POLAR BEARS TAKE A FRIGID PLUNGE

January 06, 2004 11:00 pm
People make a trek into the cold Pacific Ocean at Harris Beach to solidify their New Year's resolutions. (The Pilot/Lynn Davis).
People make a trek into the cold Pacific Ocean at Harris Beach to solidify their New Year's resolutions. (The Pilot/Lynn Davis).

Pilot story and photos by Lynn Davis

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

To mark the occasion, most spend the preceding night rocking with Dick Clark and sipping the "bubbly," and awaken to a slug-paced day of football games and Alka-Seltzer.

Others, such as the local group known as the Tum Pai Polar Bears, heed the need to jump half-naked into the cold water of the Pacific Ocean.

Although it might not be the most conventional way to ring in the new year, the icy plunge does elicit some high notes. The tradition, known nationally as the Polar Bear Plunge, is growing in popularity throughout the United States, and in Brookings.

Jon Loren, owner of Tum Pai Herbs and instructor of Tai Chi and Gung Fu, has been organizing these frigid New Year's Day swim ceremonies for 34 years. In 1970, while Loren was teaching martial arts in Washington state, his first annual invitation went out to about a dozen students to join him in this physical, emotional, and spiritual exercise.

The event was a hit, spectators from outside of his class transitioned each year into participants and zealously spread the word. By the time Loren and his wife, Jan, moved to Brookings about 1980, he said, "A couple hundred people were going in."

The same phenomenon seems to be occurring in Brookings. Until recently, the Tum Pai Polar Bears consisted of a handful of the Lorens' friends, family members and students. Over the past few years, this group, too, has grown to include several new members. Fifteen to 20 people participated in last year's plunge into the Winchuck River, up in attendance from the time before.

Loren said everyone is invited to join the activity and enjoy the potluck that follows.

Despite stormy weather conditions and rough water at this year's Harris Beach location, local Polar Bear membership was hotter than ever, more than doubling that of the Jan. 1, 2003, event.

In addition, dozens of spectators stood watch over the activity, compared to the three or four who showed up for the show last year. Most participants said they preferred the Harris Beach venue, and would like to see it happen there again in future years.

"I think we had at least 40 people participate this year," Loren said. "We had two more groups go in after our main group."

The event began with members joining hands around a large bonfire for a moment of silent contemplation and preparation for the shock of what was about to come. Sixty seconds later, they broke the circle and rushed toward the water. The over-the-head dip into the Pacific lasted less than a minute for most, with some brave souls going back for seconds.

"There are many reasons why they do this," Loren said. "I think the New Year's resolution is really important. They all make their own personal resolutions to try harder, do better, be more giving. …"

Jeff Beebe, Loren's long-time martial arts student, explained his reasons for completing the icy water submersion exercise year after year.

"I do it to cleanse the soul. Take the cold water and wash away the negative energy. You are also taking in all of the new energy from the ocean."

Sarah VanCamp explained, "I did it because it's something I would never, ever do.

"I was really nervous about it," she said. "I even had trouble sleeping. I got up at about 4 in the morning and said, ‘Oh man … I have to get in the ocean today.' "

But, exclaimed VanCamp. ""It was awesome. It was just incredible with that many people going into the water together. It wasn't half as bad as I thought it would be."

"I treat it like a baptism," appliance store owner Bob Hayes explained. "Out with the old, in with the new."

"It's fun! said shivering 14-year-old Andrew Tuttle. "I look forward to it all year!" No stranger to the cold water temperatures of the Pacific Ocean, this year-round surfer quipped, "I go in all the time," although, he admits, he generally doesn't jump in half-naked in January.

Ozzie Josephson, 15, stood next to his fellow frozen friend. Living in Brookings for a mere two weeks now, Josephson said he is not quite sure what to make of it all. As he began to thaw, he said, "Not a whole lot of this goes on in Colorado!"

"My brother (Robert Lovell) and I surf, so it was like a warm-up for surfing," said print shop co-owner David Lovell. "It's a tradition. It's an amazing energy boost! It's incredible!"

Loren agrees, and adds, "I think it's good for our health. The shock of the cold water gives a giant boost to your immune system. I have never had anyone go into the water and come into the warm, ever get a cold.

"The times that I have pushed myself, I just got stronger and stronger. There is no limit to what you can do," he said. "Martial arts gives you the spirit to go on, when most people would have thrown in the towel."

Loren said he and his students use that spirit and strength to be able to endure the pain of extreme situations, such as immersion in cold water, or even injury or illness.

Practicing occasional activities which make people uncomfortable, he explained, gives people the opportunity to overcome adversity and grow from it.

"It's a sacrifice, something that takes us out of our comfort zone," he added. "It's good for the spirit. You ask anyone who gets out of that water. They're happy. They've accomplished something."