Heidi Zemach for SCN
It was a balmy afternoon, uncharactaristically free of snow, but still bone-chillingly cold in the water of the Seward Small Boat Harbor, as dozens of people, who took the plunge to raise money for cancer research learned first-hand Saturday. The 28th annual Polar Bear Jump off Festival was this weekend. The plunge itself featured a good number of grass-skirt clad plungers, some colorful cross dressers, including the long-eyelashed Denali Divas. And there were more than the usual number of belly flops—always great crowd pleasers. Four of the plungers also decided to show off their physical prowess and swam to the shore and back, also to the delight of the crowd, but not necessarily the rescue divers, who don’t appreciate the unintended challenge. There was at least one mooning of the crowd, not intentional, but that’s what can happen when you hurriedly leave the water with heavy wet pants.
Christie Hill, of Homer, now on her 14th polar bear plunge, dressed in Grinch-themed clothing. She recieved a good applause and well she deserved it. She single-handedly raised $11,470 for this year’s plunge, a couple hundred more than last year, by asking for donations from friends and Homer businesses. In her best year Hill raised more than $16,000. “A lot of friends and family have passed away, and being cold for a couple of seconds doesn’t compare to what they go through,” Hill said.
“The Alaska Girls” team of Ashlee Hibbetts and Karlie Ennes, two young Seward women with big hearts also took the plunge. Hibbetts did so in memory of her brother T.C. Cope, who died of cancer at age 18, while enjoying bluegrass at the Talkeetna Bluegrass Festival. Enness did so on behalf of her Aunt Miriam “Sis,” Colton of Kenai, who passed away recently last summer at age 50 of breast cancer, and her stepfather Doug Boulden, who is battling leukemia. Hibbett’s parents volunteer on the docks, as her family cheers her plunge. Ashlee will also donate some of her hair to children with cancer on Sunday, along with her big sisters.
The Belly Flop team, headed by Seward’s Von Terry, was a crowd pleaser as usual. This time they were the “Iron Chefs,” and sported white baker’s caps and the chemical symbol for iron, Fe 26, on their aprons. Von’s old classmates from as far away as Ekegik, Alaska, came up to participate. “There’s really no strategy but make it high, make it hurt,” said one. “The redder the better,” joked another team member. Their team raised $4,825.
Some buff BP Plungers, Ross Morehouse and Gerri Verbeek, were the first to decide to take a longer swim. It was a spontaneous decision, they said, elated, as they finally left the cold water. That led the Pit Bar team’s male members Zach Heise and Nathan Ross of “Just Clowning Around,” dressed in heavy clown costumes, to try it too. There were some harrowing slow seconds as they swam back to the dock, probably more disoriented and colder than they had expected.
Some 43 teams in all participated this year. The largest teams were from the U.S. Coast Guard: the Icy Rescue Divers from Anchorage, with 15 jumpers and The Ice Rescue Swimmers from the USCG Cutter Mustang, with 10-12 jumpers.
Sean Dewalt, an insurance agent from Alaska Municipal League Joint Insurance Association Inc. stood on the dock, watching the event first-hand for the first time. He assured us that he was extremely pleased to be able to be there, and noted that it wouldn’t result in higher insurance rates for the city. “Quite the opposite,” he said, seemingly impressed at the organization and care demonstrated by the organizers and divers from the Seward and Bear Creek Volunteer Fire Departments and the Alaska SeaLife Center.