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Townspeople plunge into Blowing Rock Winterfest celebration

Leah Matney
During this chilly winter morning, the town of Blowing Rock begins their third day of the Winter Fest events on Jan. 27, 2024.

Under sparkling lights and frosted ice, people wander Blowing Rock’s streets enjoying  chili samples, ice sculptures and plunges into Chetola Lake.

For 26 years, Blowing Rock Winterfest has provided a space for townspeople and visitors to celebrate all that Blowing Rock has to offer. The event ran Jan. 25-28, with a scavenger hunt spanning across all dates. They also offered a Polar Bear Plunge, ice sculpture demonstrations, family entertainment and local food.

“WinterFest in Blowing Rock promises to be an enchanting experience that creates cherished memories and ignites the spirit of the winter season,” the website with the schedule of events promoted.

The polar plunge, hosted at Chetola Lake on Jan. 27, was a chance for participants to support charity. The plunge sees contestants, often dressed in their best zany costumes, jumping into the icy depths of Chetola Lake in the name of charity fundraising. The best costumes are put into consideration for the coveted “Golden Plunger,” a trophy which celebrates the best-outfitted plunger with a literal gold-coated toilet plunger.

This year’s plunge was full to the brim with spectators and plungers alike.

To kick off the Polar Bear Plunge, a group from Harvest House Church launches themselves into the frigid water at Chetola Resort. The event hosted 140 participants on Saturday morning Jan. 27, 2024.
(Leah Matney)

“There may be as many as 125 jumpers this year,” said Lonnie Webster, a freelance photographer who has covered the event in Blowing Rock for many years. 

Ultimately, there were 140. John Carter, an anchor at WBTV in Charlotte and the host of the event, made sure the crowd knew the magnitude of that number. 

“We have more jumpers today than we’ve ever had in the history of the Polar Bear Plunge,” Carter said. The crowd cheered in response.

That mighty group of jumpers were a diverse assembly of brave souls. Several participants were there to represent their charity groups. Notably, the Hunger & Health Coalition had a group of “Hunger Heroes” dressed in green masks and lightning-emblazoned green tutus. One of the heroes was none other than App State quarterback Joey Aguilar.

After he took the plunge, Carter took a moment to survey Aguilar. “Which is worse,” he said. “Jumping in, or facing Georgia Southern?”

“Jumping in,” Aguilar said, gesturing to the water with a smile.

One of his fellow heroes agreed. “I’m not doing that again,” she shivered.

Other participants included a flock of flamingos, a hardhat-clad group from Habitat for Humanity and a pair of women dressed as olives, complete with oversized plastic martini glasses.

After jumping, one olive took a moment to pour lake water out of her martini glass. The other remarked, “Oh, this is hilarious. And it’s cold.”

However, the most exciting plunger was the event’s oldest. Joan Hearn, 89, has been participating in the event almost since its inception.

“I think you’ve only missed two times, Ms. Hearn,” Carter said.

89 year old, Joan Hearn, takes her 26th plunge at the Blowing Rock WinterFest Polar Bear Plunge on Jan. 27, 2024. She has taken the plunge every year that Blowing Rock has hosted the festival.
(Leah Matney )

Hearn, adorned in a zebra costume and supported with two canes, corrected him saying“The first one only.” 

When Carter asked why she continues to plunge every year, she asked a question to the crowd: “What else would I do? I have it marked on my calendar. It’s the very first thing I mark on my calendar.”

Hearn did the plunge every year with her late husband, whom Carter described to the crowd as a “wonderful, wonderful man.” However, as she prepares to turn 90 next month, she admitted that this year is likely to be her last.

Nonetheless, her last plunge was one to go out on. Supported by several members of the Blowing Rock Fire Department in yellow scuba suits, Hearn was lowered into the water for her 25th consecutive Polar Bear Plunge. No matter who the winner of the Golden Plunger was in 2024, it’s hard to imagine a better winner of the event than Hearn.

Every year, The Speckled Trout, a Blowing Rock local outdoor store and restaurant, does a skit with their team and tries to outdo what they did the previous year. This year, they did a Rocky-inspired skit featuring a referee, a fisherman and two people painted to look like trout. 

“We offer fishing, guided fishing services, guided fishing trips both locally and abroad,” Eric Brinker, one of the store’s owners, said. “We also offer guided hiking trips, and we’ll soon be adding guided hunting trips.”

The Speckled Trout also donates to charity through their bar in the shop. Each time someone buys a beverage, alcoholic or not, 5% of the proceeds go to a charity of the person’s choosing through a token they receive when they get their drink.

The chili cookoff, hosted in the Blowing Rock School gym on Jan. 27, proved to be a popular event. The gym was packed with people looking for good food and conversation. A $10 donation gave participants access to various styles of chili, served by community members and charity organizations alike.

Watauga Habitat for Humanity, one of the organizations represented at the cookoff, served chili with toppings and handed out pamphlets with information about the organization.

“We’re working on our 34th home right now, and we expect to have it dedicated in the summertime. Housing costs are going up, we’re still building, and any support we can get is great,” said Nate Godwin, director of development for Habitat for Humanity.

In the fall, Habitat for Humanity is partnering with App Builds a Home, a regular partnership for the organization, to do a blitz build event for App State’s homecoming week.

From noon until 4 p.m. on Jan. 27 in the Memorial Park gazebo, Artisan Ice Sculptures did a sculpturing demo for the large crowd gathered to watch.

After hours of hard work, the Artisan Ice Sculptures crew showcases their ice throne. Many visitors surrounded the center of Memorial Park to get a glimpse of this artistry. Photos taken Jan. 27, 2024.
(Hayden Wittenborn )

The company is based in the Charlotte area but provides ice for 60 businesses reaching across the Carolinas. They provide specialty cocktail ice for bars, including The Speckled Trout, as well as large ice sculptures. 

“We have a PBS special that aired Jan. 8 for the Carolina Connect program,” one of the artists told the crowd. “You can go on our Facebook page or YouTube and find out more information. They did a spotlight on the different things we do,” he said. 

Participants could also take tours through the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum during the day. Concluding the events each day, participants walked through Blowing Rock and looked at various winter light setups around town. They lit up the community gathered to celebrate wintertime and each other.

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About the Contributors
Pruett Norris
Pruett Norris, Multimedia Editor
Pruett Norris (he/him) is a senior double majoring in English with a concentration in Film Studies and Electronic Media/Broadcasting. This is his second year with The Appalachian.
Meg Frantz
Meg Frantz, Reporter
Meg Frantz (she/her) is a freshman digital journalism major, with a double minor in political science and criminal justice, from Charlotte, NC. This is her first year writing for The Appalachian.
Leah Matney
Leah Matney, Photojournalist
Leah Matney (she/her) is a junior with a digital marketing major and photography minor from Lincolnton, NC. This is her first year with The Appalachian.
Hayden Wittenborn
Hayden Wittenborn, Photographer
Hayden Wittenborn (she/her) is a junior Advertising major, Business minor, from Cary, N.C. This is her first year with The Appalachian.
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