What’s the best way to get yourself to jump into the Pacific Ocean in January? “Don’t think. Thinking is not a good idea at this point. It makes no sense to think at all.”
Those are the words of advice from Janice Gaines, founder of Manzanita’s New Year’s Day polar plunge, who started 2023 by jumping into the surf at Neahkahnie Beach with a few hundred people.
For the 19th annual event, the weather was about as good as it gets on the Oregon coast this time of year: clear skies, variable winds of 5 mph, about 45 degrees in the air and about 50 degrees in the water.
“It’s daunting, and of course when you first dive in, it’s just shock city,” said Gaines’ husband, Mike Ehlen. “But when you get out and your skin’s tingling and all the blood’s going to your skin, it’s just a heck of a rush. And of course you get to come back to the fire, and everybody’s smiling and laughing and screaming. The human energy is just a tremendous part of it.”
Ehlen and friend Dave Matthews arrived early to start the beach bonfire on the northern edge of Neahkahnie Beach where the plunge takes place. The crowd started to gather around 10:30 a.m.
“I feel like there’s a psychological hurdle that everybody faces jumping into the Pacific Ocean, even in summer. But this is the middle of winter, so I want to challenge myself and maybe also see what my body can take,” said Ved Roy, who came from Portland for his first plunge.
He was among the first to arrive at the bonfire but was still trying to psych himself up for the event. He started the day with a cold shower, “but I don’t think anything can prepare you for that water over there,” he said.
Gaines told Roy to wait for a wave to come to him, then go for a full head dunk before heading back to shore.
“If (the water) is retreating out, just hang out for a minute because if you follow it out and you get a surge, then it could be a big surge,” she said. “A full head in is what you want to do. I think people who run in and run out and don’t dip regret it.”
Gaines started the Manzanita polar plunge in 2004 with a small group of friends. It began as (and continues to be) an informal, free gathering that’s not a fundraiser. Gaines likes to quote Dr. Seuss, explaining that the plunge happens because “these things are fun and fun is good.” Similar New Year’s Day plunges are held anywhere there’s cold water: You could dip into the Columbia River at Cascade Locks, or in the Willamette at West Linn, or into the Pacific a bit farther south at Cape Lookout.
Over the years, the Manzanita event has grown into a tradition not just for the local community, but for others who travel far to be there as well.
“I’ve had people bring ashes. I’ve had people come from New York. I’ve had people drive from Portland and Seattle just to go to the plunge,” Gaines said. “So it means something to a lot of people. It’s challenging. There are a lot of people who are scared to do this, and they do it, and it makes them feel so good. I think that facing fears in a safe way – and this is pretty safe, I wouldn’t say it’s totally safe – but that really helps people.”
A few times, Gaines has attempted to call off the plunge: once during a high surf warning and once during the coronavirus pandemic. People plunged anyway, and Gaines realized the event wasn’t really hers to cancel.
“COVID was unable to stop it,” Ehlen said. “We actually did try to stop it. It was like trying to stop the tide.”
Gaines and Ehlen do wait around to make sure everyone comes back in from the surf safely. A Nehalem Bay Fire Rescue crew was also on hand.
“It’s very cleansing, it’s super fun,” said Barb Johnson, who traveled from Portland and dressed as a mermaid for her fourth polar plunge. “You think it’s going to be cold, but you’re so numb, you can’t feel anything.”
She had similar advice for first-time plungers: “Just do it.”
At 11 a.m., the crowd stripped down to their swimsuits, held a brief countdown, and sprinted toward the waves. Most plungers spent only a minute or two in the frigid waters before running back toward the sand and toward the warmth of the fire. By 11:15 a.m. or so, it was all over.
In the end, Roy went for the full plunge experience by diving into a wave head first.
“It was absolutely the most exciting and amazing thing I’ve done in my life,” he said afterward. “Very invigorating. The communal energy was awesome.”