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Kittanning's polar bear plunge has become a heartwarming event

| Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, 12:47 a.m.
Participants in the New Year's Day 2012 Polar Bear Plunge in Kittanning exit the water. FILE PHOTO

While many sleep off the after-effects of New Year's Eve, some brave souls will begin the year with a splash — right in the Allegheny River.

On New Year's Day, participants in the 14th annual Dianna Ashbaugh Memorial Polar Bear Plunge will gather at the Riverfront Park boat launch at 8 a.m. to take the chilly dip.

Proceeds from the event will benefit the American Cancer Society.

“We raised somewhere around $2,000 last year,” said Todd Ashbaugh.

Co-founders of the event, Ashbaugh and Ed Bower, both of Kittanning, have been taking the frigid plunge since 2000. There were 19 participants that year, including Richard Mercurio and Bret Atwood — who have jumped every year since then, Bower said.

Even a dog or two have taken the plunge for eight of the 13 years, Bower said.

“We originally started it to do something wild and crazy,” Ashbaugh said.

But the purpose of taking the annual plunge quickly became a gesture of goodwill and a means of raising money for a worthy cause.

Ashbaugh said he and Bower get a lot of their inspiration from cancer survivors who come out every year and join them in the plunge. Some, who are going through treatment, come out to watch and show support for the participants.

“Three years ago we renamed the plunge the Dianna Ashbaugh Memorial Polar Bear Plunge in honor of my mother, who passed away from cancer,” Ashbaugh said.

Although she never participated, Dianna was at every jump, Bower said.

He said the 2010 plunge was the most successful in terms of number of participants and money raised.

“There were 105 that year,” said Bower, adding that a whopping $3,500 was raised.

Ashbaugh said it's not too late for people to rise to the challenge and get friends and family to sponsor their plunge.

“Just tell them, ‘Hey, I'm going to jump in the river — will you give me $5 for the jump?'”

He said people in the community are very generous and that the borough and members of the Kittanning Water Rescue Team have been extremely supportive every year.

“We're really thankful for the Water Rescue Team. No one really wants to get up that early on New Year's Day. It's a sacrifice,” he said, adding that the team consistently shows up every year to volunteer their time to ensure the safety of all the jumpers.

Ashbaugh said snow may be an issue this year and hopes it won't be a rerun of 2001 when frigid temperatures caused sections of the river to freeze.

“The day before, we chopped a hole in the ice big enough for one person to jump into but it was frozen over the next morning,” said Ashbaugh.

The group was forced to move down river to jump from a dock where the water remained ice-free.

Their advice for this year?

Wear shoes when taking the plunge and bring someone along who can hold a towel and a warm coat.

Brigid Beatty is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303 or

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