Polar bears will roam again in the town of Summit
Annual event in Waukesha County expects large crowd

By JOE PETRIE - GM Today Staff

December 28, 2007

 

New Yearís Day revelers jump into the Upper Nemahbin Lake channel Jan. 1 during the polar bear jump held at Nelsonís Channel Inn in the town of Summit. Nelsonís Channel Inn is no longer open for business but the jumpers will be at the channel Tuesday to once again take part in the icy ritual.


Splashing in the waters of the Upper Nemahbin Lake channel, New Yearís Day revelers take part in the polar bear jump held at Nelsonís Channel Inn in the town of Summit. 


TOWN OF SUMMIT - After Nelsonís Channel Inn closed in August, residents in the town of Summit were concerned the annual polar bear jump into Upper Nemahbin Lake was doomed to extinction.

Tavern owners near the lake said by October they were beginning to receive numerous phone calls and questions every day asking if they could keep the tradition alive. Fortunately for them, Jeff Stoll, owner of Stolleyís Hogg Alley, stepped forward to save the day.

"I just decided that the show must go on," Stoll said. "And the funds will still be going to a good cause."

Stollís tavern is located on the Bark River, but the event will take place at the old Nelsonís Channel Inn property at 34422 Delafield Road, because the developer who owns it gave him permission to hold the event there.

Stoll said the event is important to the community, and because it acts as a fundraiser for breast cancer research, it helps raise money for a worthwhile cause. A minimum $20 donation is required to jump in the lake.

The Oconomowoc rugby club is also helping the event proceed, Stoll said, because they provided a $250 donation and have volunteered to work as security and will clean up.

The event almost didnít happen. Stoll said people began inquiring about the event during the fall and he had to get approval from the town well in advance. He was able to get approval on the last possible date.

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"I didnít realize that there was this much support, but we kept getting calls and even (Christmas night) I had a guy in asking about it.

"I think people just wanted to know what was going on and because there are still two bars in the area, it was expected that one of us had to keep it going."

Stoll said he has not talked directly with Mike Nelson, former owner of the Channel Inn, however he had talked to his wife to get materials on organizing the event. Nelson couldnít be reached for comment.

While the town of Summit event is enjoying a revival, the annual polar bear event in Muskego is expected to have a record turnout on New Yearís Day.

The "Polar Plunge" at Muskego County Park drew 500 polar bears and 500 to 700 spectators in 2007, and turnout is expected to exceed that this year. Organizer Spring Breitzman said they have prepared larger tents with more heat for swimmers.

Like the Summit event, proceeds go to charity. Last year Breitzman said they raised $125,000 for the Special Olympics.

While Breitzman said she still hasnít taken the plunge herself, sheís not surprised by the large number of Waukesha residents that are willing to jump into freezing water for fun or the people who come out to watch.

"I think people are just intrigued by what it would be like to jump into water that cold," she said. "Besides, it goes to a good cause and I think that helps get people out there."

Joe Petrie can be reached at jpetrie@conleynet.com

Countyís veteran polar bear eyes 56th year

BROOKFIELD - Brookfield resident Garth Gaskey has participated in the annual polar bear event at Bradford Beach in Milwaukee for many years. In fact, this year will be his 56th straight year.

Even though Gaskey is on the verge of turning 79 and is considered the oldest polar bear, he said the only thing that will prevent him from doing it in the future is if this yearís plunge kills him.

"Itís great that thereís enough people out there who are goofy enough to do it every year," he said. "But they get real invigorated by it, and Iíll tell you that it shocks the hell out of a hangover."

Gaskey said he enjoys polar bearing because itís one of few activities that literally everyone can do - even though many choose not to. With the variety of inebriated characters diving into the icy waters each year, he said thereís never a dull moment.

The rules of polar bearing are vague and that makes it easier for people to join the elite club. While Gaskey swims around the water for up to 15 minutes until his whole body turns purple, he said you only have to get wet on New Yearís Day in order to obtain polar bear status.

For the first-timers, Gaskey said itís important they donít jump in the water incredibly drunk because it will shock their bodies. If they choose to drink beforehand, even though a trip to a tavern is customary after the icy swim, Gaskey said to drink beer because it goes through your system a lot smoother.

People are also advised to strip down to their swimsuits well before jumping into the water. Gaskey said that way your body will cool down to the air temperature, which will make the transition to 35-degree water a little smoother.

Itís important to have someone on land to help in the drying process. Gaskey said youíll be glad when thereís someone greeting you with a towel who has already started your car and cranked up the heat.

While many people may still be wary of taking the plunge this New Yearís Day, even with Gaskeyís advice, be advised that the knowledge of the oldest polar bear around has even become a subject of college research papers because he has been through it all.

"In the winter of 1969, it was 13 degrees below zero with a windchill of 75 below," he said. "They called off the plunge because they were afraid of the Asian flu, but I went down and fell in anyways.

"On the run back to the car, I can honestly say that Iíve never been so (expletive) cold in my life."

- Joe Petrie

New Yearís Day polar bear events in Waukesha County

The Show Must Go On

*When: 1:30 p.m. Tuesday

*Where: site of the former Nelsonís Channel Inn, 34422 Delafield Road, town of Summit

*Extras: The event will be hosted by Stolleyís Hogg Alley and heated tents will be provided to polar bear divers. Food, beer, raffle tickets and other attractions will also be available.

The Polar Plunge

*When: registration begins at 10 a.m. Tuesday, plunging starts at noon

*Where: Muskego County Park, S83-W20370 Janesville Road

*Extras: Heated tents and hot tubs will be available for polar bears. Food, drinks and live entertainment will also be provided. No carry-ins will be allowed this year.



This story appeared in The Freeman on December 27, 2007.