On a chilly February morning, over 240 people showed up at Lake Snowden in Albany to do the unthinkable: jump in an icy lake measuring 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which water starts to freeze.
However, participants took the freezing plunge for a good cause. It was the fifth annual Polar Bear Plunge, a charity event held to raise money for the students of the Beacon School.
"I reached out to Kevin Davis and Arian Smedley over at the Beacon school," said Brian Johnson, commander for the Albany Veterans of Foreign Wars, or VFW, Post 9893. "I wanted to see if they had a need for support for quality of life for the students that the school budget doesn't cover, and they said absolutely."
The Beacon School is a special education service provider for the five local school districts in Athens County. The school is a resource for students with identified developmental disabilities and is part of the Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities.
"Five years ago, we were sitting around trying to think of ways that the VFW could give back to the community," said Johnson. "I brought down the idea because I'm from the UP (upper peninsula) in Michigan, that we do a Polar Bear Plunge. We did a Polar Plunge up there every year."
After reaching out to the Polar Plunge to see if a new chapter could be started in Athens County, Johnson said the only condition they were met with was that they change the name to Polar Bear Plunge to distinguish this chapter.
The event is hosted by the WSEO 107.7 radio station in addition to Albany VFW Post 9893. Starting in the below-freezing morning hours of Saturday, Feb. 4, participants began plunging into half-frozen lake Snowden.
“It took a lot of encouragement to go in,” said Polar Bear Plunger Ryan Stanley.
Brian was accompanied in his plunge by Jesslyn Stanley.
“It’s for a good cause,” she said.
Despite the initial hesitation to enter the freezing water, Jesslyn said the water wasn’t as bad as she thought it would be and that she would do it again.
“We're auxiliary members (of the VFW), so we do a lot anyways for the veterans,” Jesslyn said.
Some participants registered for the event as individuals, whereas some formed teams to take the plunge together. The donation amount for individuals to take the plunge was $40 and for a team of 10, $300. Additionally, individuals and businesses could make donations without
“The first year we did it, we had eight to maybe nine teams, which is roughly 90 to 95 plungers,” Johnson said. "This year, we have a record online and in-person registration.”
The event originally took place in January for the first couple of years, but after realizing that most college kids were not back in town when the event was being hosted, the plunge was moved to either the first or second Saturday of February.
Albany area Fire Department Chief Lee Bolen said the preparation for this year’s event was milder than in previous years.
“The year before we were out here with chainsaws and we were just cutting three-to-four-inch thick ice,” Bolen said. "This year, we were able to just take our boat out and tool around and break the ice up.”
The VFW has also given back to the Albany area Fire Department in addition to the charities it supports through Polar Bear Plunge events.
“Through that we've been able to use that money to purchase a rescue boat and some of the yellow cold water suits,” Bolen said. “So it's been very beneficial to us too.”
The sixth annual Polar bear Plunge will occur in February 2024, but donations to the Beacon School are always accepted. Be sure to check out some of the plunger’s reactions to the cold water in the video above.
Correction appended: A previous version of this article stated the incorrect spelling of Arian Smedley’s first name. This article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.