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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Polar Plunges

This past weekend more than 1,000 Wisconsin residents leaped into the icy waters of Green Bay, Oshkosh, and Wausau to raise funds for the Special Olympics. This is a measure of how far Wisconsin has evolved, not just in creative philanthropic work but also in material comfort. Until recently, to fall into a lake or stream in mid-winter almost certainly meant death or dismemberment.

Take, for example, the case of Robert Noble, whose small boat became ice-bound between Washington Island and the tip of the Door Peninsula on Dec. 30, 1863. Although the ice was strong enough to stop his boat, it would not support his weight. This article reprints the local tradition of the long hours he spent in and out of the frigid waters near Death's Door, ultimately losing his extremities to frostbite.

A gruesome postcard (readers be warned) shows exactly what "losing extremities" meant. Although we have not uncovered the precise details of their misfortune, these four boys were apparently stranded on a railroad trestle during an unexpected flood in the winter of 1876. Exposed to the elements overnight, all four lost their feet to frostbite, and this postcard was sold to raise funds for their support.

Today we don't sell voyeuristic souvenirs to raise money for disabled children. Instead, we can gleefully jump into the icy February waters ourselves as a way to help them, knowing that modern central heating and, should we need them, modern hospitals, will keep us safe.

Still, accidental plunges through thin ice claim several lives every winter in Wisconsin. Whether on foot or snowmobile, take care, know your surroundings, and be safe this winter.

:: Posted in Bizarre Events on February 24, 2008

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