Taking the Plunge: Behind the Scenes of River Hospital’s Annual Polar Bear Dip


On Feb. 24, odds are good that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a handful of superheroes, C-3PO, a cowgirl, Thing 2, and the entire cast of “Gilligan’s Island” (among more than 100 others) will wander out onto the edge of a dock in Alexandria Bay.

The crowd will go wild. The characters will jump in.

The 28th Annual Polar Bear Dip to benefit River Hospital is arguably the most highly anticipated winter event in the region. The free, all-ages spectator event features on average 150 or so insane people plunging into the St. Lawrence River during what is historically the coldest time of the year. The brouhaha—which has come to represent the conclusion of winter—is synonymous with what it means to be part of the social fabric around here. But behind the scenes are months of meticulous planning by devoted volunteers with a singular purpose.

The rules are simple.

Each “dipper” at the event is required to raise a minimum of $100, which gets donated to River Hospital in Alexandria Bay. The funds are earmarked ahead of time for a specific cause, which in the past has included a 64-slice CT Scanner for the radiology department, portable ultrasound equipment, and updated mammography equipment (a crowd favorite). Many jumpers raise well above that through special events, GoFundMe accounts, or by creating teams to cast wider fundraising nets. The polar dip has raised $573,000 for the hospital in the last decade alone.

In addition to raising money for the cause, dippers have to show up day-of, register (no one knows how many jumpers there are until just before the dip starts), jump into the icy St. Lawrence, miraculously avoid hypothermia, and hang around for the next several hours in order to see who won which awards. And to gloat.

…Well, there may be a few unofficial rules, too. Like the costumes.

“We encourage creative costumes,” said Andrea Pfeiffer, River Hospital’s director of marketing and community relations. In addition to the aforementioned characters, the River Hospital dips of the past have included Amish get-ups, one Jamaican bobsled team, and the infamous, well-endowed woman in a bikini (“a bit of an exhibitionist,” former organizers and judges say).

We’re talking sumo wrestlers, lumberjacks, and the Left Shark from Katy Perry’s Super Bowl XLIX performance. Members of the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team (also known as—you guessed it—the Polar Bears), have also jumped.

Then you’ve got your local celebrities; people like Raymond “Smitty” Smith. He’s the longest-running dipper, who selects a costume each year designed to get him across the water unscathed: Evel Knievel. Aladdin. “Smitty” Walenda. Moses.

One by one (or all together)—they plunge directly into the river, and claw their back back out of the water as fast as their frigid limbs can carry them.

There was the year local favorite “Bud Man” jumped in a union suit, climbed out of the freezing water, unbuttoned the long underwear, and proceeded to pull live bait from inside the suit’s legs. Then there was the SCUBA diver.

“Ahead of him, this little girl was dressed as a ballerina,” recalled Karen Peters, former chair of Friends of River Hospital. “After she jumped, she came out and her shoe was missing. He jumped in after her, and he stayed under the water a while. When he finally reappeared, he had her shoe in his hand.”

This year, the hospital is focused on “Hope and Healing.”

River Hospital is using funds from the 2018 dip for its Hope and Healing Capital Campaign, an upgrade plan representing the hospital’s most significant renovation and expansion to date.

The project, made possible through grants and matching funds, maps out a blueprint of an improved emergency department, relocated physical therapy wing, upgraded service area for veterans and soldiers, as well as improvements in primary care, mental health and radiology services. Several offerings are moving across the street to the years-defunct Monticello Hotel, which River Hospital will renovate and turn into its new Medical Office Building. Other temporary buildings will come down.

“This [renovation] is going to change everything for us,” Pfeiffer said. “The community saved that hospital, and the polar dip is integral to all of this.”

Supporting the hospital is not the only reason people jump.

“The ‘why’ is important for the dip,” Pfeiffer said. “A lot of the time, there is a very specific reason people are doing this.”

While every jumper takes the leap in direct support of River Hospital, there are additional motivations beyond a dare or bragging rights. Some justifications are a bit more stoic.

There are jumpers for the Maddie’s Mark organization, formed in memory of 5-year-old Madeline Musto who was diagnosed with an inoperable brain stem tumor. And there’s the extended Hollinger family (and many of their friends), who have jumped every year since 2011, the year 16-year-old Cody Hollinger of Pennsylvania died in a car accident. “Every year their group grows, and every year they raise more money,” Pfeiffer said of the Hollingers, whose numbers are up to around 50 now.

Memorials like this make everything that much sweeter: the judging, the jokes, the laughing and the carrying on. The dip, for those memorializing loved ones, truly becomes a day of celebration.

The polar dip is not any ordinary event to organize.

Pfeiffer and Peters sat one recent Friday in Peters’ living room, going over the details of this year’s dip. It was impossible not to notice the backdrop of polar bear figurines tucked away on the Peters’ mantel—or the fact that Pfeiffer happened to mention she got polar bear mittens for Christmas.

When you organize the dip for enough years, you become awfully easy to shop for.

“I couldn’t do it without Karen,” Pfeiffer said of putting the event together. “And I couldn’t do this without Jeff Cole.” Jeffrey Cole, a morning news anchor for WWNY-TV7, is entering his 12th year as emcee of the dip. And, according to Peters, “You just can’t rattle his cage.”

“Last year the tornado rolled in, a boat capsized, I was crazy, and Jeff Cole was so calm,” Pfeiffer said of last year’s dip, which was canceled due to thunderstorms, wind and rain. It just goes to show that nothing is normal about an event like this.

The group effort (streamed live, documented in thousands of photographs each year, and as of last year even features an underwater camera capturing the jumps) includes Bonnie Castle staff taking care of certain logistics such as the sauna room (the hot tub was discontinued years ago because it couldn’t be kept warm), the snow fence, and the on-site events before, during and after the dip. “The people at Bonnie Castle are just amazing,” Pfeiffer said.

In addition, ladders have to be set up. Ice has to be cut (with a chainsaw), which isn’t as easy as it might sound: One year, someone fell through the ice while cutting the hole. Safety divers must be in place, as are an EMS crew, judges (who are all happy to accept bribes), folks at the registration table, and 50/50 ticket-takers. There’s even “crowd control” tasked with keeping excited dippers in order as they wait to take the plunge.

“This is an entire community event,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s fascinating to see everyone come out. And there are so many hands that go into this, we couldn’t do it without any of them.” Pfeiffer’s anticipation of the event will be on a steady build until the morning-of.

“Part of the fun is not knowing who’s coming,” she said. Each year, she excitedly pulls her car into Bonnie Castle’s parking lot at 7:30 am—a full hour and a half before registration begins.

Without fail, there are already people waiting in the parking lot.

Registration begins at 9 am at Bonnie Castle Resort. Dipping kicks off at 1 pm at The Pointe at Bonnie Castle. For more information, call River Hospital at (315) 482-1270 or visit www.riverhospital.org.