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Takin' the plunge

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By Stephen Knapp

If Evergreen had a brochure, it would feature a picture of Jan. 1, 2008, as an example of why winter in Colorado is better than winter in other places.

New Year’s Day dawned cold and clear. The savage, icy winds that had lashed hill and hollow the day before had blown away with the Old Year, and the snow-covered landscape shone like glory under the mounting sun. By 11 a.m., the mercury stood at a bracing 20 degrees — just right for a dip in Evergreen Lake.

Now, a lot of people who should know will tell you that the wet part of a frozen lake is a good place to avoid. Stay off the ice, they say. It doesn’t look safe, they say. You could fall in, they say.

Rescue personnel train constantly against the day that somebody goes through the ice. And yet, on Jan. 1, many of those self-same rescue personnel were on hand at Evergreen Lake encouraging dozens of presumably sensible people to find out what a trout’s winter pad feels like. Jump, they said.

It was the first-ever Polar Plunge at Evergreen Lake, and if it sounds silly and reckless and a little stupid, it was all of the above. It was also a ridiculously, hilariously, perfectly good time.

“Dick Wulf has mentioned for years that he wanted to do some kind of lake jump, but it just never went anywhere,” said Pat Callahan, deputy director of the Evergreen Park and Recreation District. “Drive Smart finally jumped on it, and I think it’s going to be great.”

In fact, any fame or infamy proceeding from the Polar Plunge must rightfully attach to Drive Smart Evergreen-Conifer’s executive director, Jackie Mohr, who identified the concept as a natural adjunct to the popular New Year’s Eve Skate the Lake party and spent much of the last three months pulling it together. She had help, of course. The Polar Plunge is a cooperative venture by Drive Smart, EPRD, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and Evergreen Fire/Rescue, with all proceeds benefiting Drive Smart and EPRD’s special needs programs.

Callahan stood precariously next to a rectangular 100-square-foot hole sawn in the ice. Dark, 33-degree water lapped at its edges and, a few feet away, clear blocks of ice maybe 14 inches on a side lay tumbled in crystal confusion. By most accounts brave, Callahan preferred to “supervise” the plunging rather than do any himself.

At 11:30, there were about 35 pre-registered “plungers” and at least 300 lily-livered gawkers crowding the ice next to the Lake House boat launch. They were easy to tell apart. The exuberant plungers mostly wore madcap costumes, T-shirts and suntan lotion. The gawkers wore jackets and scarves and superior expressions.

Inflatable palm trees and pink flamingos littered the scene, and broad plywood sheets had been laid on the ice to help the plungers more easily find their doom. Evergreen Fire/Rescue parked Rescue No. 2 nearby, and dry-suited firefighters stood ready to assist in the unlikely event anybody seemed inclined to dawdle in the freezing water.

Dressed warmly against the chill, Jefferson County Sheriff Ted Mink might have thought it beneath the dignity of his high office to take the plunge. No matter. He had people who would do it for him.

“Watch me solicit some extra donations by letting somebody push me in,” boasted sheriff’s spokesman Jim Shires, looking natty and entirely too dry in his summer uniform shirt. “For a minimum of $20, you can push me in the lake. I’ll call it ‘Push-a-Cop.’ ”

That tempting gauntlet couldn’t stay down long. At the bright stroke of noon, KCNC anchorman Alan Gionet kicked things into high gear by declining to plunge, though he hastened to assure the crowd — now nearly 500 strong — that he’d definitely plunged in the past, honest. Still, what he lacked in pluck he amply supplied in auctioneering acumen. As Shires strutted and preened around the icy pool like a cocky, mustachioed prizefighter, Gionet ran the “Push-a-Cop” bidding past $50, past $60, to a very respectable $75.

It’s possible that Mountain Foothills Rotarian Jerry Lautiger merely saw an opportunity to offer additional support to a pair of worthy causes. It’s also possible he’s got a glove compartment full of speeding tickets, or maybe he’s just sick of deputies breaking up the Rotary’s famously noisy “Ted Nugent Nite” every Wednesday. Either way, Lautiger gave a spirited shove, Shires gave a spirited splash, and the Polar Plunge was in full swing.

For more than half an hour, a solid line of impulsive hotheads trod the plywood to water’s edge and plunged. From the tender teens to upwards of six decades, they plunged singly and in pairs; they plunged in prim nose-holding attitudes, in head-on dives and in crowd-dousing cannonballs. The high school-age girls mostly plunged in bikinis because, you know, anything worth doing is worth looking good doing. Others went in more or less fully clothed, or in bizarre and fanciful costumes, or in diverse combinations of rosy, frost-nipped skin and Tommy Bahama beachwear. One scurvy crew from EPRD walked the sodden plank in full pirate regalia and hit the water with a resounding “Aaargh!”

