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‘Cold, sandy slushy’ attracts human polar bears

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Updated: March 3, 2014 3:15PM

From Amarillo to Dallas to Houston, it was around 60 degrees on New Year’s Day. And yet Joanie Brown could be found on Waukegan’s Municipal Beach, where a 20-degree morning was complemented by a 10 mph wind off Lake Michigan.

“She drove in from Texas for this!” shouted her friend, Wendy Schmidt of St. Charles, as they worked their way across a brown-sugar mix of sand and snow to join the 15th annual Polar Bear Plunge.

Asked if Texans jump in a lake to ring in the new year, Brown said “they do, but it’s worthless. What’s the point? It’s 62 degrees in the water down there.”

The water off Waukegan was a near-freezing, frothy blend of slush and chunks of ice both large and small on Wednesday, as no less than 345 people participated in a ritual to benefit the Special Recreation Services of Northern Lake County/Waukegan.

In what organizers described as the most challenging weather ever seen for the event, Waukegan Public Works crews were literally in the water minutes before the scheduled 10 a.m. start time to scoop out as much ice as possible from a house-sized hole carved outward from the shore.

“Oh, it’s a great day,” said Waukegan Park District spokeswoman Theodora Anderson, her voice dripping with sarcasm and laughter as she photographed the action from a safe distance.

Julie Schneider with Special Recreation Services said the number of participants for 2014 came in right around what was seen for 2013, even though the crowd came in a bit slower with area roadways challenged by a 6-inch overnight snowfall.

“We had 163 pre-registered, which is about normal,” said Schneider during the first 30 minutes of the hour-long activity, “and it was looking a little slow before (but) it could be that they’re still coming in because of the snow.”

Asked to compare 2014’s weather with past years, Schneider recalled 2003, when pre-plunge winds knocked down warming tents, and 2008, when another bout of snow greeted early arrivals.

“I think it was 2009 when we also had a big slush pond,” she said, “but actually the dive guys were telling me that this is worse because of the wind today.”

Wednesday’s brutal weather, which saw the northeast wind pushing snow and ice from open water to collect along the shore, forced the cancellation of Kenosha’s own Polar Bear Plunge due to what organizers described as “dangerous conditions” at Simmons Island Beach.

After completing his annual wade into the January water, Mayor Wayne Motley said all of the preparation and forecasting put into the event is “well, well worth the effort.”

“The money that you’ve donated today will help our children and adults with uniforms and traveling expenses,” Motley told the crowd. “I’ve done it 14 years in a row, and I’ll be doing it until I’m well into my 80s and maybe my 90s.”

For Tanya Fretheim and Felix Monterrosa of Gurnee, the 2014 Plunge was the continuation of a celebration that began on Nov. 2, when they became engaged for a June wedding. Both Fretheim, who wore a veil and carried a bouquet of roses into the lake, and Monterrosa are veterans of the Jan. 1 pastime.

“She’s done it twice and I’ve done it about seven times,” Monterrosa said. “This is awesome, it’s great. It’s a great way to start a new year.”

Twenty-year-old Erik Anderson of Mundelein was among those taking his first plunge, saying “it was like walking through a slushy from 7-11” as he reviewed the action with his sister, 19-year-old Lauren Anderson.

“It was definitely like a cold, sandy slushy,” said Lauren, who jumped in for her third year. “And then the wind this year — I don’t ever remember it ever being this windy before.”

Erik added that “it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. It was actually pretty enjoyable to come out of the water and say, ‘Oh, wow, I did that on the first of the year.’ That was a pretty epic thing to do.”

“So many people ask why I jump in the water, especially in Lake Michigan,” Lauren said, “but the money goes to kids with special needs, so it’s for a good cause. It’s not jumping into a lake ‘just because.’”

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