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Washing away 2018 at the Polar Plunge in Flagstaff

More than 50 people started the New Year with a bracing plunge into the muddy water of Upper Lake Mary at midday on Tuesday.

In several small groups of six or fewer, and sometimes all alone, participants in the annual Polar Plunge gingerly walked to the edge of a pool cut by chainsaw from the ice cap covering the lake as a crowd called out encouragement from the shore.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Spectators and participants in the annual Polar Plunge celebrated the New Year Tuesday at noon on the boat ramp at Upper Lake Mary. More than 50 brave souls dared to take the plunge as their friends and family watched from the shore.

The event, which has taken place since 2011, was the brain-child of late Arizona Daily Sun Editor Randy Wilson, who told tales of starting the new year by jumping through the ice into a frozen river in Maine.

Each year Daily Sun employees joined Wilson early on New Year's Day to clear a way into the lake and wait on the boat ramp to see how many brave souls would heed the call to start a new year with a Polar Plunge.

Some years the ice was thick enough to drive a car on and would be cut out in 8-inch-thick bricks to be stacked in piles next to the plunge pool. Rarely, brave participants would arrive at the lake edge to be greeted by sunshine, unseasonably warm temperatures and a complete lack of ice.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Kara Kelty soaks in the freezing waters of Upper Lake Mary Tuesday during the annual Polar Plunge to celebrate the new year.

On this New Year's Day, Bill Smith, who normally runs the printing presses that create each day's newspaper, arrived to find three inches of ice capped by another six inches of light, fluffy snow. As he started work on cutting the pool, the thermometer was stuck at 6 degrees. With a high forecast for 25 degrees, the day had all of the makings for a truly epic plunge.

The temperature was so low that as briefcase-sized blocks of ice were cut away from the cap to reveal a growing pool of clear water, that pool would quickly rime over with the beginnings of fresh ice.

As the pool grew ever larger under the whine of the chainsaw, the thin mountain air started to take on an unusual smell. Sitting next to the spare tank of gas for the saw was a bottle of canola cooking oil.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Sophia Capalby holds a 3-inch-thick section of ice Tuesday morning while helping to cut a plunge pool in the ice at Upper Lake Mary for the annual Polar Plunge.

“I just happened to be watching a documentary on homesteading,” Smith said. “Trees were being felled to build a log cabin and the future owner of the cabin was a bit of an environmentalist who said that the sawyer couldn’t use chainsaw oil on the trees being cut for his home. The sawyer instead used cooking oil. In past years I’ve not used oil in the saw when I cut the ice, so I would have to stop to let the chain cool down. I realized this year I could use cooking oil and it would let the saw run without polluting the lake.”

When it came time to take the plunge, some participants ran in and squatted down for complete immersion followed by a mad dash back to shore for warm towels and clothes. Others from hardier, or simpler, stock walked out into the pool and sat with only their heads exposed, soaking in the chill before ducking completely under to emerge fully soaked for the new year.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Mark Cox explodes out of the freezing waters of Upper Lake Mary Tuesday as he takes the annual Polar Plunge to celebrate the new year. Cox was one of more than 50 people who took the plunge this year.

As requested, those wishing to join the fun brought nonperishable food items and a large crate of tins and boxes of food was collected on the shore to be donated to the Flagstaff Family Food Center.

No matter the joys and sorrows or trials and tribulations of the coming year, there will once again be a pool of water waiting for those who want to enter 2020 with a slate washed clean(ish) with the icy and muddy waters of the lake.

Spacecraft opens new year with flyby on solar system's edge

LAUREL, Md. — NASA's New Horizons spacecraft pulled off the most distant exploration of another world Tuesday, skimming past a tiny, icy object 4 billion miles from Earth that looks to be shaped like a bowling pin.

Flight controllers in Maryland declared success 10 hours after the high-risk, middle-of-the-night encounter at the mysterious body known as Ultima Thule on the frozen fringes of our solar system, an astounding 1 billion miles beyond Pluto.

"I don't know about all of you, but I'm really liking this 2019 thing so far," lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute said to applause. "I'm here to tell you that last night, overnight, the United States spacecraft New Horizons conducted the farthest exploration in the history of humankind, and did so spectacularly."

The close approach came a half-hour into the new year, and 3 ½ years after New Horizons' unprecedented swing past Pluto.

For Ultima Thule — which wasn't even known when New Horizons departed Earth in 2006 — the endeavor was more difficult. The spacecraft zoomed within 2,200 miles of it, more than three times closer than the Pluto flyby.

Operating on autopilot, New Horizons was out of radio contact with controllers at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory from late Monday afternoon until late Tuesday morning. Scientists wanted the spacecraft staring down Ultima Thule and collecting data, not turning toward Earth to phone home.

