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Polar Bear Club takes the plunge in Connellsville

| Monday, Jan. 3, 2011

The swimming hole at the Youghiogheny Pier in Yough River Park, Connellsville, had a "Polar Bear Crossing" sign at its far edge.

A total of 333 area and not-so-local folks took the sign literally and walked off the pier into the swimming hole -- bound by snow and ice, not floating markers and ropes -- for the Connellsville Polar Bear Club's seventh annual Polar Bear Plunge on New Year's Day. Another 200 or so held coats and towels to warm their loved ones after they emerged from the river. A bonfire offered extra warmth for the crowd.

Under a steady rain with an air temperature in the low 40s, intrepid plungers of all ages waited at the river and gathered in groups of 15 for a chance. Most of them plunged under water. Either fully submerged or not, all came up flushed from the cold, gasping and shrieking with a mixture of delight and shock -- newly christened and veteran polar bears.

Nancy Jacobyansky of Connellsville, an event organizer, said 175 people took the plunge for the first time. In addition to Pennsylvanians, 12 participants came from Virginia, Maryland and Ohio. Lydia Hawk, 4, of Normalville, was the youngest polar bear. Edna Prinkey, 75, of Connellsville, was the oldest. Prinkey was the oldest polar bear last year, too.

"It was an unbelievable turnout, especially of new people," Jacobyansky said.

In addition to the usual collection of T-shirts, swimming trunks and bikinis, several polar bears accessorized with New Year's hats, 2011 glasses, Mardi Gras beads and Pittsburgh "First Night" buttons. Both "Santa Claus" and "Batman" made the plunge, but in keeping with their secretive nature, left before being interviewed.

The Polar Bear Plunge benefits the food pantry at Connellsville Area Community Ministries and participants have donated canned goods each year.

CACM Assistant Director Vicki West, who donned a hooded raincoat after taking the plunge, said, "We had some monetary donations in addition to the food. And five of my volunteer staff went in today."

After the event, the back of a station wagon and an SUV were loaded with scores of shopping bags filled with canned goods and other nonperishable items.

West said she appreciated the generosity this season. "The food pantry usually helps about 260 families during this season. We tapped out at 345 this season. People are getting laid off. It's hard."

West encouraged those who can to share with the less fortunate all year.

A new organization took place this year, helping polar bears thaw out after their bracing plunge.

Nearly 20 members of the Connellsville Area Education Association served free hot chocolate. They ran out after 200 cups.

"We'll bring more next year," CAEA President Jane Sandusky said.

Junior High West social studies teacher Bridget Camp walked through the crowd with steaming cups. She said the CAEA will make the plunge an annual event. The teachers have been more active in the community and intend to increase their presence.

"The fact that you have this many people out here on New Year's Day is wonderful. We're happy to be a part of it," Camp said.

In addition to the educators handing out steaming drinks, six entered the river. Merideth Thornton made the plunge with the CAEA, but was especially interested in introducing her Christmas guests, the Power family from Perth, Australia.

"It's summer at home," Phillip Power said. "It must be 110 degrees there."

With what he called, "a typical Australian response," he called the water "a little nippy," as he shivered on the bank.

His wife, Deanna Power said, "It was crazy, but fun."

Steve Wiltrout of Normalville came after the CAEA invitation.

"It's cold up there, but we don't have the ice," he said. "It was fun. This was my first time and I'll probably do it again next year."

Maggie Ewing, 12, and her family came from Uniontown to take the plunge for the first time. "It's a new year and it looked fun," she said of the event.

Philip Luczka, his son Jonathan and his daughter Jenna of Connellsville have participated all seven years.

"We've done it all seven years," Jenna Luczka said. "We've got to keep it up."

She said the water felt colder this year, but the air definitely felt warmer.

"It's a great experience. It was cold and lumpy this year," Philip Luczka said, showing off scrapes on his knees from the ice. "The water temperature seemed colder this year."

Mike Parlak, Frank Jacobyansky and Jim Heinbaugh were among the originators in 2005.

"I go completely under," Parlak said, taking down his hood and rubbing his shaved head, flushed with ice water. "We have a small group who keep coming back and putting it together."

Frank Jacobyansky said community support helped create the hole in the ice, a necessary modification for safety. The Yough ran high and fast between the ice and snow on its banks.

"We let them down 15 at a time," Frank Jacobyansky said of this year's polar bears. "There were 20 groups at least. This was by far the biggest turnout ever. It was a great time."

The river ice could have caused dangerous conditions, but the crowd cooperated and walked into the river off the pier. "We didn't know this would even be able to happen until the last minute," Nancy Jacobyansky said. "We appreciate the cooperation and everyone taking their turn. By going down the pier, you were able to see more people, and they had to go in. In the past, we've had people just go in to their ankles. This time, they had to go in all the way, and many went all the way under. It was exciting."

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