So what if it was Jan. 1 and just 41 degrees outside? It sure looked like summer in Lake George on Sunday afternoon.
In Shepard Park, girls scampered around in string bikinis and men flashed white legs below tropical-print swim trunks as spectators and participants anxiously awaited the start of the annual New Year’s Day Polar Plunge.
This year 1,382 registrants signed up to take a quick dip in Lake George’s 34-degree waters.
Participation was free, but for a $10 donation, participants went home with a long-sleeved Polar Plunge T-shirt. Proceeds from the event will be donated to the three Lake George churches and to the Lake George Winter Carnival.
Young and old alike have been gathering to take the icy New Year’s Day plunge into Lake George since 1973.
Event organizer Linda Duffy began running the event in 2001.
“When I first took it over, there was only like 125 swimmers. Every year it gets bigger and bigger. I never dreamed it would be in the thousands,” she said.
This year, those taking the plunge went into the water in waves of 700 at a time.
“We’re trying to keep the numbers down because when you get 1,200 people [in the water], it’s kind of hard to keep track of everybody,” she said.
Those waiting to register at Duffy’s Tavern on Amherst Street stood patiently in a line that stretched around the corner onto Canada Street.
Herman Slater, 62, of Copake, stood in line in nothing but his swim shorts, socks and shoes and a hat topped with a decorative turkey. He had a thin towel wrapped around his bare shoulders, and despite the nippy air temperature, he insisted he wasn’t cold.
“I’ve been doing it so long it makes you a polar bear,” said Slater, who took his ninth plunge Sunday. “It cleanses your soul to start the new year. It keeps you young.”
Bob Steciuk, 49, of Wilton, looked slightly warmer in sandals and a fuzzy white robe covered in yellow rubber ducks. This was his first time taking to the January waters of Lake George.
“I always wanted to be a polar bear,” he said. “It’s a good way to sober up from last night.”
David Michaelson, 38, of Charlton, was waiting to take the plunge with his children Alexa, 9 and Tyler, 10. His wife, Corrie, came to tend to the kids once they came out of the frigid water. Michaelson’s participated in the event four times. Tyler’s a three-year veteran, and Alexa’s on her second plunge. David said they have no set strategy.
“You’ve just got to get in, go in fast and go under and come out,” he said.
Austin Markey, 46, of Warrensburg, is an event regular with a flair for eye-catching swim fashion. The 14-time Polar Plunge participant came decked out in a full-body, neon green Kermit the Frog suit with a pink Speedo over the top of it. He had a knit Kermit hat on his head.
“I’m going in knee-deep,” he joked.
Other family members including his four kids joined him for the event.
“It’s embarrassing,” 9-year-old Austin Jr. said of his father’s festive getup.
Motorboats and kayaks manned with lifeguards and rescue personnel waited in the water near the cordoned-off Shepard Beach as the spectators and participants who crowded the park created a colorful collage of white skin and winter coats, scuba gear and tutus, Viking helmets and Santa hats.
As the 2 p.m. start time approached, the first 700 participants jumped and cheered excitedly on the beach. They sang along with the national anthem, and as soon as the last note rang out, they charged into the water with little hesitation and a lot of noise. Some dunked themselves fully underwater, while others ventured in only to their knees.
“They all come out with smiles on their faces,” event organizer Duffy noted.
Ellen Birch, 53, of New York City, and Jeff Birch, 55, of Ticonderoga, were indeed smiling after Sunday’s plunge. Jeff’s done it 16 years in a row, but Ellen’s not sure how many times she has braved the lake in January.
Adorned in a white polar bear hat and matching slippers, Ellen raved about the event. “They really ramped it up this year. It was amazing. They did such an incredible job,” she said.
Jeff was very happy with Sunday’s sunshine and relatively warm temperatures.
“It’s been colder putting my dock in in the spring,” he said. “We’ve had it years when by the time you go from the water back to your clothes, your bathing suit’s frozen.”
Richard Hodge, 77, of Lake George, didn’t look cold at all as he toweled off from his 13th Polar Plunge. But that was just an illusion, he said.
“It was colder this year and it’s warmer [out],” he said. “I’m in here at 20 below and I’ve been warmer than I was this year. I don’t understand it.”
Hodge, a member of the Latham Rotary, joined a group of over 40 area Rotarians who raised money to help fight polio in conjunction with Sunday’s swim.
The blue dust mop attached to Jim Potter’s gold plastic helmet stood out in the crowd of drenched swimmers exiting the park. The 46-year-old Glens Falls resident is a 10-time Polar Plunge participant. He and a friend dressed as “Knights of the New Year” for the event, in accessories acquired at a dollar store. He clutched a tinfoil-covered cardboard knife in one hand and a paper flag suspended from a red mop handle in the other.
“We march down here, we get a lot of pictures taken and the people are fun,” he said.
This was the first Polar Plunge for father and son duo Kevin Wells, 47, and Chris Wells, 24, both of Schuylerville. Although they admitted that they were freezing after the swim, they’ll be back to do it again.
“I’m going to get back to my truck as fast as I can before hypothermia sets in and go get maybe some Baileys and coffee or hot chocolate, something like that to warm me up, and never think about doing this again, until I forget about the pain and come back next year,” Chris said with a laugh.
The Polar Plunge is sponsored by the Lake George Winter Carnival, which takes place every Saturday and Sunday during February. The event will feature many different outdoor events, including Polar Plunges.