The first time was mostly curiosity. John Mark Earle wanted to know what it would be like to submerge himself in the frigid water of the Peace River in the final days before it froze over for winter. It was 2018, already well into the northern Alberta cold.
So one night in November, Mr. Earle and his teenage son stripped down to their trunks, stepped gingerly across the shards of ice along the shore and through the slush into the water. The lights of town shimmered around them in the dark. Then, counting down from three, they dropped onto their stomachs and into the river.
“Oh my god!” Mr. Earle’s son gasped.
“Cheese,” they called together, for a photo.
“Woo-hoo!” Mr. Earle said, after he stood up and started walking out of the water, his arms lifted in triumph, picking his way back across the frozen shore.
It was shocking, intense, painful.
But then, something really weird happened. Almost immediately, Mr. Earle wanted to do it again.
“Strangely, it really keeps calling me back,” he says.
Since that day, Mr. Earle, 39, has plunged into those bitterly cold waters over and over, often through a hole he has made in the ice. Last year, he set a goal to do 100 dips into the river, but actually did more, 121. This year, he started in October and has challenged himself to go into the river every day until spring, 150 days in all.
“What happened was, the more that I did the more I wanted to do,” Mr. Earle said on the phone from his home in Peace River, Alta. “While you’re in the water it’s tough, but there’s such a sense of accomplishment that comes from doing it. It is extreme.”
Many of us dislike and even fear the cold, and rightfully so. It can be uncomfortable, dangerous, even lethal. Even for those who live largely protected from the cold, the winter season is seen as something to endure, to survive.
Mr. Earle says he once felt that way, too. That he used to dread the coming winter as soon as the summer solstice marked the longest day of the year in June.
But since he started going into the freezing river, something has changed, not only in the way he sees winter but in his broader relationship with the cold. Somewhat surprisingly, the cold has become a source of strength and calm.
“We have only a certain capacity to handle stress, and we’ve loaded onto ourselves the idea of having to tolerate or just barely make it through winter,” he says. “That can add a heavy load on people, and I feel like, in the past, that has been something that I carried, too.”
And so, in the midst of this winter of our discontent, a question: What if cold is not simply something to be endured? What if embracing things that are uncomfortable and painful and even potentially lethal give us something we can’t find any other way?
Alison Criscitiello is an ice core scientist who usually spends half her year in Edmonton and the other half on expedition in the Arctic and Antarctica, working in the extreme climes of the earth’s North and South poles. There, in some of the coldest places on Earth, she gathers samples, bringing them back to the University of Alberta in Edmonton for processing and study. The rooms of her laboratory are kept at a crisp -40 C for storage, -25 C for study.
As you may have gathered, she really likes the cold.
“I have always been enamored with the frozen parts of our earth,” says Dr. Criscitiello, a former mountain guide and alpine climber. “I think the things that have always drawn me to these places are really in the simplest form, the lack of everything else.”
In fact, Dr. Criscitiello says her academic interest in the science of the Earth’s ice was born out of her personal attraction to the cold, a desire to not only explore what the cold teaches us about the world, but also what being in those extreme environments can teach us about ourselves.
She says confronting the cold is a way of “finding your edges.” For her, the deprivation and discomfort are actually the point.
“When I go on expeditions, the things that matter are turning snow into water, making sure you don’t freeze and moving towards some objective. Extremely simple. Everything else disappears,” she says. “I think that’s always appealed to me. It’s the only place I’ve found where I am forced to be very present. You have to pay so much attention to your surroundings because they’re harsh, and it really forces me into the moment and back to very basics.”
Lessons for the current moment are not hard to find. Dr. Criscitiello says there are even parallels in the isolation that comes with polar expedition, where living for long periods alone or in very small teams can be difficult, but force people to grow and change in ways they would not have otherwise.
“I know it sounds extreme, but when I’m with three people for four months in the middle of Antarctica, that is your whole community and every problem that comes up has to be solved somehow by one of those four people or some combination of those four people,” she says. “And it’s really cool. Even though maybe your problems are more reduced to mechanical issues and making food and water and staying warm, you know you can accomplish anything.”
Much of Dr. Criscitiello’s research to this point has focused on paleoclimate, or the history of Earth’s climate held frozen in its layers. While her work looks at relatively recent history – the past few centuries – other scientists study samples believed to date back hundreds of thousands – even millions – of years.
Tiny air bubbles frozen in the ice offer invaluable information about the atmosphere and climate of the past. It’s only because of the deep cold that these records exist at all, that this part of Earth’s history is preserved for study. When surfaces melt, some of those records are destroyed forever.
Lately, Dr. Criscitiello has been studying environmental contaminants, looking at how human-made pollutants have travelled through the atmosphere into the coldest and most remote parts of our planet, including the High Arctic and the Columbia Icefield, the area from which Edmonton’s drinking water originates.
In these places, as in many others, the loss of cold is something to fear. Those contaminants from the past will be released again as those areas of ice and snow melt, and then the poisons will come back to us. The cold won’t keep them forever.
Although Dr. Criscitiello has been in temperatures as low as -80 C on scientific expedition, it was on a personal trip on Mount Logan, Yukon, that she had her most dangerous encounter with the cold.
It was -40 C, maybe closer to -50 C with the wind chill, and she and her companion were descending the summit of Canada’s highest mountain with a storm coming in. They were faced with a choice to hunker down at altitude or keep going and try to outpace the storm.
Dr. Criscitiello says they knew they would freeze their hands and feet if they continued, but they felt it was what they had to do. So they accepted one form of pain in the hope it would help them avoid something worse.
