Upbeat polar plungers say -6 air made 35-degree water feel balmy
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Punishing cold Monday at Waukegan Municipal Beach didn't deter about 225 hardy souls who were freezin' for a reason and made the plunge into icy water to benefit special recreation.
Despite extreme conditions, participants ran the gamut in age and dress, including one guy in a full chicken costume, for the 19th annual Polar Bear Plunge.
Some opted to wade, jump or just stick a toe into Lake Michigan. The air temperature was six degrees below zero and wind chill in the neighborhood of 25 below -- the coldest New Year's Day since 1969.
It was so cold steam rolled off the blue-green water and clouds hugging the horizon looked like a distant mountain range in the arctic. Ice formed on the plastic sheeting of the warming tent. A similar event in Chicago was cancelled because of the Arctic weather.
Because of the cold, the plunge area was limited to small pools of open water. Plungers were repeatedly warned not to dawdle and firefighters were on guard in the shallow water to help anyone who struggled.
But at about 35 degrees the water was much warmer than the air. Plungers were upbeat about the experience.
Tod Schneider missed last year after gall bladder surgery but has taken the plunge about 10 times. His wife, Julie, coordinates the event as manager of special recreation for the Waukegan Park District.
While Julie made quick work of it, Tod did the Nestea plunge, falling backward until fully submerged.
"I love this. It's how you start the New Year. You gotta' do it," he said afterward in the warming tent. Despite some seriously red skin, the jovial Schneider appeared none the worse for wear.
"That's the worst -- toes. The toes stay cold for half an hour," he said.
Indeed, once immersed the water seemed warm, said Oscar Soto of Prospect Heights, after taking his first plunge.
"Not as bad as I thought, to be honest," Soto said. "At first you think your feet are being squeezed." Soto came with his girlfriend, but his brother backed out after seeing the forecast.
The short walk back from the beach to the tent was the hardest part, he added, as the frigid wind on wet skin magnified the ache. But he'll be back next year.
"Get a group and dress up," Soto urged others.
The event is hosted by the city of Waukegan and the Waukegan Park District on behalf of Special Recreation Services of Northern Lake County. The agency offers programs and team and individual sports for special recreation athletes.
"I'm really pleased having 225 plungers. Considering the weather, I think it's a really good number," Julie Schneider said. Last year, about 300 took the plunge on a relatively balmy day. But there is no cause and effect between participation and temperature, she added.
Joe Neargarder of Waukegan was part of the North End Tap team taking the plunge. It was his first time.
"When I saw the air temperature at negative six, I thought of backing out but it's not too bad," he said.
Last year, $7,500 was raised to pay for about 200 kids to attend summer camp and other programs, Schneider said. This year, the take was about $8,100, she added, as nearly twice as many local businesses as usual made pledges.
"Which I think is probably our top dollar amount yet," she said. "Every year is a success in my eyes."