37th New Year’s Day Jacksonport Polar Bear Plunge will now raise funds for Jacksonport Fire Department
Each Jan. 1, the Jacksonport Fire Department helps take care of folks who take an ice-cold dip at the New Year’s Day Polar Bear Club Plunge.
This year, and for years to come, the plunge participants will help take care of the firefighters by raising funds for the department.
At age 14, J.R. Jarosh unofficially founded the Jacksonport Polar Bear Club as its lone member. Through the years, he grew the club – which meets at noon once each year – to attract up to 500 and 800 people every Jan. 1 to Jacksonport’s Lakeside Park.
Jarosh will hand the reins of the event to the Jacksonport Fire Department, Chief Nathan LeClair and the fire department auxiliary in 2024.
The firefighters keep people safe at the event every year, and Jarosh wants them to benefit from event T-shirt sales, donations and any other fundraisers the firefighters and their spouses dream up.
On New Year’s mornings when wind shoved thick sheets of ice against Lakeside Beach, firefighters broke the ice. One year, a firefighter used a chainsaw to carve steps into the ice so people could safely make their way down to the water.
Another year, firefighters waded in and stayed in the water throughout the plunge as they held back beanbag-chair-sized icebergs that were floating freely and causing a hazard.
“As far as you could see offshore were two-foot diameter ice chunks,” Jarosh said. “They stood in there with their dry suits and held back the floating and moving chunks. It was the most legitimate polar bear swim to date.”
Every year, the event organizers warn participants about hazards and have them sign liability release forms. Jarosh said some loosely organized polar plunges don’t require registration.
“Our number one stat is the same number [of people] come out as go in,” Jarosh said. “We have medical personnel there keeping an eye on everybody in the water.”
Proceeds from T-shirt sales and donations will help the fire department replace gear such as helmets, boots and protective apparel.
“Turnout and bunker gear have a shelf life,” LeClair said.
So do airpacks, lights and thermal-imaging equipment.
LeClair is assured that J.R. Jarosh doesn’t plan to quit taking the icy plunge, and neither does Jarosh’s brother, Jon. They’re just passing the baton to the fire department.
J.R. started the tradition 38 years ago after losing a bet and a five-mile running race to his dad, Joe – the loser had to swim in the lake in October. J.R. enjoyed the cool dip and tried it again a few days after Christmas and again the next year. Soon after, the family persuaded a newspaper writer who participated in other plunges elsewhere to join them. Publicity expanded the event.
A few years later, J.R. lured Green Bay Packer center and announcer Larry McCarren. McCarren had an ongoing TV segment – “Challenge The Rock.” J.R. dared McCarren to wade into Lake Michigan on New Year’s Day. That publicity drew more people. Ever since the Millennium event in 2000, the plunge has attracted between 200 and 800 participants and 1,000 or more spectators.
The past few years, J.R.’s twin daughters, Abby and Anna, now 17, have joined him. This year, Anna, a junior on the Gibraltar basketball team, challenged teammates, classmates and coaches to get involved.
Participants can start signing liability releases, mingling and buying T-shirts at 10:30 am. Local Jacksonport businesses such as Island Fever and Mike’s Port Pub, and Bley’s Bar in West Jacksonport, open early that morning and stay open after the plunge for the participants, spectators, friends and football.
Island Fever owner Chase Bjarnarson will start serving pancakes at 8:30 am New Year’s Day. Since 2009, Bjarnarson has worked at the restaurant across from Lakeside Park. Even though the place is packed and sometimes people block the kitchen door, he loves to see people socializing and Jacksonport bustling during an otherwise sleepy season.
“It’s a great way to start the year,” Bjarnarson said.
By mid-morning, a DJ will start playing music on the beach. The Jaroshes will emcee by 11 am. In addition to entertaining and talking about water temperatures, they provide tips on staying warm before the plunge and getting warm and dry afterward.
Those tips include bringing a cooler of warm water to step into when you get out. If it’s icy – or out of caution – wear shoes and socks.
Have dry footwear and a jacket or robe to put on after the chilly dip, and avoid walking in wet bare feet. Find more tips at jacksonportpolarbearclub.com.
Trained as a physical therapist, J.R. espoused the benefits of cold water, such as decreasing inflammation. It’s not for people with heart conditions and certain medical conditions, however.
Participants become club members for a day and receive a free membership card and a certificate of achievement for going in.
The countdown to the plunge starts 10 seconds before noon, but J.R. advises all participants to arrive much earlier than 11:45 am. Between parking and signing in, people wind up late to the event every year.
“We’re going in at noon and we’re not going in again,” J.R. said.