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Drought can’t stop annual winter plunge in lake

Polar Bear Swim still set for Jan. 1

POSTED: December 28, 2007 5:03 a.m.
The first day of the new year means one thing for dozens of local residents — it’s time to put on swimming trunks.

Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club, a nonprofit organization for Olympic flat water canoe and kayak hopefuls, will hold its 11th Annual Polar Bear Swim on Jan. 1 at the former Olympic venue at Clarks Bridge Park. Each New Year’s Day for the past 10 years, nearly 100 people have plunged into the frigid waters of Lake Lanier, while about 300 spectators stand on the shore.

But this year, organizers had concerns that low lake levels and drought conditions might spoil their chance to bear the elements in their bathing suits and raise funds for Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club. Despite record low lake levels, the Annual Polar Bear Swim will go on.

Event coordinators were able to relocate docks to accommodate low water levels at the jumping site. They also agreed to deposit water from re-warming hot tubs back into the lake.

This year’s swim is appropriately themed "Low Tide."

"It’s a rite of passage for a lot of folks to bring in the new year," said Jim O’Dell, Polar Bear Swim coordinator for the club. "People look forward to jumping into the chilly waters of Lake Lanier. It’s something fun to do and supports a nonprofit. You’d be amazed at how many families go all together."

While Polar Bear Swim veteran and Gainesville City Councilman George Wangemann agrees the event supports a good cause, he doesn’t label the wintry dip as just plain fun.

"I don’t think there’s a whole lot of fun to it, unless you enjoy jumping into icy cold water, but it’s a challenge, like climbing a mountain," Wangemann said.

Wangemann said he has participated in the club’s Polar Bear Swim for the past eight years. As a native of Milwaukee, he first heard of polar bear swims that invited people to jump into Lake Michigan on the first of the year in subzero temperatures.

"I was all bundled up in my winter clothes, and all these men and women were in their Speedos and bikinis," Wangemann said. "I thought these people were crazy."

But when Wangemann relocated to Gainesville and heard of the annual jump into Lake Lanier, he said he thought diving into Lake Lanier couldn’t be as bad as diving into Lake Michigan. And eight years and one hypothermia case later, Wangemann prepares to make the dive again.

Four years ago, Wangemann was attempting to win the prize for the most jumps into the lake, and after 40 jumps, he developed mild hypothermia and spent the next hour shivering. For health reasons, the most jumps contest has been eliminated.

The 11th Annual Polar Bear Swim will provide a T-shirt, hot chocolate, coffee and chili to jumpers. Prizes will be awarded for the best themed costume and for the best jump. Early registration ends Thursday.



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