Polar Bear Dip no more, but we still remember

Reminiscing about the annual Little Fort Polar Bear Sip over 25 years

(Above) Photos from the 1998 Polar Bear Swim in Little Fort show Gorilla Elli Kohnert and Edith Farrell

It seems like only yesterday that the North Thompson Valley was welcoming in the 2017 new year and heralding the start of Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations.

We at the Star/Journal were reminiscing the other day about what each New Year brings, and also what some of the changes we see as the annual clock turns to a new 12 months.

One of the changes we talked about was the fact that the Little Fort Polar Bear Swim is no more.

This annual event, which was jointly put on by the Little Fort Pub and the Little Fort Recreation Society, was the Valley’s way of bringing in the New Year, fundraising for worthy causes (such as the food bank, fire department, animal rescue or CrimeStoppers), and socializing with family, friends and folks you were meeting for the first time.  Folks that were all of like mind – to submerge themselves into the bitter cold waters of the North Thompson River to welcome in the New Year with a bracing swim.

Some of the ‘dippers’ wore colourful costumes, and there were prizes handed out for such things as the youngest and oldest dippers.  Then everyone gathered around a big bonfire for hot chocolate and goodies, and later headed over to the Pub for lunch.

There were many years when the river was frozen over.  Then the local volunteers (in later years many of them members of the Little Fort Fire Department) would chop, saw or even chain saw a hole that was big enough for hearty ‘dippers’ to get wet, sometimes they were even lowered into the frigid water on a rope amidst jovial encouragement from those on the bank.

The Little Fort Polar Bear Swim (in later  years called the Polar Bear Dip) had a good run of at least 25 years.  However, the organizers finally made the decision to cancel the event due to concerns about liability insurance and the cost involved. The reasons behind the cancellation were justified, but those who participated  in the event still bemoan  its loss.

Here is an article that the Star/Journal published Jan. 12, 1998. It was written by our editor/photographer at the time, Ann Piper, who was also a Little Fort resident and a great supporter of the event. The article brings back memories of the fun and community spirit that was generated by the Annual Little Fort Polar Bear Swim for so many years in the Valley.

1998 Polar Bear Swim: fun and profit

They were disorderly, but they came, they saw and they submersed themselves  …ever so briefly.

Fifteen hardy souls participated in Little Fort’s 1998 Polar Bear Swim.  Over 200-300 spectators lined the bank overlooking the Little Fort Ferry Slip to watch the proceedings at noon, New Year’s Day.

Barriere animal advocate Elli Kohnert jumped the gun and became the first to brave the North Thompson’s chilly waters.

When Kohnert lost her footing and dunked herself two more times, Barriere RCMP Const. Jeff Swann (already in swim trunks and ready for the plunge) waded out and helped Kohnert – a retiree – back to dry land.

Then Swann and fellow CrimeStoppers member Edith Farrell took their own turn, earning pledges over $2,000 for their association.

Kohnert’s efforts should net her in excess of $500, which she vows to use to construct a new kennel for the lost and/or homeless dogs she routinely ‘rescues’.

Like Swann and Farrell, she must now collect all those pledges promised by her supporters.

Swimmers came from Kamloops, Barriere, Little Fort and Clearwater – and Bella Coola.

Youngest into the water were Carly Burton and Katelyn Wilson of Little Fort; oldest of the lot was Milna Young, 76, of Clearwater.

Style was an issue this year: Young’s ensemble included a ‘distressed’ street length coat.

Kohnert arrived in a full gorilla suit which put the hackles up on some of her canine supporters on hand (and on leash) for the event, but opted to actually take the plunge in lighter gear.

Gordon MacKay of Bella Coola dove off the ferry’s dory in his long-handled underwear.

CrimeStopper Edith Farrell came in pantaloons and eyelet-festooned period garb.

Kamloops’s Turk Morgan – back for a second year along with nephew Garret Carr of Little Fort – retained his fishing hat along with Bermudas and T-shirt for his dip.

All the participants shared one thing in common: once they were safely back on shore – and they didn’t linger in the river – they were anxious to find shelter, a blanket and a change of cloths.

Within minutes of the swim’s conclusion, Little Fort’s Frontier Pub was packed with swimmers, supporters and spectators.