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Chilly for charity: Two polar bear plunges set for Jan. 1

Chilly for charity: Two polar bear plunges set for Jan. 1

Each year, thrill seekers take a dip into wintery cold waters to kick off the new year. 

In 2018, area adventurers will have a couple bone-chilling options, with Polar Bear Plunges taking place at Fort Ritchie Community Center in Cascade and at River Bottom Park in Williamsport. Both plunges will happen at noon Monday, Jan. 1, with additional activities.

Deb Swope, 49, of Waynesboro, Pa., braved the cold waters of Lake Royer last year at Fort Ritchie along with her husband, Dave Swope, and friends John and Rheeanna Walters. 

“We just did it for fun,” Swope said. “I tried to get Dave to dress up as the Loch Ness Monster of Lake Royer.”

A marathoner and triathlete, Swope said she is not sure why she sees plunging into icy cold water as fun.

“I don’t know. Why do we do all the crazy things we do? The thrill, the adventure, something different,” she said.

The Fort Ritchie plunge was not her first. About 15 years before, Swope said, she participated in one at Deep Creek Lake in “much worse conditions.”

Away with friends for a winter retreat, they agreed to “sponsor” her if she would do it.

“It was an impulse thing. I was like, ‘Hahaha. Sure. I’ll do it.’ I didn’t know what I was getting myself into with that one,” she said.

It was February and the ice on the water was so think it needed to be chipped away by people in wet suits.

“Here is the funny thing. I didn’t know that you didn’t really have to go under. You can do whatever you want. I thought you had to go out and fully submerge yourself,” Swope said. “It was snowing. It was insane.”

Organizers herded plungers like cattle, she said. 

“I’m short, so I couldn’t see in front of me. I started running toward the guys in the wet suits. I was only in a couple seconds and my organs just started to shut down. It felt like I was becoming robotic in my movements,” Swope said. “When I came up, I could hear the crowd cheering.”

A friend told her, “Deb, that was for you.”

“I was the only one that went under,” she said. “I was like, ‘Wait, what? We didn’t have to go under?’”

Swope said she likes the idea of raising money for charity while she does something fun and unusual.

Proceeds from this year’s Fort Ritchie plunge will go to children and youth programs including summer camp, kids club, parents’ night out and other special events. Music, games and fire will begin at 11 a.m. with the plunge promplty at noon. There will be prizes for the most pledges and best costume.

Jason Banzhoff, 32, of Hagerstown remembers his first plunge at Williamsport in 2009.

“I did it with my family – my dad, my stepmother and my brother. My family likes to just do crazy things. Nothing is crazier than jumping into that water in freezing temperatures. I didn’t luck out and get one of those years when it was fairly mild,” he said.

 Banzhoff planned to leave his belongings along the shore and run straight into the water, “no thinking about it.”

“We went along with the crowd and, good ol’ me, I slipped on some ice on the boat dock right in the middle of a stampede,” he said. “I just had on a pair of shorts. That ice was really cold on my back. I kind of had to help myself up because everyone else was just getting into the water.”

 Banzhoff was not hurt, other than “my pride in front of all those people,” he said.

He proceeded to go all the way into the water, jumping, then putting his head under to get the full experience.

“I was in a weird phase where I shaved my head. It kind of didn’t help with with the temperature. I got up and I did feel ice form on top of my head. That’s how cold it was,” he said. “I went directly to the car.”

Like Swope, Banzhoff said he likes that a “crazy” exploit can raise money for charity.

This year’s event at Williamsport will raise money for Williamsport Junior Firefighters. Activities begin at 10 a.m. with the plunge to follow at noon.


If you go ...

WHAT: Fort Ritchie Polar Bear Plunge

WHEN: Monday, Jan. 1. Activities at 11 a.m. Plunge at noon.

WHERE: Fort Ritchie Community Center, 14421 Lake Royer Dr., Cascade

COST: $15 for registration, $25 for registration and a T-shirt

CONTACT: Register online at


WHAT: Williamsport’s Polar Bear Plunge

WHEN: Monday, Jan. 1. Activities begin at 10 a.m. Plunge at noon.

WHERE: River Bottom Park, off West Salisbury Streeet, Williamsport

COST: $25 registration with T-shirt

CONACT: Register at


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