Winter Fun Day

Neil Betts came from Fowler, Ohio, to ride his ice boat around Pymatuning Lake during the Winter Fun Day on Saturday afternoon.

WEST SHENANGO TOWNSHIP — Six-year-old Liam Bainbridge had one word to describe the sledding conditions at Pymatuning State Park during Saturday’s 42nd annual Winter Fun Day: “Awful!”

Sledding was one of the only activities going on around the park’s Shelter 4 that didn’t provide much fun on Saturday, however. And while the sledding was slow, that didn’t stop Bainbridge from making repeated attempts to slide on the gentle slope overlooking the frozen-over reservoir. Around him, fun came more easily to those engaged in everything from disc golf and ice fishing to crafts and sailing.

Volunteers from the Pymatuning Trail Blazers Snowmobile Club organized the busy slate of events, as they do each year. Sales of food during the event and registration fees for the ice fishing tournament make the Winter Fun Day the group’s biggest fundraiser of the year. Proceeds support the Trail Blazers’ efforts to keep the park’s snowmobile trails groomed and open during the winter and to maintain them during the rest of the year so they are ready to go when the snow comes, according to Matt Weaver, the club’s secretary.

“This is a really nice park,” Weaver said of Pymatuning. “It does have a lot to offer.”

And while sledding and snowmobiling were not on the menu for Saturday, plenty of the park’s other offerings were on full display.

If Bainbridge had been looking for excitement to take the place of sledding, he needed to look no further than farther down the hill he was on to the beach covered by a light dusting of snow. There, between two massive pyramids of ice chunks, a small section of open water waited for those looking to cool off. The idea of a 6-year-old heading toward such a scene sounds like every parent’s nightmare, but plenty of 26-, 46- and even some 66-year-olds plunged right in during the “Brrr! For a Cure” plunge sponsored by the American Cancer Society Relay for Life Pymatuning Lake.

Several dozen swimmers braved the conditions for an exhilarating dip in the lake. Some merely got their feet wet, but many jumped right in — and then jumped right out again, tip-toeing up the beach to where two campfires offered relief from all the exhilaration. An occasion like this demanded a certain atmosphere, and counted down to swim-time, various costumes could be seen among the plungers: a cowboy atop an inflatable bull, a polar bear that preferred not to take a dunk, a black tutu here and an American-flag Speedo there.

“It’s not my thing,” said Stacie Hall, who wore the very warm-looking green uniform that comes with her position as assistant manager of Pymatuning State Park. “But I was down there, happily taking pictures next to the fire.”

Hall was at the event, like everyone else, for fun, but also to show support for both the Relay for Life and the snowmobile club.

“The Trail Blazers manage and care for the trails,” she said. “That’s a lot of responsibility taken off of us.”

For those who prefer their fun dry and who, like Bainbridge, might like a little speed, Neil Betts of Fowler, Ohio, and several other sailors could be found a short walk out onto the lake.

Betts has been sailing a hand-made ice boat for more than 30 years. The conditions on Saturday weren’t perfect, he said, but they were pretty good.

“You’re looking for smooth ice and no snow,” he said as he stood alongside his J14 iceboat in a light breeze, “but you don’t get that real often.”

Only a light dusting of snow covered parts of the iced-over reservoir, but the surface was rough in places as a result of some thawing and refreezing in recent weeks, according to Weaver of the Trail Blazers.

Gusting winds kept more than a dozen ice fishers inside their shanties throughout the day, but the conditions were just right for Betts — not enough to approach his vessel’s top speed of 70 to 80 mph, but more than enough to keep him moving briskly from one side of the lake to the other, arcing around the shanties before approaching the shore just below Shelter 4.

“It’s a little different how the sails react,” Betts told a group assembled on the ice. A member of the Pymatuning Yacht Club, he also gets out on the water when conditions aren’t right for ice yachting. “The point of sail is different — and it’s much faster.”

Swimming and sailing provided some excitement and more reserved, if still intense, competition could be found in the shanties of ice fishers scattered around the lake surface. But if someone like young Bainbridge were looking for danger — well, that could be found at the Winter Fun Day, too.

Not really, of course, but just across the parking lot from where Bainbridge lay atop his sled, Steve Nelson of Seneca was wielding his chainsaw. What the scene lacked in danger it made up for in flourish.

Beneath the flying sawdust, the image of an eagle at rest emerged from a block of pine beneath Nelson and his trademark weathered leather hat. It was plenty cold enough, but Nelson’s preferred medium is wood, not ice.

“The only (ice carving) I ever did was about 10 years ago here. I gave it a try and cut a mushroom,” Nelson explained during a break. “I was soaked! I hated it — never did it again.”

While one such experience was enough for Nelson, Bainbridge was determined to give his sled a try. The results were lacking during Saturday’s Winter Fun Day, but he already knew what to do when more snow provided the next fun day.

His plan, he said with delight, was to “do it all over again.”

Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at

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