Going into the cold

Icy blades sliced my skin as I plunged into Okanagan Lake.

As the oh-so-cold water swallowed me, the image of mercury dropping in a thermometer forced its way into my freezing brain.

It was Jan. 31. The water was three degrees Celsius.

It was my New Year’s Day swim – just a month late. In spite of my 71 years dancing with time, I haven’t grasped that it won’t flow the way I want it.

A few minutes later as I shivered my way out of the lake and into my clothes, I envied the hawk floating high above it all. I felt like the gull tossed to and fro by the wind, shrieking its rage as it was buffeted by elements beyond its control.

In my effort to be more hawk-like, to escape the prison of comfort, I go into the cold, to voluntarily embrace pain, to accept what life offers with open arms. Without whining. That’s the hard part

Since that initial icy flagellation, I’ve been doing a daily polar bear swim — well, the Reader’s Digest version of a swim, more like a three-minute flail.

My belated New Year’s aspiration had been to do a monthly dip.

But after talking with my son, Ryan, who was doing the Wim Hof Method — cold showers every morning, a special breathing method, and commitment — I added a leap into the lake every day.

The method is named after the Dutch extreme athlete, the Iceman, who has run an Arctic marathon and climbed Mount Everest, or most of it, in shorts; no shoes or shirt. He also ran a marathon in the desert without drinking water.

He claims that he isn’t special and that anyone can do what he does.

He has been poked, prodded and needled countless times in scientific studies. The conclusions back up something he learned 45 years ago when he was 17 — that commitment, embracing the cold and his breathing method are good for the body and mind.

I am much more of a wuss than the Iceman and my protocol much more subdued: Strip down to shorts, no shoes, grab a towel, and my car keys, and take a two-minute walk to the end of the dock in a public park.

Initially, I climbed down the steel ladder in my birthday suit, but since it seemed to scare the neighbours and the Canada geese, I opted for political correctness and hid the naughty bits beneath my shorts.

The geese have returned; not sure about the neighbours.

But if they did, I’m sure they are more mindful of what they look at.

Mindfulness is the rage these days and the cold helps there. I am forced to be mindful when I climb the steel ladder on a cold day after emerging from an even colder lake; I peel wet hands and feet off the freezing steel.

If my face had not been frozen, I would have smiled at the childhood memory of sticking my tongue on steel and slowly peeling it off.

If I did it too quickly, I lost a layer of skin. My parents were OK with that; it kept me from talking — for a little while.

When I jitterbug out of the lake, I meet the most interesting people, who want to chat; I try to channel John Wayne while feeling like Pee Wee Herman.

It would have made an interesting picture, in mid-February, me standing in the middle of Pritchard Drive, a stripped towel around my waist talking to three ladies, dressed like Vancouverites in an Iqaluit winter out for their daily walk.

The biggest reaction and most questions come from women.

“You’d better not get in trouble out there because no one is coming to get you,” one told me as I towelled off.

“You were swimming in the lake?” another woman asked. “You are brave.” (That was her outside voice; I’m betting the inside one said something much different.)

I got a thumbs up from another lady as she drove by. “Very impressive.”

An elderly European man wondered what I had done with my skates, while three other men refused my invitation to join me, but said they would shiver with me while sitting on the park bench in their parkas.

Wonder if they were put off by the weird guy or the cold?

I had learned about the cold on a frozen ocean long before Wim Hof, but never warmed up to it like he did.

As a kid raised on an island off the coast of Newfoundland – wood stoves, no electricity or in-door plumbing — I had frozen various parts of my anatomy many times while playing in the snow and cold. I still shiver as I think about icicles frozen to my eyelashes.

I dreaded going home because the warmth was worse, temporarily, than the cold. My father would dip the frozen parts of me in cold water — and hold them there in spite of my efforts to escape.

A lot of time has passed since Fogo Island, but warming up still hurts like it did 60 plus years ago.

The hot shower feels wonderful, except when it hits the sensitive appendages — the hot water lacerating them can be as painful as the cold.

What did I learn or re-learn doing what most people call crazy when they really mean stupid? That the body can adapt to a almost anything if the mind is willing to lead? One of the first things a would-be motorcyclist learns: the bike will follow the eyes.

So it is in life. The body will follow the mind – into cold water and through fear. Sometimes it hurts, but pain is fleeting; it only lasts a lifetime.

Full immersion in a cold lake is great training if you want to play the living dead in a movie or costume party because, after 14 minutes in the lake in February, I walked much like the zombies in The Walking Dead.

A few more minutes and I might not have been walking – if my core temperature had dropped much more, I would have dropped. Forever.

The Iceman I am not – but maybe after taking cold showers and lake dips for 45 years like he has, I will be.

Wim Hof is no longer alone; thousands have accepted his invitation to go into the cold — a growing worldwide contingent of diehards who do a daily dive into frigid water. There are some in Kelowna, and there is a club in Victoria, the Odd Balls, that has 450 members who meet in the ocean at 6 a.m.

The truly dedicated pay thousands to go to Hof’s camps in Poland and Spain for personal instruction.

Of course, they could save themselves the money and take advice from Seneca, and Tyler Durden.

“If you have passed through life without an opponent, no one can know what you are truly capable of, not even you,” said Seneca, the Roman author, and power behind the young emperor Nero (before he started fiddling). Seneca practised Stoicism, which also advocates getting comfortable with discomfort.

Durden, in the movie Fight Club, had a similar philosophy. “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”

How can we know what we are capable off if we never move outside our comfort zone, if we don’t learn to embrace discomfort, if we don’t go into the cold?

Join me in the lake — now or in January.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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