Take a flying leap into the New Year with an icy dive

— Created December 29, 2021 by Melanie Hammons

By Melanie Hammons

Like so many other events, pandemic concerns forced the cancellation of last year’s Polar Bear Dive at Double Bluff Beach in Freeland.  But South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District once again welcomes the uniquely bracing event at Double Bluff Beach.  It’s slated for Jan. 1, at noon sharp.

Skye Dunn, recreation supervisor at SWPR says a polar dive “is a rejuvenation, a welcoming-in ritual of the New Year.  It’s a family tradition for a lot of folks, and a yearly ritual for many.”

The experience is supposed to enhance blood flow too, says Dunn.  That anecdote may hold a measure of truth but there’s no doubt the Polar Bear Dive is a good cause in itself, since all proceeds go to support youth programs.  This year’s funds are earmarked for Island County’s 4-H Team Leadership program.

Long-time dive organizer, enthusiast and 4-H Team leadership advisor, Jon Gabelein, remembers the local event from its very inception. 

“It started back in 2003 as a discussion among a group of friends, ‘Hey, we should come up with our own dive event, one that will benefit our youth programs,’” he recalled. “The first was held at Freeland Park; since then, it’s been Double Bluff Beach.”

Gabelein offers a simple explanation for the Polar Bear Dive’s continued popularity.

“It’s a party!  Yet it’s one that has helped so many organizations over the years, including Family Resource Center, athletic teams, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Island County,” he said. “Now it’s become just like any other sponsored event such as a 5K run, etc.”

Aside from benefitting a great cause, he attributes it on a very basic level to a combination of camaraderie and shared excitement, and something he highly anticipates every year.

“It’s just a crazy way to start the New Year off,” Gabelein said. “If you can jump in water that cold, then you’re probably up (psychologically) for whatever other challenges may be ahead in the New Year.”

What can newcomers to this year’s Polar Bear Dive expect?  Gabelein said past years have seen snow, but that doesn’t seem to deter anyone.

“Some people start the dive slowly, only wading out to ankle-deep water.  Then the next year, they’ll immerse up to their knees as their confidence builds,” he described. “Some return year after year.”

One very welcome confidence builder promises to be the presence of fire department personnel and EMTs who will be on site too, although there will be no lifeguards on duty.

Afterwards, there are bonfires, hot chocolate and other snacks to warm up with, said Gabelein.

“We’ll have music playing, and one of our students will act as master of ceremonies,” he said.

Whidbey Island is uniquely positioned this year when it comes to these sort of chilled-water adventures.  In addition to the SWPR event in Freeland, at the very north end of the island, Fidalgo Nature School, in partnership with Deception Pass State Park, is hosting its very first “Puffin Plunge.” 

There’s an easy explanation for the name choice, says Anastasia Brencick, chair of FNS board of directors and a founding member.

“Although our region doesn’t have polar bears, we do have puffins,” Brencick said, adding that her young son “just loves puffins.” 

Both FNS and Deception Pass Park, which currently serves as the school’s “outdoor classroom,” joined forces this year to welcome the New Year.  While FNS observes its first plunge, the Park is celebrating its 100year anniversary in 2022.  Brencick said the extra-special events planned are sure to be memorable for all.

 “On Dec. 31, the West Beach parking lot will open for a camp-out, with a limited number of RV camp-out sites available,” she said, adding, “It’s never opened in winter like this before.”  Parks staff will lead family programs and activities, including s’mores making.

“Then on Jan. 1, at 9:30 a.m., the Puffin Plunge will happen at West Beach.  Following that, the Parks staff will host the traditional First Days Hike, open to all ages,” said Brencick.  Snacks and warm drinks will be available before and after the hikes.

Activities centered on enjoying fresh air and exercise, in a lovely outdoor setting, are a microcosm for FNS’s mission, Brencick said.  A founding member of the school four years ago, she said what began as a mom’s group planning playdates for their children evolved into a dedicated team of teachers who love children and the outdoors.  Originally meeting in Anacortes’ Washington Park, the group now calls Deception Pass Park home. 

Having once lived in Langley, Brencick herself participated in the Double Bluff event several times.  That experience, plus the incentive to invite families outdoors, is what inspired the Puffin Plunge.

“Our school was awarded a grant, ‘No Child Left Inside,’ and our programs aim to do exactly that.  We hope to grow the school so we can offer more opportunities to more kids, and create new partnerships between the school and community,” said Brencick.

 “We love the land the school’s on.  That’s the bedrock principle that underlies our preschool for ages 3-6, which is geared toward learning about the wonders of nature all around us.”

The school also offers a “Small Wonders” program catering to ages 0-3 years of age and their caregivers.  In partnership with Friends of the Forest, “Small Wonders” allows very young children the chance to explore and to be with other children of their age group.

“It’s a way for them to test the waters for themselves,” Brencick said.

Speaking of the waters, lifeguards and emergency response staff will be on hand during the Puffin Plunge.  For more information, go to www.puffinplunge.com which also links to a site where limited quantities of hoodies and other merchandise are available for sale. Proceeds from the suggested $10 registration fee will go to support FNS programs. You can learn more about FNS online at fidalgonatureschool.com.

Please check the site Eventbrite.com to register for any of the Deception Pass Park events on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.  Early registration for the West Beach campout is strongly encouraged.

For more information about the Double Bluff Polar Dive, refer to swparks.org or call 360-221-5484.  The $15 registration fee includes a T-shirt (while supplies last) and more.