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The Big Plunge 2020: Hundreds pack Bradford Beach for frosty New Year’s Day dip in Lake Michigan

Crowds of people crowded the cold shores of Milwaukee’s Bradford Beach to make the annual Polar Bear Plunge on January 1 and welcome the New Year, in a tradition that goes back to 1916.

This year the air and water temperatures were the same at 39° and the waves mild. The milder conditions compacted the beachfront area, which was more congested with fire pits and camps placed far closer to the waterline. Rescue divers from the Milwaukee Police and Fire departments were again deployed along the beach, about 50 meters from shore.

Lacking any formal sponsors, the free event is organized by volunteers for the public to enjoy. Local families have embraced this Milwaukee tradition with the tailgating spirit, by snacking around campfires on the chilled sand. Many individuals have participated in the winter ritual for years, with some residents having taken the plunge consistently going back at least three decades.

“When you do the Polar Plunge, it’s not on a screen or the internet. Believe me, when you jump into that lake you just did something and you know it. It’s better than my birthday. It’s that ability to dive in the water and go ‘wow’ we made it another year.” – Denny Rauen

These images captured the unique Milwaukee spirit, as community residents braved winter conditions to join the first public recreational event of 2020.

About The Author

Lee Matz

A Milwaukee native, Lee worked internationally for years as an award-winning foreign photojournalist based in Asia. He was also Wisconsin's first war correspondent to report from Ukraine in 2022. Lee proudly uses MCTS as the exclusive mode of transportation for covering all his local news assignments.