“You’ll say either that was the stupidest thing you’ve done in your life or else you’re hooked and you know you will be there for every New Year’s Day at noon,” said Dr. Ed Beachley, a Hagerstown dentist who said he has done the plunge in Williamsport for more than 10 years.
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In a polar bear plunge, participants raise money for charity by pledging to donors they will plunge into cold water during winter.
On Jan. 1, the Humane Society of Washington County, the Williamsport Polar Bear Club and the town of Williamsport host a polar bear plunge at River Bottom Park on the Potomac River; and the Fort Ritchie Community Center holds a polar bear plunge at Lake Royer in Cascade.
Water temperatures usually range between 36 and 38 degrees, but Beachley said he’s met some polar bear plungers who describe chopping through ice in years past to get to the water.
“It’s invigorating. It’s like a numbness over top of you with pins and needles in your legs,” said Beachley, who considers it his New Year’s tradition.
The first year Beachley went on a whim, when some friends mentioned it at a party. It began in 1992 by a group known as the Polar Bear Club; it became a Humane Society fundraiser in 2003.
It is now the Humane Society’s biggest fundraiser. Last year, 388 people plunged. Organizations like the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, volunteer fire departments and local businesses help make it possible, said Katherine Cooker, manager of development and community relations at the Humane Society.
“It goes to illustrate how this county comes together and helps at-risk animals and animals in need,” Cooker said.
Beachley is joined every year by his 21-year-old daughter, Mariel Beachley. His wife, Betsy Beachley, and their two other children come in support and hold the towels and the family’s two dogs. The dogs, Maggie and Dobby, were both adopted at the Humane Society of Washington County. Beachley’s practice, Allegany Dental Care, is one of the sponsors of the event every year.
Mariel Beachley first began going with him when she was 11 or 12.
The first year, she went in a little bit and ran out again. Then, she and her cousin ran back in and dunked their heads under the water. Since then, she has always gone all the way under.
“Some years, it takes the breath out of you,” she said.
The Beachleys have begun dressing up in wacky costumes for the plunge.
Last year, they wore green spandex suits to look like the “green man” from the television show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”
Mariel Beachley entered a photograph of their group in a contest sponsored by “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and won. She won a trip for six to Los Angeles. The winners were also given tickets to see the class featured in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” but Mariel Beachley wasn’t able to go because she had to attend classes at her college, Shenandoah University.
The Lake Royer Plunge is a newer event — it was first held on Jan. 1, 2012. But the Fort Ritchie Community Center makes it a big event complete with pre-events inclucing a lakeside campfire, music, hot cocoa and a cash bar at Lakeside Hall.
“It really is a party atmosphere,” said Kirsten Hubbard, the development manager at the Fort Ritchie Community Center. “We had just as many people spectate as participate last year, which we welcome.”
Last year, the plunge had about 120 participants and the lake’s temperature was about 41 degrees. In terms of cold, the lake has some chilly history — it was originally created in the 1800s as an ice-harvesting lake.