Produced by HuffPost's Eyes & Ears Citizen Journalism Unit
More than 250 people went to icy extremes on Saturday to help two Chicago families in need at the Lakeview Polar Bear Club's "Celebration of Shrinkage." The event, which started as an escapade for three chill-seeking friends in 2003, has morphed into an annual gathering that raises thousands of dollars for charity and attracts hundreds to Oak Street Beach. Whether they were jumping into the frigid Lake Michigan or watching on the cold beach, the attitude at the ninth annual event was a positive one.
"We decided to turn this into something where we can still be silly and do it for a good cause," Kevin Marchal, one of the event's founding members said Saturday. "We asked for donations, told friends and family and spread the word. Why be foolish for nothing?"
Moments before the plunge, the crowd seemed pumped with adrenaline. Participants sported wigs and cone hats, string bikinis and Speedos in a defiant stance against the bone-chilling temperatures, which hovered around the mid-twenties. The water was an estimated 32 degrees. For about an hour prior to the event, the ice that topped the lakeshore had to be broken apart with pick axes and shovels.
This year leading the pack was the Weather Channel's Mike Bettes, who turned up at the plunge to answer a challenge from co-workers. "I thought about it for about a week and then I said you know what, I'm doing it," Bettes said. "I'll admit I've done a few extreme things. I mean I've been in like fifteen hurricanes, chased tornados, jumped from an airplane, and bungee jumped, but this is gonna rank right up there. Let's just say, I'm crossing this off my bucket list. "
For most of the participants, this is the most extreme thing they have ever done. For brother and sister team Eric Mann, of Lynwood and Laurel Szymborsk of Worth, the plunge fulfilled their childhood dreams of daring. "I figured I'm 53 now and it's time, " Mann said.
Szymborsk likened the plunge experience to receiving a full body epidural, and said the main sensation while she got in the water was absolute numbness. "There is no sensation," Szymborsk said. "I hit the water, went under and when I came up my thought was, 'I'm not sure my head is still attached to my body.' But it is for charity, and we know that were going to be able to get out of the water, and go back to a warm home. Is it crazy? Yeah it's crazy, but why not? The water is cold but versus the problems other people have, we can handle being cold for a little while."
Kevin Mitchell of Chicago agrees. "I came for the first time last year because it was something I always wanted to do," Mitchell said. "It was pretty bracing this year, so we had hand warmers and big fluffy robes. I had ice in my beard, and I think I had ice beads on my eyelashes. But its nice to help a family or two in Chicago and come out with a bunch of really friendly people and do some thing really outrageous and have a lot of fun doing it. "
The Lakeview Polar Bear Club donates 100 percent of its profits to needy local families hand chosen by advising board members, comprised of family and friends. This year the club will be donating to two families--Bethany Pond, who is facing severe financial need due to liver disease and multiple heart conditions afflicting two of her children, and Nate Jones and his mother Geraldine, who are seeking to secure Jones in a safe private school environment, following the shooting deaths of his two brothers.
Since there is no entry fee for the plunge, the LPBC makes money solely on T-shirts, raffle tickets and direct donations. Brian Marchal, whose desire to help others got the event going nearly a decade ago, was wowed by the size and the generosity of the crowd. "I was blown away by the turnout we had," Marchal said. "We raised over $13,000 this year and everyone had a good time and everyone was safe. This is something you should do at least once, and I think it gets a lot of people coming back again and again. It's amazing how good you feel coming out of the water; it makes you feel like you've done something really wonderful."
If you would like to donate, please visit the club's site here, and for those who missed the plunge--there's always next year.
Check out photos from the event: