The summer season unofficially begins in this old resort town with the arrival of the "mail jumpers" -- hardy souls who leap from moving boats to lakeside piers, clutching bundles of letters and newspapers.

It is definitely not a job for anyone afraid of taking a running jump over open water to get back on board after making a delivery, acrobatics that often draw gasps from spectators.

"I personally, at my age, would take a pass," said veteran Lake Geneva mail carrier Mike Tapavica, who prefers his walking route. "They are young kids in their early twenties, and they believe they are immortal."

Since 1873, the mail has been delivered with a thud to the piers of the many summer homes that ring the lake. The Walworth, a 75-foot mail boat, is one of the few remaining mail-delivery boats still operating in the United States, postal officials say. In the early days, mail boats were a necessity because there were no roads around the lake.

Now, the waterborne delivery has evolved into a tradition and tourist attraction, taken over by Lake Geneva Cruise Line, which has a contract with the U.S. Postal Service. In exchange for delivering the mail and getting a $1-a-year payment, the company reaps a great promotional gimmick, offering a close-up look at the historic mansions lining the shores and a chance to watch the mail jumpers in action.

The lakeside postal route attracts about 15,000 tourists who pay to board the boat each summer. "There's no charge [for mail customers]," said Harold Friestad, vice president and general manager of the cruise line. "We're happy to do it because of the tradition and the business we get."

The tradition, curiously, dates back to the Great Chicago Fire.

Many displaced families spent the fall and winter after October 1871 in Lake Geneva while waiting for their city homes and businesses to be rebuilt. Eventually, more and more Chicagoans, many of them famous business tycoons, selected the lake for their summer retreats.

According to local historians, their numbers included Levi Leiter, who teamed up with Marshall Field to establish the company now known as Marshall Field's, and the Wrigley family. Many of their mansions still stand within easy view of the lake.

"Everything back then was delivered by boat: groceries, mail, flowers, people," Friestad said. "Of course, the millionaires had their own boats to travel in."

Today, mail jumpers are typically college students who try out for six coveted positions and are catapulted to local celebrity status -- or, at other times, smack into the lake.

The challenge for these airborne letter carriers is that the boat never stops -- not even when the deliveries are made to mailboxes a good 20-yard dash down a pier. At times, getting back can be a tricky proposition.

Claire Brawley, a 20-year-old veteran, says she has never taken a plunge.

On a recent morning, after shoving a thick USA Today and Chicago Tribune into a mailbox, Brawley's mad dash back to the Walworth drew a collective gasp from tourists.

Sweating and red-faced, she leaped four feet from the pier, grabbed a rail and just managed to catch the stern. Her Nikes slipped, and her body thumped loudly against the side of the boat.

"I took dance for 10 years, so that has helped with those long leaps," Brawley said, back on board and getting her next bundle of mail ready. "The most difficult ones are those long piers. You never know if you'll make it back to the boat."

In most instances, Brawley does not have time to pick a landing spot, so Captain Neill Frame cautioned the tourists to be careful. "Stay out of her way," he said. "She's tough."

She is strong enough to deliver the bulky Sunday newspapers -- one resident gets four delivered -- and weighty packages, Brawley said.

Earning $6.50 an hour, Brawley said a season of mail jumping is better than the summer she spent as a restaurant hostess, especially because the job has perks.

Joyce Maus is known to leave treats for the jumpers -- a tin of oatmeal cookies was stashed in her mailbox on a recent morning route.

At another home, the family's golden retriever trotted down the pier and dutifully grabbed the mail from the jumper's hands, sparing her a jump.

When Grace Hanny moved to her family's lakeside home 30 years ago, the highlight of her daughters' afternoons was picking up the mail from the jumpers, she said. The job now goes to her grandchildren.

The family's mailbox was moved this year to the end of the pier.

"The girls still have to jump off, but now they have to do a little dash," Hanny said. "It's an athletic event in and of itself."

Other obstacles are left on purpose -- there is the family that likes to place rafts and rubber toys on the pier so they can watch the jumpers maneuver around them.

Then there is the diving board that juts out from a pier, preventing the Walworth from getting close enough for a mail jumper to give it a try.

Brawley decided to try the old-fashioned way, throwing a newspaper toward the pier. She watched it hit the water.

"Oops," she said with a grin, pledging to return with a dry paper.

Mail carrier Claire Brawley, 20, loads the mail for delivery to homes along Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. The Walworth, a 75-foot mail and tourist boat, stops by about 40 to 60 vacation homes each day during the summer.Brawley leaps off the moving boat and onto a private pier. The mail for the area has been delivered by boat and by mail jumpers since the late 1870s, when many Chicagoans started to spend their summers by the lake.The mail delivery has evolved into a tourist attraction, with about 15,000 tourists paying to board the boat each summer. They get a close-up look at the mansions along the shore and a chance to watch the mail jumpers in action.The boat slows but does not stop, so Brawley has to run and leap back into it each time. "I took dance for 10 years, so that has helped with those long leaps," she said. "The most difficult ones are those long piers."