A Feud of Polar Bears
BY ALEX CANTATORE
For the past 20-plus years, two local men have been engaged in an ongoing feud.
It’s not about politics, or religion, or women, or any of the usual topics.
No, this feud is about who gets to be the first man to jump into a freezing cold lake at the Mid Valley Water Ski Club’s annual Polar Bear Day.
Paul Britton and Scott Barry both talk fondly of the frigid, “virgin water” that awaits them every New Year’s Day. Perhaps the bigger motivation is the plaque, or small statue, given out to the first man in the water.
It used to be a big deal, that trophy. Tens of people would compete for the right to be first. They’d bring cots, sleep out the night before Polar Bear Day, just so they’d be first in line.
But for the past 25 years or so, either Britton or Barry has won the trophy every year. And it’s Britton who has usually come out on top; he holds roughly 19 first-rider trophies.
In 1995, Britton spent the night before Polar Bear Day sleeping at the edge of the reservoir, in freezing rain, shivering inside a sleeping bag. All for a plastic trophy.
“Everyone I talk to thinks I’m nuts,” Britton said.
Another year Barry, desperate to be the first man in, reached for his wallet and thrust a fistful of cash toward Britton.
“Five hundred dollars,” Britton said. “He tried to bribe me.”
By 1998, tired of losing, Barry drove his RV down to the reservoir on the 29th – two days before Polar Bear Day. He camped out in solitude until Britton showed up on New Year’s Day.
“I jumped out and said, ‘I got you!” Barry said.
END OF AN ERA
The annual Polar Bear Day’s started in 1955, in Tulloch Lake, as kind of an informal gathering of boaters on New Year’s Day. The event moved to Turlock Lake, then Woodward Reservoir, and at some point the Mid Valley Water Ski Club took over.
photos by Alex Cantatore
Back in its heyday, this frigid festival would attract as many as 200 people. The event would start at 7 a.m. and run until nightfall, with a constant line of crazies waiting to water ski, wakeboard, or kneeboard.
Last year, only 23 people came. More than one person tells me that the decline is “kinda sad.”
Rather than slowly fade away, organizers decided to hold one final Polar Bear Day. The event’s 60th anniversary would be its last.
“We figured we’d go out with a bang,” club secretary Kay Nelson said.
If you’re wondering why numbers are dwindling, it could be an image problem. The event’s long-time participants aren’t exactly the best salesmen, frequently referring to the endeavor – and its participants – as “crazy.”
The water – hovering at 46 degrees this year – isn’t even the worst part. It’s the 33-degree air once you get out of the water, whipping past your skin at high speed as you’re pulled behind a boat and chilled to the bone.
“It’s a new level of cold few people have experienced,” said Dr. Robert Logan, a club member.
“We can’t figure out why our numbers are dwindling,” Nelson said with a laugh.
FAMILY, FRIENDS, AND FEUDING
But for many participants, Polar Bear Day is their only day of water skiing each year.
And it’s not even really about the water skiing – it’s about camaraderie, friends, and family.
Barry blames his brother, Sean Barry, for getting him into the Polar Bear club. Sean Barry himself was tricked into attending in his first year, back in 1975, when a friend asked him to go skiing for New Year’s.
“I don’t have enough money for a lift ticket,” Sean Barry told his friend.
Sean Barry found himself water skiing instead, the newest member of the polar bear club. And he was hooked; Sean Barry now lives in Utah, but made the trip back to California to celebrate the event’s final year.
Like most Polar Bear Day regulars, Barry and Britton have become good friends. Their feud is lighthearted, the competition for the trophy always friendly.
Though their friendship started with a Polar Bear Day, it will not end alongside it.
For this final year, Scott Barry and Paul Britton put the longstanding competition behind them. They shared the first man in award, towed together atop a ski tube.
“We’re going to miss it,” Britton said.