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Polar bear swim indicates chilly dip time

Frigid waters provide fresh start

What better way to ring in the new year and shake off fallout from the night before than to jump into near-freezing waters dressed in a creative and extravagant costume?

That’s exactly the thought of Bill Hopkins, who has been organizing Powell River’s Polar Bear Swim for about six years now and who has been jumping into frigid waters every New Year’s Day for the last 20. Every year around 50 people gather at noon to swim and a whole bunch more to watch at Willingdon Beach on January 1.

Registration for the event on Saturday takes place between 11 and 11:45 am. It is free to participate but Hopkins will be selling “I am a dipper” T-shirts, the proceeds from which will go to a local athlete. Abby Lloyd, 13, holds a place on the BC judo team heading to the 2011 Canada Winter Games in Halifax, Nova Scotia in February. Money raised will go toward helping her with travel expenses.

Underwriters Insurance Agencies Powell River Ltd. and River City Coffee are donating prizes that will be handed out for best costumes for adults and children. Hopkins said that any socializing and admiring of costumes generally takes place before the swim, as most people are in a pretty big hurry to get home and warm up afterward.

Members of the Canadian Coast Guard will be close by to sound the starting signal for everyone to dash into the water. Hopkins said people should be reminded that there is no prize for staying in the longest and that it only takes a couple of minutes in the water for hypothermia to set in. St. John Ambulance will be on hand just in case, although Hopkins said there has never been a problem in the past.

“I get people that go, ‘well I was in longer than them,’” said Hopkins. “Well you know what, hypothermia is not a prize and you don’t want me giving you mouth-to-mouth.”

Hopkins said the swim here is a “walk in the park” compared to swims he used to do when he lived in Ontario. He joked that it’s not an intimidating polar bear swim until three feet of ice is removed with a backhoe first to even get to the water. Ontario Provincial Police divers kept watch in the water during these swims just in case and Hopkins said he used to be able to stand his frozen clothes up like a statue after he shucked his swimming attire.

Some people totally submerse themselves or even swim out a little, while others like to wade along the shore. Shoes of some sort are recommended to make it easier to run into the water and not give yourself time to change your mind. Hopkins said that the only way to find out what it’s like is to do it, but reminds participants to keep moving once they are in the water to help keep warm. Having someone waiting on shore with a sleeping bag or blanket and a change of clothes is also key.

All participants who successfully swim during the event will receive a certificate to prove their bravery.