Jan. 1 Yough River plunge gets a little more 'polar' thanks to frigid forecast
At the annual Connellsville Polar Plunge on Monday in Yough River Park, several bonfires and warming tents set up by local firefighters will help hundreds of people in swimsuits brave the cold.
“They're going to need it this year,” Murrysville Medic One Director Darrick Gerano said.
With a New Year's Day forecast in the low teens, the temperature for the plunge Monday is significantly lower than most previous years when participants take a brief dip in the frigid waters of the Youghiogheny River.
“About five years ago, we did have a frozen river,” said Nancy Jacobyansky of Connellsville, whose husband, Frank, started the plunge, now in its 14th year. “Someone came and cut a little hole, and we went in groups of 10 or 15. But it wasn't actually cold when we did that. It was rainy and actually up into the 40s.”
As of Thursday, Jacobyansky said there was a thin coating of ice had formed along the riverbank, Jacobyansky said.
“My husband is planning on going down (Friday) to check the situation,” she said.
Gerano, part of Murrysville Medic One's dive team, said the danger of exposure to frigid water ratchets up as the temperature ticks down.
“Obviously, the first thing is the shivering,” he said. “In weather like this, though, shivering won't last long before people start experiencing muscle cramping and severe fatigue. People will be unable to control their extremities, their respiratory rate will drop and things will keep going.”
Gerano said even experienced plungers should listen closely to their bodies.
“These people are used to jumping in and out when it's still half-decent outside,” he said. “But when it drops into the teens or lower, it's a lot more difficult to warm back up.”
Ryan Walt, who runs the Commonwealth Swift Water Rescue Program and is a member of the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, said this is a busy time of year for first responders.
“A lot of them are going out and serving as safety staff for these types of events,” he said.
Walt said participants need to be aware of what happens when their body is immersed in cold water.
“It's basically the body's natural reaction to gasp air,” he said. “When people fall off a boat into cold water, that reaction can cause them to inhale water into the lungs. So if you decide you're going all the way in (during the plunge), make sure to cover your mouth to mitigate that risk.”
Paramedics from Fayette EMS are on-site each year for medical emergencies, and Jacobyansky said members of the New Haven Hose Company have provided warming tents for the past decade.
Last year's plunge drew nearly 500 participants.
“That's been about the steady number the past five years,” Jacobyansky said.
Plungers are asked to bring a nonperishable food donation for the Connellsville Area Community Ministries' food bank.
“It kind of helps them get built back up for the beginning of the year,” Jacobyansky said. “Last year we filled up their box truck at least halfway.”
Plungers typically start arriving shortly after 10 a.m. on New Year's Day and gather for a group photo at 10:45.
“Make sure to bring towels, robes, blankets, anything to dry off immediately,” Jacobyansky said. “And we recommend tennis shoes or water shoes because it's really rocky in the river.”