Some places New Year’s Day traditions come and go, while some places New Year’s Day traditions become icons. Mandatory Milwaukee is all about the latter. Join us as we revisit beloved and well-worn local staples New Year’s Day traditions with fresh eyes, and explore how they might figure in the city’s future. This week: the annual Polar Bear Plunge!

Reader, I’ve had a terrible year.

Let me back up: We’ve all had a terrible year, haven’t we? The pandemic. The stupidity. The ignorance. Wisconsin. Yeah, there was that three-week window where everything looked like it would be okay, but it closed faster than a…than a…ugh. I was going to make a terrible joke about a business closing because of COVID-19, but I don’t have it in me. I don’t have anything left in me. There’s nothing left.

So yeah, this year sucked, and it really sucked for me. I won’t go into details (you’re welcome), but just know that my 2021 made my 2020 look like a stroll through a forest on a crisp autumn day. Look! It’s a deer! Look! A woodpecker! Look! A squirrel burying the remaining shreds of my sanity!

Now, at the very end, in that weird “are we working this week or aren’t we?” week between Christmas and New Year’s, I find myself looking for a New Beginning. Is there, perhaps, a silly but symbolic activity that will wash away the sins of 2021 and baptize me in the hopeful waters of 2022? Is there something I can do that will jolt me out of my 365-day stupor and leave me clear-eyed and confident? Is there something I can do while I’m good and hung over?

Of course there is. It’s Milwaukee’s annual Polar Bear Plunge. The New Year’s Day tradition is set for January 1, 2022 at noon on Bradford Beach. Be there.

Will I be there? I don’t know. I consider doing it every year, but every year I find an excuse not to. I know a lot of people who do it. I have a friend who sometimes makes the trip from a few states over to do it. But me? I practically live a stone’s throw from Bradford Beach and yet I always bail at the last minute. Consider it my annual tradition.

If you, however, are interested in diving into the freezing waters of Lake Michigan on New Year’s Day, please do so safely. Here are some tips from an unofficial Polar Bear Plunge group. Don’t forget to breathe!

What to wear.
We recommend wearing layers which are easy on and off as well as comfortable. Before you plunge consider how much clothing you want getting wet, remember you want to be able to get out of it as soon as possible and into dry loose fitting clothing. Plan on wearing some type of footwear during the plunge the lake bottom could be rocky.

What to expect.
Take deep breaths and walk slowly into the water. Running may cause you to fall and get hurt. The water maybe icy. The bottom tends to be rocky and it’s always extremely cold, prepare yourself for your body to feel like it’s going into shock. The Milwaukee Fire Department Paramedics are in the water waiting in the event of someone needing assistance.

After the Plunge.
Get dried off and dressed before you leave the beach. Remove all wet clothing and get into dry clothes as soon as possible. Bring Warm dry socks and winter boots. Your feet are your first warming priority. Bring heating packs for your hands and feet. Layering sweatshirts and sweatpants are recommended after you get out of the water. Towels and wool blankets, a sleeping bag is also highly recommended.

I dunno, maybe I will do it this year. Maybe I will make a concerted effort to put 2021 behind me. Maybe it’s up to me to move forward and forgive and accept what’s been handed to me and work harder than I’ve ever worked before to make sure what time I have left is happy and positive and hopeful. Yes. I can do that. I can make that plunge. If you’re in the same boat as me, you can make it too.

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Witnessing the coldest Polar Plunge in more than 40 years (because I was too scared to actually do it)

Great Job, Milwaukee! The New York Times shot a 360-degree video of the Polar Plunge

About The Author

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Co-Founder and Editor

Matt Wild weighs between 140 and 145 pounds. He lives on Milwaukee's east side.