By Jenny Neyman
Time: 8 a.m.
Location: North Kenai beach.
Attendance: Eight cool women. Plus a photographer, videographer and one extra for safety and moral support to document the coolness increasing exponentially.
Air temperature: 13 degrees, not counting wind chill.
Water temperature: … Wait, why is that important? Who needs to know what the water’s like in March on the Kenai beach? Aren’t the ice chunks enough to demonstrate it’s a level of cold to be avoided like the plague? A very, very cold — just barely above freezing — plague?
Not on Saturday, as the group shucked their insulated armor of hats, coats, gloves, boots and clothes and took a breath-stealing, body-clenching, scream-inducing plunge into the surf.
If they’re willing to do that just to raise awareness of the fight against cancer, think what they’ll do to raise money for the cause.
“We used it as a gaining-awareness moment,” said Johna Beech, chair of the Central Peninsula Relay for Life organization, which raises money for the American Cancer Society. “What we’re struggling with is attendance for Relay has been down. People tend to be not as aware of what’s going on. Doing something like this — having it blasted out on Facebook, making phone calls to get people to come do it — it’s getting people amped up for Relay and wanting to get out here and be involved.”
“And we weren’t asking for money,” she said. “But if I ever do it again, next time it will be a money-raising thing.”
The Winter Challenge came by way of Ketchikan but originated in an elevator in Anchorage.
Beech and some fellow central peninsula representatives were attending a Relay conference at the Fairfield Inn in Anchorage in fall 2012. She and about a dozen people got on the elevator, which got stuck for a half hour between the first and second floors.
“Yeah, we barely got off the ground,” she said. “And there were 12 people in a very small elevator. So you bond with these people when you’re stuck in this elevator for half an hour.”
“We could hear them from outside — laughing, shrieking, having a great time. ‘Oh, OK, guess we don’t have to get too worried about them,’” said Susan Smalley, of Kenai, who had been waiting outside the elevator.
One of the fellow captives was Lyrissa Hammer, from Ketchikan, and she and Beech have been friends since. That “since” almost meant “since Hammer challenged the central peninsula Relay organization last week to dunk themselves in a natural body of water,” but once the dunkers got back to the running vehicles waiting with the heat blasting, friendly feelings returned with the feeling returning to their extremities.
Now the central peninsula Relay crew is throwing the challenge back to Ketchikan’s Relay. Though, to make it fair, Beech is considering demanding a stipulation that the Ketchikan dunkers have to stand in a freezer afterward or roll in ice cubes before getting warmed up, since both air and water temperatures in Kenai in March are colder than in Ketchikan.
The Kenai challenge was to see how many people would show up in 24 hours to jump in a natural body of water. That proved a bit of a challenge just logistically, since most bodies of water on the Kenai are still frozen over this time of year. And Beech wanted participants to be safe, so opted for wading and plunging into the Cook Inlet surf, rather than a jump that would require cutting a hole in some lake ice and going for an actual swim.
Even with that change, rallying people to the cause took some doing.
“We got a lot of, ‘Are you freaking kidding me?’” said Chastity Peterson, who, along with Carmen Triana, made recruitment phone calls.
Yet others committed immediately.
“It wasn’t ever, ‘Should I do this or not?’ It was, ‘Oh, yeah!’” said Dawni Guigler. “I’m always cold anyway, so why not do this?”
As the sun came up Saturday, Beech, Peterson, Guigler, Triana, Stacey Day, Melyssa Nordwall, Hadassah Udelhoven and Joy Petrie faced the waves, in an assortment of swimming suits, shorts and even sweats, with strategically placed piles of clothes and blankets waiting onshore and warm vehicles in the parking lot.
Some had strategies — run straight in, wade in a little more gradually, plunge into a breaking wave or keep running out and flop down into deeper water. But strategy mostly evaporated as soon as skin met surf — “I don’t remember anything from the water hitting my shins,” Beech said — leaving just the drive to get in and get OUT.
“Some of the people opted to run for dear life,” Beech said.
Although, the swimmers say, once the initial shock passed the water didn’t end up being the worst of it.
“Being in the water was warmer than being in the air,” Guigler said. “I was more cold standing there waiting to go in.”
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Peterson said. “The hard part was the 24 hours before thinking about it.”
Memories of the event warmed as soon as the chill faded.
“Once my feet stated moving again,” Beech said. “Carmen and I stayed after talking while we were getting dressed and warmed up and were saying, ‘Holy crap, that was awesome!’”
They hope to carry that enthusiasm through the rest of Relay season. The annual event will be held the evening of May 30 to the morning of May 31 at the Kenai Central High School track. Organizers are hoping to draw more of the public to come participate in the all-night walk-a-thon this year. They generally get a good crowd at the opening ceremony, at a dinner for cancer survivors, the special inaugural survivors’ lap around the track and through the lighting of the luminaries to honor those fighting cancer. But attendance wanes during the night and next morning, despite live music, games, food and other fun going on throughout.
“It’s an 18-hour party. To be a part of something that’s so huge in your community, and to experience it first hand with people like Susie, who’s a survivor. And somebody like Allison (Stodgsdill) who’s not only a survivor but is involved in the Road to Recovery programs that ACS funds. And somebody like Chastity who’s a caregiver for her dad, who’s fighting lung cancer. You get together to be part of something that’s bigger than yourself,” Beech said.
There are raffles, auctions, food sales and other fundraising opportunities at the Relay event, but the majority of that happens now, as volunteers are signing up as Relay teams and holding fundraisers for the cause. And any donations given and funds raised through Aug. 31 count toward the group’s annual goal, this year set at $67,000.
Anyone wanting to get involved can form a team or join one already registered, or volunteer with organizational duties at the committee level, Beech said. Anyone wanting to support the cause can donate at the Central Peninsula Relay for Life Web page or support the many fundraisers Relay teams will start holding in the near future.
And Relay has another priority this year — supporting legislation that would ban smoking in workplaces throughout Alaska.
“We’re needing people to get out there and talk to their legislators and tell them they’re in support of it,” Beech said. “And it’s not about people quitting smoking — I mean, we would love that, of course. But it’s about employees in these workplaces that don’t smoke that are affected by cigarette smoke. Everyone has the right to breathe clean air, it’s a fundamental right we all have. And because I don’t have a certain skill set to get out of my occupation doesn’t mean I should put my health on the line.”
The pushback to such efforts in the past has been that employees could just not work somewhere that allows smoking if they wish to avoid secondhand smoke, but Beech said it isn’t always that simple, especially when the economy is struggling.
“I was a waitress a lot of years and I had to work in a smoking establishment because that’s what I had to do to pay my bills. Until I got a skill set where I got out of that environment, I was locked into it. And it just sucks. And people say, ‘Well, just quit your job and find something else.’ It’s not that easy. How many people in the Lower 48 do we know are looking for jobs? How many people up here do we know that are looking for jobs? It’s not conducive anymore,” she said.
For more information about the Central Peninsula Relay for Life, to donate or get involved, visit its Web page by searching for Central Peninsula Relay for Life, follow the organization on Facebook or call Beech at 283-1991.