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‘Polar Plunge’ Fad Worrisome

Officials Warn Against Trying

New Hampshire Fish and Game search for a missing person in the Smith River in Bristol, N.H., Tuesday, April 15, 2014. The search has been suspended due to high water. (Associated Press - Jim Cole)

New Hampshire Fish and Game search for a missing person in the Smith River in Bristol, N.H., Tuesday, April 15, 2014. The search has been suspended due to high water. (Associated Press - Jim Cole)

Lebanon — Robert Rosas hasn’t plunged into the chilly waters of the Mascoma River this spring.

But if he is “called-out” by a friend, Rosas said, he would .

“If someone calls me a chicken, I am going to do it,” Rosas, 28, of Lebanon, said outside the Carter Community Building Association on Wednesday.

And that is exactly how the Polar Plunge — where individuals, often teens, jump into frigid lakes and rivers and dare others to do the same — got started.

The trend, which often includes posting a video of the escapade on social media sites, has gained the attention of several Upper Valley public safety officials and the New Hampshire Fire and Game Department, which is warning about the potential dangers of such a stunt.

A 32-year-old Northfield, N.H., man who went missing Monday in the Smith River in Bristol, N.H., is believed to have drowned while attempting a Polar Plunge, officials said. The man’s body has not yet been recovered.

Fish and Game Public Information Officer Jane Vachon said the department knows of “hundreds” of people participating in the plunge.

“People will get called-out to do it and either they do it or they don’t do it, but usually people do it,” said Patrick Dunham, a freshman at Thetford Academy who hasn’t taken the plunge himself.

“Like half the kids in my grade have done it,” Dunham, 16, said.

The students’ behavior prompted Thetford Police Chief James Lanctot to warn residents.

“Apparently several kids are taking a Polar Plunge in the (Chutes) section of the Ompompanoosuc River at Union Village Dam,” Lanctot said in a Listserv post last week.

“It is just a matter of time before someone hits the water and doesn’t come back up,” Lanctot said in an interview on Wednesday. “I don’t think they realize how fast the water is moving, especially in April.”

The access point that leads to the particular area of the river where people are taking the challenge in Thetford, off Route 113, is closed until the end of May, so it isn’t being actively patrolled, and there is little cell phone service, which could hamper any rescue effort.

Lanctot said he contacted school officials when he heard about the Polar Plunge and a notification went out to parents.

The Polar Plunge, countless examples of which can be seen on social media sites such as Facebook, commonly consists of a participant stating on video that they are taking part in the challenge. The participant then recites the names of a handful of other people — who are challenged to complete the same plunge within 24 hours. The participant then runs into a cold river or lake dressed in summer swimwear, goes underwater, and then runs out.

Faith Turner, of Greenfield, N.H., took on the Polar Plunge challenge earlier this month after three of her friends “called me out to do it.”

Dressed in a blue two-piece swimsuit, Turner darted into partially-frozen Zephyr Lake in Greenfield.

“It was fun, cold, and really not as bad as you would think,” Turner, 19 said. “The second you get out you’re warm.”

Though she said she had a good time, Turner did sustain cuts and bruises on both of her legs because of lake ice.

“They weren’t that bad, healed quickly,” she said. “I would do it again.”

Officials are saying the Polar Plunge trend is far more dangerous than supervised fundraisers that often use similar monikers.

The Penguin Plunge in New Hampshire, for example, has participants swim into the Atlantic Ocean at Hampton Beach in February to raise money for Special Olympics. Similar events are held in Burlington, North Bennington, Vt., and Newbury, Vt.

The Polar Bear Swim on Occom Pond in Hanover takes place during Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival in February. Participants, who are supervised and tethered, jump into the water through a man-made hole that is cut in the ice.

“That is different then people challenging each other,” Hanover Police Chief Frank Moran said.

Lanctot wasn’t the only chief that expressed concerns with people taking part in the Polar Plunge, though he was the only one to confirm that Upper Valley individuals are participating in the challenge.

Many public safety officials pointed out that all of the rivers traversing the Upper Valley are swollen from rainfall and snowmelt, making them particularly dangerous this time of year.

Area waterways are littered with debris, water temperatures — which are hovering around 40 degrees — can give an individual hyperthermia, and the “dare” aspect of the challenge can entice a nonswimmer to take part, Moran said.

“I would be worried about this being a mechanism for hazing,” Moran said. “The temperature of the water is such that they would be disabled or lack the motor skills to get themselves out.”

Norwich Police Chief Doug Robinson warned of similar dangers.

“There is a fast current and it is even fast for the strongest of swimmers,” Robinson said. “We don’t want to fish anyone out of the river.”

Officials said if a person insists on taking a plunge, he or she should do it in a lake or still body of water.

“I would imagine if people think about what they are doing and make choices about where they execute this, that it can probably be done with a level of safety,” Moran said.

Lanctot concurred.

“If they desire, find non-moving water,” he said, adding it should never be attempted alone. “I think it limits the risk. If they go into shock they won’t be floating down rivers at 50 mph.”

Officials with New Hampshire Fish and Game warned against partaking altogether.

“Don’t do it. Be a positive role model and encourage your friends not to do it. This is a life threatening activity,” said Vachon, whose agency sent out a news release red flagging the Polar Plunge trend. “It is the Fish and Game Dive Team whose job it is to rescue these individuals and they have to pull bodies out of the river throughout the year. It is a grim duty. It would be a tragedy if a Facebook fad meant young lives were wasted.”

Thetford Academy student Erin Bullard said she hasn’t done the Polar Plunge — and that she doesn’t plan to.

“It is a bad idea,” Bullard, 16, said inside Wing’s Market and Deli in Thetford on Wednesday.

Bullard and Ria Leveret, 16, both said they know people who have taken the plunge.

“They have posted videos,” Bullard said. “They have told me that someone dared them to do it and that they thought it was fun.”

Leveret said: “I don’t want to do it because it is cold.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.