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<B>Some opted for flashy displays as they braved the cold during Saturday&rsquo;s Polar Plunge. (Zeke Wright)</B>
Some opted for flashy displays as they braved the cold during Saturday&rsquo;s Polar Plunge. (Zeke Wright)
Some opted for flashy displays as they braved the cold during Saturday’s Polar Plunge. (Zeke Wright)
Monday January 28, 2013

ZEKE WRIGHT

Staff Writer

NORTH BENNINGTON -- An exuberant Darth Vader, yellow banana, and tutu-wearing viking all took the plunge Saturday to benefit Special Olympics Vermont, raising about $20,000 according to organizers.

Of course the plunge was only the beginning as there's a natural progression at each North Bennington Winter Festival. Given single-digit temperatures for this year's jump into Lake Paran, both plungers and onlookers froze.

But there was opportunity to warm up afterward at the Vermont Arts Exchange with a bowl of chili or a sampling of five. Next, for the full experience, it was off to the ice sculpture contest at the train depot. If towing behind dogs or small children, there was then the pet fashion show or indoor winter carnival.

Last year, plungers took the dip in temperatures that hovered around 40 degrees. Much colder this year, "it's not that bad," said Caitlin McNeill, a repeat plunger bracing newbies shortly before the jump.

"Until you get out," she continued. "(Just) don't think about it," she told members of her team, fundraising in memory of Jeffrey Sheehan, a Vermont Country Store employee in Weston who passed away this past year.

First-timer Melynda Saldenais said her thinking was "the numb-er I am before (the easier it will be)."

Liza Reed, events manager for Special Olympics Vermont, said "Team Jeffrey" was one of the larger groups at this year's event. But each of the roughly 130 participants helped contribute toward the final bottom line. Reed called the annual plunge events around the state "huge fundraisers" for Special Olympics Vermont.

"The whole mission is to provide, through sport, competition and life skills and healthy lifestyles" for participating athletes, she said in an earlier interview. "And the athletes always volunteer" during the event, handing out towels for those dashing out of the lake. Reed tallied 84 local athletes involved in Special Olympics.

At the After Plunge Party, NorShaft Lions volunteers served up a varied selection of 25 chilis in a filled room at the arts exchange, benefiting from live music.

At the North Bennington Graded School, children had a myriad fun opportunities organized by and supporting the school's Parent Teacher Group and their after-school enrichment programs.

Other organizations like the Bennington Coalition for the Homeless were invited to take part and also fundraise at various festival locations.

Four ice carving teams worked throughout the day at the train depot turning blocks of ice into sculpture. Participating for the third year, Dan Turcotte of Phoenix Wing House of Design said he enjoyed Saturday's weather and the opportunity to work with the ice. "That's a bonus," he said, referring to the unique frozen medium. Although several carvers agreed this year's ice wasn't the best, Turcotte said he came out in support of North Bennington.

Dan Caron's TE Connectivity team took both first place and people's choice in the ice sculpture contest -- a repeat winner of the top prize after last year.

On Friday, volunteers with the village of North Bennington highway department and Matt Morse Excavating broke through the lake's thick crust of ice. During the plunge, North Bennington firefighters in cold water rescue suits floated around and helped plungers out. Swimmers then made fast tracks for warming tents set up by the Vermont National Guard.

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