A Good Wallowa County New Year’s Story

About twenty years ago, a group of us started swimming at the foot of Wallowa Lake in June. We swam almost every day, some with wet suits, some bare-skinned. I was always the slowest swimmer in the group, and my distances didn’t match those of my friends. But I was relentless, and soon gave up the wobbly wet suit and still get in over 60 days of summer swims each year!

About year two or three, the “pod”—what we called ourselves—decided to swim across the Lake. Some wore suits; my friend Rodd and I “greased up,” and with a rower keeping track, we swam from Trouthaven on the West side due east—over half a mile—and clamored up the bank to cars waiting on the highway pullout . I was again the slowest, but my pod was there to greet and congratulate me.

In 2007, at the suggestion of one of the original pod members, we decided on a New Year’s Day Plunge. There were five of us: the anonymous suggester, Jim Shelly, who lived here and made pottery for a few years, Rodd, my sculpting friend, Beth Gibbons, and myself. Jim has moved on, the originator bowed out as crowds increased, and Beth passed away a few years ago. Beth, the woman who gave us Backyard Gardens and nurtured the Saturday Market into existence, who lost a valiant fight with a mean cancer, deserves her own column and place in the Wallowa County community story.

Five became eight or nine the second year, with Rusty Hogg, Brian Concannon, and Randy Greenshields joining the fun. And each year a few new people have joined and gathered at the boat dock at the north end of the Lake at 10 a.m. on New Year’s Day to make the plunge. It’s become multi-generational, with grandparents, parents, and children egging each other on and into the water.

I missed the plunge this year, because I have a new knee and the doc says I am not ready for it. But I went up on New Year’s Morning to see the sight. What a sight! It was a gorgeous day of laughing and smiling faces. Parking places were hard to find. Families gathered. Sometimes dad held the towels while mom and the kids plunged; sometimes mom—or grandma, or uncle or auntie did the towel holding.

Those who tried to count said that there were surely over 100 plungers, and at least that many spectators. “A steady stream of cars from Enterprise to the county park turnoff,” said one. He was from La Grande, and although I didn’t check, I imagine there were Idaho and Washington license plates in the parking lot. I do know that there were newcomers I’d never seen before, that there were farmers and ranchers, teachers and retirees, my doctor friend Brad and likely more from the medical profession, a Catholic priest, and, I’d guess, practitioners of other faiths and of none. No one asked or talked about political affiliation.

It was over 200 happy people—happy in a beautiful day in a beautiful place, happy in family, friendships, camaraderie, and a joint turning over of the calendar. They happen all over the world. Amsterdam was featured on the news yesterday. I don’t know how theirs started, but ours was just a few friends daring ourselves into a New Year’s Plunge. No fees, no signups, no tests or requirements to be a good swimmer or the right age or color.

Now it’s ours to grow the good feelings from a sunny New Year’s Day at Wallowa Lake into the next year of our lives, the next year of family, friends, and community. Let’s see how far can we make the plunge ripples go!

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photo, Ellen Bishop, 2020 Plunge

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