Beaches and docks lining the frigid Finger Lakes will be bustling with activity again — or at least temporarily — as residents jump into the water and then retreat to shelter during their traditional polar bear plunges.
Polar bear clubs in Aurora and Skaneateles will continue the chilly tradition of diving into Cayuga or Skaneateles lakes at a time when mid-winter weather has many wishing for summer.
“We get a lot of repeat swimmers and new people each year,” said Nancie Saphara, who is organizing the 21st annual Aurora Polar Bear Plunge. “Some people do it one time and never come back, but we have a dozen core people who try to make it each year. The core people just enjoy seeing people they don’t usually get to see the rest of the year.”
In Skaneateles, Todd Marshall is organizing his second polar bear plunge that will be held in conjunction with the village’s Winterfest.
Last year’s event attracted 20 swimmers and nearly 300 spectators, Marshall said.
“It’s one of those things people have on their list of things to do in their life,” Marshall said. “Last year was my first time. After I did it, I felt a rush of energy for a day. It’s a rush of exhilaration. Some cultures think its cleansing and rejuvenating.”
Saphara said the Aurora plunge got started in 1991 when she and a co-worker got into a discussion with several patrons at the Aurora Inn.
The group discussed why no one ever jumps into Cayuga Lake mid-winter, prompting Saphara and her co-worker to agree to jump into the freezing lake with the patrons several days later.
The two women and 30 spectators were the only ones to show up at the agreed upon time, but a local tradition was created when the women jumped in anyway, Saphara said. The event eventually grew to include as many as 56 people depending on the weather.
“To me, this is about seeing what started as a stupid prank in ’91 turn into a tradition,” Saphara said. “It’s such a unique experience and it takes a really special person to do it. Every year it amazes me to see everyone show up.”
Saphara and Marshall said emergency personnel will be at both events to assist swimmers if anything happens.
The worst incident to occur in Aurora, Saphara said, was a man loosing his glasses after he dove into the water.
Skaneateles will offer swimmers coffee and hot chocolate after they return to dry land, and a heated tent will be available to warm up in.
Participants in Aurora often get creative and find ways to bring heated clothing and towels, Saphara said. Some participants heat a towel and place it in an insulated cooler to keep it warm.
“But everybody also has family and friends waiting to hug them when they get out of the water,” Saphara said.
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