Island Polar Bear Dive returns to Freeland Park

Don your best swimsuit and take a piercing-cold plummet into the New Year.

The Polar Bear Dive on the South End has been going strong for the past four years, and the South Whidbey Parks & Rec District is hoping to make the fifth year event a splashing success.

Crazy people jump into freezing cold water all across the country on the first day of the year as a popular way to bring communities together for some fun and perhaps a good cause.

Organizer Jon Gabelein welcomes everyone and anyone to join the usual 80 or so Whidbey Island bravehearts for a refreshing dive into 2009 — and water at a temperature of about 40 to 45 degrees.

The fifth Annual Polar Bear Dive will happen at Freeland Park at noon Thursday, Jan. 1. Registration begins at 10:30 a.m.

All participants will receive a Polar Bear Dive T-shirt and a small thermal blanket, and will also enjoy warm refreshments of coffee, hot cocoa and cookies.

Gabelein said the event’s proceeds benefit 4-H youth-leader programs. Teen ambassadors of 4-H help to run the dive by organizing the registration, finding sponsors, designing the logo for the T-shirt and serving refreshments to the divers.

“I’m surprised by how many young people do the dive,” Gabelein said.

“I’ve noticed that we always run out of the smaller T-shirts first, so this year we’ve made sure to order more of those for the younger divers.”

This year’s shirt is designed by a local student on the island and features a polar bear in a classic Northwest setting with a list of generous sponsors on the back.

Gabelein said he has been happily helping to pull the dive together for the past five years in order to give Whidbey Island its very own traditional polar bear dive.

“Five years ago, I saw a need for something fun and crazy for holidays,” Gabelein said.

“The cold water is there, and we need to get into it!”

The Gamble family of Freeland couldn’t agree more.

Don Gamble and two of his children, Calle, 16, and Donald, 12, look forward to the dive every year.

“It’s fun to be part of something the community does,” Gamble said.

He’s glad the dive was moved back to Freeland Park beach, where it was originally started.

“I missed one year when it was at Double Bluff,” Gamble said. “It’s easier to jump off the pier than to have to run into the water.”

Gamble said he’s pleased that Freeland’s waters have been cleaned up due to people paying better attention to their septic situations and cleaning up after their pets.

He said he’d like to get his whole family in the water eventually.

“My wife and 4-year-old haven’t done it yet, but we have time to convert them,” he said.

“I can’t believe how many Olympic-class swimmers we have on this island,” Gamble added.

“That’s how fast they make it back out of the water; takes ‘em like 1.5 seconds to swim out.”

Gabelein said being a part of that 29 seconds of fury really gets your attention.

“It’s a chance to come gather as a community and build camaraderie during a crazy, random and absolutely memorable time, all while supporting our island’s 4-H teen leadership programs,” Gabelein said.

“It is a great challenge to jump into cold water in the middle of winter. So, hopefully people will think, ‘Hey, if I can do this, maybe all that other stuff

I have to do in 2009 won’t be as tough!’”

Registration is $15 per person, or two for $20.

Gabelein suggests coming prepared with a driver in a warm running car, blankets and towels.

“We provide all the cold water anybody can handle,” he added.

Festivities include amplified music and a bonfire monitored by local firefighters.

For more info, call the parks department at 221-5484.

The fifth annual Polar Dive is made possible by the generosity of the sponsors Whidbey Topsoil, Murphy’s Flooring and Design, Wal-Mart, Mukilteo Coffee, Whidbey Coffee, Les Schwab, South Whidbey Parks & Rec, Bayview Vision Clinic at Useless Bay, Whidbey Vision Care, Bayview Farm & Garden, Microsoft, Sapphire Embroidery & Screen Printing and South Whidbey Fire and Rescue.