Something to call home to Mom about

A day before I would jump into the cold water of the Pilchuck River, I got a call from my mother in Yamaguchi, located in the western end of the Japan’s main island.

It was close to midnight Friday, not quite the new year, and Saturday afternoon in Japan. She was preparing a big dinner to celebrate New Year’s Day – one of the most important holidays in Japan – with relatives.

But I just couldn’t bring myself to tell my mother that in the morning, a chilly January morning, I would jump in a river while on assignment.

I had two reasons.

First, I didn’t want to worry her. She always tells me not to catch a cold. Second, I wasn’t sure if I could explain why more than 100 people would do such a thing and why I would follow suit.

I decided to try a polar bear swim for the first time at age 28, four and a half years after I came to the United States and a year after I became a journalist. I thought I wouldn’t get a full story without dipping into the river myself. And before the big event, I had this twinge inside me, the kind you feel when you decide to visit the haunted house at an amusement park.

So, here I was at Doc’s Pilchuck Tavern on Saturday morning. After talking to some people for the main story I would write, I took off my jacket, shirts and glasses.

Now I was in shorts and sneakers.

I tied my shoes tight. A loud cheering I didn’t deserve came from the audience who knew I was from The Herald. I looked at the river and thought: “Am I going to have heart attack?”

I put my hand on my chest once, took a breath and jumped off the shore.

A moment later, I was submerged in the water. I didn’t feel or hear anything. I just saw rocks.

Coming out of the water on my feet brought me a weird, fresh feeling. I screamed something that I don’t remember – it was neither in English nor Japanese. I accepted clapping from the onlookers. I walked to shore and then started feeling a little cold.

“It wasn’t too bad. But I need to go to a fire,” I said to a woman who had kindly held my belongings.

She laughed, and I took my stuff and dashed to the nearby bonfire, shivering a little.

In retrospect, I didn’t think the water was that cold. The exciting thing was to overcome my anxiety – just do it and get a sense of accomplishment. I suppose some people subject themselves to this for the same reason.

I plan to call my mother today, asking how the dinner with relatives went.

I will tell her about my polar bear swim: It wasn’t too bad, and I’ll assure her that I’m not going to catch a cold.

But I’m still not totally sure why people do this – maybe, I’ll tell her, there really isn’t any explanation.

Reporter Yoshiaki Nohara: 425-339-3029 or

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