Damage from high Lake Ontario water levels and a pounding May rainstorm closed Olcott Beach all last summer.
But nothing can stop the intrepid Polar Bears.
For the 49th year, the Polar Bear Swim for Sight – which is actually more of a dash in, dunk and flee than a swim – will happen at its traditional spot, the beach below Krull Park.
"The breakwall and the stairs and everything right at the beach are OK," said Bill Clark of the Olcott Lions Club, who has been lead organizer of the fun-filled fundraiser for the past 20 years.
However, a month or so of hard work was needed to stabilize the area and restore access to the beach for the heavy machinery needed to clear away the ice from the shoreline, said Dean E. Lapp II, Niagara County highway commissioner.
"The repairs were not just for Polar Bear, obviously," said Gina Guido-Redden, a member of the all-volunteer Newfane Tourism Advisory Board. "We knew the beach was going to be unusable the way it existed, so an enormous amount of work had to go on."
"The bank that comes down from the park was ripped apart quite badly," Clark said.
That meant that Niagara County highway crews first had to rebuild the access road to the beach to get heavy machinery down to water level, then dredge the lake bed to reclaim and replace the soil back on the beach, said Lapp.
"That entire road fell away, so that had to be completely rebuilt and the ground underneath it made safe, that was the first challenge for Polar Bear," said Guido-Redden.
"The road was pretty much gone, and the next thing to go would have been the wall," said Lapp.
After a severe rainstorm on May 2, the lake water reached the foot of the staircase the swimmers walk down to gather on the beach. The storm water also undermined and threatened homes on the west side of the marina, Lapp said.
Stabilizing the beach below those homes on an emergency basis came first in May, said Lapp, but the work below Krull Park followed in June. For a time, crews were working on both shorelines. High water levels continued to limit access to Olcott Beach all summer.
"My highway guys deserve a lot of credit, especially for working down there along with local firefighters and the military so the people could stay in their homes," Lapp said. "Doing that was important to our guys. If we hadn't been down there and built that berm, those people would have had to leave their houses."
As soon as those residences were out of immediate danger, crews began working on the beach below Krull Park, Lapp said.
"What we accomplished down there was remarkable in terms of time, bringing down surge rock to rebuild the road, then dredging earth from the water to rebuild the shoreline," he said.
Polar Bear Swim organizers "did have a backup plan, but it's good that they didn't have to use it," said Lapp.
Tradition started small
The Polar Bear Swim started in 1968 when seven friends from the Black Stallion Tavern, led by the bar’s owner, Michael Rann, took an impromptu dip in the freezing lake.
Now it's a daylong series of events involving hundreds of swimmers, their families and friends, and local fire departments, whose members direct traffic and provide medical aid. Members of the U.S. Coast Guard also stand by to keep the dip safe.
Rann died in November 2013 at age 87, remaining active in the Lions Club to the end of his life, said Clark.
About 10 years into the swim, interest started to wane a bit, said Guido-Redden. That's when her father, Bob Guido, and some other new Lions Club members pumped up the day's festivities with the Polar Bear Queen contest and other events.
"My dad passed away in 2015, and now they have a new generation of Lions," she said. "My husband, Eoin Walsh, is a Lion now, so this has a very, very deep, strong place in my heart."
The first Polar Bear events actually take place Feb. 25, when the Olcott Fire Co., 1691 Lockport-Olcott Road, hosts a free kids fun run at 9:30 a.m. and a 5K run from 10 a.m. to noon starting at the firehouse. To sign up, register online or show up at the firehouse starting at 8 a.m. on the day of the race. Cost is $20 in advance, $25 on race day.
A costumed polar bear also will run in the race, and those who beat the bear will receive a T-shirt with that boast, while those who finish after the bear will receive a T-shirt that says, "I can't believe the bear beat me."
A Polar Bear Pancake Breakfast of pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon, coffee and juice will be served in the firehouse from 8 a.m. to noon on Feb. 25. Cost is $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and children 5 to 12, and free for those under age 5. Registered runners also eat for free.
These events must be held in advance because firefighters are needed on the day of the Polar Bear Swim to direct traffic and provide medical care, Guido-Redden said. Proceeds of the Feb. 25 events benefit the fire company.
For March 4, decades of experience have helped organizers perfect their registration process and timed access to the beach to keep everyone safe while allowing the Polar Bears their fill of freezing fun.
People start arriving at Krull Park in the morning to find a good parking spot, then stroll the park to see the creative costumes of other participants or enjoy a tailgate party. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., local fire departments will sell chili and chowder.
Registration for the swim will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Lions Club Pavilion in the park or online beforehand at olcottlions.org. Even those who register online should report to the tent to receive their timed ticket for beach access and their T-shirt for pledges of $25 or more. For a $100 donation, the swimmer will get a T-shirt and a sweatshirt. Anyone turning in $300 or more will get a T-shirt, sweatshirt and a jacket.
All swimmers will be given a time to assemble for their march down the stairs to the beach for their group dip.
Local fire departments will compete in a tug-of-war on the beach just before the swim.
Prospective contestants for the Polar Bear Queen contest should check in at the pavilion starting at 1:30 p.m. The queen contestants will parade at 1:45 p.m.
At 1:50 p.m., Polar Bear contestants under 18 will hit the water in a well-supervised group. Those who raised the most money in pledges will go next.
As of this week, the top fundraiser was Guido-Redden's husband, Eoin Walsh, a native of Tipperary, Ireland, who is an active member of the Lions Club. On his fundraising page, Walsh called the dip "bloody freezing," but noted, "This will be my fourth consecutive year braving the Lake Ontario waters (though my first swim was some 13 years or so ago) and I intend on continuing to do it as long as I can make it down the steps to the water."
"The majority of people still come and bring their contribution when they register on the day of the swim," said Clark. Back in 2005 and 2006, the event drew an estimated 1,000 swimmers, but the number now holds steady around 400 or 500, he said.
A lot of people participate on the spur of the moment "and there's a lot to be said for that," he said.
Other prospective Polar Bears challenge friends or co-workers to either take the plunge with them or compete to see who can raise the most money, said Clark. "Somebody will challenge one of their fellow employees to do it. We see a lot of that."
During the day's events, a DJ will provide music on Main Street, where a beer tent will be set up. From 1 to 5 p.m., the band 42 Nickels will perform at Mariner's Landing on Franklin Street.
Some of the funds raised go to Lions Club International, which works around world to help people see and avoid diseases that affect eyesight, said Clark.
"But a lot of people like to keep the money local, so we share the money with local organizations," he said, from Niagara Hospice to local food pantries and soup kitchens.
'Something special, that's for sure'
Next year will be a milestone for the Polar Bear Swim, marking 50 years of, as organizers say, "freezin' for a reason."
"We're starting to kick some ideas around," said Clark. "We have nothing planned yet but we'll do something special, that's for sure."
And Clark plans to continue leading the event. "This is one of those jobs that you either have to die or move out of state to get somebody else to take it," he said. "They've got a good crew in the Lions Club here, they are very helpful, and we get some help from some other groups, too."
"I think of the festivals and events in seasons," said Guido-Redden. "The Celtic Festival definitely owns the fall, thousands and thousands of people come for three days for that. And there are so many things in the summer, from the Jazz Trail to the car shows.
"But Polar Bear is the longest running, has the most ties to local memory and people's hearts, and it definitely owns the winter."