As 2020 approaches, Cayucos locals reminisce about the pursuit of happiness that Carlin Soulé introduced to the community through his annual Polar Bear Dip, inspiring thousands throughout the county to unite together in support of new beginnings.
It was on Jan. 1 of 1981 that the first official Polar Bear Dip was born. As the story goes, Carlin Soule and wife, Margret, owned Cayucos’ famed restaurant, the Way Station, where long-time friend and owner of Sandi’s Massage, Sandi Ford, said she first met the couple, and later where the tradition began.
“Carlin walked outside on New Years Day and there wasn’t one car in sight — there was nothing,” said Ford. “I remember Carlin saying, “We need to do something to bring people in — let’s do a Polar Bear Dip!” Unaware of the impact, Soule and a handful of friends and employees took the plunge together. “I was one of the original ones,” said Ford. “Margret is Spanish and Carlin’s mother-in-law was Spanish, so we all went in together and we came back and we all had this great Mexican meal after,” Ford remembers. “It started that way and we’ve been doing it ever since. The first time we went in, there were only seven of us, the next year there were twelve, followed by about twenty-five the following year. It has just grown and grown and grown!”
Bill Shea and wife, Carol Kramer, owners of Cayucos’ Sea Shanty restaurant, further illuminated the history and meaning behind the momentous pillar that has become Soule’s annual Polar Bear Dip.
“It was a brutal winter that year and the rain had washed away a lot of the piers up and down the coast,” said Kramer. “And so, everyone was standing around on New Year’s Day with nothing to do because the town was empty.”
Kramer explains that the owners of the four restaurants in Cayucos at the time were close and with each year they began to participate in the annual dip alongside Soule, word catching wind from town to town and eventually throughout the county.
“Now I go in with our Grandkids and a lot of our employees,” Kramer said.
Upon settling in Cayucos in 1982, Shea explains that it was Soule’s Polar Bear Dip that made them feel like a genuine part of the community.
“Next year it’ll be thirty-eight years that we’ve been here,” Shea said. “The Polar Bear Dip was one of the things that really made us feel at home when we first came here. And every year, we appreciate the community excitement that goes on around here.”
Just months shy of his eighth annual Polar Bear Dip, Carlin Soule passed away, his legacy left to live on through the town of Cayucos and the thousands of people he inspired.
“It’s just so important to keep Carlin’s name alive,” Ford said. “They’ve tried to rename it to the Cayucos Polar Bear Dip a few times, but Carlin Soule is who started the Dip, and it’s important that we keep his name and honor him.”
An active member of the Cayucos community, Dick Mellinger, also touches on the integrity that it has taken to keep the history and spirit of Soule’s name of standout significance during an event of this caliper.
“Andy Lilly single-handedly ran the program for thirteen consecutive years,” Mellinger said. Before passing the torch to a fellow member of the community, Mellinger adds, “Lilly did a brilliant job.”
With each passing year, excitement heightens as the path of generational tradition and spontaneity has been paved for those near and far, spotlighting creativity and whimsy as the public are encouraged to dress up before running in. And locals say that when it comes to dressing up, the wackier, the better.
“The costumes have gotten pretty funny as the years go on,” Ford said.
As thousands pour into Cayucos from every corner of the county, each year, the costumes alongside the antics seem to one-up previous years; news outlets and photographers capture every angle of amusement.
“It’s like the Fourth of July for two hours every year on Jan. 1,” Ford said. “The cars and people start pouring in and the place is absolutely packed. I have watched a lot of people run in over the years and then they brought their kids, and now, those kids are bringing their kids. The whole thing about the Polar Bear Dip is to go in and get rid of the year before, and to come out with a brand new beginning.”
It’s estimated that mroe than 7,000 people will gather together to ring in the new decade on Cayucos’ coastline, making a run for the pacific sea at noon for the annual dip, with festivities beginning at 9:30 a.m.
Participants and onlookers are encouraged to enjoy artwork custom-designed by young talent from Cayucos Elementary School, humbly printed onto T-shirts by Morro Bay’s 3INK, in support of the event. All sale proceeds will go toward supporting the town of Cayucos and gearing up for the next annual Polar Bear Dip, in honor of The Great — Carlin Soule, and his captivating pursuit of happiness.