CALAIS _ Although the wind was pounding off the water, the heat on the beach was palpable as nearly 100 dippers Friday stood ready to dive into the icy waters of Passamaquoddy Bay for the 13th annual Washington County Community College Polar Bear Dip.
International dippers from Italy, Germany and Switzerland were there along with dippers from Washington, Aroostook and Penobscot counties. They all arrived at Split Rock on the Passamaquoddy Reservation at Pleasant Point at noon. The delayed dip, which was rescheduled from March 1 because of bad weather, did not seem to dampen anyone’s spirits.
WCCC Senate President Christine Phillips, who was one of the heroic dippers last year, said she was pleased with the turnout. “We had a lot of people show up,” she said. Phillips did not dip this year. “I am helping with everything else,” she said with a laugh.
Student Senate Advisor Karen Gookin also said she was pleased with the turnout. “It is cold, but people are here to dip,” she said. Temperatures hovered around 28 degrees, but the wind off the water made the day feel much colder.
The Maine National Guard was there with hot dogs and tents where swimmers could change their clothes and get warm once the dip was over.
Once again there was a huge bon fire to keep everyone warm. The WCCC welding class made a permanent fire pit that the Student Senate takes to each dip.
Again this year the money raised goes to the Ronald McDonald House in Bangor. The 14-bed facility helps nearly 450 families a year who must stay near medical facilities in Bangor because of either a seriously ill or injured child.
Marlene MacCleod of the Ronald McDonald said she too was grateful for the turnout. “It truly is a blessing for us,” she said of the dip. “This is our biggest fund raiser each year. It is such a great community effort for the Down East area because we have more than 50 families with hospitalized children, a lot of then premature babies, every year stay at the Ronald McDonald House anywhere from a night to several weeks to a couple of months,” she said.
MacCleod said the Ronald McDonald House becomes a home away from home for families. “We love coming over here, we love this community. This is a community that absolutely gives back over and over again and we couldn’t be more grateful,” she said of the dippers.
Last year’s 12th annual dip raised more than $22,000 after 150 stout-hearted souls jumped into the Passamaquoddy Bay. The WCCC Student Senate, who sponsors the event, hoped to raise that and more during this year’s fun-filled frolic. Even though the dip was delayed by two weeks, the Student Senate raised $12,500 with that number still growing by the end of the day.
Although the turnout may have been smaller, it was still an enthusiastic group. Sandra Pottle of Pottle’s Tree Farm in Perry was there with her family. Pottle said she and her family have taken the plunge for more than six years. “We do this to support the college and the Ronald McDonald House,” she said.
This was the second time that Calais High School student Rachel Candelmo, 17, of Robbinston participated. She said she too was there to support the Ronald McDonald House.
Dara Turner, 16, of Shead High School in Eastport said she was there to “have fun and help raise money for the Ronald McDonald House.”
Many of the dippers were dressed in some pretty strange costumes. Ryan Gaudet, a student at WCCC, was dressed in a blue cape. He had named his character “The Cold Snap,” in honor of the dip. Chris Mesnan and three of her colleagues from Calais Regional Hospital were dressed as Ninja Turtles. Mesnan said this was her 11th year taking the plunge. “This is a good cause and how often do you get to dress as a turtle and run in the ocean?” she asked.
WCCC President Bill Cassidy said he too was pleased with the number of people who turned out even though the event had been rescheduled. He said those people who could not attend on Friday could still send in their donations to the college. “This is a great event because it brings the community together. We have people from Presque Isle and Caribou and in our own immediate area virtually every town in our area and the schools as well,” he said.
Calais Mayor Marianne Moore, did not dip, but was there to cheer on her team. “Every team needs a coach and a cheerleader and I am a cheerleader,” she said. “This is a wonderful event.”
The only bank to field a team this year was Downeast Credit Union and the Downeast Insurance Agency. Spokeswoman Linda Howe said nine dippers participated this year. She said this was the teams’ ninth year and her personal seventh year. “We set a goal to raise over $2,000 and we raised more than $2,100. We so believe in this,” she said.
Bill Egeler, dean of students at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle said he and five students traveled 3 ½ hours to get to the dip. Usually, he said, more students made the journey, but because of scheduling issues that did not happen this year. “The Ronald McDonald House serves so many people across Aroostook and Washington counties, we love to do it every year,” he said. This is Egeler’s 12th year dipping.
Bob Stackhouse a town selectman from Pittsfield said he too has participated for several years now. This year his niece joined him. “This is a great cause,” he said. “Every penny goes to the Ronald McDonald House.” He plans to encourage the Pittsfield town selectmen to join him next year.
And this year there was an enthusiastic international contingent of exchange students from several countries that participated. Cecilie Von Haugwitz from a small town near Hamburg, Germany said people in Germany did not participate in Polar Bear Dips, but she still volunteered. “I said I wanted to do that,” she said. Asked if she planned to tell her parents she had taken the plunge, her response, “My mother is a pediatrician she would probably kill me,” she said with a laugh.
Janna Grilez, 16, of Zurich, Switzerland said she had never experienced such cold water. “I’ve never done this before, but I loved it,” she said.
Claudia Cogoloni, 17, of Ancona, Italy said she could not feel her feet after she got out of the water. “But I can say now that I experienced the cold Maine, after this I love Maine,” she said. Asked if she planned to share her experience with her parents once she returned home, she said their response would be, “Oh my God are you crazy? But they are going to be proud of me,” she said.