SHERIDAN — Wednesday afternoon at Lake DeSmet the wind was blowing steady at about 10 miles per hour with intermittent high speed bursts.
The sun was bright, high in the sky but the air was cold at just over 20 degrees.
A fresh four inches of snow from the night before made the roads slick and the ground wet around the small freshly cut hole in the ice.
None of that stopped the 95 jumpers and dozens more onlookers who gathered at the south boat ramp for the 27th annual Polar Bear Plunge on New Year’s Day.
The Polar Bear Plunge, which started as a crazy thought of four friends on New Year’s Eve 1987, is an annual gathering of thrill seekers at the lake who get in and out of the frigid water as fast as they can to say they are members of the “Polar Bear Club.”
The gathering crowd is bundled up in hats and scarves, staring at the small patch of open water carved out of the four inches of ice as co-organizer Jerry Pilch carefully lowers a metal exit ladder.
At 12:55 p.m. fellow organizer Rob Forister bellowed out a five-minute warning.
“Form a line to the left and don’t get too close to the hole or the ice will start to sink” he yelled, a scary thought to the several photographers crouched on the ice’s edge hoping for that perfectly hilarious shot.
In his 17th year doing the plunge, Forister reminded everyone that they were about to jump at their own risk.
“Someone once asked me if we had lifeguards,” he said, “and I just laughed.”
Three minute warning sounds. The daring few at the front of the line start to disrobe and brave the cold, knowing it’s about to get a lot colder.
What about insurance? Has anyone ever been hurt?
“Insurance?” he said. “We just cut this hole in the ice for ourselves and all these other people just show up and join. We certainly have life insurance for ourselves, but…”
“We’ve had some people come close,” co-organizer Tony Garber added. “We looked at them and said, ‘oh crap, they are going under the ice’ but it didn’t actually happen and no one, knock on wood, has ever been hurt.”
One minute warning sounds.
“Hey do you remember that old guy with the rope?” Forister asks Pilch and Garber. “One year this guy tied a rope around his waist, stepped up to the edge and hurled it across the hole at us. ‘I can’t swim’ he yelled, and then just like that he jumped in,” Forister said.
When asked who the oldest jumper ever was, Forister said, “No one wants to lay claim to that. I just know it wasn’t me. Not yet.”
He does however recall the youngest. Last year the five year old daughter of Sheridan College Center for a Vital Community Director Amy Albrecht took the challenge on.
1:00 p.m. time to start plunging.
Two by two the line moves forward to the 33-degree water and all you hear for the next hour is laughter and chilly squeals.
Friends Emily Manzella and Sommer Kontz rejoined the line for a second jump.
“This is just crazy,” Manzella said. “I don’t know why we do a second jump every year. It’s even colder the second time.”
The entire Buffalo High School swim team made the leap this year as well.
Head Coach Ed Vonholst was a first time contributor this year, stepping up to cut the hole in the ice to help encourage his team’s attendance.
“It’s a great team building experience,” Vonholst said.
Others don’t really know why they jumped, they just did.
When asked what the experience was like Shelly Stoner can just say through chattering teeth, “cold.”
Forister says he just likes watching the transformation in people’s faces.
“Most people look scared and hesitant before they jump,” he said, “then just shocked when they’re in the water and finally they get a huge smile after they’re wrapped in the towel.”
Though the team of organizers swear that the water was colder this year than ever before, they’ll be back next year to initiate more members to the “Polar Bear Club.”