He won’t be at the Townsend Wye this year, but Phil Colclough is determined to go swimming somewhere on New Year’s Day.
As the co-founder of the unofficial Blount County Polar Bear Club — an organization whose members take an icy dip into the Little River every Jan. 1 to usher in good fortune for the coming year — Colclough was fired up about this year’s plunge until that scourge of 2020, COVID-19, gave him pause.
“I was gung-ho about it until about three weeks ago, when I called my friend, Scott Hussey, a teacher at Clayton-Bradley Academy whom I use sometimes as a barometer for my sanity. I told him I was really worried about doing it this year with the virus, and that’s when he told me he and his family weren’t going to be there.
“He’s as crazy about stuff like this as I am, and he and his family love it. They’re there every year, but he cautioned me and said, ‘You’re going to be associated with something that could potentially be a superspreader event. You do what you’re going to do, but my family won’t be there.’ That’s when I realized what I needed to do. It just took one of my more sane friends to give me some perspective.”
Hussey came up with the idea that Colclough is promoting via social media: A “virtual” polar bear plunge, in which members who normally gather by the river in Townsend at noon on New Year’s Day instead do a solo dip in whatever body of water is convenient; video it; and post it to social media. He acknowledges that a digital alternative likely won’t motivate his fellow “bears” in the same way as a mutual leap into the frigid waters of the river does, but in a time when public health and safety are paramount, it’s the thought that counts, he added.
“I don’t know if it’s going to gain a lot of steam, because a lot of the motivation is doing it with other people, but if I can get one person dunking themselves in a frozen cattle trough, that would be funny,” he said.
The tradition began locally 17 years ago, when Colclough struck up a friendship with Dr. Mike Reiss, his children’s pediatrician. Reiss, who moved to East Tennessee from Vermont, suggested the pair, along with some friends, emulate their hardy neighbors north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and that first year, a half-dozen chums jumped in the Little River at the Townsend Wye. Over the next several years, word-of-mouth increased the size of the crowd; a splinter group formed to do a rival plunge; and on New Year’s Day 2020, around 60 people showed up for a brisk dip in waters that run cold even in the heat of summer.
“I always think of it as a full-body ice cream headache,” Colclough said. “There was one year when the air temperature was 13 or 14 degrees, and that was kind of dangerous, because the water temperature was 33.4 degrees, and when the water splashed up onto the rocks, it instantly froze. You had all these people scrambling to get up the rocks and then sliding back down.
“But it’s a lot of fun. There’s just something about all of us fools in the same place, doing the same thing, that feels like tradition, and if you believe in luck, it’s a way to bring some. And quite frankly, it’s fun for me to be the crazy guy that organizes it. I enjoy getting stupid attention for doing dumb things.”
For his day job, Colclough is the director of animal care, conservation and education at the Knoxville Zoo, and he’s used to taking extra precautions on the job to avoid COVID-19. (“If the whole team goes down, you’ve got snake handlers taking care of giraffes, and it just doesn’t work very well,” he added.) While the excitement of the polar bear plunge is something he looks forward to every year, keeping his friends and fellow “bears” safe from the virus is more important.
And so, on New Year’s Day, he’ll head up to a spot on the Little River — as a whitewater enthusiast, he knows every twist and turn of the waterway — where there’s a certain beach he plans to be at around noon. Hopefully, he’ll have it to himself, and he’ll continue the tradition solo — posting a video, of course, to a newly created Facebook group. And one of his wishes, no doubt, will be for a joyous reunion with friends and fellow New Year’s Day baptismal enthusiasts on Jan. 1, 2022.
“There’s only two rules: One, your entire head and body have to go under (the water), or it doesn’t count,” he said. “And two, if you do it once, you can’t not do it again. It’s like a Fight Club for polar bears.”