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Nearly 125 Brave (Or Crazy) Souls Plunge Into Frigid Chetola Lake

Jeff Smith from Alair Homes helps Joan Hearn out of the water after she completed her 30th Polar Plunge. Photo by Josh Floyd.

By Kris Testori

An 88-year-old in a white bear costume was the star of the 2023 Winterfest Polar Bear Plunge. When asked why she took the plunge, Boone resident Joan Hearn replied,  “Why wouldn’t I?” Hearn is on the board of directors at High Country Caregivers, one of the Polar Bear Plunge funds recipients. “This is my 30th jump,” Hearn said. “It’s a lot of fun, and I’ve done it many years, even back when it was held at the duck pond.” 

88 year-old Joan Hearn before she takes the plunge. (Photo by Kris Testori).

Marty Wilson, program director at High Country Caregivers, escorted Hearns to Chetola Lake for the plunge. “She is an amazing person,” Wilson said. “We learned earlier today that we received an anonymous $1,000 donation for her to jump.”

Spectators began gathering around Chetola Lake at around 9 a.m.  “You can absolutely feel the excitement in the air,” said Charlotte resident Anna Blake. “Our family comes up every year for WinterFest. This is our ninth year attending and our favorite part is always the Polar Plunge.” When asked if she would jump herself, she laughed, “Absolutely not.”

John Carter, an anchor at WBTV News, was the emcee for the annual event, and at one point, he declared, “this may be the best one [Polar Bear Plunge] ever.” Proceeds from the 2023 Polar Bear Plunge benefit two local charities; the Hunger & Health Coalition and High Country Caregivers. 

The owner of Alair Homes, Jeff Smith, painted his chest black and dressed as wrestler Macho Man Randy Savage. He wore a Randy Savage wig, purple and white tiger-striped wrestling pants, and Macho Man sunglasses. When asked why he participated, he replied, imitating Savage’s deep voice, “Randy Savage has been resurrected to support the Hunger and Health Coalition. They do so much for our community. We’re trying to serve our community. We love Blowing Rock.”

As each plunge group prepared to jump, Carter asked them why they were jumping. When asked why she was jumping, Blowing Rock resident Nadine Wynarczyk replied, “I am with High Country Caregivers, and we help grandparents take care of their grandchildren; check us out.”

After her jump, Carter asked Wynarczyk, wearing an American Flag bikini top-dressed from head to toe in red, white, and blue, how she felt.  She responded by jumping in the lake a second time. The hundreds of spectators in the crowd went wild, and then Smith (dressed as Randy Savage) also jumped in for a second time. Carter responded, “I guess you don’t have to be crazy to do this, but this proves you can be.” 

Humane Society Mascot Hutch and Jeff Smith hold up Nadine Wynarczyk after the pair jumped in the Polar Bear Plunge twice. (Photo by Kris Testori).

The mission of the Hunger and Health Coalition is to relieve poverty and hunger compassionately for families and individuals who are experiencing economic hardship and food shortages. This assistance may include food, medicine, wood, and referrals to other community resources. 

“We’re trying to raise money for a new dishwasher in our recovery kitchen,” said Melissa Pickett, financial director at the Hunger and Health Coalition. “The funds from the Polar Bear Plunge will go a long way to reaching our goal.”

High Country Caregivers provides support to families who are being disrupted by the opioid and substance abuse crisis in the High Country. Over the past 20 years, substance abuse has been the primary cause of children needing to be placed in kinship care.

“Our Goal is to rise above the challenges and keep loved ones at home,”  executive director of High Country Caregivers Jacob Willis said. “It’s a better environment than the foster system. We are dedicated to keeping these families whole so grandparents can provide care, support, and responsible decisions for their grandchildren.”