Mission operations manager Alice Bowman said she was more nervous this time than she was with Pluto in 2015 because of the challenges and distance, so vast that messages take more than six hours, one way, to cross the 4 billion miles. When a solid radio link finally was acquired and team members reported that their spacecraft systems were green, or good, she declared with relief: "We have a healthy spacecraft." Later, she added to more applause: "We did it again."

Cheers erupted in the control center and in a nearby auditorium, where hundreds more — still weary from the double countdowns on New Year's Eve — gathered to await word. Scientists and other team members embraced and shared high-fives, while the spillover auditorium crowd gave a standing ovation.

Stern, Bowman and other key players soon joined their friends in the auditorium, where the celebration continued and a news conference took place. The speakers took delight in showing off the latest picture of Ultima Thule, taken just several hundred-thousand miles before the 12:33 a.m. close approach.

"Ultima Thule is finally revealing its secrets to us," said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins.

Based on the early, rudimentary images, Ultima Thule is highly elongated — about 20 miles by 10 miles. It's also spinning end over end, although scientists don't yet know how fast.

As for its shape, scientists say there are two possibilities.

Ultima Thule is either one object with two connected lobes, sort of like a spinning bowling pin or peanut still in the shell, or two objects orbiting surprisingly close to one another. A single body is more likely, they noted. An answer should be forthcoming Wednesday, once better, closer pictures arrive.

By week's end, "Ultima Thule is going to be a completely different world, compared to what we're seeing now," Weaver noted.

Still, the best color close-ups won't be available until February. Those images should reveal whether Ultima Thule has any rings or moons, or craters on its dark, reddish surface. Altogether, it will take nearly two years for all of New Horizons' data to reach Earth.

The observations should help scientists ascertain how deep-freeze objects like Ultima Thule formed, along with the rest of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago.

As a preserved relic from that original time, Ultima Thule also promises to shed light on the so-called Kuiper Belt, or Twilight Zone, in which hundreds of thousands of objects reside well beyond Neptune.

"This mission's always been about delayed gratification," Stern reminded reporters. He noted it took 12 years to sell the project, five years to build it and nine years to reach the first target, Pluto.

Its mission now totaling $800 million, the baby grand piano-sized New Horizons will keep hurtling toward the edge of the solar system, observing Kuiper Belt Objects, or KBOs, from afar, and taking cosmic particle measurements. Although NASA's Voyagers crossed the Kuiper Belt on their way to true interstellar space, their 1970s-era instruments were not nearly as sophisticated as those on New Horizons, Weaver noted, and the twin spacecraft did not pass near any objects known at the time.

The New Horizons team is already pushing for another flyby in the 2020s, while the nuclear power and other spacecraft systems are still good.

Bowman takes comfort and pleasure in knowing that long after New Horizons stops working, it "will keep going on and on."

"There's a bit of all of us on that spacecraft," she said, "and it will continue after we're long gone here on Earth."

Bizardis celebrate new year with birth of third child

Rhonda Bizardi doesn’t usually stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. But this year, the birth of her daughter caused her to stay up much later. The Bizardis' baby was born at 5:20 a.m. on Jan. 1, making her one of the first babies born at Flagstaff Medical Center in 2019.

Rhonda, 28, and husband Ryan Bizardi, 31, are still waiting to choose a name for the girl, who came in weighing 7 pounds, 1 ounce with a height of 19½ inches.

So far, the top name choice is Ryleigh.

This is the third child for Rhonda and Ryan, who met at Greyhills Academy High School in Tuba City. Ryan, who travels for his construction job, recalled that Rhonda surprised him with a picture of her positive pregnancy test this time.

Ryan took their older children, Sharelle, 10, and Nathan, 3, sledding while Rhonda got some rest after her 15 hours of labor that spanned from 2018 to 2019.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Big sister Sharelle Bizardi, 10, looks down at her baby sister in the arms of her mom, Rhonda, Tuesday afternoon at Flagstaff Medical Center.

“I’m kind of scared of her,” Rhonda joked about her new baby. “Knowing her birthday is so close to New Year’s and everything that comes with it.”

“Like loud fireworks,” chimed in Sharelle.

Sharelle, whose black sweatshirt read “Strong and Fearless” in big, bold letters, said she felt excited to be a big sister again.

“It’s nice to take care of someone, hang out with someone, play with them and watch them grow up while I grow up,” she said while helping her 3-year-old brother, Nathan, balance on an aerobics ball.

Grandma Nancy Begaye said that Nathan had “ordered for a little girl” when he found out the news that his parents were expecting.

Nathan and the new baby will follow in Sharelle’s footsteps and attend Cromer Elementary School when they are old enough.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Rhonda Bizardi holds her newborn daughter Tuesday afternoon in her delivery room at Flagstaff Medical Center.

