Faithful warm to frigid tradition for a good cause

WATERFORD -- As Journey's "Only The Young" blared from loudspeakers Friday, some hardy souls took to Modesto Reservoir for the 55th annual Polar Bear Water Ski Day.

The event, in which people pay $10 or $15 for the privilege of being hauled behind a boat into frigid water, raises money for Mid Valley Ski Club activities, which include adaptive ski programs for the disabled, youth skiing and tournaments.

First on -- and in -- the water was Scott Barry. It was the 25th straight New Year's Day the 54-year-old from Sonora spent at the event.

"I figure if I do this every year, eventually I'll be the oldest skier," he said.

Barry got up on his second try, took a spin around the reservoir, then cast off and made his way to shore. Warming by the handy fire pit afterward, he said, "Once you're up, it's a real rush."

If the chilly reservoir and the upbeat music didn't provide enough of a rush, there was always the sound of gunfire. Skiers weren't alone at the reservoir Friday morning; duck hunters celebrated New Year's chasing dinner.

Various clubs organized the event the first few years after its 1955 inception, and the Mid Valley Ski Club took it over about 35 years ago, said Richard Lea, who was driving the boat Friday.

Skiers said Friday was the best day, weather-wise, they'd seen in a while. The temperature hovered around 50 degrees -- close to the same as the water, though it didn't feel that way -- and the reservoir was "smooth as glass," Barry said.

"This is sweet today," he said. "Probably the nicest I've ever seen it."

Nelson said that in some years, the temperature's been in the 30s and 40s, making the water warmer than the air.

Nelson said he's been coming out to the Polar Bear day since he was in college in the 1980s.

"I feel rejuvenated afterward," he said. "It's over so fast."

A few years back, 270 people came out for the event. That number's dropped in recent years, though it's bounced up a little since the club opened the event to wakeboarders and tubers (those who ride on inner tubes).

"We've had kids as young as 11 out there," Nelson said.

The key, enthusiasts said, is spending as much time as possible on top of the water, rather than in it.

"If it takes you too many tries to get up, you start to get cold and hypothermia can set in," Barry said. "You can get too stiff to hold on."

The day suffered a minor hiccup when one boat hit a shallow spot, damaging its propeller. Skiers had to wait about an hour while a club member went for another boat.

"This was the first year we didn't have a backup boat," Nelson said. "And it was the first time we needed one."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at or 578-2343.