By Christian M. Giggenbach
As president and founder of the Greenbrier Valley Polar Bear Plunge Club, I’m always willing to bend the ear of anyone who wants to hear the unlikely origin of how our fun club got started.
This year, if you decide to watch the plunge – or better yet become a member - you most likely will see over 150 polar bears dip into the freezing waters of Anthony Creek, while a crowd of over 1,000 cheers them on. But, that’s not the way it always was. Not even close.
So, here’s the story of how I took my favorite place in the world – the Blue Bend Recreation Area – and created a yearly gathering for kindred spirits in the Monongahela National Forest that Governor Earl Ray Tomblin recently called “a special West Virginia tradition.”
In 2001, my mother, Kay Sweet Giggenbach, was not well. After a life filled of youthful exuberance, her frail body was giving out and our family knew it. In February, two of my brothers, Thor and Fred, made the trip to White Sulphur Springs to visit. That evening, while drinking more than a few beers, we came up with the idea of trekking to Blue Bend the next day.
Blue Bend is a special place. Our family practically lived there each summer. I caught my first fish at Blue Bend and I kissed my first girl at Blue Bend. I learned how to build a fire at Blue Bend. It’s a place that helped me grow from being a boy to a man.
As the beer flowed, one of our party members threw out the laughable suggestion of a winter swim during our expedition. In our imbibed state of minds, we all agreed this would be a most wonderful adventure.
The next day, on February 18, Thor, Fred, and I, plus Thor’s brother-in-law, Stuart, made our way to Blue Bend. It was a glorious, sunny day with beautiful blue skies, but the temperatures were well below freezing, about 25 degrees. In fact, Anthony Creek had frozen over in some places and we all had fun breaking up the ice at the swimming hole.
As everyone wandered off, I made up my mind that I was going in the water. I had prepared by bringing a towel and a pair of swimming trunks.
I wanted to go home and tell my ailing mother that I had the courage to swim in Blue Bend in the winter time. Surely, this would lift her spirits. She would be amazed and forget about her broken body as she eagerly listened to my adventurous tale.
When I asked Thor, Fred and Stuart to join me, they scoffed at the idea. Even my reminder of the pact we made the night before did not sway their intentions of staying out of the icy waters of Anthony Creek.
No matter. I was going to have my little carpe diem moment with or without them. When I jumped in, the freezing water took my breath away and the shock to my body made me feel quite alive. As I made my way back to my towel, I could see my brother Thor pacing back and forth.
“Why did you do that?” Thor said, pacing all about. I could see the wheels turning in his head as he contemplated going home and having to tell mother that he was too chicken to go in the water.
Splash! Before I knew it, Thor was in and out. Hearing all the commotion, Fred made his way to the beach with the same incredulous look on his face that Thor previously had.
Splash! Fred was in and out. Splash! Stuart went in as well. We did it! We all went home and watched the twinkle in her eye as we regaled our fun-loving tale. Sadly, mother passed away two weeks later on March 8.
But four splashes does not a club make. At the time, there wasn’t even a concept of creating a polar bear plunge event, or a club, or anything else.
Fast forward a few years and I found myself writing and selling ads for a local newspaper, The Mountain Messenger. As a way to gain interest in my column, I challenged my readers to jump into Blue Bend with me. I called it the “Polar Bear Swim.” In 2003, only the paper‘s publisher, Michael Showell, joined me. In honor of my mother, I decided the plunge date would always be the closest Saturday to March 8.
There would be no plunges for the next two years. In 2006, as I began writing for The Register-Herald, I invited everyone reading my column to join the newly created Greenbrier Valley Polar Bear Plunge Club. I specifically picked that name because it was so difficult to pronounce. Only my girlfriend, Ginger Steele, who today is vice-president of the club, plunged with me. About eight people came out to watch our antics that year.
The club would slowly grow each year and I always looked forward to seeing my polar bear club members as we plunged together in the 30-degree water and ate deer-meat-on-a-stick cooked by a roaring fire at the shelter at the post-plunge party.
We all shared a great sense of camaraderie in our little club, and I eagerly promoted the event year around. In those days, it was tough to get people to plunge because most people thought we were crazy.
In 2008, I asked the Child and Youth Advocacy Center, of Lewisburg, to become the fundraising arm of our club. This changed the whole focus of the club. We weren’t just idiots anymore. Now, we were “freezing for a reason” and club members started to raise funds for sexually abused kids. That year, we raised $500 with plungers scouring the public soliciting donations. As always, 100% of the proceeds were retained by the CYAC. About 13 plungers went in and a maybe a dozen people came out to watch. I was ecstatic.
In 2009, a few more plungers, a few more spectators and the club raised $1,200. Each year we would gain a little, but it was still a fairly small event. In 2011, we raised $3,500 and had 25 go in the water. Then, in 2012, WVVA Channel 6 agreed to be our media sponsor and ran television ads promoting the event.
I’ve never had to beg anyone to plunge with me since. The plungers and spectators came in droves, and it only took ten years to make it happen.
Today, the Greenbrier Valley Polar Bear Plunge Club has over 230 members, and the event is staffed by over 25 volunteers. To date we have raised almost $40,000 for the CYAC. Last year alone, 130 plungers entered the water, nearly 1,300 spectators watched, and the club raised $17,500. I am damn proud of those numbers.
We also have a full schedule of pre-plunge ceremonies that includes the Greenbrier East JROTC Color Guard, our mascot “ICEE,” a costume contest and our members also sing a song to the crowd before plunging. Check out the videos at Facebook/GreenbrierPolarBear.
I want to thank the CYAC, event volunteers and all of the club members through the years who have worked so tirelessly to make this a fun and safe event. Without your help, there would be no polar bear plunge.
Last year, Sen. Ron Miller honored our club with a Senate Certificate of Recognition and Gov. Tomblin wrote a letter praising the club’s and CYAC’s efforts to combat child abuse. A representative from his office also became a member. Additionally, the plunge was named a “Southeast Tourism Society Top 20 Event” for 2014; the only March event in West Virginia to be named as such.
Our little club had finally made it big. So big, that I no longer have enough time to individually congratulate each plunger. That bothered me at first, but now its OK, because I know they are having their own little carpe diem moment, and my help isn’t needed at all.
Yet, my challenge still remains the same. I dare you to plunge into the icy waters of Anthony Creek with me and become a member of the most exclusive club in the Greenbrier Valley. The 11th annual plunge will be held on Saturday, March 8, 2014. I also challenge you to raise as much money as possible for the CYAC.
If you don’t plunge, please come and watch the event or sponsor a plunger, or buy an ad on our T-shirt. Everybody becomes a stakeholder at the polar bear plunge.
I bet, as my mother looks down upon the event each year, the twinkle in her eye is just as bright as on the first day that I told her I jumped into Blue Bend in the winter time.
I’ll meet you at the far shelter at 1 p.m. and don’t forget to bring a towel.