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TAKING THE PLUNGE

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Pilot story and photos

by Lynn Davis

For many people, New Year's Day is a time for reflection and renewal, resignation and resolution.

To mark the occasion, most are content to spend the preceding night with Dick Clark and a round of champagne, and awaken to a slug-paced day of football games and Alka-Seltzer.

Others, namely a local group known as the Tum Pai Polar Bears, feel the need to jump half-naked into a rushing river of freezing cold water.

Jon and Jan Loren, owners of Tum Pai Herbs, invited members of Jon's tai chi and gung fu classes, and a few friends, to join them for the brisk January swim in the Winchuck River, complete with bonfire and potluck dinner.

Although it might not be the most conventional way to ring in the new year, the icy tradition, referred to as the Polar Bear Plunge is growing in popularity throughout the United States, and in Brookings.

Loren began making the jump a tradition around 1970, when he was teaching martial arts in Washington state. Every year, he said, he invited his students to take part in this mental, physical, and spiritual exercise and, within a short time, the event expanded to include others outside of their group.

"It grew from about a dozen," he explained. "It grew, and it grew, and it grew."

By the time he came to Brookings around 1980, he said, "a couple of hundred people were going in."

The same phenomenon seems to be occurring in Brookings. Although the Lorens officially invite Jon's students and a few friends, he said, "Anybody is welcome to come."

Between 15 and 20 people took part in this year's jump. They ranged in age from 8 to older than 70.

One determined Brookings newcomer found her way to the Loren's event through a series of about eight or nine phone calls.

Sixty-eight-year-old Maggie Taylor moved here in July from California where she had been a member of the Venice Beach Penguins. She had been doing the New Year's Day plunge with the Penguins since 1988 and wanted to continue the tradition.

When asked why she jumps into freezing water, she simply replied, "Why not? Its a great way to start a new year."

She reasoned, "You've accomplished something on the first day."

With a temperature of around 40 degrees, the Winchuck dip was no small feat, but it could have been worse. In Michigan, for instance, a large water hole is created for the swimmers by chopping through the icy lake.

Before jumping into the water, Loren led participants to form a circle around the bonfire, holding each other's hands, for a moment of silent contemplation and preparation for the shock of the river.

"Its a good cleansing thing. Start the new year off for everybody," said the teacher.

"It requires discipline," he explained, "and the sacrifice of warmth." Loren believes occasional sacrifices like warmth and other comforts are good for spiritual health and well-being.

Some participants went back for seconds, and even thirds. They didn't just wade in, either, they swam, and dunked their heads under water. Their lips were blue, but they came out of the river smiling.

"I am part of his tai chi group, and it suits my particular spirituality," said fifth year Polar Bear Suzanne Kehoe of her decision to take the plunge.

Polar Bear Plunge veteran Earl Eddy, came to share the experience with his friends, but at 87, and after having heart surgery, he decided it was best to opt this one out. He hasn't jumped in two years, and misses the tradition.

"Its invigorating, and has kept me young," he said of the celebratory dip in the stream.

He has been a long-time member of Loren's tai chi group and believes the practice has helped him live a long life.

"Its good meditation, and very healthy exercise," explained Eddy. "It increases our energy."

The heart-pounding plunge gave students a chance to practice some of the principles of Eastern philosophy on a unique level, but those who were not students also gained from their experience, taking with them a sense of personal fulfillment and growth.

"Its good for martial arts students, its good for everybody," said Loren. "They say, ‘I'll never go in.' Then, after they have done it they say, ‘Boy, that's the most fun I ever had.' "

First time dipper and gung fu student Colin White discovered the fear of the plunge was worse than the reality.

"He told me I should do it," White said of his instructor.

"I figured, ‘What the hell?'" he said. "After I got in there, it wasn't so bad."

Loren has earned much trust and respect among his students, which has helped him succeed in encouraging them to venture outside their comfort zones.

"He's a treasure," remarked student Bill Franks.

"He's been all over the world. He's the kind of teacher that stories are made of," he explained. "He makes an impression that lasts a lifetime."

Venturing much outside of her comfort zone was Brookings newbie Cindy Coila, also known as "Grandma O' Jo's daughter." Shortly after her move here from Salem in July, Coila joined Loren's tai chi class. He invited her to take part in the chilly celebration, but because of a deep-rooted fear of the water, she was unsure if she could go through with it.

"I'm scared to death of water," explained Coila. "I was pulled out by the ocean when I was 4."

The designated lifeguards for the day, Bill Franks and Huw Greathead, kept her safe, though, by staying close by as she worked herself into the frigid river.

Upon returning to shore, after getting soaked up to her chin, Loren teased, "She didn't even get her hair wet!"

It was back into the water for Coila. This time, she took control of her fears, and submerged herself entirely.

All was well, except she said she lost her bearings a little when she was fully underwater with the current rushing over her head.

As she shivered to shore for the second time, she was grinning from ear to ear with a sense of accomplishment that had taken her most of her life to achieve.

"It wasn't as painful as I thought it would be," said Coila.

She joked, "My therapist said I should get into the water, but I don't think he meant this."

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