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'Polar bears' hit the 36.9 degree waves

A small crowd wades in the frigid waters

A small crowd wades in the frigid waters at Steers Beach, where Northport Boy Scouts Troop 410 hosted a polar bear plunge. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Marco Chiriboga promised an interview while in the water Wednesday. It was a short one.

He gave a shout. "My body is tingling like crazy!" he said. The 49-year-old Huntington resident grabbed his daughter's floating flip-flops from Northport Bay before sprinting back to the sand.

Hundreds of Long Islanders started 2014 with scream-inducing plunges into the frigid waters Wednesday.

"It's really invigorating," promised Joe Aiello, 49, Scout leader for Boy Scout Troop 410, which organized the fifth annual Polar Bear Swim at Steers Beach in Northport. "If it doesn't stop your heart, it's the best thing you do."

Maybe later. But in the immediate aftermath, one young polar bear sat in the sand hunched over. "I'm so cold," she said, as friends covered her with blankets and coats to form a makeshift igloo.

At the Atlantic Ocean, "polar bears" for at least 50 years have been plunging into the Jones Beach surf. At Sunken Meadow State Park, they held the 12th annual New Year's Day Polar Bear Plunge to benefit the Kerry Rose Foundation, which raises awareness about college safety.

The Northport event, which started with a few dozen participants and has grown to 250 plungers Wednesday, raises money for the Northport Food Pantry.

Many of the first-timers said it was something to cross off their bucket lists.

"It's a baptism," said Rob Conte, 48, of Huntington, whose brother, Assemb. James Conte, died in October 2012 at 53.

Sid Lynn, 65, of Centereach, said, "This is the year to do things I'd always thought I'd do."

For others, many of those of the younger set, it was just plain fun.

"It's something crazy, jumping in water that's so cold," said Mike Mancino, 17, of Northport, the senior patrol leader of the Boy Scout troop. He admitted staying on the sidelines for the first three years of the event, before making a dip last year. He warned before the swim: "It was colder than I expected."

At noon, a nearby weather station in Kings Point marked the water temperature at 36.9 degrees. The air temperature was reported as 30.2 degrees.

Friends and family of the participants bundled up in jackets and blankets, drinking steaming cups of hot cocoa.

Then it was a sprint into the water.

There's a shock to the chest. Then a numbness and a head rush. People are shouting and thrashing. Then it's a dash out of the water.

There are smiles and congratulations.

Then the burning cold sets in. "Your feet are on fire," Aiello said.

There was a warming tent and a bonfire on the beach, as well as emergency personnel standing by. The true secret, Aiello said, is a cooler full of steaming hot water, to place your feet in.

Before the swim, Madison Howard, 7, and her sister Kaleigh Howard, 5, had proudly come in their bathing suits and bathrobes, prepared to jump in.

"It's going to freeze my legs and I'm going to be a polar bear," Madison said.

She and Kaleigh made it up to their calves before turning around, their mother, Erin Howard, 42, said. "It was colder than an iceberg," Madison said.

Howard said that she still counted the girls among the polar bears.

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