With grins and grimaces — or maybe both — hundreds of people celebrated New Year’s Day by quickly dashing from snow-covered Million Dollar Beach into frigid Lake George.
The Polar Plunge, now at age 40 a holiday tradition, drew about 1,200 participants young and old Tuesday. It was a couple of hundred people fewer than last year’s record turnout, organizers said.
But there are reasons less-hardy souls dropped out: Tuesday was significantly colder than last New Year’s Day — the air was 30 degrees with a chilly wind, and the water temperature was 35 degrees. There was also lots of snow covering the beach, whereas there was none last year.
Plus, this year’s event was moved from the plunge’s traditional home at Shepard Park Beach, in the heart of the commercial district. There’s a project there that covered the lake bottom with plastic mats for the winter to fight invasive Asian clams.
“The weather plays a big part in it. It was definitely colder than last year, but there was still a good turnout,” said Linda Duffy, co-chairwoman of the event. “I’m hoping next year we’re back in the village.”
There were school buses to take people from Canada Street less than a mile to the state-owned Million Dollar Beach, on the lake’s southern shore. Many people nevertheless walked. Others used the state Department of Environmental Conservation parking lot near the beach, though they risked getting stuck in the unplowed snow.
The crowd of people who took the plunge included old hands and first-timers, those who quickly stripped down to
reveal bikinis or swim trunks and those who wore superhero costumes or carried American flags to wave as they waded. With tropical rhythms blaring over a sound system, many warmed up with Zumba routines on the deck outside the state bathhouse.
Noah Davis, 22, of Lake George, took the plunge for the 10th year in a row this year, coming down from Plattsburgh, where he’s attending college.
“It’s a great way to start the New Year, washing everything away,” Davis said, still dripping as he emerged along with hundreds of others from the second of three waves of participants.
Swimmers took the plunge at 1, 1:30 and 2 p.m. No more than 500 were allowed to go in at once, and wristbands were required to get on the beach.
“It’s for safety purposes and so not too many people go in at once,” said Michael Chimiak, vice-chairman of the Winter Carnival and the event’s public address announcer.
Warren County volunteer scuba and rescue teams were on the water in case of an emergency, but their expertise wasn’t needed.
Chris Hunsinger. 52, of Lake George, has taken the plunge with his son every year since 2000.
“It was my brilliant idea for the millennium,” Hunsinger said as he waited. “The next year I wasn’t going to, but my son said, ‘Aren’t we going?’ ”
Dashing into the icy water is exhilarating, veterans of the event agreed.
“Even if you’re cold when you go in, you come out and you’re very warm,” Hunsinger said. “It’s the strangest sensation, very euphoric.”
Todd Carkner of Ballston Spa said, “It’s exhilarating and then you appreciate the warmth. If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.” He was one of a group of men from Ballston Spa who smoked and chomped on fat cigars as they waited for the 1 p.m. call. It was to be Carkner’s third time, and he said the weather this year was the coldest.
Another cigar-chomper, Joe O’Leary, said “It’s the one crazy thing I get to do. It makes no sense.” He was introducing his 31-year-old son, Josh, to the purported tonic effect of warm skin and cold water.
Josh O’Leary said, “It’s a challenge, something I haven’t done before.”
Hayley LeClaire, 19, of Hudson Falls, was taking the plunge for the second time, along with friend Kristen Matuszak of South Glens Falls. “It’s just a good way to bring in the New Year,” LeClaire said.
Two friends from Washington County were joining the New Year’s Day tradition for the first time.
“I’m kind of starting the bucket list a little early. It’s just wild and crazy,” said Corey Roberts, 33, of Granville.
He talked friend Rick Fisher of Fort Edward into joining him. “My kids want to see how crazy I am,” said Fisher, 39, who was dressed in a granny nightgown, swim trunks and his son’s Angry Birds winter hat.
For members of the region’s Rotary clubs, the event has a larger purpose: Members from across the Capital Region participate to raise money to eradicate polio in the Third World.
“Polio victims can’t feel their arms and legs,” said Anne Cargile of Ballston Lake, a past Rotary district governor. “When you go in, you don’t have any feeling in your arms and legs. We get the feeling back, and they don’t.”
“You don’t feel anything. Everything is numb,” agreed Tammy Heckemberg of Lake George, district chairwoman of the Rotary Foundation.
Michael Consuelo, executive director of the Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the $10 fee for event T-shirts helps pay for the Winter Carnival held on weekends in February, with some proceeds going to benefit church food pantries in the village.
“It’s quite a tradition,” Consuelo said.