They started their New Year with a polar plunge in Wendell

Cold? Try a polar bear plunge on a sub-freezing day.

Swimmers and divers take to the cold water as the Down Under Diving Club hosts its annual New Year's Day Polar Bear Dive at Mystery Lake in Wendell, NC, on Jan. 1, 2018.
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Swimmers and divers take to the cold water as the Down Under Diving Club hosts its annual New Year's Day Polar Bear Dive at Mystery Lake in Wendell, NC, on Jan. 1, 2018.

While many people were cozying up hearthside to crackling fires warming their homes on the first day of 2018, Logan Casey was on the shore of Mystery Lake Scuba Park slipping off his shirt, socks and shoes.

It was 26 degrees outside, and the dive park’s owner, Season Atkinson, had made sure a campfire was burning near the dock.

Casey, a 24-year-old truck driver in the Army Reserve, stepped barefoot onto the dock as divers surrounding him, most decked out in winter parkas, began the countdown to a New Year’s tradition that went on in Wendell despite the bitter cold.

Across the country, frigid weather forced the cancellation of annual Polar Plunges, a staple of New Year’s Day festivities

“For the best Olympic dive off the dock here, Logan,” Rick Thomas, communications director for the Down Under Divers club, called out, as if Casey needed to entertain the shivering bystanders with anything other than his bravery (or insanity) for his willingness to test the waters below.

“One, two, three,” the crowd shouted out as Casey took three long strides before pulling both knees up toward his chest and grabbing his ankles for a cannonball that made a big splash both in the 45-degree quarry and among his fans gathered on land.

“It’s cold,” Casey said before swimming toward a friend holding out a warm towel and clear path toward the campfire.

As Casey warmed his toes on the rocks surrounding the campfire, icicles formed in his hair. But he didn’t rush to put on warmer layers. He waited for a chance to take a second dip.

“It’s a little bit of a shock at first,” Casey acknowledged. “But then it’s not so bad. The water’s warmer than the air.”

Daniel LaBounty, owner of the New River Dive Center in Jacksonville, lingered in the water near the dock in a dry suit also waiting to see if any others wanted to take the plunge. Earlier in the morning, LaBounty had explored the depths of Mystery Lake, which was an active granite quarry from the turn of the 1900s to the 1950s and then a water supply for the town of Wendell in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I’m extremely passionate about the underwater world,” LaBounty said. “You can’t get a better way to start the new year than with a dive.”

Atkinson, who bought the quarry property in 2010 and built a house on the edge of the shore, opened the dive park in 2017. There are many rumors, she says, about what adventurous divers might find – a crane, quarrying equipment, a motorcycle, stolen cars and other mysteries.

Someone discovered an SUV 85 feet below the surface, which was quickly recovered and removed by the sheriff’s department, Atkinson said.

“A lot of the mystery, too, is nobody knows what’s in the depths,” Atkinson said. “There’s lots to explore.”

Divers from the Down Under club and the New River Dive Center talked excitedly about having new waters to investigate, but on warmer days when their hair wouldn’t freeze the minute they emerged.

Mike Keener, a 54-year-old state employee who lives in Raleigh, had no intention of waiting.

He, like Casey, decided he would test the waters without either a wetsuit or a drysuit.

With a new countdown to launch him and Casey into the second plunge of the new year at Mystery Lake, Keener kept a years-long tradition alive.

“I don’t know if it makes you feel healthy,” Keener said when asked why he wanted to get more than his feet wet. “It hurts for a moment, but you start your new year off with some kind of excitement.”

So why not, he asked, with a polar plunge?

To those who watched from the shore and then scurried to cars and SUVs to head to warm, cozy spots indoors, the answer was easy. The average temperature in Raleigh on New Year’s Day is 51 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. This year, the temperature never rose above freezing.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1