The traditional garb for outdoor activities in Maine is built around the layered look; ski jackets over flannel shirts, snowmobile boots over wool socks and lots of knit hats and thick gloves.

However, recent years have seen the rise of an outdoor winter sport in Maine known for it’s skimpy outfits. “Polar bear dips,” or simply “polar dips” are where people put on their swimsuits and fling themselves into a hole cut in a frozen lake or run into the ocean and shiver their way back to land.

“It’s really crazy, and the water is really really cold,” said Patti Murphy of the town of Sweden, a veteran polar dipper.

Murphy has taken five frozen plunges at the “Freezin’ For a Reason” dip in Bridgton’s Highland Lake Beach to raise money for the Harvest Hills Animal Hospital. She said most participants dip for the charity behind the event.

“But some people seem to enjoy it,” she said. “I’m not one of them.”

Murphy said she already collected pledges for a different charity this winter and therefore wwill not be participating in the sixth annual “Freezin’ For a Reason” on Saturday, Jan. 26, but she said this does not mean she’s retiring.

“It’s just a great way to raise money for the animals,” said Murphy. She said she raised more than $5,000 each time for her last three annual dips, where the crowds were thick with jumpers and gawkers.

“The camaraderie is a lot of fun, it’s the going into the water that sucks,” said Murphy.

Robin Legere is organizing this years Freezin’ For a Reason. She said the event typically raises between $8,000 and $15,000 each year for homeless animals in the area.

When asked if she’s going to dip, Legere replied “Oh gosh no, that’s why I’m working at it. I will help in anyway except to jump.”

She said there weren’t many events like it when her group started in 2002, but has noticed there are a lot of them now.

“It just seems to be a popular thing, it’s a good way for people to raise money,” said Legere.

Other names for the event include “winter swimming” or “ice swimming,” although most participants skip the doggie paddle and leave the water as soon as they are immersed.

To view footage of the 2008 ‘freezin for a reason’ click on the video link below.

In Finland the activity is known as “Avantouinti,” which translates to “ice hole swimming.”

A lot of Maine charities stage polar dips as fund raisers and participants collect pledges before they dip. For lakes, a hole needs to be cut in the center of ice for people to jump, or a section from the shore for people to wade.

Safety is monitored by groups like the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office Dive Team, who are suited up in wet suits incase something goes wrong.

Ready to launch

Joanne Riley of Shanes Way in Windham is getting ready for her first polar dip next month at the Camp Sunshine Polar Plunge. She has collect three pages of signatures from sponsors at the Guys N Gals Hairstyling she runs out of her house, most for $20 each.

“Either my customers love me or they hate me,” she said.

“I don’t think anything will prepare me,” said Riley, 49, who is dreading the shock from the cold water. “I just want to run in and out as fast as I can.”

“I didn’t volunteer, I was coerced,” said Riley. Her daughter works at Camp Sunshine in Casco, a retreat for children with life threatening illnesses and their families, and asked her to get involved. The event is taking place at noon on Saturday, Feb. 9 at Willard Beach in South Portland.

“I’m not looking forward to it,” she said, although she loves the cause. Her goal is to raise $1,500, enough to send one family to Camp Sunshine for a week.

Riley said she has heard the worst part isn’t the dip itself, but standing at the edge of the water in swimwear waiting to jump. She plans to wear shorts and a T shirt when she dips, not enough to stave off a heavy winter gust.

She won’t be alone when she takes the plunge. Riley said she has recruited seven other people to jump with her; her husband, two friends, three nephews and a niece. Each jumper needs to raise a minimum of $100 before they’re allowed on the ice.

The safety in numbers does not ensure safety on the ice or in the water, but Dr. Carl Germann, a physician at the emergency department at Maine Medical Center in Portland said limiting exposure is the key to making a dip a momentary flash of cold instead of a permanent health problem.

Germann said he has heard some claims of helath benefits from wiinter swims, but has not seen evidence to support them. While recommending people with serious cardiac problems not take a polar dip, he said those who stay warm before and after the swim and limit the time in the water should suffe no adverse consequences.

Michael Smith, Camp Sunshine special events coordinator, said the Willard Beach dip is just one of the polar plunges his group organizes. This year the charity has already help dips in Vermont, Boston Harbor and Coney Island. There is a second event planned on Feb. 9 in Bangor at 2 p.m. and four others are planned for Connecticut, New Jersey, Virginia and Long Island, NY.

Last year Camp Sunshine raised more than $120,000 nationwide through polar dips.

Although the Sebago Lake Rotary Club’s Derby Fest is held at Camp Sunshine, the Shaw’s Polar Dip Feb. 23 will raise money for the Maine Children’s Cancer Program, not Camp Sunshine.

The dip, which starts at 11 a.m., has already attracted at least 50 swimmers with an initial goal of raising $61,000, according to Carol Cooper of the Maine Children’s Cancer Fund. The 2007 polar dip raised $75,000. The figures include individual and corporate sponsorships.

Smith said Camp Sunshine has come up with an alternative plan for cold-weather cowards who still want to raise money.

“We joke that either you’re too scared or too smart to throw yourself in cold water,” said Smith. Participants in the Chicken Dip only have to swirl their bare feet in the water for a few seconds instead of diving in.

Polar plungers and chicken dippers still have to follow the safety rules. No pushing is allowed, only willing people belong in the water. No wet suits and plungers need to completely immerse themselves. Participants must run in and out, so no endurance contests are allowed.

Yelling is optional.

Polardips1-3: Joanne Riley, 49, of Windham is getting ready for her first polar dip next month; the Polar Plunge in South Portland on Feb. 9. She has collect three pages of signatures from sponsors at the hair salon she runs out of her house on Shanes Way. “I just want to run in and out as fast as I can,” she said. “I’m not looking forward to it.”Sweden resident Patti Murphy has raised more than Dippers at the in the 2007 at Point Sebago in Casco made a leap of faith for a good cause, raising for the Maine Children’s Cancer FundTaking the plunge


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