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Lake George Polar Plunge stays cool despite warm weather

LAKE GEROGE — Nancy Jefts’ first Lake George Polar Plunge was in 1979, when she went to watch with several of her college friends.

That day, she snapped a photograph.

The photo had a friend she knew in it, standing next to a man she did not know. In 1987, she finally met the other man in the photo. His name was Mike Comisky. They were married in 1991, and the polar plunge has become a tradition for them for the last 25 years.

Comisky said while the event has changed over the years, the fun has never gone away.

“I used to do it back in the ‘70s, when they did it over by the steamboat pier … it’s just fun,” Comisky said.

Comisky and Jefts said they now do the plunge every year with a group of close friends, and while the number of those actually braving the water changes from year to year, there are always a few willing to go.

With the air temperature reaching the 40s, this year’s Polar Plunge event — which takes place every year at the Shepard Park Beach in Lake George on New Year’s Day — was one of the warmest in memory. The event’s organizer, Linda Duffy, said while she does not keep records of the yearly temperatures, she said this was some of the warmest weather they had seen.

Duffy — who owns Duffy’s Tavern in Lake George — said she has been organizing the plunge for the last 15 years.

Registration is run out of the tavern, and those willing to take the plunge pay a $10 registration fee. Half of the proceeds go to benefit the Shriners Hospitals for Children, while the other half goes to the Lake George Fire Department, according to Duffy.

“It’s a great event,” Duffy said. “It’s been going on for so long, and it’s good for our business and all the businesses in Lake George.”

This year, Duffy said they registered 779 people for the event. She said they usually see between 800 to 1,200 participants.

Among those braving the 36 degree water temperatures was Gianluca Alonzi, who said Tuesday’s plunge was his fourth.

“It’s a nice way to spend New Year’s and kick it off,” Alonzi said.

One of the staples of the Polar Plunge is the array of costumes and attention-grabbing swimwear that plungers sport on the beach and in the water.

Eric Walter made the dip wearing a Speedo and homemade chain mail, and carrying a wooden sword and shield.

“I made it, I had it, so why not,” Walter said, when asked about his costume.

While many of those lining the beach on Tuesday were veterans of previous polar plunges, there were also those hitting the water for the first time.

Abby Salinero and Cary Fosback were among those making their inaugural plunge. Salinero said the event was a fun way to “plunge into 2019.” The couple said they have been dating for about a month, and Fosback admitted it took a little convincing to get him into the water.

“She has been getting me to try new things,” Fosback said.

Duffy said she plans to continue organizing the event and hopes the number of participants will be even higher for the 2020 Polar Plunge.

Photos: 2019 Lake George Polar Plunge

Joseph Tingley, Special to the Post-Star 

Eric Walter poses for a photo in his homemade costume at the 2019 Lake George Polar Plunge on Tuesday.

NY's 1st female attorney general closes her surprise tenure

NEW YORK — For a decade, Barbara Underwood was an apolitical force in New York, quietly serving as solicitor general before getting an unexpected promotion to become the state’s first female attorney general.

Now, the 74-year-old Democrat, who abruptly ascended to the office after a scandal felled her predecessor, is going back to her old job after a nearly eight-month turn in the spotlight.

This time she will be serving under another woman, Letitia James, another Democrat who was sworn into the job in Albany late Monday night.

Underwood will be able to look back on a record as a leading antagonist of President Donald Trump — if only briefly.

She sued to put Trump’s charitable foundation out of business, accusing him of running it as a wing of his private businesses and political campaign. Underwood also used the courts to challenge his administration on a multitude of policy fronts, including opposing its push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Those attacks earned Underwood scorn from Trump. In a tweet, he bristled that she “does little else but rant, rave & politic against me.”

Underwood, who has never held elected office and declined to run for the attorney general’s job, always said that politics had nothing to do with it. And she said she’s content to be going back to the lower-profile job of solicitor general.

“I like that role, and so I’m happy to go back to doing it,” she told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “I have come to like this too. It’s not that I’m eager to leave this, but I’m very happy to be going on to something that I know I like.”

Underwood was appointed attorney general by the state legislature in May after the surprise resignation of Eric Schneiderman, who quit just hours after The New Yorker posted a story in which four women accused him of slapping or choking them. Schneiderman later apologized to his accusers; the special prosecutor who investigated the allegations declined to bring criminal charges.

Underwood said Schneiderman’s May 7 resignation came without warning.

When the night started, she said, all she and her colleagues knew was that a news article about him was about to be published.

“I had no idea that this particular event was going to happen until it happened,” Underwood said.

They went to a bar to wait for what came next. Schneiderman announced he would resign and a colleague told Underwood: “It looks like you’re going to be the next attorney general. Are you ready?”