The family lives in Cameron, and when they drove an hour to Flagstaff for Rhonda’s 9 a.m. North Country appointment on Dec. 31, they were told to go back home, pack up their things and head to Flagstaff Medical Center.

Rhonda was diagnosed with cholestasis at North Country, which is a semi-rare condition where women’s pregnancy hormones affect their liver function and can increase the risks of stillbirth.

At 2 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, Rhonda arrived at Flagstaff Medical Center to begin her induction, and after 15 hours of labor, the baby was born healthy and happy.

Originally, the baby was supposed to be born on Jan. 10. Begaye said she had hoped her granddaughter would be born two days earlier, so she would be born on Elvis’ birthday.

“But she rushed in,” Begaye laughed. “She is a lovely lady.”

Rhonda said she had happy tears rushing down her cheeks when she held her baby after she was finally delivered.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Rhonda Bizardi holds her newborn daughter Tuesday afternoon in her delivery room at Flagstaff Medical Center.

Like Rhonda, Ryan said he “felt a lot of joy” when he got to hold their new baby girl. Ryan said he wanted to cry too, but insisted he was able to keep it together.

Garbage, feces take toll on national parks

WASHINGTON — Human feces, overflowing garbage, illegal off-roading and other damaging behavior in fragile areas were beginning to overwhelm some of the West's iconic national parks, as a partial government shutdown left the areas open to visitors but with little staff on duty.

"It's a free-for-all," Dakota Snider, 24, who lives and works in Yosemite Valley, said by telephone Monday, as Yosemite National Park officials announced closings of some minimally supervised campgrounds and public areas within the park that are overwhelmed.

"It's so heartbreaking. There is more trash and human waste and disregard for the rules than I've seen in my four years living here," Snider said.

The partial federal government shutdown, now into its second week, has forced furloughs of hundreds of thousands of federal government employees. This has left many parks without most of the rangers and others who staff campgrounds and otherwise keep parks running.

Unlike shutdowns in some previous administrations, the Trump administration was leaving parks open to visitors despite the staff furloughs, said John Garder, senior budget director of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association.

"We're afraid that we're going to start seeing significant damage to the natural resources in parks and potentially to historic and other cultural artifacts," Garder said. "We're concerned there'll be impacts to visitors' safety."

"It's really a nightmare scenario," Garder said.

Under the park service's shutdown plan, authorities have to close any area where garbage or other problems become threats to health and safety or to wildlife, spokesman Jeremy Barnum said in an email Monday.

"At the superintendent's discretion, parks may close grounds/areas with sensitive natural, cultural, historic, or archaeological resources vulnerable to destruction, looting, or other damage that cannot be adequately protected by the excepted law enforcement staff that remain on duty," Barnum said.

In the southern Sierra Nevada in Central California, some areas of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks were closed Monday evening. In Sequoia, home to immense and ancient giant sequoias, General Highway was closed because overflowing trash bins were spreading litter and posed a threat to wildlife and the icy, jammed roadway was seeing up to three-hour delays, according to the National Park Service.

Also closed was the Grant Tree Trail, a popular hiking spot, because the government shutdown halted maintenance and left the path dangerously slick from ice and snow, with at least one injury reported, the park service said.

Campers at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California's deserts were reporting squabbles as different families laid claims to sites, with no rangers on hand to adjudicate, said Ethan Feltges, who operates the Coyote Corner gift shop outside Joshua Tree.

Feltges and other business owners around Joshua Tree had stepped into the gap as much as possible, hauling trailers into the park to empty overflowing trash bins and sweeping and stocking restrooms that were still open, Feltges said.

Feltges himself had set up a portable toilet at his store to help the visitors still streaming in and out of the park. He was spending his days standing outside his store, offering tips about the park in place of the rangers who normally would be present.

"The whole community has come together," Feltges said, also by phone. "Everyone loves the park. And there's a lot of businesses that actually need the park."

Some visitors have strung Christmas lights in the twisting Joshua trees, many of which are hundreds of years old, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Most visitors were being respectful of the desert wilderness and park facilities, Joshua Tree's superintendent, David Smith, said in a statement.

But some are seizing on the shortage of park staffers to off-road illegally and otherwise damage the park, as well as relieving themselves in the open, a park statement said. Joshua Tree said it would begin closing some campgrounds for all but day use.

At Yosemite, Snider, the local resident, said crowds of visitors were driving into the park to take advantage of free admission, with only a few park rangers working and a limited number of restrooms open.

Visitors were allowing their dogs to run off-leash in an area rich with bears and other wildlife, and scattering bags of garbage along the roads, Snider said.

"You're looking at Yosemite Falls and in front of you is plastic bottles and trash bags," he said.

Officials at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado said Monday they were closing restrooms and locking up trash bins in many locations.