Dozens Endure A Frigid Lake De Smet For Annual New Year’s Day Polar Plunge

What started as a double-dog dare nearly 40 years ago to jump into the frigid waters of Lake De Smet near Buffalo, Wyoming, has become an informal New Year’s Day tradition. On Monday, there was no ice, but dozens endured the icy water.

RJ
Renée Jean

January 02, 202410 min read

When Lake De Smet hasn't frozen over by New Year's Day, like this year, everyone runs into Lake De Smet at once for the annual polar plunge.
When Lake De Smet hasn't frozen over by New Year's Day, like this year, everyone runs into Lake De Smet at once for the annual polar plunge. (Courtesy Photo)

Some people make New Year’s resolutions, others do something wild and crazy enough that it feels like an accomplishment right out of the gate.

Count Joey Russel and Matt Selcher as decidedly in the latter category when they help carry on an almost 40-year tradition in the Buffalo area by plunging into the cold waters of Lake De Smet to welcome in the new year.

The Lake De Smet polar plunge typically happens at 1 p.m. every Jan. 1 near the Father De Smet Monument, no matter how cold or how frozen the lake might be.

There was just one year where the informal party was canceled. In that case, about a half inch of ice had formed overnight, making it untenable for crowds of people to stand on the lake ice.

Other years — like last year — Selcher and Russell have cut small holes through as much as 14 inches of ice with chainsaws to make a square several feet wide about 15 feet out from the shore. They then slide the broken ice underneath the surrounding ice before standing up a little wooden platform to dive into the lake water, which is a degree or two above freeze-your-nose-off cold.

No Ice, But Still Frigid

Some years, like this one, there’s no ice at all to contend with.

That makes it a little easier and faster to accomplish the jump. Instead of one person at a time jumping in, everybody lines up to run in all at once. There’s a countdown to 1 p.m. and everyone takes off running into the lake at one time — shrieking and whooping optional.

For those years where a platform is needed, Selcher and Russell will hang around to offer a hand to those climbing out of the water. Family and friends, meanwhile, have towels at the ready, as well as an array of fire pits and barbecue grills that can help serve as warming stations.

“It’s a good way to start the year,” Selcher told Cowboy State Daily. “You’re washing everything from the last year away and starting the new year fresh.”

Selcher and Russell always take their turns last, after everyone else has jumped. No matter how many times he’s done it, it’s always a grin-and-bear-it moment, Selcher said.

“There’s no way to get mentally ready for it,” he said. “You know it’s going to be cold. It’s going to be shocking. It definitely does take the adrenaline from your body, that’s for sure.”

But starting his New Year off that way gives him an accomplishment on Day One, and that just feels good.

“The rest of the year just seems a little bit easier then,” Selcher said.

More Polar Plunges To Come

New Year’s Day polar plunges have been happening in America since at least 1904, when the L Street Brownies Swim Club in Boston decided to dive into Dorchester Bay to welcome the new year.

There are now hundreds of polar plunges across the nation, and Wyoming has a fair share. While the Lake De Smet block party polar plunge is always Jan. 1, there are polar plunge opportunities in the Cowboy State through March.

There’s the Schwartz Memorial Plunge, for example, set for Jan. 27 with a tentative time of 10 a.m. at Sloan Lake, which is at Lions Park on Carey and Eighth avenues in Cheyenne.

The Schwartz Memorial Plunge supports the Explosive Ordinance Device Warrior Foundation and may be followed online here.

There’s also a series of jumps happening under the Jackalope Jump umbrella, which raises money for more than 1,600 athletes participating in Special Olympics statewide. The first in that series of polar plunges kicks off Feb. 9 in Douglas, and will continue through March 22 in Powell.

Other communities with a Jackalope Jump scheduled include Wheatland, Casper, Thermopolis, Rock Springs/Green River, Cody and Riverton.

A full schedule with details on each of the events that will be available is online.

Not Always Just One And Done

While it might be hard for some to imagine taking even one polar plunge on a brisk January, February or March day in windy Wyoming, there are some who lay claim to multiple jumps in one day.

In fact, Selcher’s friend Joey Russell, who helps with organizing the Lake De Smet event, jumped as many as seven times on one day not so long ago.

“I had the record for two years,” Russell told Cowboy State Daily. “But then Matt’s boy broke it with nine jumps.”

Russell, like Selcher, appreciates the symbolism of washing off the old year and starting the new year with an accomplishment.

But he also just gets a kick out of watching people come up out of the icy water, especially if it’s their first time.

“The expressions when people come out of the water is what makes doing this worth it,” he said. “The shock and awe, you know. Some have done it 30 years, but a lot of the people are first-timers.”