“I thought, ‘OK here we go. Let’s not lose any time. Let’s not lose any morale, any energy,” Underwood said. “There was no time lag for me, and I didn’t want there to be a time limit for anyone else.”

She said the big change was having to deal with the media.

Underwood didn’t seek election to a full term, clearing the way for James, the New York City public advocate, to seek the office. Not facing a campaign likely gave Underwood more flexibility, former state attorney general Dennis Vacco said.

“She had an independence and a freedom that wasn’t tethered to the will of the people and the ballot box,” Vacco, a Republican said. “She leaves a rather stable environment for AG-elect James to come into now.”

James, who also made history as the first black woman elected to statewide office in New York, praised Underwood for doing an “excellent job.”

Aside from challenging Trump, Underwood negotiated civil settlements with hospitals that she accused of wrongly billing rape victims for evidence kits, sued Exxon, claiming that it was misleading investors about climate change, and investigated phony public comments submitted to the Federal Communications Commission over internet regulation.

The job is the high mark, so far, of a career that Underwood said didn’t always “go in a straight line.”

She has taught law at Yale and was a law clerk for Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, and for David Bazelon, the former chief judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals. She worked as an assistant district attorney and federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, and was a top deputy to U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman during President Bill Clinton’s administration. She was also the nation’s acting solicitor general for six months in 2001, the first woman in that post.

Underwood has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court 20 times.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who hired Underwood as solicitor general in 2007, praised her “brilliant legal mind” and professionalism.

Underwood said it was an honor to have gotten a chance to serve.

“It is a special honor to be in that role right now when so many people are looking to this office to protect them and their rights. I feel privileged to hold this role and to do this important work and I’m glad that people appreciate it.”

Garbage, feces take toll on national parks

WASHINGTON — Human feces, overflowing garbage, illegal off-roading and other damaging behavior in fragile areas were beginning to overwhelm some of the West’s iconic national parks, as a partial government shutdown left the areas open to visitors but with little staff on duty.

“It’s a free-for-all,” Dakota Snider, 24, who lives and works in Yosemite Valley, said by telephone Monday, as Yosemite National Park officials announced closings of some minimally supervised campgrounds and public areas within the park that are overwhelmed.

“It’s so heartbreaking. There is more trash and human waste and disregard for the rules than I’ve seen in my four years living here,” Snider said.

The partial federal government shutdown, now into its second week, has forced furloughs of hundreds of thousands of federal government employees. This has left many parks without most of the rangers and others who staff campgrounds and otherwise keep parks running.

Unlike shutdowns in some previous administrations, the Trump administration was leaving parks open to visitors despite the staff furloughs, said John Garder, senior budget director of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association.

“We’re afraid that we’re going to start seeing significant damage to the natural resources in parks and potentially to historic and other cultural artifacts,” Garder said. “We’re concerned there’ll be impacts to visitors’ safety.”

“It’s really a nightmare scenario,” Garder said.

Under the park service’s shutdown plan, authorities have to close any area where garbage or other problems become threats to health and safety or to wildlife, spokesman Jeremy Barnum said in an email Monday.

“At the superintendent’s discretion, parks may close grounds/areas with sensitive natural, cultural, historic, or archaeological resources vulnerable to destruction, looting, or other damage that cannot be adequately protected by the excepted law enforcement staff that remain on duty,” Barnum said.

In the southern Sierra Nevada in Central California, some areas of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks were closed Monday evening. In Sequoia, home to immense and ancient giant sequoias, General Highway was closed because overflowing trash bins were spreading litter and posed a threat to wildlife and the icy, jammed roadway was seeing up to three-hour delays, according to the National Park Service.

Also closed was the Grant Tree Trail, a popular hiking spot, because the government shutdown halted maintenance and left the path dangerously slick from ice and snow, with at least one injury reported, the park service said.

Campers at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California’s deserts were reporting squabbles as different families laid claims to sites, with no rangers on hand to adjudicate, said Ethan Feltges, who operates the Coyote Corner gift shop outside Joshua Tree.

Feltges and other business owners around Joshua Tree had stepped into the gap as much as possible, hauling trailers into the park to empty overflowing trash bins and sweeping and stocking restrooms that were still open, Feltges said.

Feltges himself had set up a portable toilet at his store to help the visitors still streaming in and out of the park. He was spending his days standing outside his store, offering tips about the park in place of the rangers who normally would be present.

“The whole community has come together,” Feltges said, also by phone. “Everyone loves the park. And there’s a lot of businesses that actually need the park.”

Some visitors have strung Christmas lights in the twisting Joshua trees, many of which are hundreds of years old, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Most visitors were being respectful of the desert wilderness and park facilities, Joshua Tree’s superintendent, David Smith, said in a statement.

