Call it what you will – First Day, the Polar Plunge, a fresh start for a new year. To some, it’s an adrenaline rush, an annual rite of passage, a ritual cleansing. To others, it’s total insanity.

For more than 20 years, Lake George Village, the popular upstate New York tourist destination, has promoted a signature winter event. No matter how cold the water, how ringed with ice the shoreline, how cruel the wind whipping down the lake, on January 1st, hundreds of intrepid souls gather in  the heart of the Village to welcome the new year. At 2 o’clock, to the sound of a clanging cow bell, they shed the parkas or blankets covering their bathing attire and creep, dash or dive into the lake’s frigid water for the annual Polar — or as some call it, Polar Bear — Plunge.

Are they out of their minds? It’s mighty cold on New Year’s Day on the fringe of the Adirondack Mountains, 200 miles north of New York City. Sure, Lake George is considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, but it’s spring-fed, and the water which feels refreshingly cool on a hot summer day registers around 38 degrees by January 1st. Not to be outdone, the air temperature often hovers near 0.

Plungers don’t think they’re insane. They consider the rite a new beginning for the new year.  And of course, there are some 2000 people cheering them on and some great parties afterward. Let’s not forget that.

Each year the event grows in popularity. On January 1st, 2010, the 996 Plungers who gathered on the beach included several reporters and TV newscasters and had to be divided into two groups and assigned two different start times.

Think you want to try it next year? All you have to do is join the long lines waiting to register and pay your $10 entry fee. You’ll get a great tee shirt and bragging rights. Of course, you’ll need the guts to get your feet wet. Actually a little more than your feet.  A dedicated Plunger gets wet all over – although there’ve been cases when some didn’t quite manage that and embarrassed themselves by dashing out of the water very quickly.

Other Plungers let their inner child out even farther by dressing in costume. This year, participants included knights in shining armor engaged in a sword fight (at least until their shining aluminum foil armor got soaked), a guy sporting an Uncle Sam hat and a patriotic red, white and blue bikini, a group acting out characters from Braveheart,  clowns in costumes or fright wigs, even a gentleman wearing a coconut bra. Plungers of all ages wore polar bear shirts or carried toy polar bears.

When I decided to set my 5th Lake George Mystery in winter, I knew I wanted to call it Cold Winter Nights and include the Plunge. Although my protagonist, Loren Graham, mayor of the lakeside town of Emerald Point, questions the sanity of the Plungers, she agrees to drive her 17-year-old friend, Josie Donohue, to Lake George Village to take part. Even when Loren sees hundreds of people of all shapes and sizes gathered on the shore ready to join in, she finds herself uttering words she never thought she’d say to a young person, “This is insane. Are you out of your mind?”

Unlike many of the other Plungers who’ve failed to diet or work out before their unveilings, Josie looks fit and trim in her itsy bitsy, teeny weeny yellow bikini. As she heads toward the water, she explains her decision. “Lor, if you’re going to live in this part of the country, you’ve got to take advantage of what it offers.”

At this, Loren is even more shocked. The young friend she’s often considered a scatterbrain is starting to make sense. How has this happened?

Anne White’s 5th Lake George Mystery, Cold Winter Nights, (Hilliard and Harris, 2009), is now available. Other titles in the series include: An Affinity For Murder, Oak Tree Press, 2001 (Malice Domestic Unpublished Writers Grant, 1999, Malice Best First Mystery Nominee, 2002); Beneath The Surface, 2005; Best Laid Plans, 2006, Secrets Dark and Deep, 2007. (Also  published by Hilliard and Harris.

To find out more about Anne and her mysteries: