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Posted at 10:41 AM ET, 12/19/2007

Taking the Plunge

By Julia Beizer

When cold weather sets in, most people cuddle up by the nearest fireplace with a warm mug of cocoa. But some adventurous types aren't content to settle for such humdrum winter activities -- and that's where Polar Bear Clubs come in.

Polar Bear members prove their wintry mettle by jumping into frigid bodies of water. Some do it for the claimed health benefits; others just like the rush. Perhaps the most well-known of these groups is the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, which has been dashing into ice-cold waters since 1903. Washington may not have a cold enough climate to foster such a longstanding club, but we do have one nearby event for those who want to experience the chilly thrill. More on this polar plunge and other water-in-winter options after the jump.

Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge, Jan 26, 2008
Football players, politicians, kids and adults alike have participated in the Polar Bear Plunge, a late-January dip into Chesapeake Bay waters. Last year, between 7,000 and 8,000 people took the plunge, raking in more than $2 million for Special Olympics Maryland. This year, organizers hope to raise $3 million.

The basic idea is simple: participants raise at least $50 in donations to Special Olympics Maryland, gather at Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis, strip down to their skivvies (or any other attire except wetsuits) and dash into the water. Then they make a beeline for a heated tent, a free commemorative sweatshirt and a free lunch.

Cold enough for you? Participants react to the chill at the 2006 Polar Bear Plunge. (Matthew S. Gunby/AP)

Is there a risk of hypothermia? Well, sure. But according to Special Olympics Maryland's Tom Schniedwind, one of the event's organizers and a dedicated plunger, the chances of falling ill are low. "You're running in and running out and you're within 100 yards of a warming tent," said Schniedwind, noting that participants don't spend more than three minutes in the water. Even so, medical and public safety officials are on hand in case of emergency. Plunge organizers also recommend that participants check with their doctors before taking the dip.

The plunge is the main event, but swimmers and spectators alike have other activities to look forward to on plunge day. Many plungers participate in a costume contest and then waltz into the water in those getups. Pig races, kids' activities and live entertainment take place under a heated tent and are free to all -- even those who don't jump in the water. "You're basically looking at a state fair in the middle of winter," Schniedwind says. For more information about how to sign up, check out the official site.

Maryland State Police Deep Creek Dunk, Feb. 23, 2008
A Western Maryland cousin to the Polar Bear Plunge, the Deep Creek Dunk also raises money for Special Olympics Maryland. Only about 500 people participate in this intimate plunge, but the lakeside party that surrounds the event draws approximately 3,000 people.

Expect cooler waters if you opt for this freshwater dip. Schneidwind says that they have had to cut through 18 inches of ice on the lake before dunking. Like the Polar Bear Plunge, participants must raise at least $50 in donations to participate.

Polar Plunge XVI, Feb. 2, 2008
Virginia Beach also hosts a mid-winter dunk, which benefits the Special Olympics in Virginia. The carnival atmosphere of the Polar Bear Plunge is part of the fabric of the day; expect sand castles and costume contests. About 3,500 people plunged into the Atlantic Ocean last year, raising $800,000 for Special Olympics Virginia. Plungers must gather at least $100 in donations to participate.

Don't Want to Wait for an Event?
The outdoor pool at the YMCA in Silver Spring is heated and open all year -- as long as the temperature outside is above 32 degrees. The water temperature hovers between 82 and 84 degrees. Members have unfettered access to the pool and the rest of the Y's facilities, but nonmembers will need to go with a card-carrying member friend in order to get the $6 guest day pass ($4 for kids).

-- Julia

By Julia Beizer  | December 19, 2007; 10:41 AM ET
Categories:  Misc.  
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