PORTLAND — A steel gray sky spitting sleet and rain and temperatures hovering near freezing made the icy waters off East End Beach on Saturday look like the last place any sane person would venture.

But the scene did not discourage more than 100 bathers who made a mad dash into the 44-degree Atlantic Ocean to benefit the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s work to curb global warming.

The annual Polar Bear Plunge, which this year started off with a 5-kilometer footrace along Back Cove with about 100 runners, drew more than twice the number of participants that it did in previous years. It was expected to raise more than $16,000, said Stacie Haines, event organizer.

Many of those who were taking part said a dip in the Atlantic was a regular part of their New Year’s routine. Others said they wanted to do something to stop global warming.

With just minutes to go before the big plunge, Anne-Marie Storey and John Hamer huddled under towels discussing their strategy. The husband-and-wife team drove down from Bangor to take part.

“We are going to run fast and get out fast,” Hamer said.

Then they planned to run to the car and their St. Bernard waiting inside to warm up, Hamer said.

Steve Chabot of Westbrook, the principal at Memorial Middle School in South Portland, said he was taking the plunge to cool down after coming in second in the footrace.

“I am here just for support. I am not going in,” said Alison Geer, Chabot’s fiancee.

Darrell Bulmer, on a visit from England, said between clenched teeth he would never do this back home but was persuaded by friends that this was the way Maine celebrates New Year’s.

“It is absolutely freezing and this is very, very stupid. I just had a knee operation,” Bulmer said.

At the stroke of noon, a roar went up and more than 100 bodies, many dressed in polar bear outfits and other costumes, ran into the water. Just as fast, they came running out. Those who stayed behind on the beach laughed, pointed and retreated as the pack of sputtering bathers came dashing back.

“It was delightful. The water is really not bad, but I am a Mainer,” said Larry Pearce of Scarborough.

“No, he is an idiot,” said his wife, Marilyn.

Michele Walsh of Round Pond invited a group of friends to help her celebrate her 42nd birthday in the Atlantic.

“Now we are going for hot toddies,” Walsh said.

Eloise Kelly, 13, of Bremen said the icy dip was worth it because she raised $800.

“I care about global warming,” Eloise said.

 

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