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Hundreds witness Polar Bear plunge at Canal Beach

More than 200 people took the plunge in the inaugural PEAK FM Polar Bear Swim while at least 600 more watched the antics at Port Alberni
More than 200 people took the plunge in the inaugural PEAK FM Polar Bear Swim while at least 600 more watched the antics at Port Alberni's new Canal Beach, on Jan. 1, 2014. This is the first year at the new location and the first year for the radio station to take on sponsorship of the event.
— image credit: SUSAN QUINN/Alberni Valley News

New Year's Day was full of firsts at a bare beach in Port Alberni. It was the first time the annual Polar Bear Swim took place at the new beach, which opened in late 2013. It was the first year PEAK FM took over sponsorship and organization of the event. It was the first year in nearly two decades that 'Mr. Polar Bear' himself, the late Jim Rutherford, was not there. And it was the "first and only" such swim for city mayor John Douglas.

The water "was very refreshing," a shivering Douglas said as he toweled off following his second dip—he was persuaded to go back into the water by a few members of the We Swim for Jim team.

"It's just incredible how much people seem to appreciate the beach, and appreciate the waterfront and coming out to be part of the community," he said.

"It's a pleasant and welcome surprise to see it endorsed so wholeheartedly by everybody."

Douglas encouraged members of the public to send their input over the beach to city hall now that they have seen it. "We have more city property nearby," he said, and the city would consider developing it as part of the beach if there is a public will to do so. Douglas has spearheaded development of Canal Beach, which has been popular for the past few years with kiteboarders and a youth sailing school in the summer.

David Wiwchar, operations manager at PEAK FM and MC for the swim, said the numbers far exceeded his expectations.

"It was amazing. We figured we'd have 200 to 300 people down here, maybe 50 swimmers. We had 200 to 300 swimmers and maybe 700 people down here. For an inaugural event, that's absolutely amazing."

Wiwchar said many radio stations host similar events, and it was time for PEAK FM to jump on board. "It was already successful; it needed a change in venue and some sponsorships to come on board. I'm sure we'll be involved for many years to come."

The last official Polar Bear Swim in Port Alberni was around 2010, at Clutesi Haven Marina. But diehards like the Kinsmen and others have come out on New Year's Day for the last three years "unofficially" for an unsanctioned event. This year the City of Port Alberni embraced the new venue and moving the event, and even won the Best Team award.

The "We Swim for Jim" team, honouring the late Jim Rutherford, won the Best Costumes award. Many members of the Rutherford family, including Rutherford's five-year-old great-granddaughter Sophia, ran into the water to honour his memory.

Donna James, 81, won the Jim Rutherford Memorial award for being the oldest person registered to jump in the water. "I thought if Jim Rutherford could do it at age 90, I could do it," she said after the event.

Rainn Bleasdale, 2, won a medal for being the youngest participant. He and his family were dressed up as superheroes.

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