Polar plungers brave icy waters to bring in the new year
By WENDY HOLDREN, The Register-Herald of Beckley
FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. (AP) — It was “far and away” the coldest year yet for the Fayette Station Polar Plunge, but the well-below-freezing temperatures didn’t stop a couple dozen locals from taking part in the New Year’s Day tradition.
After drying himself as best as he could, a fifth-year participant stood by the water’s edge in a puffy lime green jacket. Water from the river had crystalized in his thick beard.
“It’s a great way to start the new year,” said 36-year-old Brad Scott of Fayetteville. “There’s something about the plunge that’s just kind of like washing off last year, shaking it all off.”
Temperatures hovered around 15 degrees during the icy plunge, where Scott and others had to use shovels to break away enough ice to clear a section for the plungers.
“I think this is the first year below freezing,” he said. “It’s the first year we had to break the ice. We would not be stopped.”
Another longtime participant, Jenna Weatherford, agreed that the cold conditions wouldn’t stop her.
Wearing only a bikini, 15-year-old Jenna made the plunge — a tradition her boating family has been doing for years.
“The colder it gets, the less you want to wear,” she explained. “That way you can strip it off and get into warm clothes faster.”
Kathy Zerkle, the hostess of the event, has been participating since the inception of the polar plunge roughly 10 years ago.
Although she didn’t start the tradition, she did keep it going after the original organizer relocated.
“It’s just for fun,” Zerkle said. “It’s not for money. It’s not for a cause. It’s just a way for us to do something on New Year’s Day that’s kind of special.”
Hot chocolate and peppermint schnapps were available for attendees after the event, along with propane space heaters to warm up.
“This is absolutely the coldest year we’ve ever had, by a long shot,” she noted.
The word-of-mouth event has grown each year, especially with the help of social media in the past several years.
Zerkle said she was especially surprised at this year’s turnout, as fewer people have shown up in the past for warmer weather.
In addition to the plungers, another couple dozen spectators and supporters watched from the banks.
Mary Stone and Jack Kinsey, who heard about the event on Facebook, decided to watch the polar plunge before going on their annual hike on the first day of the new year.
The Gauley Bridge residents said the participants were brave, but crazy.
“I fell in a river trout fishing this time about a year ago,” Kinsey said. “I know how cold that water is.”
Just in front of Stone and Kinsey stood first-time plungers Brett and Jimmy Garris.
The nervous father-son duo was wrapped in blankets — Brett with a multi-colored crocheted blanket and his dad with a plush WVU one. The two wore shorts, short-sleeve T-shirts and tennis shoes.
“I’m terrified,” Brett said as he handed his blanket to a spectator. “I just thought it was the best way to bring in the new year, southern West Virginia style.”
They, too, heard about the event on Facebook and thought it would be something fun to do together.
“It’s nice I get to do it with my son,” Jimmy said. “But this may be the first and only time.”
As they came scrambling back ashore, Jimmy responded with a resounding, “No!” that he would not be participating next year.
As for Brett, who had chunks of ice in his hair, he said his participation next year is “highly doubtful.”
Information from: The Register-Herald, http://www.register-herald.com