Photo by Laura K. Cooper
Carol E. Levin and Kelly Barry are radiant at Golden Gardens Beach
At Large in Ballard: Bathing Beauties
By Peggy Sturdivant with additional reporting by Izzi Cooper
Even on the peak day of a summer heat wave I never think to myself, “I’ll just go to Golden Gardens and take a dip.”
So I just had to ask different groups of people standing in the sand on New Year’s Day, “Do you swim here any other day of the year?”
The answer was almost unanimously “No,” with the exception of an older gentleman who said, “I swim here every day except this one.”
I’ve lived in Ballard a quarter century but this was the first year that I even went down to see people do what’s referred to as the Polar Bear Plunge (a la Ballard). My husband spearheads an annual New Year’s Day Open House so I’m always frantically cooking and hiding my clutter in the closets. But I’d noticed a certain pink glow on the friends tucking into the buffet table and righteousness when they announced, “I did the plunge at Golden Gardens this morning.”
This year on New Year’s Eve I happened to be privy to several friends making their plans the night before to meet at Golden Gardens the following morning. “What time’s the plunge?” I asked.
They looked at me. “We just do our own thing,” they said, while talking a neighbor, Carol Levin, into joining them for her first time.
I wasn’t going to go in the water, but I was ready to check out this alleged rite of passage for the calendar year. At about 10 a.m. on New Year’s Day all of the fire pits at Golden Gardens beach were in use, but no one was sitting in a beach chair. Everyone was either fully dressed for winter or else wrapped in a beach towel. Along the beach groups would break from their fire and run for the water, a fine display of pale flesh. They’d submerge and then run right out again to their waiting towels.
My friends positioned themselves, the newcomer’s husband wrapped in a fleece blanket. He wasn’t going in either. Then they were off, all four of them. The women ran in and out while Josh Fliegel, currently with the Peace Corps in Fiji, and the one with the greatest excuse for finding the day and water too cold, began swimming away from the shore.
Other groups made their run: generations of families, groups of men, groups of women…meanwhile my friends went in and out, with Josh actually swimming. A man from another group approached him on one of his beachings. “I need to shake your hand,” he said to Josh. Back at his fire pit the man claimed to be just an elderly uncle of the true group leader, Kevin Van Hollebeke.
Like many groups the Van Hollebekes set their own time schedule, dating back to their first Golden Gardens New Year’s Day plunge in the 1980’s. “We’d play touch football for about an hour and then jump in.” Kevin Van Hollebeke and varying family members haven’t skipped the tradition for over 30 years, and they live in Bothell. However they do brunch in Ballard afterwards, “You have to lure them with food,” Van Hollobeke told me, recalling the toughest years were when it was raining sideways.
As one group left a fire pit, another would arrive. At eleven a.m. there was a more concerted group of people running at the water en masse. But in truth those who do it in smaller groups enjoyed better access to the warmth of the fire pits, with strangers swapping stories about different years, sharing tips for drying, warming the feet and taking the Puget Sound plunge. “Be quick and don’t think about it.”
For my friends there was a hot tub waiting that was just icing on the cake. Once in the hot water they all said they plan to do it again next year. Anna Mansbridge called the experience, “Refreshing, cleansing and invigorating.” Not usually words associated with Golden Gardens Beach, bringing home the point that it’s not about the swim, it’s about community and making a fresh start.
After so many weeks of family and holiday foods, who doesn’t want to make a fresh start? From the hot tub Kelly Barry, who had also put in the strokes, put it this way, “Starting the year off strong.”
For Josh Fliegel, the group’s 2014 die-hard, “It’s the challenge.”
Later at the buffet table I was able to look at those rosy-faced guests in a new light, understanding how doing something decidedly out of the “comfort zone” on New Year’s Day is “worth it afterwards,” in the words of one of those that plunged.
Clearly it’s not about being willing to swim at Golden Gardens Beach on any or every day of this year, just on the first day. Because it feels cleansing, it’s tradition, whether as part of a small group or a frenzy of strangers. It happens all over Seattle, all over the United States and all over the world, this need to purge and plunge into the water, usually frigid, on the day the calendar heralds as an opportunity to make a fresh start.
All along the shore, people posed for photographs or were captured in the act of running into the water. My friend Laura K. Cooper photographed her sister-in-law and friends. One resulting photo struck me as an update of the featured photo for March in the 2014 Ballard Historical Society calendar. It’s more than the pose that’s similar between the 1920 ‘Ballard Beauties’ and those of 2014. I can see the impulsiveness in all of them, regardless of the years separating them.
As first timer Carol Levin said, “I should have been doing this for years.” It’s probably what those Ballard Beauties said in 1920; what kept them strong, and beautiful.
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