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A refreshing dip or a big chill?
Annual Polar Bear Swim draws a crowd on a brisk day
Timothy Lane of Marietta rushes to get out of the 48-degree water after participating in the 12th annual Polar Bear Swim for the first time. On Thursday, 73 jumpers participated in the annual event. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

While most people were piling on extra layers of clothes before they went out Thursday to brave the 48-degree weather, there were at least 73 people in Gainesville who were taking their clothes off in public — some even stripped down to their underwear.

No, it wasn’t some exhibitionist retreat; it was the 12th annual Polar Bear Swim at Lake Lanier.

Each year, the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club sponsors the event and invites all who are willing to take a plunge in the icy lake as a way to celebrate the new year.

While veteran Polar Bear swimmers like Gainesville City Councilman George Wangemann took the chilly leap of faith off the dock into the freezing lake, there were also several newcomers to the event — like best friends Elizabeth Canupp and Brooklyne Wassel.

“We wanted to do it last year, but we ran out of time,” said Wassel, who is a 17-year-old Gainesville resident.
Not only did the two decide to take the plunge, they decided to do it in style with custom costumes, which were Wassel’s idea.

“Every year, people throw their Christmas trees into the lake to create habitats for the fish,” said 16-year-old Canupp. “So I’m a Christmas tree and (Wassel) is a cinder block that pulls me down to the bottom.”

Although Canupp said she purposely avoided thinking about how cold the water would feel, she had one thing to say after emerging from under the water.

“Oh my God that’s cold!” Canupp said.

Although there were jumpers in attendance who participated just for the fun of it, others were participating to win one of several prizes for best costume, best jump, and oldest/youngest jumper.

“For some people, the Polar Bear Swim is a competition. Every year they want to try and out do everyone with the best costume or best jump,” said Jim O’Dell, who is a member of the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club. “In years past we used to give an award for the most jumps, but we discontinued that because of the potential for hypothermia. Now we limit it to two jumps.”

Some jumpers did belly flops into the lake and others did back flips, while some chose to make the jump a family affair.

“It’s just something that we always wanted to do, and now we can cross that off the list,” said Brian Scherman of Dunwoody.

Joining Scherman in the freezing lake were his 8-year-old daughter, Jamie, and 4-year-old son, Eric.

“They were more excited than I was.”

Although the U.S. Geological Survey Web site reported that the water in Lake Lanier was around 50 degrees Thursday afternoon, Jamie described the jump as “fun.”

Four-year-old Evan Feintuch joined the Schermans in their jump and said he wanted to “go again.”