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Keeping Polar Bear Swim afloat Volunteers are vital to Olcott charity event's success, with firefighters leading the way

The annual Olcott Polar Bear Swim for Sight slated for next Sunday could draw more than 1,000 hardy souls if Mother Nature cooperates.

But before the first toe hits that frigid Lake Ontario water, organizers rely on about 100 volunteers each year to make the event a success.

Through this event, volunteers have helped the Olcott Lions Club raise nearly $200,000 in the last decade alone for local and national charities.

Among those giving their time and energy are the local volunteer firefighters who stand in the icy lake waters, clad in wet suits, to ensure the participants' safety, or line the beach on the lookout for anyone in need of first aid.

Mike Miller, assistant fire chief of the Olcott Fire Company, which oversees the safety and rescue services, said his company stretches a fire hose from pier to pier to form a safe pen in which participants can splash around.

"We set it up about 50 feet out, where the water is still about 4 feet deep," he said. "We'll have guys in the water in wet suits who stand with the fire hose. And it looks like we'll launch our three boats this year. We normally don't have to, because a hole usually has to be dug in the ice for the swimmers, but this year there's no ice, so we'll put the boats in."

Miller said volunteers from Miller Hose Fire Company and Barker Fire Company also help out with water safety, as well as the Coast Guard.

In past years, the volunteers have helped patch up "some cuts from the sharp ice," for the participants, but that doesn't look like a threat this year.

Event organizer William J. Clark, of the Olcott Lions Club, said some swimmers have experienced hypothermia in past years "if they get out of the water and don't get dried off right away, but it's been less of a problem in recent years because we've been posting reminders and we watch for that kind of thing."

Clark reported that the event drew 750 swimmers last year, "down a little from the 1,000 we had the previous year, but that's because a snowstorm blew in early Sunday morning with a howling wind. We hadn't had much ice in the lake, and there was none on the shore on the day before last year's event. But then the storm blew in and the wind shifted, and by the next morning, the beach was choked with ice and we had to bring in equipment to remove it before the swim.

"It shows that things can change overnight, but right now, there is no ice on the lake," Clark said.

The Olcott Lions typically raise about $20,000 each year with this event, as swimmers gather pledges to take the plunge for charity. The money is donated to national and local organizations, such as the Diabetes Foundation and Canine Helpers for the Handicapped in Lockport. Some donations are also made to Niagara Hospice, Eastern Niagara Hospital and the Olcott Fire Company, Clark said.

"We try and donate some of the money locally," he said.

Festivities begin Sunday with tailgate party parking at 10 a.m. and registration from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The Polar Bear Queen Contest is slated for 1:45 p.m., with check-in at the Lions Pavilion at Krull Park. Swimmers younger than 18 test the waters at 1:50 p.m., while the official Swim for Sight kicks off at 2 p.m. Access time is scheduled in 15-minute intervals, and $100 fundraisers receive preferred access.

New this year is special bus and limo parking.

"More and more buses are coming from everywhere, and that's good because more people know not to drink and drive," said Newfane Supervisor Timothy R. Horanburg. "To drink and then drive here is stupid, and people will get stopped by the police."

Horanburg said his staff cleaned up the beach last week for the event, "and if the weather stays like this, not only will people be swimming during the Polar Bear Swim, but they'll be playing on the beach. We've been able to do some things cleaning up down there that we normally couldn't do until nicer weather -- even some work at the marina.

"There hasn't been any ice on the lake, and I'm not sure if I remember that happening before," he said. "It's really rare this time of year."

Horanburg himself has been a volunteer with the Olcott Fire Company for 40 years and recalls the days when he donned a wet suit to help the firefighters in the water.

"This event means a lot," he said. "And it's good for the businesses who struggle through the winters down here. People who come in for this may come back another time with their families."