A new year is right around the corner, and some bold souls will ring it in with a cold splash — and not of the alcoholic variety.
It’s the annual Polar Plunge, where participants leap into near freezing water in their bathing suits, then jump back out after spending a minute or so in the cold. Two events will be taking place locally this season — one on Caroga Lake and the other on Lake George.
“It’s a fun way to end one year and to start another,” explained Angie Meredith, founder of the Caroga Lake event. “You can wash away your worries and start the new year right.”
Linda Duffy, co-chair of the Lake George Winter Carnival Committee, gave a similar reason for people taking the plunge at Lake George,
“Lots of people do it for fun, too. It’s the same concept. And it’s probably a dare for a lot of people, too.”
Registration for the Polar Plunge in Lake George will begin at 9:30 a.m. New Year’s Day at Duffy’s Tavern in the village. Registration is free, but a long-sleeved T-shirt with the event logo can be added for a $10 donation. Proceeds will help pay for the event, with a portion donated to area food pantries, according to the event’s website.
Collectible “First Day” pins will be sold for $1 a piece at the event, with village merchants offering discounts to anyone wearing the pins.
Two Lake George school buses will take people from nearby Shepard Park Beach to Million Dollar Beach every 15 minutes, starting at noon. There will be a Zumba dance fitness warmup on the beach at about noon, Duffy said.
She said participants will run into the freezing water in groups of 500, with the first group going in at 1 p.m. The remaining groups will enter the water every half-hour after that.
A crowd of 1,382 people registered for the 2012 Polar Plunge last year, and the number keeps growing. Warmer weather, said Duffy, attracts a bigger crowd.
“If it’s 60 degrees out, we may get more people out than usual,” she said.
This year, the Lake George event was moved to Million Dollar Beach from its traditional location at Shepard Park Beach, which is being treated for invasive Asian clams with special mats that are designed to cut off the clams’ air supply. The mats cover the ground at the shoreline and are weighed down with rebar and sandbags, which would be a hazard for swimmers. Also, people moving around could disturb the mats and ruin their effectiveness.
“The lake is an important part of us, and whatever they have to do, they have to do,” said Duffy.
In Caroga Lake, the swimming will take place at 2 p.m. on New Year’s Day via a ramp at the Caroga Lake Marina. Karl Ziemann, owner of the marina and neighboring general store and an organizer of the event, has recruited 20 local businesses as sponsors.
Last year, there were 80 swimmers and 200 curious onlookers. Most of them left immediately after the plunge was completed, said Ziemann, but this year, he’s planning to make it into more of a town-wide event.
Safety might be the first concern that comes to mind when considering the idea of swimming in nearly freezing water.
“Some people stay in for a few minutes, but most are in and out within 30 seconds,” Ziemann said. “The fire department will be there with an ambulance to provide first aid if anyone needs it. In the first five years that we’ve done the event, we haven’t needed it yet.”
As long as the event is supervised, it’s probably safe, said Dr. Peter Tilney, an attending emergency room physician at Albany Medical Center. “Theoretically, if someone has a history of heart disease, they might have a small risk of having an irregular heartbeat or another cold-water, shock-induced incident. Now, have I ever heard of that happening? No, but in theory, it’s possible,” he said. “There hasn’t been any research, per se, about quick immersion [into freezing water].”
However, in an unsupervised situation, Tilney stressed swimming in freezing water can be extremely dangerous.
“The body’s first reaction is a kind of full-body gasp, like, ‘Holy cow, it’s cold!’ and if your head goes underwater in that first immersion, that becomes a problem because you’ll be gasping.”
As more time is spent in cold water, he said the body begins to enter a physiological state where escape becomes more difficult — fingers tense, fine motor skills are lost and hypothermia sets in.
“But our resident physician did one of these at Lake George, and they had people waiting with blankets on the shore and everything,” he said.
Rather than stressing its death-defying nature, Ziemann said a Polar Plunge is more about life.
“It’s about proving that you’re alive,” he said.