Forty-three years ago, a group of brave souls jumped into Chemong Lake on a chilly February weekend. Little did they know the tradition would not only be alive and well four decades later, but their little gathering would grow into a community-wide festival featuring dozens of events and businesses in and around Selwyn Township. On February 3-5 2023, Polarfest is set to make a triumphant return after two relatively quiet, socially distant years.
“It really is just a celebration of Canadian winter,” says Mike Richardson, manager of recreation services for Selwyn Township. Mike plays a key role in organizing Polarfest, but he’s quick to acknowledge it’s community participation that makes the festival tick.
“The thing I’m really proud of is that we get participation right across the board from all the service groups,” he says. “It’s all sorts of things where people find their own way to get involved. Because some of it is just a ‘do on your time, do as you wish’ opportunity, everybody seems to be able to enjoy how they want to.” That includes events like night hikes, candlelit skates around the Lakefield Speedskating Oval, charity hockey games, and the classic polar plunge, among others.
A 12–15-minute fireworks display at 6:30 on February 3 kicks things off with a literal bang, sponsored by Enbridge Gas and designed by Supernova Fireworks. Mike says Chemong Lodge is a prime location to take in the show. There will be speeches, a bonfire, hot chocolate, and coffee available there, but the show will enjoy high visibility all around town. “Because we’re able to shoot it out right on the lake, you can see 360 degrees and many people don’t even have to leave their home, or certainly not leave their front yard to be able to see it.”
In 2021 and 2022 Polarfest was forced to cut back its offerings to the few activities that could be self-guided or run virtually. Events like the Snowman Challenge and letting people share their polar plunges on video kept the spirit alive, but it was no substitute for the real thing. In 2023, Mike says organizers are keen to renew the old in-person energy.
One of the attractions he’s most excited to have back is the Polar Paddle. Teams of six will race canoes down the middle of Lakefield’s Queen Street, with the canoe placed in wheeled trolleys. Two paddlers and four runners per team will compete for bragging rights for their chosen organization, including representatives from Lakefield College School, the Fire Department, and local charitable groups. Participants must register in advance, but spectators are welcome to drop by and cheer them on. The paddle begins Saturday at 1:00 on Queen St between Albert and Reid streets.
On the more traditional end, free ski rentals are available from Adventure Outfitters from 12:00-3:00 on Saturday and Sunday, allowing visitors to try the nearby groomed trails at no extra cost. In Bridgenorth, Ennismore, and Lakefield, the Ice People will be displaying sculptures carved from Chemong Lake ice, as well as providing demonstration and instruction. Coloured ice blocks will also be available for kids to try their hand at building.
The original Polar Plunge that started it all caps things off Sunday,February 5 at 2:00, organized by the BEL Rotary Club who started the tradition decades ago. Participants will help raise money in support of their favourite charity—visit the BEL Rotary website to register or donate.
To keep track of it all an online schedule is available here, and printed guides can be found at numerous businesses around Lakefield. “It’s a busy three days,” Mike says. “There’s kind of something for everybody, and most of the events are free, which is great for families and great for people who are visiting the area.”