Some wag put Van Halen’s “Jump” on the Lake House’s outdoor sound system.

“Might as well jump,” crooned David Lee Roth. “Go ahead and jump.”

With each howling plunge, a mighty roar went up from the spectators, because nothing satisfies so completely as another’s discomfiture. Once in the drink, each plunger fought their way across 12 feet of chest-high water and climbed out the other side, chilled to the bone but triumphant and beaming from ear to ear.

As in any successful public event, the Polar Plunge presented a “teachable moment.” As the jovial crowd pressed close against the hole, eager to get full value from each plunging maniac, the thick ice beneath them responded to the increase in specific gravity by sinking toward the lake bottom. As it did, the lake responded to one hydraulic principle or another by climbing out of the hole to see what all the commotion was about. In layman’s terms, that meant that all of the plungers and the better part of the crowd spent most of the show ankle deep in Evergreen Lake. Under such circumstances, it’s small wonder that many spectators performed their own impromptu plunges without getting anywhere near the hole.

One curious irony of the Polar Plunge is that, as each New Year’s bather emerged from the lake covered in goose bumps and glory, one or two from the peanut gallery were moved to shed their coat and their marbles and take a dive. By the time the last ripple faded into the abyss, fully 76 ostensibly responsible citizens had stripped down for the cause.

Another is that every one of them paid a princely $25 for the privilege of being cold and wet. Then again, this is ski country, so paying handsomely to be cold and wet is actually part and parcel of the Colorado lifestyle. At the end of the day, Drive Smart and EPRD special needs programs netted a comfortable $1,775 in plunger fees. Surprisingly, or maybe not, that was just a fraction of the total take. Thanks to a raft of shrewd jumpers brazenly leveraging their folly, the Plunge pulled down a tidy $3,600 in pledged donations, and the gravy is still pouring in.

“The people in this community never cease to amaze me,” said Mohr, a fearless plunger in her own right. “Actually, plunging was a lot easier than arranging all this.”

“I just decided Sunday I was going to do this,” explained Mary Ann Tate, still dry and looking at the slate-colored lake water the way a 6-year-old looks at a teacup ride. “Just in the last two days I lined up $350 in pledges. That’s definitely the way to go with this. They’re both great causes, and pledges can make this thing pay.”

EPRD board secretary Kit Darrow took a different, more cynical, but equally effective tack.

“I bought Dr. Randy Whitesell,” Darrow smirked. “I told him I’d donate $50 if he jumped, and he did. I call it ‘shrink-in-the-drink.’ ” Hey, whatever gets the job done, right?

Like Tate, sheriff’s Deputy Dee Anderson put herself into the effort body and soul. Tate was one of six Jeffco school resource officers who turned out to support Drive Smart and special needs programs. Tate’s beat is Evergreen High School.

“I raffled off chances to push me in,” Anderson laughed. “A dollar a chance, or six chances for $5. They sold like hotcakes.”

According to Mohr, Anderson’s selfless efforts netted more than $700, making her easily the most high-yield depth charge in last week’s engagement. Jason Graff, an EHS junior, bought the ticket that sent Anderson to Davy Jones’ Locker.

“We were having a band banquet, and she came in selling tickets, so I bought $5 worth,” said Jason, coolly. “I don’t have anything against Dee. She’s great. I just thought pushing her in sounded like fun. And it was.” To show there were no hard feelings, Jason coughed up $25 on his own account and followed Deputy Anderson in.

While ill-considered, certainly, the plungers’ sacrifice merited consideration and, as each one climbed shivery and sputtering from the water, they were met with a dry robe and a shove toward the Old Warming Hut. Inside, both woodstoves were burning great guns, and Caffe di Lucca had laid out tables full of hot drinks and nourishing snacks.

Amid the happy hubbub in the warming hut, 17-year-old Erin Smith sat quietly on the floor with her back against a stout log pillar, a blanket thrown across her shoulders. Her arms rested on her knees, and with both hands she clutched a cup of hot cocoa close to her face, the way lonesome cowboys do around campfires in Frederic Remington paintings.

“I lost a shoe because I couldn’t feel my feet,” said Erin, her face a study in tired satisfaction. “It was really cold, but it wasn’t too bad. I’ll definitely do it again next year.”