Not everyone takes the plunge during the annual Lake De Smet Polar Plunge on New Year's Day. A few like to watch and take photos of the occasion And hold up dry towels for those exiting the cold water.
Not everyone takes the plunge during the annual Lake De Smet Polar Plunge on New Year's Day. A few like to watch and take photos of the occasion And hold up dry towels for those exiting the cold water. (Courtesy Photo)

It’s Science Maybe

The body’s reaction to shockingly cold water has been having a moment lately, with aficionados of cold baths touting the health benefits of an icy soak.

A cold shock starts a chain reaction in the body, spiking both stress hormones and endorphins. That can leave practitioners feeling a trifle euphoric at the end of a polar plunge. That contributes to the sense that all of one’s troubles and cares have been left behind in the cold, frigid waters, putting the mind in a definite fresh-start frame.

That has led some to spend thousands of dollars for high-end cold plunge tubs any time of year, winter, spring, summer or fall.

Despite the rising popularity, though, the health benefits of taking a cold plunge haven’t been rigorously studied.

Still, there are a few studies that suggest a cold plunge could help with certain issues. There are some, for example, that show improved insulin sensitivity — although this benefit might also be just as available to those who just spend long periods of time in the cold, rather than because of a sudden cold shock to the system.

There are also a few papers suggesting that a freezing dunk may boost the immune response, upping white blood cell counts, as well as a flood of anti-inflammatory markers. There are some self-reported studies where participants said they had fewer sick days or fewer respiratory infections.

There is far more information about potentially negative impacts, particularly for those who have heart conditions.

At Your Own Risk

Despite the potential dangers of the practice, Russell and Selcher have yet to see the polar jump negatively affect anyone in their Lake De Smet group.

“I usually tell people, ‘You know, this is your guys’ risk,’” Russell said. “’We’re here to help you and we’ll go in after you, but we’re not going to be liable.’”

The thing is Russell and Selcher are going to jump even if no one else joins in. They’re willing to leave the hole they cut for themselves open for others who want to try it out — as long as everyone understands it’s all at their own risk.

That said, the thrill and the rush of a polar plunge is something they definitely recommend to anyone who believes they are in good enough health.

“It takes, you know, discretion on yourself,” Russell said. “If you have a bad heart, don’t do it.”

In that case, watching the jump is an entirely appropriate way to enjoy the occasion, and Selcher told Cowboy State Daily there is a welcoming, tailgating atmosphere throughout the event.

People have gathered around their crockpots and fire pits to enjoy favorites they’ve brought along for the jump. There’s taco bars, hot dogs and burgers, chili — whatever makes people feel all warmed up inside and out while they’re celebrating the passing of one year and the beginning of the next with their family and friends.

“We usually have a little grill to do burgers and hot dogs and stuff for the kids,” Russell said. “I think last year we had right around 100, 110 people jumping in.”

Low-Key, And A Little Crazy

Although more than 100 people join in on the fun many years, the Lake De Smet polar plunge isn’t a fundraiser or anything like that. At least not yet.

Russell and Selcher have thought about transitioning to something that benefits a community charity each year, but that would likely come with a lot of formalities, like liability insurance and bookkeeping.

So for now, it’s maintained as a friendly, word-of-mouth, friend-of-a-friend or neighbor-to-neighbor-type thing, just like when it was started by the Scott and Rob Forister brothers almost 40 years ago. The event has been spreading since, a little like a double-dog dare challenge.

Selcher recalls being invited by his parents’ neighbors in 2015, not long after moving to Wyoming from Pennsylvania.

After trying it once, Selcher was so gung-ho about the event that when the Forister brothers got sick one year, they asked Selcher and his friend Russell to watch over things for them.

Another year, the brothers wanted to go to a University of Wyoming bowl game and visit their grandchildren, so they asked Selcher and Russell to take it over entirely.

“It’s not a sanctioned event,” Selcher said. “We just go down there to make sure everyone’s safe.”

Over the past seven or eight years of doing it, the pair have everything down to a science.

After cutting a hole in the ice, they run safety lines so people have something to grab onto if they slip on the ice or panic.

“We’ll also put up a diving platform, so no one slips on the ice when they’re jumping in, and we put a ladder in, so people can get to the ladder and pull themselves out,” Selcher said.

Selcher brings his own ice hut, which has a Little Buddy propane heater, so there’s a warming station for anyone who gets too cold.

“Over the years we’ve slowly added more and more to it,” Selcher said. “Now I actually have carpet inside of it, and I have some chairs set up in there so we can keep clothes in there and it’s nice and warm when you get back out.”

It takes some mental preparation before running into the frigid waters of Lake De Smet on New Year's Day.
It takes some mental preparation before running into the frigid waters of Lake De Smet on New Year's Day. (Courtesy Photo)

Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.

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RJ

Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter