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Polar Bear plunge is especially cold this year

January 01, 1998

Polar Bear plunge is especially cold this year

By LAURA ERNDE

Staff Writer

WILLIAMSPORT - If Seinfeld is a show about nothing, the local Polar Bear Club must be a club about nothing because there's really no purpose to plunging into 38-degree water.

Every New Year's Day for the last seven years, members of the informal club make a mad dash into the Potomac River.

You don't have to sign up for the club or pay any dues. You just show up in your swimwear.

"The actual purpose is nothing. It's strictly off-the-wall," said one of the founders, John Waltrick, 42, of Hagerstown.

Waltrick arrived about 11:30 a.m. in his terry cloth bathrobe after driving a taxi all night.

This year was probably the coldest ever for the plunge.

The water temperature was 38 degrees, but it was even colder outside. The air temperature was about 21 degrees, according to observations at the nearby R.C. Willson Water Treatment Plant.

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Promptly at noon, about 20 "polar bears" counted backward from 10 and ran screaming into the water at snow-covered River Bottom Park.

Most dunked their heads before running out of the water and back into their heated cars.

"This is numbing. My eyes are starting to freeze shut. I love it," Waltrick said.

A crowd of about 100 gathered to watch them take the plunge.

"Now we know what those people on the Titanic felt like," said observer Barry Peters, 51, of Maugansville.

In years past, some of the polar bears lingered in the water. Walter Patey Jr., 35, of Williamsport, once stayed in the water for 12 minutes, he said.

But not this year.

"It takes hours to thaw back out," Patey said.

Just before noon, a contingent of polar bears arrived in two vans, one of them with a "Wayside Inn" logo on the side.

Most of the men who jumped out wore only swim trunks and black plastic New Year's party hats. One man had tie-dyed shorts on a green lei wrapped around his neck.

Todd Bowman, 35, of Williamsport, wore a flowered dress and long, black wig.

Most of the polar bears were men, except for two teenage sisters from Clear Spring.

First-timer Jennifer Deeds, 19, said she has always wanted to take the plunge.

She was joined by her sister Lacey, 14, who insisted that Jennifer was the crazy one.

"I just go along with her," Lacey said.

Their parents didn't come along, thinking the two would chicken out.

On New Year's Eve over champagne, Bob Sanders, 52, of Marlowe, W.Va., was ready to join the club.

"My wife talked me out of it this morning," he said.

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