Pilot story and photos

by Lynn Davis

If asked a week ago how area visitor Dwight Bandak planned to ring in the new year, it's a good bet that jumping into the frigid winter ocean waters wearing nothing but a pair of skivvies would not have been his first choice.

Yet, thanks to a chance encounter with a Tum Pai Polar Bear, it will be next year.

andquot;It was completely random,andquot; said Bandak, who is the son of local pastel artist, Jane Simmons. andquot;I met a woman in the herb shop a few days ago who was really excited about the plunge and she encouraged me to try it.andquot;

Not only did he try it, he found the gumption to make a second mad dash into the pounding surf at Harris Beach alongside the andquot;hard-coreandquot; members of the group.

andquot;I'm so happy to have done it,andquot; he said. andquot;It was wonderful!andquot;

Around 30 people turned out on Saturday to participate in the event, and an audience of roughly 25 stood watch.

andquot;I loved it! It was great!andquot; said fellow first-timer, Richard Sexton. Making the most of a unique opportunity, the newbie not only saw the event as a meaningful way to welcome 2005, but also as a fun celebration of his one year anniversary as a Brookings resident.

andquot;I thought it was actually going to be a lot colder than it was - I didn't shiver once,andquot; he said from behind a blue-lipped grin.

andquot;The anticipation is much worse than the actual swim,andquot; said Cindy Thomas, a tai chi student. andquot;It feels so good when the cold wears off, I have tons of energy all day. It gives a boost to my immune system, too. It's invigorating, a great way to start the new year.andquot;

The peculiar tradition began in Canada around 1920 with a small group of friends. Today, it is known internationally as the Polar Bear Plunge, and its current popularity worldwide is growing exponentially.

Jon Loren, owner of Tum Pai Herbs/Club Center and veteran instructor of tai chi and gung fu, has been organizing these frigid New Year's Day swim ceremonies for 35 years.

In 1970, while Loren was teaching martial arts in Washington state, the first annual invitation went out to about a dozen students to join him in this physical, emotional and spiritual exercise.

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

The same phenomenon that occurred in Washington seems to be evolving in Brookings. Until recently, the Tum Pai Polar Bears consisted of a handful of the Lorens' closest friends, family members, and students. Over the past few years, this group, too, has grown at a moderate pace to include several new members.

Loren believes the storm, complete with periods of heavy rain, wind, and hail, affected this year's attendance. According to the National Weather Service, air temperature was in the low 40s, water temperature was 51 degrees, and waves reached heights of 8 feet.

Strangely enough, Loren said, this year and last, the storms were intense both before and after the plunge, yet let up a bit for the entire duration the group was on the beach.

The event began with members, ranging in age from 10 to older than 70, joined hands around a bonfire for a moment of silent contemplation and, mental preparation for the shock to come.

andquot;We prayed for world peace and world health. Recent events weighed heavily on everyone's mind,andquot; Loren said.

In addition, group members were encouraged to examine the previous year, and identify opportunities for improvement in their lives.

Loren said of participants, andquot;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. There are many reasons why they do this.andquot;

Advanced martial arts student, Huw Greathead, added that for him, as well as many of the other participants, andquot;It's an affirmation of will. You're causing yourself to be uncomfortable for a few moments, which seems like a little thing, but it reminds you that you have the power to fulfill any goal you choose for yourself.andquot;

When the prayer was over, a sort-of chaotic frenzy ensued as participants raced toward the water. The solemn mood of the meditation, was replaced with high pitched screaming and laughing, splishing and splashing.

Seconds later an even more fervent dash was made back to shore, where they huddled together around the fire to warm up.

Certificates of accomplishment were handed out at the end of the event. Swimmers who did not receive their certificate at the event may pick it up at the Tum Pai Herb Shop, 745 Railroad St., Brookings.