January 04, 2008 11:00 pm
Polar bear plungers take a quick dunk in the icy ocean at Harris Beach for New Years.  (The Pilot/Bill Schlichting).
Polar bear plungers take a quick dunk in the icy ocean at Harris Beach for New Years. (The Pilot/Bill Schlichting).

By Bill Schlichting

Pilot staff writer

When Karen Webb of Cincinnati, Ohio, came to visit the Oregon Coast to watch whales, taking a plunge into the Pacific Ocean was not on her agenda.

But when she saw the sign announcing the annual New Year's Day polar bear dip at the Harris Beach day-use area, she thought, "I can do this."

Although most of the 15 people who participated in the event – sponsored by The Club Center in Brookings, a tum pai, gung fu and martial arts school – were already on their way out of the water, a few stayed in the water so Webb could participate.

"It was great," Webb said. "It wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be."

Webb, who is retired, said she has gotten tired of dealing with the cold winters in Ohio and has been traveling in her RV. Prior to the plunge, she had spent about three days participating in Whale Watch Week. Tuesday was the first day she spotted whales, thanks to a calmer ocean.

"I love Oregon," Web said. "I haven't been able to leave."

The day at Harris Beach was the first time she had ever participated in a polar bear dip.

She wasn't alone.

Michelle Kaufman of Brookings was also a first-timer. Her friend Lara Higgins is a veteran at taking the plunge. After watching Higgins participate last year, Kaufman decided she wanted to do it, too.

Kaufman said she received a call from her friend on New Year's Eve reminding her of the event. She kept her promise and showed up.

When walking with the group toward the surf, Kaufman said what was going through her head was, "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. …"

While in the water, Kaufman stayed close to her friend, Lara, and her friend's sister, Sara Higgins.

"It was not as cold as I thought it would be," Kaufman said about the plunge into the 49-degree ocean. "Except it hurts when I breathe."

This was the second year that Sara Higgins participated in the polar bear dip.

She has the same perspective as Jon Loren, leader of the group that hosts the event.

"It's a way of cleansing the soul," Sara Higgins said. "It's really important to me."

Loren leads the event as a way of helping people solidify their New Year's resolutions.

Loren began leading a New Year's Day polar bear plunge in the icy waters of Washington in 1972. In 1982 he came to Brookings and brought the tradition with him.

For many years, the event took place in the cold waters of the Winchuck River, about six miles upstream from Highway 101.

However, because of the small area on Loren's property and the increasing number of participants, the event was moved to Harris Beach.

Since moving the event to the beach, Loren said he has learned to schedule the event to coincide with the time the tide begins to come in. One year the tide was so high there was no beach to build the warming bonfire, and the participants had to wait.

Loren said the incoming tide also helps prevent "floaters," people who may get sucked away from the shore. He keeps watch of all participants for their safety. No one is allowed to dive.

Everyone who followed the rule and got their head wet received a certificate for the accomplishment. Then they received an invitation to a potluck at The Club Center.