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Taking the plunge

February 22, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

HANCOCK - James Wheeler's day job isn't very risky, which is why he says jumping into a frozen lake in the middle of February seems like a good idea.

"It's a shock to the system. I'm sure you've had a cold shower. It's a lot worse than that. It tenses up your whole body," Wheeler, 26, said a few minutes after he had taken part in the second annual Hancock Polar Bear Plunge, which he helps organize.

"Everybody likes to have a little adrenaline rush. It's a good way to get that, and help out the community," Wheeler said.

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Wheeler and his friend, Zach Burnett, 28, both Hancock residents, decided last year to put together the first Polar Bear Plunge, which takes place at the Tonoloway Rod and Gun Club outside Hancock. The participants gather donations, which go to the Hancock Interfaith Service Coalition, a United Way affiliate.

The proceeds of the event mostly are given to the charity's clients who are short on cash for home heating, said the group's executive director, Debbie Cohill.

Wheeler estimated this year's proceeds would exceed $1,000. Last year, the event gathered between $1,200 and $1,300, he said.

Wheeler said participation was up this year, and he expects it to grow next year.

Last year, there were 11 participants. This year, about 20 people took the plunge, including two teens and two women - "which is up one from last year," Wheeler said.

Wheeler works as a civil engineer by day, and says he's participated in sports such as scuba diving, snowboarding and roller hockey, but until last year he never had jumped into a frozen lake. So he and Burnett decided to put the event together.

The small lake on the club property Saturday appeared to be a sheet of ice: Wheeler estimated that underneath the initial layer of slush, there was about a foot of ice, and beneath that was water with a temperature that hovered around the freezing mark.

In the morning, the would-be polar bears gathered at lakeside, swim trunks and all, trying to maintain warmth. Wheeler said it was difficult, however, when the tent he had brought was blown over and crushed by the wind. A small electric heater made do.

The day before, Wheeler and his friends cut a hole in the ice near the dock that jutted out over the sandy bank, where the water was about chest deep for an adult.

Wheeler said once the divers jumped or climbed in one by one, they clambered out of the water and dashed for the shoreline.

"It's in and out," he said.

Burnett, who also took the plunge, called the morning dip "invigorating."

Asked for a word of advice for future participants, Burnett said, "Bring some warm clothes."

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