On an average Saturday morning driving down Route 12 in mid-February, passing through the small town of Elmore, Vermont, you might find a Chevy truck idling outside the general store and a few cross country skiers flying across the frozen lake adjacent to this rural Vermont community. Elmore is referred to as the “Beauty Spot of Vermont.” The lake can almost always be found reflecting the shadows of the looming mountaintop beside it. Nestled into the crevice between lake and mountain are a series of summer camps with docks protruding into the water, all shut down for the winter months.
However, the morning of Feb.9 was a very different Saturday morning. The commonly silent and scenic lake had a dark, pulsing mob huddled around the northern edge. If one were not anticipating the day’s events it might be a startling scene: a hole in the ice, emergency vehicles, about 100 onlookers, and a few folks even running around half naked.
It was the morning of the Polar Splash. For the last five years The Morrisville Rotary Club has advertised the event, designed so both individuals and teams can raise money by jumping into Lake Elmore in mid-February. They then split the net proceeds with another local non-profit. This year, the Lamoille County Food Share was the beneficiary of half of the proceeds.
Sixty-five jumpers participated, and $12,500 had been raised within two days of the event according to Jason McArthur, who was helping to sign-up jumpers in the morning. “We typically have additional donations come in, so we hope that amount increases,” said McArthur.
The event itself lasted all of 26 minutes. If one had left the ice to run to the car, the whole scene might have been missed. About a half dozen rescue team members surrounded the triangle cut out in the ice. Three heads covered in scuba gear bobbed just above the water as the jumpers prepared in the visitors’ lounge a few hundred feet away.
Over 100 onlookers came to view the scene. Some were there to give support, and some to guffaw at the potential insanity of it all. The smell of crispy hot dogs and ketchup from the food stand hosted by the Lamoille County Food Share perfumed the air, a sharp counterpoint to the odor of exhaust coming from the emergency vehicles rumbling on the shore.
It was about 10 degrees Fahrenheit at 11a.m. A potent wind-chill made fingers go numb and cheeks turn bright pink. Some of the crowd bounced to the tune of “Gangnam Style” by PSY, the music provided by Peakdj. The bass line thumped across the lake.
Then it was time. As the crowd cheered, the jumpers started running out. Some ran one at a time while others scurried out in groups. The first jumper took the leap, quickly followed by the next. Each time the rescue crew would wait for the gasping face of the jumper to surface before they ripped them out of the icy, black hole.
Each time the jumper’s face came above ice level, their shock was blatant, their entire face a desperate plea for the oxygen that was ripped from their lungs by the frigid water.
Then they would climb the ladder out of the ice, exposed to the elements. Most of the time, they wouldn’t be wearing much more than a single layer of bike shorts and a tee shirt. The crowd would hoot and holler as the jumpers sprinted for their towels, and dashed the distance back to the warmth of the visitors’ center.
“Literally, my hair froze from root to tip, and I couldn’t feel my feet or hands,” said Rachel Johnson, a JSC undergrad and intern for the Lamoille County Family Center, while reflecting on the aftermath of her jumping experience.
Inside the visitors’ center, shivering jumpers huddled around the open fire across the room, giggling as they rotated their bodies, as if they were cooking themselves at a pig roast.
Tom Moog, the owner of the popular restaurant Moog’s Place in Morrisville, was sitting in the middle of the room, wrapped in towels and passing out high-fives to his two fellow team members as he carefully sipped on a hot chocolate. The trio had jumped on behalf of the restaurant, apparently raising their donations by asking restaurant “usuals” and customers for donations. When asked how much money they had raised Tom said, “I don’t even know! I think it was about five to six hundred bucks, all from customers.”
Then there was JSC Director of Experiential Education Ellen Hill, who was found huddled by the fire, still wearing her striped long johns and gym shorts. In an interview a few days later, when asked about her favorite part of the jump she said, “It’s the storytelling. That’s the best.”
Hill had jumped with the Lamoille County Family Center and had raised a good chunk of her money by asking for $1 donations in the week prior to the event.
Overall, the feeling after the sixty-five jumpers had made their sprint out of the lake was one of great pride, as if the whole bunch of them had just won the Olympic gold medal in the strangest thing you do in Vermont- to keep you pre-occupied.
A film crew from Waterlust.org flew in from Miami, to create a documentary about the distinctive, Vermont tradition.
There is no doubt that the experience of jumping into a frozen lake to fundraise for local non-profits is a unique opportunity, but one that is enjoyed by both your common thrill-seeker and plain old good Samaritan.