Humane Society of Harrisburg Area's Penguin Plunge
Photography by Cassie Miller
Why am I doing this?”
I was standing at river’s edge, and that was my last thought before a sea of humanity surged around me and headed into the water. I had no choice. Time to plunge.
In the history of the U.S., icy plunges date to at least 1903, proving that our buttoned-up forebears also had a screw loose somewhere. Humane Society of Harrisburg Area (HSHA) has held its New Year’s Day Penguin Plunge since 1998, and this year, Adventure Chick joined 300 people infected with the deranged idea that running into a river was the smart way to ring in 2017.
I had gathered my supplies – old bathing suit, water shoes, towels, flask of Jameson for that sip of liquid courage, sunscreen (hey, these shoulders haven’t seen full-sun since Ronald Reagan was president) and plastic wrap and duct tape for my finger (I’ll explain later).
This excursion started when I suggested to Harrisburg Magazine’s editor Jadrian Klinger that Adventure Chick should take a plunge. If I was serious, he responded, he’d do it, too. This was peer pressure at work. With Account Executive Kelsey Dewalt, we created a Harrisburg Magazine team, and the plunge was on.
This put us in the company, on this day, of people wearing swimsuits, penguin hats, tutus and Viking horns, plus one guy in full Captain America regalia. And there were dogs – lots of dogs. Our photographer Cassie Miller (no plunge, someone had to capture this day for posterity, right?) brought her Frenchie, Anakin. There were pits and shepherds, goldens and labs, collies and mutts.
For HSHA, the funds raised help fill the tank come mid-year, when holiday donations are running low and springtime puppies and kittens overwhelm the shelter.
“We go through an inordinate amount of sensitive-stomach cat food, and kitten replacement milk for abandoned kittens,” HSHA Executive Director Amy Kaunas told me.
Second-time plunger Matt Baile, of Hanover, told me he was there for homeless pets, who are “helpless in almost all situations.”
“A lot of people are worthy, and many organizations are good causes, but I’m always more willing to help out animals and to be a voice for them because they aren’t able to help themselves,” he said. “They don’t deserve the abuse and neglect that they’re subjected to.”
Eighteen-time plunger Bonnie Steigerwalt, of Lower Paxton Twp., said she plunges because “once you do this today, the rest of the year is easier.” Besides, it’s become a superstition. “I’m afraid things will go south if I don’t do this.”
Plus, when else could she wear those shorts that are red-and-white striped from the front and, from the rear, show two plastic butt cheeks? I think veteran plungers have learned to laugh for warmth.
Steigerwalt’s friend, Lynn Stitt, of West Hanover Twp., hasn’t missed a plunge since its inaugural year, when she was an HSHA board member. She dives in, head and all.
“It’s a good cause,” she said. “You fear nothing once you do this.” Her tip for this first-timer: “Get in. Get wet. Get out.”
Stitt’s towel-holder – that’s an invaluable member of the team, ready to wrap up plungers darting from the water – was Carrie Weber, also of West Hanover Twp. She is a cop. She has plunged twice. No more. To her friends who tease and call her a sissy, she has a retort.
“OK, at 2 o’clock in the morning, you go clear a building by yourself at gunpoint,” she said.
Good point, we all agreed.
In the crowd, I sought out plunge dog Rocco, a sweet, gray, three-legged pit bull. He arrived at HSHA’s shelter with an injury – possibly hit by a car – and recovered there for several months after HSHA-sponsored surgery to amputate the injured leg.
“Our biggest line item is always going to be salaries,” Kaunas said, “but a very close second is medical supplies for animals.”
I asked if there was a plunge cat.
“Cats are smarter than that,” Kaunas said. “They’re like, ‘I’m not going there. I’ll keep a chair warm for when you come back.’”
It was nearing noon, the plunge moment. Temperature: A balmy 42. Sky: Cloudless. Water: 36 degrees.
With five minutes to go, we peeled off our outer layers – Klinger his jacket, me my sweatshirt and Dewalt a cozy shark onesie, appropriate for water adventures. Klinger had done a plunge before. He was my wise one, the Obi Wan to my Luke Skywalker.
It was Klinger who advised bringing two towels and a flask. When I told him that my left index finger had four stitches – a little Christmas Eve baking accident – he said, “duct tape.”
So my pre-plunge ritual included a bandage of plastic wrap and duct tape, in case of any cold-resistant bacteria lingering in the water.
We worked our way to the front of the group. Sooner in, sooner out. In my right ear, I could hear Klinger continuing his sage advice, “Run straight in. Don’t stop.”
River Rescue personnel lined up in the water – you know, in case my heart gave out. And then the crowd was running, and Klinger was running, and I was running.
My thoughts from there: Hey, I don’t feel anything. Oh, wait, that’s cold. Who put a vise grip on every blood vessel in my body? Hey, look. Klinger’s diving in headfirst. Might as well. Oh, that’s really, really cold. Gotta get back to shore. Fast. I think my water shoe just came off. Sorry, Susquehanna, but I’m letting it go. Must reach land right now.
I almost shot past our team towel holder, Christina Townley. I wrapped up and bolted for my sneakers, before my frozen, unshod toes snapped right off my feet.
And it sank in. I had plunged and survived. OK, so the breeze was relatively painless on the skin, and previous plungers have dived into holes carved in ice, or emerged into freezing rain. Not today. Hey, we earned points just for committing.
Baile told me he’ll plunge again. “A few minutes of being chilled to the bone is a small price to pay to help out an animal who has endured a lifetime of suffering or neglect.”
Animal rescue, Kaunas told me, is “a fundamental piece of a healthy and a happy community.” Like fire departments, hospitals, people food banks and places of worship, “there are certain things that come with a community, and an active and modern animal shelter is part of that.”
The day concluded with a change into real clothes in a heated tent (that’s the big secret of these plunges – a place to thaw). Then, off to home, where our cats had, indeed, kept chairs warm for me. A long, hot shower. A big hug from my husband. A snuggle on the sofa with those street-rescue kitties, Bubba and Sweeney, in front of the fireplace. A steaming mug of Irish coffee warming my hands and my heart.
Now, I had an answer to that question, “Why am I doing this?”
Take an icy plunge once in a while, and you truly appreciate the warm things in life.