HALL COUNTY - “I had a tuxedo and nothing to do with it,” said Tom Diaz, shivering and pale as his tux was dripping with water in the below-freezing air. “What else am I going to do with a tuxedo?”
Jump in a lake dressed as an emperor penguin, of course.
Diaz was starting 2018 with a costumed splash at the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club’s annual Polar Bear Plunge at the Lake Lanier Olympic Park, which returned after a year off in 2017 because of low lake levels. He and about 30 other brave adults and children turned out for the frosty dip on New Year’s Day.
The club fundraiser lived up to its name in 2018, as Monday stayed below freezing and light snow danced around the docks of the boathouse as jumpers and their friends and family lined up for the jump. Costumes were encouraged but not required, and Diaz turned up in a full tuxedo and penguin mask.
Among the crowd was Jim Isler, 74, who signed up for the plunge after a five-year break. Isler was the oldest jumper on Monday and a hale and hearty man who, when he’s not diving into frigid water in his free time, goes skiing and hiking around the country.
“The advantage of being old is I can ski everywhere except Colorado for free,” Isler said, chuckling.
More than 40 people signed up for the plunge, but only about 30 turned out on Monday. Some of Isler’s friends, who signed up to jump with him, were among those who thought better of getting soaking wet in the freezing cold.
“They all backed out at the last minute,” Isler said, smirking while he stood near a heater dressed in shorts and sandals.
The youngest jumper on Monday was James Hughes, 5, who made the plunge with his father, Peter Hughes, and grandfather, Norman Hughes.
After the jumping had begun, James’ mother, Malorie Hughes, stood on the dock filming her boys dip into the cold water.
Peter and Norman went first, jumping into Lake Lanier while a very skeptical James clutched his life jacket and kept his feet planted on the dock. With the crowd cheering him on, James agreed to be lowered into the lake by his dad.
“I was very nervous — he’s only five,” Malorie Hughes said as Peter, Norman and James swam to the ladder to climb from the lake.
Elsewhere on the dock, 18-time jumper George Wangemann watched as others took their turn leaping into the cold water.
Wangemann, dripping but unfazed as he stood on the dock in his swimming trunks, said this year was colder than he expected but that it wasn’t the coldest plunge he could remember.
“There was a day (about 15 years ago) we had to shove away some ice on top of the water and it was snowing out,” Wangemann said. “The air temp was about 26.”
With a high temperature of 30, it wasn’t quite that cold on Monday. After the plunging was over, participants were given hot drinks and chili in the boathouse above the docks at the Olympic Park.
Cash raised by the Monday event benefits the operations and programs of the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club.