By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Feb. 15 — Some people want to climb Mount Everest. Others want to see the Great Wall of China, or the aurora borealis.
But for John Kilmartin of Leesburg, it was packing up his wife Jenny and the two kids and driving 90 minutes west — so he could don only a spotted speedo and an elephant head while charging into freezing water to grab plastic snowflakes.
“Honestly, it was a bucket list item,” Kilmartin said after the event. “I’m just so thankful my family came… I tried to get about 10 of my friends to come and do it with me and nobody would, so I am so thankful my family came to experience it with me.”
But they didn’t join him in Lake Arrowhead. His son, Johnny, age 6, put it bluntly: “Because it’s too cold.”
Each family member donned different animal heads for the social event — costumes were encouraged by the organizers.
“It was cool,” said Claire Kilmartin, age 8.
It was 32 degrees at the start of the second Polar Plunge hosted by the Page County Alliance for Community Action.
Members of Luray’s volunteer rescue squad and fire department stood by watching for any signs of hypothermia, which can slow breathing and the heart rate after only a few minutes of exposure.
Participants stayed in the water just long enough to reach one of three “icebergs” floating in shoulder-deep water in the mountain lake. Attached to the icebergs were about 50 plastic snowflakes participants could grab in order to claim prizes.
“I like to test myself,” said Ethan Hornstra of Luray, who wore a Boy Scout uniform for the event. “I used to be a lifeguard, so I’m used to the water… but when I dove in, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is colder than I thought.’”
For his efforts, Hornstra won a stuffed polar bear, a stocking cap and a gift certificate to Christi’s Custom Touches.
This year’s fundraiser for the non-profit organization drew 150 registrations, with about 100 actually taking the plunge. In last year’s inaugural event, there were about 90 registrations with 50 getting in the water.
“There were about double the fans and spectators this year as well,” said Megan Gordon, PACA’s program director. “We’re very happy with the turnout.”
For many, the event served as a personal challenge, in addition to being a great way to help an active community charity. Some were just talked into it.
“Well I kinda got talked into it by a group of crazy co-workers,” said Mike Kline, who works at Blue Mountain Animal Clinic.
“We did it last year, and it was so much fun,” said co-worker Carol Clark. “It’s a blast, and it’s nice to support local causes… it makes you feel good.”
About $8,000 was raised at this year’s event — a 60-percent increase over last year’s $5,000 total. PACA uses those funds to fight alcohol and substance abuse in Page County through education and awareness efforts targeted mainly at local school-aged children.
And while the proceeds raised for the local charity are the main reason for the event, a byproduct is a boost to local tourism during the winter’s off-season.
“We saw it on Facebook, and we came just to do this,” said Candice Davis of Waldorf, Md. She and her friend Brittany Mueller rode two hours in a car, on a Saturday morning, just to jump into Lake Arrowhead — when it was 32 degrees outside.
“We were just thinking about that,” Davis said, shivering while wrapped in a blanket right after the plunge.
Main Street Bakery and Catering was on site with hot chocolate and coffee to go along with white chicken chili. Scott and Lisa Sedwick were providing music, and other vendors and volunteers were scattered all across the crowded beach at Lake Arrowhead on Saturday.
“It brings people to Page County,” Gordon said. “We pick this weekend intentionally because it’s a long [holiday] weekend, and many people decide to stay and do other things.”
For two twenty-somethings from Maryland, it’s a weekend they won’t soon forget.
“I think it was something we always wanted to do since high school,” Davis said. “So we decided to do it. We don’t regret it… this place is beautiful.”
For more photographs from PACA’s second Polar Plunge, see this week’s PHOTO GALLERY down the right-side rail of special features, as well as this week’s PHOTO of the WEEK.