STANTON — Call them crazy or call them dedicated, but the group of “polar plungers” slated to drop through a hole in the ice Feb. 9 at Clifford Lake Inn is doing its part to raise money for a very good cause — Special Olympics Michigan.
According to event organizer Jim Dennis, the annual plunge attracts as many as 100-plus plungers and 400 spectators to the small, inland lake each winter. Depending on weather conditions, he’s hoping to see at least that many turn out for this year’s plunge.
The plunge is sponsored by area law enforcement agencies. Dennis himself is a corrections officer and explains that the event is sort of an offshoot of a September fundraising event in which he takes part.
“It’s really part of the Torch Run,” Dennis said. “It’s a 750-mile relay that goes from Copper Harbor in the U.P. to Sterling Heights. We run five miles, twice a day with six-member teams made up of the Department of Corrections, the State Police and the Fraternal Order of Police.”
While taking part in that event, organizers suggested Dennis try his hand at a wintertime event, as well. Hence, the Polar Plunge was born.
Dennis’ first inclination was that it would be a failure.
“I figured, nobody’s going to want to do that,” he said. “But that first year we raised $7,000.”
By the second year, the event grew from seven “plungers” to 80, raising about $17,000. Funds are raised by plungers gathering pledges; each is asked to raise at least $75, though that’s not a hard and fast requirement.
To add to the fun, most contestants taking part — it is a contest; awards are presented — wear costumes of one sort or another. “Best Costume” winners over the years have included Superman, Adam and Eve, penguins and most notably, a giant lobster created from red, plastic Solo cups and plates.
Other prize categories include most money raised, which Dennis said is the “most important” award presented. Last year, that went to veteran fundraiser, Grand Rapids resident Jim Ayres. Ayres has for the past 25 years volunteered with the Special Olympics and served as coach for various events. He currently serves as chairman of the organization’s State Board of Directors.
“This is my fourth plunge,” Ayres said. “I live in Grand Rapids but plunge in Stanton as I have a cottage on Crystal Lake, and my hot tub is only 15 minutes away.
“The Polar Plunge is our primary fund raiser for Special Olympics, and the money we raise supports our many programs. This year I convinced my wife, Nancy, to plunge. She is very connected in the business community and is currently ahead of me in donations. We hope that we can each raise $5,000 this year.”
Ayres describes the plunge experience as “fun”, “rewarding” and — not surprisingly — “cold.”
“It’s one of the most fulfilling causes I have ever been involved with,” Ayres said.
The Clifford Lake Inn, which helps organize the event, is key to the plunge’s ongoing success, Dennis added. The Inn not only offers plenty of hot drinks and a full menu to the spectators, but provides free meals to the brave volunteers diving into the frigid waters of Clifford Lake.
That “diving in” part isn’t the worst of it, though, according to Dennis. The water of the lake (once you cut through the ice) is at least 33-degrees. The air temperature, upon exiting the water, can be much colder.
Fortunately, heated changing trailers are set up nearby to prevent the onset of hypothermia. Paramedics and other emergency personnel also are always on hand, just in case.
This year’s event also features something new, live music in the Inn featuring Manistee musical duo Awesome Distractions. According to Dennis, the group plays acoustic cover tunes as well as a few originals.
In the event that unseasonably warm temperatures continue to prevail, the plunge will still go on as planned, save that the plungers will dive from moveable docks, rather than into a hole in the ice.
“The ice is better, though,” Dennis admitted. “The ice gives the whole thing a feeling of doing it right.”
The plunge takes place from noon to 3 p.m. with a parade of costumes, plunge awards and post-plunge party following. All proceeds support the year-round efforts of Special Olympics Michigan.