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Hundreds take Polar Bear Plunge

Traditional Potomac River dip benefits Humane Society of Washington County

January 01, 2011|By HEATHER KEELS
  • A participant in Saturday's Polar Bear Plunge at River Bottom Park in Williamsport shaved a New Year's greeting into his back.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

WILLIAMSPORT — At about 47 degrees, the air might have been warmer than average for New Year’s Day in Williamsport, but the water?

“Freezing!” said Ashlyn Powers, 18, of Hagerstown, as she emerged, dripping, from a dip in the icy Potomac River. “I can’t feel anything.”

Powers was one of hundreds of people who participated in this year’s Polar Bear Plunge, a New Year’s Day tradition at River Bottom Park in Williamsport to benefit the Humane Society of Washington County.

Participants, many dressed in attention-grabbing costumes, paid $25 to participate as official “polar bears,” then lined up along the shore to run into the river at the stroke of noon.

A total of 323 people registered to plunge, Humane Society spokeswoman Katherine Cooker said. Hundreds more came to cheer or gawk at the plungers from the safety of the dry shore.

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“It’s a really big turnout,” said Humane Society volunteer Yumi Redifer, 15, of Hagerstown, who wore a hat decorated to look like a polar bear as she held out a bucket for additional donations. “This might be one of the biggest ones we’ve had.”

Dean Burkett, the event’s announcer, said his nephew, Todd Bowman, started the tradition more than 20 years ago when he took a dip in the river on a whim.

Burkett said he was amazed by how the event had grown.

“Before, it was just a bunch of guys coming down here and jumping in the water,” he said.

Plungers this year had a variety of reasons for participating.

Katie Pill, 18, of Martinsburg, W.Va., said took the plunge because her boyfriend, Leo Ridgely, 20 of Falling Waters, W.Va., told her he didn’t think she could do it.

“I didn’t believe her, but I believe it now,” Ridgely said as they stood dripping and shivering on the shore with their friends.

“It’s a nice way to sober up, and it’s for a good cause,” said Rich Zeger, 40, of Hagerstown, who said he has been plunging on New Year’s for about 10 years.

Many of the plungers stayed bundled in sweat shirts or robes until it was time to hit the water, but Zeger braved the cold in swimming trunks for at least 15 minutes ahead of time.

“Outside, it’s great,” he said of the weather. “The ice on top of the water, I don’t know — that doesn’t look real good.”

The key to the Polar Bear Plunge, Zeger said, is getting in and out as fast as you can.

“Once you drop your head under you’re like, ‘OK, now we can get out,’” he said.
Lauren Asbury, 9, of Hagerstown, another Polar Bear Plunge veteran, also shared some advice for first-time plungers.

“Whatever you do, don’t kick your legs when you’re in the water because I almost slipped because I couldn’t feel it,” she said.

After the plunge, Burkett and Cooker presented a trophy to this year’s youngest registered plunger,

Zaylen Vaquero, 4, of Burlington, Wash., who was in town visiting relatives.

The oldest person registered for the plunge was Bob Deneseus, 69, of Martinsburg, but organizers couldn’t find him to give him his trophy, Cooker said.

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