Chill for charity

January 01, 2009|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

WILLIAMSPORT - Jumping into a freezing-cold river might be a good idea after all.

The Williamsport Polar Bear Club is preparing for its yearly New Year's Day plunge into the Potomac River, at River Bottom Park in Williamsport. The event raises money for the Humane Society of Washington County, said Todd Bowman, a founding member of the Williamsport Polar Bear Club.

Humane Society spokeswoman Katherine Cooker said last year's plunge raised around $5,000. Bowman said the event draws nearly 150 people.

There are upcoming charity plunges elsewhere in Washington County and throughout Maryland.

In Hancock, the Tonoloway Polar Bear Plunge has raised $10,714 for Interfaith Service Coalition in Hancock, said Deborah Cohill, Interfaith's executive director.

The money goes toward Interfaith's winter fuel fund. Cohill said, who added that the nonprofit has had more requests than usual this year.


"I think it's going to be a really crazy year," Cohill said.

The date for this year's Tonoloway plunge had not been set at press time. Organizer Zach Burnett said the date would be announced after today. Burnett said he's hoping attendance this year will be greater than the 12 to 18 people who usually show up. "It's hard to get people to come back year after year," Burnett said.

Once considered good for your body, polar bear plunges - swimming trips taken during the dead of winter - are now used to raise money for charity.

Some folks trace polar bear plunges to the Finnish practice of "ice hole swimming," believed by some to offer health benefits. It's still a big deal in Finland and is promoted heavily on Finnish tourism Web sites.

In the United States, polar bear clubs often use winter swimming as fundraisers. The Coney Island Polar Bear Club, has a charity plunge today. Established in 1903, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club is credited with being one of the oldest winter swimming clubs in the United States.

A little closer to home, the Maryland State Police has scheduled its 11th annual Deep Creek Dunk for Feb. 28 at Deep Creek Lake. The event raises money for Special Olympics Maryland.

The Williamsport plunge started more than a decade ago on a bar bet, Bowman said. It has since grown to be a fundraiser and as an excuse for people to show up in outlandish costumes - men in bikinis, for example.

Burnett said that he and his business partner, James Wheeler, founded the Tonoloway plunge several years ago. The idea came after they showed up to the Deep Creek Dunk on the wrong day. "We just decided to do our own," Burnett said.

Bowman and Burnett didn't have much advice to offer for first-timer plungers this year, except to brace for cold water, no matter what the weather forecast says. And most of all, "make sure you bring plenty of blankets for that long walk back to the car," Bowman said.

If you go ...

WHAT: Potomac River Polar Bear Plunge

WHEN: Noon Thursday, Jan. 1.

WHERE: River Bottom Park, Williamsport. The park is adjacent to the C&O Canal National Historical Park.

COST: Dippers collect "pledges" for the Humane Society of Washington County. Download forms at the Humane Society's Web site,

CONTACT: Call 301-733-2060.

MORE: Parking gets tight. Todd Bowman recommends parking at Cushwa Basin and walking on the canal tow path to River Bottom Park.

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