As we head into the 2022 Penguin Plunge season, we’ll take a look back at what has been called “an un-authorized Penguin Plunge” that took place during the 2021 Plunge Weekend.
First let’s meet the players. Bill Jones is a long-time SONH volunteer, former board member and currently helms the SONH Manchester Young Athletes program. Bill spent 20 years dressing up as a super-hero called “Captain Plunger” and joining hundreds of others on Hampton Beach each year participating in the Penguin Plunge. In his 20-year run at the beach he single-handedly raised more than $101,000! That alone should qualify Jones as a super-hero, but it gets better.
Our other player in this saga is Claude “Zeke” Grenon. He’s a friend of Bill’s and the two of them are avid ice fishermen. Their lake of choice is Pleasant Lake in Deerfield, NH.
Now you know the players, here’s the story. Penguin Plunge weekend in 2021 was the weekend of February 6th and 7th. Since Jones has retired from plunge activities and there was 9 inches of ice on Lake Pleasant, he and Zeke set out for a day of ice fishing. They use Bill’s ATV to tow a sled trailer to get to their favorite fishing spot.
One ATV, Bill Jones, Zeke Grenon and a sled with all their fishing supplies, tools and a collapsible bob-house. Lake and pond fishermen of any kind like to be fishing where other people aren’t fishing. That’s why our dynamic duo uses an ATV. Their favorite spot is away from others and far away from shore.
Jones notes that if you’re ever on the ice and you see slush you should leave immediately. Slush is a sign that there may be a crack in the ice and water seeping up is the cause of the slush. Bill says while they were enroute to their spot it happened very quickly. Suddenly he was driving through slush. He says, “it was like quicksand.” First slush, then the ice gave way beneath them, and then sinking into the icy water up to their chins.
ATV tires are naturally quite buoyant, and Bill says the ATV quickly capsized in the water. Zeke was having difficulty breathing because of the shock of the icy water. For Captain Plunger in his guise as a mild-mannered retiree, the icy sensation was a familiar one.
Jones remembers that as they were sinking there was “10 to 15 seconds of complete denial.” This just couldn’t be happening he thought… but it was. “20 years of plunging prepared me for this moment” he says. While Bill freely admits “I’m no spring chicken” at 71 years old, but his only concern was for his 87-year-old friend. No one saw them go into the water and there was no one to call to for help.
They were 150 feet from shore in 15 feet of water that WMUR-TV Meteorologist Kevin Skarupa estimates was around 33 to 34 degrees. The air temperature that morning was just 13 degrees. Because of Bill’s years spent in the icy Atlantic on Plunge Weekends he wasn’t surprised by the frigid feeling. Due to the tires keeping the ATV afloat, albeit upside down, Jones was able to get one foot onto the ATV and one hand on Zeke. He was able to push-off of the ATV and lift Zeke up onto the ice.
Jones says he doesn’t remember how he got himself out of the water, just that he and Zeke were on the ice, unsure of its’ safety and there was nobody else in sight. Bill and Zeke started walking towards shore, hoping to find someone at home in one of the many cottages along the shoreline. Bill tried but their cell phones were going to need more than a bowl of rice to come back from this trip. After about a quarter mile of walking in frozen, heavy clothing that was soaked and boots full of water, they heard some dogs barking in the distance. Heading towards the sound they came upon a house with two dogs on the porch barking. The homes’ owner got them into his vehicle and brought them back to Bill’s truck in the parking lot, which was on the opposite side of the lake.
Starting the engine, Bill got Zeke inside his truck with the heat set to the max. Back within earshot of other fisherman on the lake, Bill asked one of them to call 911 and the Deerfield police and Epsom ambulance quickly responded. Bill says that by this time he “was more embarrassed than cold.” First responders reminded him of just how lucky he was and how especially lucky Zeke was to have a friend that got him to safety.
While this story does end happily it has one more twist. Authorities are duty-bound to alert the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services when something like this happen. After all, there was an ATV with fuel and oil in one of our state’s lakes.
While Bill was heading back home that morning with Zeke they were “off the grid” because their cell phones didn’t do as well in the water as either of our heroes. Meanwhile, back at home, Bill’s wife Lois listens to a telephone message from NH DES saying that the ATV went through the ice and someone needs to call back to discuss the protocol that needs to be followed when vehicles fall through the ice. Unable to reach her husband, Lois called DES who explained that they were told by those on-scene that everyone was fine, just cold and they were heading home.
With the info provided by DES, Bill contracted with a company called Dive Winnipesaukee to retrieve his submerged ATV and sled. The next morning Bill met the dive crew at the lake and an hour later he was reunited with his ATV and all his belongings noting that he had “bungee-corded everything really tightly” and it all stayed together on the sled for the frigid adventure. See video here.
Bill and Zeke were back ice-fishing a couple of weeks later and they ultimately did return to the place where they took what Bill calls “an unauthorized Penguin Plunge” and reflected on their good fortune.