Plunge takes place next Saturday
By Fran Odyniec
For The Advocate
Polar bear sightings are not unusual at this time of the year in Plain City. Those robust creatures have been spotted just east of downtown for the last 19 years about a week before Christmas out at the Kile farm on Old Route 161 — more precisely, cavorting about in Lake Kile, the pond on Fred and Linda Kile’s farm.
Curiously enough, the bears come from around Madison and adjoining counties and as far away as Hawaii and Australia.
Before you call the game warden or “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” rest assured the bears in question have no claws, are of the two-legged variety, and are members of an informal organization known as the Plain City Polar Bears.
The organization was founded one evening 19 years ago at the Plain City Pub by charter members Fred Kile, John Houchard, Barry Thomas, and Terry Stevenson. To this day, the group’s memory is a bit foggy as to whose idea it was to begin the chilling experience of jumping into Lake Kile whether there was snow on the ground (part of a real Polar Bear’s habitat) or not. Kile is the only one of the four who continues to make the plunge.
Targeting the winter solstice as their jumping off point, the frigid four didn’t realize what they were starting, other than, as Fred said, “We picked 4 p.m. on the Winter Solstice so we would remember when it was.
“We just did it to have fun,” he said of the first plunge. “We had no intention to grow it.”
Once word got around, growth became inevitable as the original plunge morphed into a fundraiser for the Pleasant Valley Joint Fire District (PVJFD).
Soon donation jars and event flyers began appearing in shops and bars around the region augmented by an e-mail distribution. Over the past 15 years, the Plain City Polar Bears have raised nearly $4,000, which has helped the PVJFD purchase needed equipment including water rescue items and wet suits.
Heading into its 20th year, the plunge attracts on average 200 people, of whom 35 to 40 are expected to take to the waters of Lake Kile, well, like a polar bear, this coming at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 15.
“It sounds crazy,” says Bernie Vance, who will turn 75 on Christmas Eve and holds claim to being the oldest person to make like a polar bear. “When you go in the water, it’s not unbelievably cold.”
The air temperature has varied over the years, but Fred and Bernie agree that there have been times when “it’s been way below freezing.”
Vance gears up for the plunge by hanging around outside the Kile barn, a couple of hours before the prescribed hour for splash down. The 64 foot by 40 foot barn erected in 1986, serves as the “bear cave” for the event, and stands just off the shore of Lake Kile. Before and after the plunge, a veritable cornucopia of food and treats stretches across the center of the barn, which also provides changing areas for polar bears as well as official headquarters for the plunge.
“I get accustomed to the cold by wearing my trunks, bedroom slippers, and a robe,” Bernie explained. “I don’t know of anyone ever getting sick from going into that pond for the polar bear party.”
Each year the oldest bear is the first one in. Last year Vance came down with a severe cold and had to forego the festivities. While he was set to defend his “oldest bear” title this year, Vance is scheduled for heart surgery. But he promises that “I will defend my crown next year.”
So the “oldest” responsibility for this year may go to Russ Baldwin, 73. Bob Tobin, 69, did the honors in 2011 with a running start off the lake’s dock for a near-perfect cannonball splash.
The method of getting wet is left up to the individual.
“It’s the freestyle approach to total immersion,” said Kile.
Participants can choose either to wade in from the shore or jump into the pond from the dock. However, there are two requirements that must be met before a person can reach polar bear status.
For the males of the species, they must dunk their heads under the water to get their hair wet or else, “It doesn’t count,” said Vance.
For the females of the species, the rule is that they, too, must get fully soaked but their hair can remain dry.
Regardless if the weather is cold or frightful, Fred has to prepare the pond which covers about 1,600 feet of water surface. He actually has to thaw a portion of the pond to create a big enough hole for the bears. This is done by running an air compressor to stir up the water in order to bring up warmer water from the bottom of the pond to create the hole.
“If the ice is two inches thick,” explained Fred, “it will take two days to make the hole.”
For safety’s sake, a fire rescue unit from the PVJFD is on hand during the plunge with paramedics stationed on the dock, on the shore, and in the water should they be needed.
Kile says he is thankful that the paramedics have thus far not been needed for a rescue.
With holiday demands on the shoulders of most people, he says that the Polar Bear Plunge and party is one way for folks to take a breather from all the hustle and bustle.
“Call it an adult holiday stress reliever,” he said with a warm polar bear smile.
For information on the Plain City Polar Bear Swim, call (614) 873-8226.