By Heidi Zemach for SCN
Seward’s Small Boat Harbor and downtown will shrug off its Winter quiet, and fill with people in silly costumes and big hearts from across Alaska this weekend for the 28th annual Polar Bear Jumpoff Festival. It’s an event to raise money for cancer research. There are 43 teams signed up to participate in the plunge this year, meaning that the members of each team have committed to their sponsors to leaping into the Small Boat Harbor’s frigid water, and then swimming, or being pulled quickly out by a team of divers from the local fire departments and Seward Volunteer Ambulance Corps. The plunge itself only lasts a few seconds, but the shock to the system is immense, and jumpers also have to wait in costume for their turn to jump, and also to parade to the harbor from downtown, often in skimpy costumes. The weather is for temperatures of around 20 degrees, and up to three inches of snow accumulation on Saturday. and more snow and rain on Sunday, so dress warmly if you plan to view the main event, which begins at 12:30.
The majority of teams hail from Anchorage, but there are five teams from Seward. They include a locally-based U.S. Coast Guard team promising 10-12 jumpers called “Ice Rescue Swimmers.” “Belly Flop” is a team from ACS downtown, led by Von Terry, that particularly likes to entertain the crowd with spectacular splashes; “Alaska Girls” features Karlie Ennes and Ashlee Hibbetts, who paraded last year in fishermen’s orange Grundens but jumped with their bikinis. “Just Clowning Around” is a group of friends from the Pit Bar, led by Vicki Cromer. There’s also Andrew Nelson, whose is going it alone.
The festival has many other events that contribute funding, and other forms of aid to the fight against cancer. The annual hair cut-off, on Sunday, provides locks of human hair for children who go bald from cancer treatments. There’s also an oyster slurping contest, turkey bowling, chicken wing-eating, and much more. The festival has contributed over two million dollars for the American Cancer Society and numerous other festival activities have assisted 50 Kenai Peninsula children with cancer to date. Local businesses and nonprofits also benefit during the slow winter shoulder season. Hotels and restaurants that remained open become busy. The Alaska SeaLife Center opens for the participants and their supporters, and offers a special deal for Alaska resident’s entry. There’s a poker tournament at the Pit Bar. The American Legion Post #5 building hosts lots of events including a steak dinner tonight (Friday), community pancake breakfasts Saturday and Sunday, as well as a fish fry. The Senior Center holds a garage sale, and grilled cheese café Saturday, and the Lutheran Church holds a quilt show and sale that afternoon. Liberty Theater hosts musical performances Saturday afternoon, the plunger’s awards ceremony, and invites folks to take in a movie in the evening.
This will be the swan song for longtime event director/promoter Marilyn “Polar Bear” Sutherland, who has participated, and directed since its beginning, and will who decided she deserved to take a break when she turned 70. She will remain in Seward, and will remain involved with the event, but not as its leader. Sutherland will pass the reigns of directing the event to Jonathan Gage, and a team of committed volunteers. Several have been involved for over 20 years such as Connie Kullander, Cheryl Verschueren, Sue Maygar, Steve Lemme, Don Sutherland, Celesete Dorsey, Buck Wall and Russ Burnard. Others have been involved for over 10-15 years. “It is all of the volunteers, which can number up to 100 that make the Festival such a success,” Sutherland said.
Tom Morris, who photographs and videotapes the event every year recently suffered a stroke, and will have to miss the festival. Shirts with this year’s logo—designed by Seward High art student Sarah Tolson, will be for sale at merchants across town.