NORWAY — Saturday dawned 40 degrees Fahrenheit with pea-soup fog obscuring Lake Pennesseewassee.
Not the best news for 15 people planning to plunge in a few hours later to raise money to save community athletic programs endangered by budget cuts.
Just how cold was the water for the Oxford Hills Athletic Boosters’ debut Polar Bear Plunge?
“We were too afraid to find out,” boosters spokeswoman Tina Croteau said.
Packed inside the Norway Trackers Snowmobile Clubhouse beside Route 118 with about 60 friends, relatives and spectators, jumpers sipped donated hot chocolate or coffee after checking in more than $1,500, Croteau said.
“Some jumpers raised over $400 each,” she said.
“We’re trying to supplement next spring’s freshman sports and this spring’s baseball program for Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School,” boosters vice president Rick Gilbert of South Paris said.
Croteau said that although she was surprised by the size of the crowd, she expected more athletes to participate.
However, the boosters’ event letter, which accompanied a sponsor sheet on which to list pledges or cash received, likely plucked the fear chord.
It listed “Five Good Reasons to Jump:”
• “It’s a heck of a lot cheaper and safer than walking on coals.”
• “It helps mentally by shortening the winter season.”
• “Jumping in near-freezing water wearing little more than a pair of shorts and shoes takes a brave soul.”
• “It can reduce wrinkles. Drastic temperature changes and shivering skin actually exercise shallow subcutaneous muscles that firm the skin.”
• “But the most important reason to jump is to support the athletics in our community.”
That last reason is why most jumpers were coaches, teachers and school administrators, Gilbert said.
Three participating girls — all seniors at the Paris high school — said some athletes were going to jump but backed out due to anticipated freezing water temperatures.
At 8:55 a.m., everyone inside the clubhouse headed for the still-obscured lake.
A PACE Ambulance crew on standby in the parking lot and also partially hidden by fog, watched as the 15 moved into a cordoned-off alley laced with small boulders and exposed tree roots to the waterline.
There, jumpers shed warm clothes — some even stripped to swimsuits — and rallied as boosters member Scott Whitman’s amplified voice counted down from five to zero.
Precisely at 9 a.m., the 15 gingerly walked or half jogged into the lake, some venturing into chest-deep water.
Standing waist deep with tightly clenched fists and an expression of shock on his face, high school Principal Ted Moccia quickly turned around to run toward shore as nine knee-deep plungers headed toward him.
Softball coach Cindy Goddard, who plunged while wearing a black one-piece swimsuit, said she did it both for the adventure and the worthy cause.
“This is easy, compared to cutting players from teams,” Goddard said, tightly wrapped in a body-length towel. “It was not as bad as I thought, but I’m definitely awake after that. Once you’re in for a few seconds, your legs go kind of numb. It was definitely a lot more fun with a group of people.”
“It was all right at the beginning, but it got cold really fast,” said Bessey Motors salesman Doug Van Durme, who raised $260.
The event was over in seconds, as participants hurried out of the water and into towels, except for Oxford Hills seniors Sarah Burnham of Otisfield, Abby Korn of Oxford and Kate Michaud of Norway. They raised a total of $110.
Together, they dashed back in for an encore, then simultaneously submerged themselves, eliciting surprised gasps from the crowd.
“It wasn’t as cold as I’d expected,” Burnham said, still shivering 10 minutes later in the clubhouse while waiting for Michaud to return with warm clothes. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gone in the second time if it had been awful.”
Korn, who talked Burnham into participating at the last minute, praised the event as a worthy cause.
“I thought I was OK, but I don’t think I felt it until I went up to my waist,” Korn said. “Going under was the worst part; but for freshman sports, I’d do it again. That’s what we’re trying to save.”