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Who started the Polar Bear dip every Jan. 1, anyway?

Vancouverites have been challenging the chill of the Pacific at English Bay for over a century.

In 1920, Peter Pantages kicked off Vancouver's annual New Year's Day dip in cold water

A lifeguard paddles by as two men wearing Mexican wrestling masks stand in the frigid waters of English Bay during the annual polar bear swim in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday January 1, 2009. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Until 2019, there were a few stories that could be counted on to make the news on New Year's Day in Canada.

They were: the first New Year's babies, New Year's levees hosted by a provincial lieutenant-governor, and the people who braved a local body of water for a refreshing New Year's Day swim.

The tradition is known just about everywhere as a polar bear swim, and it started in Vancouver in 1920 by a group of swimmers who called themselves the Polar Bear Club.

In 1985, CBC reporter Karen Webb dug a little deeper to explain the curious sight of Canadians in swimsuits voluntarily swimming in frigid water (or, at least, quickly running in for a quick dip before heading back to shore).

A 'real polar bear'

A chilly start to the new year

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36 years ago
2:49
Peter Pantages and a group of like-minded friends in Vancouver started the annual polar bear swim. 2:49
   

"It was started by a Greek immigrant who swam in English Bay all year round," said Knowlton Nash, host of CBC's The National, on New Year's Day 1985.

That man was Peter Pantages, who came to Canada about a year earlier, according to Vancouver writer and researcher Eve Lazarus.

Pantages died in 1971, but his friend and fellow cold-water swimmer Harry Kovish had been doing the New Year's Day swim since the 1940s, said Webb. 

"He thinks nothing of a winter dip in the Pacific," said Webb, as the camera showed Kovish floating placidly in a relaxed pose, swim cap on his head, while others screeched and splashed.

"I think of myself as a real polar bear," said Kovish, once indoors and fully clothed.

He wasn't impressed by the amateurs who turned out in large numbers once a year. 

"They get tanked up with a few drinks for some artificial stimulation, and they get in to their waist or knees ... and they jump out," he said. "I just don't think they're genuine polar bear swimmers."

Outdoors on the beach again, Webb asked how the water was.

"It's not bad," he said. "It's cold. Fingers tingle a little bit." 

In the early years, a 'Christmas dip'

Chilly scenes from the Polar Bear Swim in 1930. (City of Vancouver Archives)

At some point the Polar Bear Club practised their winter tradition not on New Year's Day, but on Christmas Day.

A 1924 article in the Globe and Mail headlined "Br-r-r-r-r-r!" read: "Hardy members of the Vancouver swimming club will indulge in their annual Christmas Day swim tomorrow in English Bay. The 'polar bears' of the club have indulged in their Christmas dip for a number of years without regard to water conditions."

By 1945 the swim was on New Year's Day, when the newspaper reported that 34 swimmers had comprised "the greatest turnout since 1922 ... said Peter Pantages, founder and leader of the club." 

Pantages himself was said to have swum daily in English Bay, according to a 1978 newspaper item.

Lazarus, the Vancouver writer/researcher, said the tradition started with Pantages inviting friends over a for a New Year's Day drink before "talking them into taking the plunge."

The City of Vancouver website notes that a record 2,550 entries took part in the swim on New Year's Day 2014.

For the 101st anniversary in 2021, it asked participants to "celebrate at home" with a "digital dip."

The Pantages name remains closely associated with the swim club; its president is Lisa Pantages, who is Peter's granddaughter.  

An unidentified man braves the elements as he jumps from the government wharf into the icy waters of the North Atlantic in Herring Cove, N.S. on Thursday, Jan. 1, 2009. The community was celebrating their 15th annual polar bear swim to welcome the new year. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

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