But some are seizing on the shortage of park staffers to off-road illegally and otherwise damage the park, as well as relieving themselves in the open, a park statement said. Joshua Tree said it would begin closing some campgrounds for all but day use.

At Yosemite, Snider, the local resident, said crowds of visitors were driving into the park to take advantage of free admission, with only a few park rangers working and a limited number of restrooms open.

Visitors were allowing their dogs to run off-leash in an area rich with bears and other wildlife, and scattering bags of garbage along the roads, Snider said.

“You’re looking at Yosemite Falls and in front of you is plastic bottles and trash bags,” he said.

Officials at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado said Monday they were closing restrooms and locking up trash bins in many locations.

Spacecraft opens new year with flyby on solar system's edge

LAUREL, Md. — NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft pulled off the most distant exploration of another world Tuesday, skimming past a tiny, icy object 4 billion miles from Earth that looks to be shaped like a bowling pin.

Flight controllers in Maryland declared success 10 hours after the high-risk, middle-of-the-night encounter at the mysterious body known as Ultima Thule on the frozen fringes of our solar system, an astounding 1 billion miles beyond Pluto.

“I don’t know about all of you, but I’m really liking this 2019 thing so far,” lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute said to applause. “I’m here to tell you that last night, overnight, the United States spacecraft New Horizons conducted the farthest exploration in the history of humankind, and did so spectacularly.”

The close approach came a half-hour into the new year, and 3 ½ years after New Horizons’ unprecedented swing past Pluto.

For Ultima Thule — which wasn’t even known when New Horizons departed Earth in 2006 — the endeavor was more difficult. The spacecraft zoomed within 2,200 miles of it, more than three times closer than the Pluto flyby.

Operating on autopilot, New Horizons was out of radio contact with controllers at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory from late Monday afternoon until late Tuesday morning. Scientists wanted the spacecraft staring down Ultima Thule and collecting data, not turning toward Earth to phone home.

Mission operations manager Alice Bowman said she was more nervous this time than she was with Pluto in 2015 because of the challenges and distance, so vast that messages take more than six hours, one way, to cross the 4 billion miles. When a solid radio link finally was acquired and team members reported that their spacecraft systems were green, or good, she declared with relief: “We have a healthy spacecraft.” Later, she added to more applause: “We did it again.”

Cheers erupted in the control center and in a nearby auditorium, where hundreds more — still weary from the double countdowns on New Year’s Eve — gathered to await word. Scientists and other team members embraced and shared high-fives, while the spillover auditorium crowd gave a standing ovation.

Stern, Bowman and other key players soon joined their friends in the auditorium, where the celebration continued and a news conference took place. The speakers took delight in showing off the latest picture of Ultima Thule, taken just several hundred-thousand miles before the 12:33 a.m. close approach.

“Ultima Thule is finally revealing its secrets to us,” said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins.

Based on the early, rudimentary images, Ultima Thule is highly elongated — about 20 miles by 10 miles. It’s also spinning end over end, although scientists don’t yet know how fast.

As for its shape, scientists say there are two possibilities.

Ultima Thule is either one object with two connected lobes, sort of like a spinning bowling pin or peanut still in the shell, or two objects orbiting surprisingly close to one another. A single body is more likely, they noted. An answer should be forthcoming Wednesday, once better, closer pictures arrive.

By week’s end, “Ultima Thule is going to be a completely different world, compared to what we’re seeing now,” Weaver noted.

Still, the best color close-ups won’t be available until February. Those images should reveal whether Ultima Thule has any rings or moons, or craters on its dark, reddish surface. Altogether, it will take nearly two years for all of New Horizons’ data to reach Earth.

The observations should help scientists ascertain how deep-freeze objects like Ultima Thule formed, along with the rest of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago.

As a preserved relic from that original time, Ultima Thule also promises to shed light on the so-called Kuiper Belt, or Twilight Zone, in which hundreds of thousands of objects reside well beyond Neptune.

“This mission’s always been about delayed gratification,” Stern reminded reporters. He noted it took 12 years to sell the project, five years to build it and nine years to reach the first target, Pluto.

Its mission now totaling $800 million, the baby grand piano-sized New Horizons will keep hurtling toward the edge of the solar system, observing Kuiper Belt Objects, or KBOs, from afar, and taking cosmic particle measurements. Although NASA’s Voyagers crossed the Kuiper Belt on their way to true interstellar space, their 1970s-era instruments were not nearly as sophisticated as those on New Horizons, Weaver noted, and the twin spacecraft did not pass near any objects known at the time.

The New Horizons team is already pushing for another flyby in the 2020s, while the nuclear power and other spacecraft systems are still good.

Bowman takes comfort and pleasure in knowing that long after New Horizons stops working, it “will keep going on and on.”

“There’s a bit of all of us on that spacecraft,” she said, “and it will continue after we’re long gone here on Earth.”