many thanks,” he added. “It’s a happy experience, you can feel it.”


Dave and Connie Bull launched Polson's Polar Plunge. “It’s been a commitment for 25 years nonstop,” Dave says of his decision to retire. “Sometimes you just have to stop this foolishness.” (Kristi Niemeyer/Lake County Leader)


Polar Plungers Chandler Paulson, Scott Twite, Tessa Burke and Joy Twite model this year's t-shirts. According to Joy, the New Year's Day dunk helps "wash off the past year." (Kristi Niemeyer/Lake County Leader)


Kurt Lindeman of Kalispell has been participating in the Polar Plunge for about a decade, and credits his former colleague Dave Bull with first coaxing him to take the plunge. (Ktisti Niemeyer/Lake County Leader


Dave Bull (green trunks) follows fellow plungers into the 30-degree water at Riverside Park Sunday during the 25th Polar Plunge. (Kristi Niemeyer/Lake County Leader)

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