Shown are some of the thousands of people that ran into the Chesapeake… (GENE SWEENEY JR, Baltimore…)
Just because you're the sane member of your family — sane enough, that is, not to willingly jump into the Chesapeake Bay in the dead of winter — doesn't mean you can't enjoy this weekend's 15th annual Polar Bear Plunge at Sandy Point State Park.
For you, there's Plungefest — a ton of hoopla surrounding the actual plunge, including live music, food, demonstration sports, kids' games, even an appearance by Pauly D of MTV's "Jersey Shore." Best of all, much of it can be enjoyed within the relative warmth of some giant tents pitched just for the occasion.
"From dads to moms to kids to toddlers to those very difficult-to-please teenagers, we've got something to please everybody," says Tom Schniedwind, an executive vice president of Maryland Special Olympics and one of those who organized the first plunge 14 years ago. "I just basically applied my family to the afternoon. I said, 'Let's just replicate what they would enjoy.'"
Such diversions were not available at that first plunge, when the idea of jumping into icy water still seemed like something of a novelty, one that wouldn't appeal to all that much of an audience. Back in those halcyon days of 1997, jumping into the freezing water was about all the day offered — that, plus a T-shirt and some free food. Between 200 and 300 people showed up, Schniedwind remembers, and together they raised about $70,000 for Special Olympics.
"My goodness, we were so excited," he says. Not to mention inexperienced. Schniedwind, hardly familiar with the vagaries of food preparation, didn't figure in enough time for the chili to thaw or for the water to heat-up for hot chocolate. As a result, people were left eating what were essentially chili popsicles and drinking lukewarm water with powdered chocolate floating on the top.
"We made the tradition that we were just going to serve it and be the butt of cruel jokes," he recalls with a laugh. "It was bad, but even then, it was fun. That was the auspicious start of this 15-year tradition."
Oh, how times have changed. For Saturday's plunge, six entertainment zones have been set up, each with a separate audience in mind. Kids can take advantage of the Carnival FunFest, back for its fourth year, housing carnival-style games (think a fair Midway), crafters, food vendors and other family-friendly displays. Teens and tweens can enjoy Pure Boardshop's X-Games Tent, which will include snowboarding demos by representatives from area skate shops.
"Having guys and girls take part in the Polar Bear plunge is great, but we want to give them something else to do," says Bob Roberts, owner of Pure Boardshop in Annapolis, which is sponsoring a tent for the first time."We're hoping Mother Nature gives us real snow, but if not, we're planning to get ice and snow shavings from area ice rinks."
At the Mickey Harris Monster Garage tent, airbrush artist Harris will be decorating a 2011 Harley-Davidson Street Glide bike. At the Robert Andrews Tuscan Spa Retreat tent, women will be able to sample a host of health, beauty and fitness aids, in an atmosphere designed to evoke the south of Italy. And at the Chesapeake Bayhawks Arctic Lacrosse Zone, players from the Major League Lacrosse champion Bayhawks will host a tent dedicated to all things lax.
"It's going to be a fun day," promises midfielder Ben Hunt, conceding, "I don't know what to expect, exactly."
Finally, at the Rams Head Ice Lodge tent, "Jersey Shore" star Pauly D will serve as guest DJ from 12:30 p.m.-4 p.m. Local bands will perform at other times, while food and nonalcoholic drinks will be available throughout the day.
Longtime plungers, even while they might scoff under their breath at cold-weather fans who don't have the guts to actually get in the water, welcome the variety Plungefest brings to their day. While the main event continues to be the plunges, which this year are scheduled for 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., anything that brings people out to Sandy Point and helps raise money for Special Olympics is OK by them.
"I don't think that anyone had that vision in the beginning, where it would get to where it is today," says John Newnan, a Howard County police captain who has been taking the plunge since 1998. "It's gotten crazy. It's the place to be for people."
Just how crazy is reflected in the numbers. Last year, on a day when the water was so cold and the wind was so fierce that the afternoon plunge had to be canceled, more than 15,000 people made the trip down to Sandy Point, each pledging at least $50 for the privilege of experiencing numbing cold. More than $3 million was raised.
"The thought that people would pay money for permission to jump into the freezing cold water … just doesn't make any sense," says a happily amazed Schniedwind. "The whole concept here is incongruity. Incongruity is our defining feature."
If you go
The 15th annual Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge is set for 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday at Sandy Point State Park, just west of the Bay Bridge off U.S. 50 near Annapolis. Plungers must have at least $50 in pledges to participate. The free Plungefest events run from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. at Sandy Point. Parking is available at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis, Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold and Kent Island High School in Stevensville. Information: 410-789-6677 or plungemd.com.