A crowd of hundreds gathered around a hole cut in the frozen lake at Camp Brule in Sullivan County, bundled up in coats, hats and scarves and holding hot chocolate.

The group surrounded 36 participants of the annual Winterfest's big draw, the polar bear plunge, who were about to leap into the lake's frozen waters. Many of them wore leotards, cheerleading outfits, suits and other costumes, hoping not only to entertain the crowd, but to take home one of the coveted best costume prizes - $50 in cash.

First to jump were Deborah Karaban and Cindi McCarty, who dressed as nuns for this year's plunge. The sisters are members of the Kiwanis Club of Sullivan County, who puts on the Winterfest event each year, and the polar bear plunge was McCarty's brainchild.

McCarty is one of three participants - the others are Michael Pennella and Jerry Long - who have participated in the plunge for each of its six years, she said. This year, she talked her sister into joining her in raising pledges for the club, which relies on Winterfest as the major fundraiser for its programs.

"I think I'm going to be ill," Karaban said Saturday before taking the plunge.

Todd Quinter and Justin Armbruster, who came to the camp from the State College area to participate in the polar bear plunge, were also first-timers Saturday.

The men, who wore three costumes on top of one another and shed their top layers just before jumping into the lake, said they were nervous and excited. "We're ready to go," Armbruster added.

To provide plungers with an incentive to jump into a frozen lake, participants were entered into a drawing to win a Polaris Sportsman 500 four-wheeler, donated by Robin Real Estate of Eagles Mere, or a vacation for two to Alaska. The more money each participant raised, the more chances they had to win.

The event, which started with eight plungers in its first year and has grown since, "is a great way to raise money for kids," said organizer Vivian McCarty.

And after the initial shock of the plunge subsided, Karaban said she would likely become a regular at the annual event.

"Actually, it wasn't as bad as I thought," she said. "I think I'll do it again next year."

The Winterfest, held every year on the Saturday before Presidents' Day, also featured vendors, horse-drawn carriage rides, sledding, ice skating, sled dog races and warm food.

Three ice carvers' works were auctioned off Saturday afternoon, and an ice fishing tournament had over 50 participants Saturday morning, McCarty said. Funds raised from the Winterfest benefit the Kiwanis Club of Sullivan County.

Amanda Renko can be reached at (570) 888-9652; or email: arenko@thedailyreview.com.