It’s become a New Year’s tradition along the Maine coast. Dozens, sometimes hundreds of people would stand on beaches in their bathing suits and then race toward the ocean for a group plunge into the icy waters of the Atlantic around the first of January.

Their courage was fueled by their desire to raise funds for charitable causes such as Special Olympics Maine and the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s campaign to fight climate change. Or maybe just to prove they could.

But the so-called polar dips or plunges are not happening this New Year’s Day – at least not with large organized groups of shivering people. They’ve been replaced in southern Maine by creative virtual fundraisers to protect participants from the health risks posed by COVID-19 virus when large groups gather.

Phil Geelhoed, president of Special Olympics Maine, said his staff brainstormed the safest way to hold its annual Lobster Dip and came up with the idea for a Lobster Roll. Instead of gathering on Old Orchard Beach and jumping into the surf, Special Olympics Maine asked fundraisers to instead dress in beach attire and roll in snow in their backyard. The only requirement was that they photograph or videotape their exploits to prove they did what they said they would.

“We thought we could offer an in-person dip two months ago, but unfortunately everything went crazy with the spread of COVID,” Geelhoed said Tuesday. “Two weeks ago, we decided to pull the plug on the dip and go totally virtual.”

However, when Mother Nature did not cooperate and last Friday’s driving rain storm melted nearly all the snow on the ground, the organization had another obstacle to overcome.

Maine Special Olympics on Wednesday announced that the deadline for the Lobster Roll fundraiser – its goal is $75,000 – would be extended to Jan. 31. It also released a photo of a man standing in a field, with no snow, wearing only a knit cap and swim trunks and looking at the sky with hands raised in frustration.

The caption on the photo reads, “2020 Strikes Again.”

Colin Durrant, spokesperson for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, reacts to the cold water after taking a solo plunge as part of the 13th annual NRCM Polar Bear Dip and Dash on Wednesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“We’re hoping that people will stick around and try to get their funds raised …  if Mother Nature cooperates,”  Geelhoed said. “This fundraiser is a big deal for us.”

Special Olympics Maine’s Lobster Dip began 32 years ago and typically attracts around 300 participants.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine has set a fundraising goal of $20,000 for its Polar Bear Dip and Dash event. Its virtual fundraiser began Dec. 27 and will end on Jan. 3. As of Tuesday evening the organization had raised more than $13,000 toward fighting climate change.

“Throughout the event you will be able to send in photos and videos (costumes encouraged), your run route, your dip location of choice, and have access to a specially curated playlist from NRCM’s staff for your run!” NRCM says in a post on its website. “The effects of climate change on Maine’s environment are severe. Weather patterns are changing from one extreme to the next, habitat has been lost, and our seas our rising.”

In the past, the NRCM would hold its polar plunge and 3-mile run on Dec. 31 at Portland’s East End Beach. Now, people can take the plunge at the beach of their choosing and on their own terms. Each person is being asked to take a photograph or a video and post it to social media.

Beth Comeau, an employee at the Natural Resources Council of Maine in Augusta, has been dipping for six years after swearing she would never take a plunge into the frigid ocean again. Comeau dove into the waters off Popham Beach in Phippsburg on Dec. 11. She posted a video of her plunge on Facebook.

“I picked a warm, sunny day,” Comeau said. “If there were ever a year to wash off, 2020 was the year to do it.”

Comeau said that by making the event virtual, it gives people more options as to where and when they can take the dip or go for a run.

One southern Maine organization still plans to move forward with a live event, but it will be modified because of the threat of COVID-19.

Caring Unlimited will hold its 20th annual Atlantic Plunge on Saturday at Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk. Registration for the in-person plunge, which will begin at 11 a.m., has been scaled back due to the pandemic and will be limited to 40 people.

To participate virtually rather than with the group, participants are being asked to submit a photo and a record of the air temperature where they plunge by 5 p.m. Saturday. Event organizers say virtual plungers can jump in or run through snow, run through a sprinkler, have a family member spray them with a hose, hop in a cold shower or immerse themselves in an ice bath.

All of the money raised will go toward supporting Caring Unlimited’s programs and services, which include critical, round the clock support and safety planning for York County residents experiencing domestic abuse.


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