Bowen Bay Polar Bear Swim: a brief history

A golden plunger, a 1920's swim suit and many many brave bathers spanning 40 years play into the tradition's story.

The goose bumps, blue lips and chattering teeth followed a long standing Bowen ritual. 

With a cheering crowd of easily one hundred onlookers, participants dunked their whole bodies into the frigid waters of Bowen Bay on January 1 at 2 p.m. sharp.

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A week and a half earlier, on December 20, one of the fiercest storms to hit the south coast of Bowen in recent memory, created a three meter high surge, moving logs that had rested there for decades off beaches, smashed boats and ripped docks off their footings –Bowen Bay was jammed tight.

By a miracle of nature or eager hands, by January 1 the beach had been sufficiently cleared of debris to give the “brave bathers” running access to the water. 

This years event was the 41st, in a tradition dating back to 1978, when Frank (Robbie) Robertson, decked out in a fur coat and bowler hat, donning a 1920’s swim suit, officially called together any “brave bathers” who would join him.

Frank (Robbie) Robertson dressed for the Polar Bear Swim.
Frank (Robbie) Robertson dressed for the Polar Bear Swim. - Submitted

Robbie was a consummate planner, great showman and congenial host with an upbeat sense of humour. He commissioned Len Norris, the Vancouver Sun cartoonist, to create a certificate to be given each year “in recognition of bravery and total disregard for personal comfort in the immersion of their whole self into the cold grey waters  of Bowen Bay on the first day of the year of our Lord.”

It showed Robbie under an umbrella with his loyal companion, the black poodle “Stanley.” On shore watching, Len’s traditional public including the forever umbrella swinging, irate grandma, plus a few Bowen Bay neighbours, yet to be identified. 

Peter and Ann Davidson earned the first two Bowen Bay Brave Bather Awards and became the first Bowen Bay Polar Cub Club Members. 

The numbers swelled quickly. Over the years, amongst the bravest have been Harry Patrick, John Rich and Ian Henley as well as three generations of the Behm Family and others.

An hour before the gun fired, a bonfire was started to help feeling return to many numbed bodies. This has been was the job of Pat Buchanan, George Proudlock, Bob Ede, Nelson Riley and others and later Ken and Sue Miller.

After the plunge, Sheila and Robbie invited new B.B.P Cub Club members to their cottage in Arbutus Point for an induction ceremony. The recipient sat in a throne like grandfather chair and Robbie anointed them with a golden plunger on the head, while he handed out the completed certificate citing the act of bravery. 

Frank (Robbie) Robertson inducting Andreas Behm into the Polar Cub Club.
Frank (Robbie) Robertson inducting Andreas Behm into the Polar Cub Club. - Marianne Behm

The whole affair was accompanied by copious amounts of “Soup,” an oxtail broth spiked with a drop of dry sherry, or two, or three. After about nine years, when the number of new members swelled beyond the capacity of the Arbutus Point cottage, the ceremony moved to the beach and certificates were handed right after the swim. 

We have to thank Kelly Miller who so ably and with good spirits is carrying on one of Bowen’s finest and craziest traditions.

Robbie and Sheila were Albertans and settled in Vancouver as he was rapidly rising in the ranks of The Woodward’s Departments Stores, eventually becoming its final president. In 2013 Robbie paid a surprise visit to the Polar Bear Swim and was duly celebrated. 

HC Behm, Frank (Robbie) Robertson and Ian Henley at the 2013 polar dip.
HC Behm, Frank (Robbie) Robertson and Ian Henley at the 2013 polar dip. - Andreas Behm
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