WHITEHALL — On Saturday morning, just below the Champlain Canal’s Lock 12 on Lake Champlain, the wind whipped caramel-colored mounds of lake froth across the ice while a handful of brave adventurists readied for their traditional winter plunge into a water hole cut through the frozen lake.

Costumed and eager, seven locals answered the water’s call, marking the passage of yet another season.

Second-up was Gary Schult who glided into and out of the just-above freezing water, like somebody who’s done this before.

“I’ve been doing this since 2008,” Schult said, a towel over his wet, icy shoulders, referring to Whitehall’s annual Penguin Dip.

For most Whitehall Penguin Dippers, it is a core love of community and the Adirondack waters that propels them to take the plunge year after year as part of the annual Whitehall Winterfest. Although some years, a somewhat hesitant visitor or “lucky” Whitehall teacher joins a core group of long-time residents who never miss the big dip.

“It’s been going on for 20 years,” said Dean Grant, vice president of the Whitehall Chamber of Commerce. “It’s refreshing, whenever I am here I do it.”

According to the National Weather Service, Lake Champlain’s temperature was 34 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday.

“I grew up most of my life here,” said Jane Gendron. “I love cold water and it is a fabulous thing to do.

The Arts and Recreation Commission of Whitehall and The Whitehall Chamber of Commerce hosted Saturday’s event at the Whitehall Marina and the Tavern at Lock 12, owned by Lynn Robert Wagemann, who plunged two years ago and again on Saturday.

Wagemann, bought the Marina and Tavern several years ago and has been hosting the indoor portion of the Winterfest which includes hot chocolate, chili, hot dogs and even a presentation on Bigfoot, allegedly spotted in Whitehall over the years.

“Whitehall has a unique symmetry. It is a tight-knit community that likes to reinvest in its own community and there is a deep sense of pride,” Wagemann said.

So what’s it feel like when first hitting the water?

“When you first hit, it’s not too bad,”said Tyler Rollins who has taken the plunge three or four times. “It’s when you come up and hit the air.”

Along with Jane Gendron, Marge Mohn, wearing a spring lime-colored hat, beads, fringe and a sign “I’m 69 and holding,” has been part of the Winter Festival’s Penguin Dip since the beginning and on Saturday she swam across the frigid water like she does each year.

In other years, the festival was earlier, but Grant said they moved it up a month in hopes of getting more participation.

“We decided, let’s push it further to give more time,” he said. “It’s important, it’s a big tradition. Some years it is bigger than others.”

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Kathleen Phalen-Tomaselli covers Washington County government and other county news and events.


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