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'Polar bears' continue New Year's tradition

January 01, 2001

'Polar bears' continue New Year's tradition



By DAN KULIN / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer

Polar bearsWearing sneakers, shorts and little or nothing else, dozens of "polar bears" hovered around a hole in the ice on the Potomac River, waiting to ring in the New Year in their own crazy way.

As noon approached on New Year's Day, they splashed into the river - 35 degrees warm compared to the low 20s above water at River Bottom Park in Williamsport.

It was the second time in three years a layer of ice covered the Potomac at the site of the annual New Year's dip. This year a rectangle, about 20 feet by and 6 feet, was cut out of the 4-inch-thick ice to give the polar bears a spot close to shore to get wet.

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John Waltrick, one of the original polar bears, has gone into the river on colder New Year's Days, but not many with so much ice, he said.

Waltrick, 44, of Hagerstown, and a small group of friends began the tradition on New Year's Day 1992. He said another one of the original New Year's swimmers cut the hole in the ice with a chain saw early Monday morning.

At noon Monday more than 30 people joined Waltrick in the icy river as hundreds cheered them on.

"People love weirdness and people love crazy," was Waltrick's explanation for the increased popularity of the event, which draws new participants every year.

"This is my first time. I'm not one of the regular nuts," said Andy Hartman, 46, of Clear Spring.

Although he was cold even before going into the river, Hartman, a Hagerstown firefighter, said he couldn't back out because he had told his children and too many other people that he would be in the river on New Year's. He also had two children and a niece with him for the swim.

"It sounds easy when it's warm," he said.

"I just like cold water," said Casey Keyfauver, 9, of Cearfoss.

Most people were out of the water as quickly as they had jumped in.

"You're in a blind panic to get out," said Doneen Johnson, 32, of Williamsport, who said she'll do it again next year.

"It was freezing but it was an awesome experience," said Nikki Hartman, 19, Andy's daughter. Both said they'll be back next year.

"It was wonderful," said Keyfauver, who also plans to return next New Year's.

"It was awesome. I can't wait to do it again," said Holly Aleshire, 19, of Clear Spring.

Angie Jackson, 27, Hagerstown, thought her husband Ray would "chicken out," but he didn't.

"They're crazy. I just watch and have the blankets ready," she said.

Walter Patey, 38, of Hagerstown, took his seventh New Year's Day swim in the Potomac Monday.

"It's almost always cold," he said. "And it takes about 3 or 4 hours to thaw out."

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