New Year’s revelers splash and gasp at annual Pilchuck River plunge in Machias

MACHIAS — The tradition started 36 years ago after leftover liquor was dumped it into a bucket and stirred.

The men at Doc’s Pilchuck Tavern drank. Then five or six of them got the notion they needed to dip into the nearby Pilchuck River.

At least that’s how Gordon Taylor remembers it. The Snohomish man said he was there that day and every New Year’s Day since.

“Now, look at what it’s become,” he said Sunday, an old-school majorette hat perched on his head adorned with the words “grand pupa.”

What it’s become is an annual event that draws a few hundred people ready to start a new year by plunging into the brisk river that runs just below the tavern.

Some come to watch. Others come with towels and bags of clothes, ready to get wet.

So many come that the two-lane country road outside the tavern is lined with cars for more than half a mile in each direction. A flock of muscular motorcycles is parked outside.

Machias is a small, tight-knit community and Doc’s has been a part of it since it was far smaller. The tavern’s owner, Jimmy Young, took over the bar from his parents in the 1950s.

The tavern is low-slung, perched just above the Pilchuck River. It’s dark and warm and welcoming inside, the kind of place people enjoy sipping beers and catching a game of football on the over-sized television. The bar is festooned with signs, knickknacks, a collection of straw hats, and posters of Budweiser horses and a buxom blonde in a bikini. Sunday, people are lined up five deep buying drinks. Sandwich fixings, canned jars of green beans and pasta salad cover the pool table.

Out back, people fill the sawdust covered yard and line the patio, pulling in smoke from their cigarettes and clutching plastic beer cups.

The plunge is scheduled to start at noon. Traditionally, Young leads the way down to the water and the first one in is supposed to be the Grand Pupa. This year, as in years past, there are a few who just can’t wait: One young man bypasses the long line to the jumping off point and takes a running leap, smacking the river belly first. He comes up dripping wet, his arms raised as if he’s Michael Phelps winning an Olympic medal.

Young comes out of the tavern and makes his way through the beer-drinking masses. He’s dressed in an ornate gold and white cape, looking almost pope-like — if it weren’t for the ski hat. He takes one long blow on a horn and the rest of the jumpers file into the water.

And what a fantastic procession. Many strip down to their skivvies and hop in wearing their beer jackets. One woman wears a wedding dress, another a Scarlett O’Hara-esque pink flouncy ball gown. One man is wearing a red Baywatch swimsuit and a blonde wig like the television show’s star Pamela Anderson. He enthusiastically mugs to those taking photos on the rocks.

Grandmas and bikers, and even kids, take the leap. Jared Fry, a 13-year-old from Monroe, has shown up with a giant 2012 painted on his belly for his first jump.

In all, dozens of people made the plunge.

The on-lookers above the river hoot and holler. Across the Pilchuck, neighbors have come out of their homes and walked down to the edge of the bank to take in the spectacle. Some of the dippers wade across the river to give out dripping-wet hugs which are gingerly received.

Young’s family always makes a grand appearance and this year is no exception. His son, Garry Young of Granite Falls, leads a group dressed as Mayans, in honor of the indigenous people’s prediction of the world ending in 2012. Except these Mayans are dressed with animal hides over multi-colored Speedo swimsuits.

“El Speedo,” Garry Young said with a slight belch. “That’s my Mayan name.”

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