Cape Breton community takes a digital polar dip amid pandemic

Throughout the Maritimes, polar bear dips are a New Year's tradition. However, with COVID-19 still a reality, physical distancing rules have halted countless events involving large groups of people. Despite precautionary measures preventing an in-person affair, one Cape Breton community remained committed to ringing in 2021 the best way it could – with a digital dip.

On a normal New Year's Day, Port Morien Beach would usually see dozens of brave people pack the shore for a bone-chilling plunge into the Atlantic Ocean. Amid a pandemic, that was not the case on Friday, with only a couple of people taking advantage of the beach's unoccupied state.

"My parents both said I could do it when I turned 10," said Brooklyn Sehl, who visited the beach with her father on Friday. "I turned 10 in the summer, so he had to hold up his promise."

"It was 'refreshing,'" said Max Sehl, who has been participating in the Port Morien Polar Dip since it began in 2013. "I'll put it that way.

Pandemic or no pandemic, Sehl promised Brooklyn they would take the plunge together in 2021, and that's exactly what they did – capturing the moment on video to share with the community.

With COVID-19 making it impossible for big crowds to assemble for the annual tradition, organizers imagined a new way to enjoy the beloved event by asking people to submit videos of themselves doing their dips – from a safe distance.

"We're asking people to be creative, and splash within their bubble," said Port Morien Polar Dip organizer, Katherine Snow. "This is such an important tradition for our community, and it's an important fundraiser for the Port Morien Legion and for hospice. We really didn't want to lose the momentum; this is our eighth year."

With hundreds of residents typically coming out to watch, the polar dip is arguably the event of the year in the small fishing village. While the community couldn't gather in the usual way, Snow says the goal for 2021's instalment was for people to feel a connection – while doing something daring.

"There's a fun buzz of adrenaline, and the atmosphere is so happy," says Snow. "We wanted to try and convey that to folks within their own bubbles."

Looking forward to the next year, Snow says she's hoping for a deluxe polar dip that will make up for 2021's lack of in-person fun.

"[For] 2022, we want to have the biggest event we ever had," says Snow. "We'd like to raise $20,000 next year."

Meanwhile, with many people hoping for better luck with 2022's edition of the event, the first day of 2021 ended with at least a couple of authentic beach dipping experiences and an introduction to a beloved tradition.

"That was awesome!" said Brooklyn.