Polars Bears prepare for exhilarating plunge in Yough
For the ninth consecutive year, the annual Polar Bear Jump will take place at the Youghiogheny River in Connellsville on New Year's Day.
“Our first year, we had around 40 participants. Last year, we had close to 450 jumpers,” said Nancy Jacobyansky, an organizer for the event.
The jump begins promptly at 11 a.m. Jacobyansky encourages participants and spectators to get there early.
Both jumpers and spectators should bring nonperishable food items for donation to the St. Vincent de Paul Society food bank in Connellsville. Last year, two pickup trucks were filled with food.
Jacobyansky said Connellsville Area School District teachers once again will serve hot chocolate during the event.
There are 11 Connellsville Polar Bear Club members who have jumped every year — Jacobyansky and husband Frank and sons Michael and Nicholas; Mike Parlak; Blaine Brooks; Jonathan Fox; George and Kasey Eutsey; and Phillip and Jonathan Luczka.
The Connellsville Polar Bear Jump brings people not just from the city and surrounding area. Residents in the Pittsburgh area and other states show up each Jan. 1 at the Youghiogheny River at Yough River Park.
George Girty of Bethel Park became a Connellsville Polar Bear by accident.
“Four years ago, I was planning to do a New Year's Day plunge in Pittsburgh, but when I checked the time, I had already missed it. I knew I had read about the Connellsville plunge, so I jumped in my car and headed for the Youghiogheny River in Connellsville. And when I got there, I had just missed it, too.
“Nancy Jacobyansky and Karen Parlak conducted a countdown for me — solo, by myself — without the benefit of hundreds of others to join with. So I got to run in, fully immerse, and get back out,” Girty recalled. “It was so nice of them. They took good care of me. Someone gave me a blanket, and I was hooked.”
He called the Yough River polar jump a “life-affirming” experience.
“It's one of those things that's bigger than the moment. It was exhilarating, and I won't miss it now. In fact, my wife and son and I are headed to Miami for Christmas, and they wanted to stay until January 4 or 5, I said: 'Oh no, we have to come back for New Year's Day. I can't miss the river jump in Connellsville!' So they've agreed to come back, and I even think I have my wife convinced to go in up to her knees and my 8-year-old son to walk in until his feet are covered,” Girty said.
He said that he and fellow jumpers have a common bond.
“It seems that we all are united in wanting the weather to be cold and snowy, frigid with ice on the river bank. There is such a camaraderie and kinship between the other lunatics down there. It brings everybody together, and there's a warm glow among us all. The more adversarial the conditions, the happier everybody is. We were disappointed in the weather last year — no ice on the river, no snow on the ground and just a bit of drizzle in the air. We like it best when a hole has to be chipped in the ice for the jump,” Girty said.
“It's one of the best experiences of my life. I look forward to it and to seeing friends that I've made that I see only that one time a year,” he said. “I'm really excited about this year's jump. The atmosphere there is electric. Everybody just seems to be united by the desire to be crazy and to collect lots of food for the food pantry. For those brief seconds, everyone feels wonderful,” said Girty.
Girty has become friends with Nancy and Frank Jacobyansky and their sons and has even come to Connellsville to help with Boy Scout projects.
“George does a lot of geocaching. He came here this spring and worked on the geocaching merit badge with our Boy Scouts,” said Jacobyansky.
The “polar bears” start anticipating the jump in the middle of summer, when posts pick up on the Connellsville Polar Bear Club Facebook page. Past posts included “Gee, we can't wait”; “the countdown is on”; and “hoping for snow and ice.”
“It's a common bond that everyone feels. In all sincerity, it is one of the best things I do all year. It's that exciting, that emotional, that exhilarating — you carry that with you into the new year. It's a challenge to yourself and when you're done you just feel so good, I'm coming back from Miami to jump in the frozen water of the Yough. I can't wait,” said Girty.
Fayette EMS and New Haven Hose Company are on site each year.
For more information, visit the Facebook page of the Connellsville Polar Bear Club.
Nancy Henry is a freelance writer.