“On Mount Logan, the cold definitely won,” she says. “... In this weird way, it was a choice. I knew exactly what was going to happen. It was less of a risk than the alternatives.”
Dr. Criscitiello is supposed to return to Mount Logan in May as part of a scientific expedition to drill ice core on the summit plateau. She admits she’s afraid to face the mountain again. She still feels uneasy using the gear she wore during that expedition, although she knows that wasn’t why she got too cold.
“If I wasn’t going back for a scientific reason, I wouldn’t go back to climb it again, which I wouldn’t say of many places,” she says. “But yeah, I definitely am scared of Logan.”
Once you have had frostbite, you will always feel it. The parts that were bitten will always get colder faster, they will ache and burn. They will never be the same.
Our bodies hold a record of the cold, just as the cold holds a record of us.
“I think up here, the cold is just part of our life,” said Eric Anoee Jr., an Inuk filmmaker and one of the founders of the Inuit TV Network and the Arviat Film Society. “We were born with it and our ancestors were born with it, so I think we might not think about it too much. It’s just part of our existence.”
It was about -40 C with the wind chill in Arviat, Nunavut, when we spoke, unremarkable weather for December. In the world’s coldest and seemingly most inhospitable environments, the Inuit demonstrate humans’ capacity to adapt and live successfully in even the most extreme cold, and long before modern comforts and conveniences that made travel, shelter and heat more accessible. The cold is deeply ingrained into Inuit culture, history and communities, a part of both life and death.
“People do succumb to the elements. It’s part of the reality up here, ” said Mr. Anoee, speaking by Zoom from his home in Arviat, a digital background of a beach behind him. “People go out on the land in the winter, something happens, bad luck, and they succumb to the elements. That’s how harsh it can get.”
Mr. Anoee says he has so far been lucky with the cold, and he likes all weather except when it’s too warm. But when winter is at its most biting – when he is out on the land in the coldest weeks of January or February, where the days are so short and the wind chill so unrelenting, with no trees or mountains to break the stinging Arctic wind – he says he thinks about those who lived before him in that unforgiving cold, and it helps.
“I think back to my ancestors, how they survived. Not just survived, but thrived in the elements,” he says. “And when I think about being cold, I think back to how they endured the harshness of our environment, and that it’s not as bad as it was back then.”
Mr. Anoee says when it’s cold, he think it’s better to be outside more, not less.
“Once you bundle up and start walking more, you won’t feel as cold, that’s my saying,” he said.
He also thinks of something elders have told him: “Why bother complaining, because you can’t do anything about it.”
In most Canadian cities, the cold has largely become something to live with or maybe live through. A biting pain as you scurry from your car inside or as you stand shivering waiting for the bus. A popular genre of Canadian meme depicts women outside in the snow dressed in bikinis or cocktail dresses and high heels, men lounging on beach chairs or barbecuing in shorts and sandals, with some joke about Canadians and the cold.
In recent years, cities such as Edmonton have attempted to embrace their colder climates, encouraging residents to approach the winter months in a different way, moving away from the Danish hygge – the popularized notion of coziness inside – to the Nordic friluftsliv, or embracing a life outdoors.
There have been great successes, but going to winter festivals and outside events is different at -40 C than at -4 C. Many people go south for at least some period of the winter, and it’s not uncommon to hear them talk about getting away somewhere warm as a matter of survival.
Even with the pandemic raging, flocks of snowbird seniors have still headed south, more willing to risk travelling through the virus than staying home in the cold.
But those who are staying put do appear to be considering new ways to approach this pandemic winter. Across the country, outdoor heaters, firepits and cross-country skis have been in high demand, as people find ways to get outside. Some families are building backyard ice rinks. Winnipeg, one of the coldest cities in the country, is granting winter patio permits. The forested paths through Edmonton are as busy as I have ever seen them, even in summer, with people out on winter bikes, families sledding and taking hikes through the snow.
It will be interesting to see what lessons will emerge in this winter’s cold and, when all this passes, what will remain.
Mr. Earle says he was inspired to try a cold dip in part because of Wim Hof, a Dutch athlete known as “The Iceman” for his extreme feats of cold endurance, including running a half marathon in the Arctic circle in shorts, making the highest ascent on Mount Everest in shorts and sandals and setting multiple records for ice baths and cold exposure.
Mr. Hof, who is often photographed serenely submerged in ice, snow or cold water – or wearing shirts he sells with slogans like “Freeze!” and “The Cold is my Warm Friend” – promotes an embrace of the cold based in part on the idea that humans have become too comfortable, and that comfort hurts us. He likes to say that the cold is “merciless, but righteous.” And that, as he wrote on Twitter last winter, “it is capable of bringing us back to what we once had lost.”
Mr. Earle says his cold plunges have, ironically, made him enjoy winter more. He says he is learning to understand and control his body and reactions, learning what is safe, how long his body can stand it.
“I realized this shock that we experienced when we go into the cold is temporary, and there really is a process in your body that has the capacity to tolerate and handle the cold,” he says. “I think that stress response initially is because cold can be really dangerous, and it’s in our best interest to get out as quickly as we can in most cases. But once your body kind of realizes, ‘Okay, he’s not getting out,’ then it really settles down”
He says he is also learning the difference between being cold and being cold. He sometimes stays in the frozen river for five or six minutes now. Once, he looked down to see his hands turning white, freezing before his eyes.
Cold water exposure has become surprisingly trendy of late, and with his online presence, Mr. Earle has garnered some attention as “the Iceman of Peace River.” Since he started his cold dips two years ago, he says he’s seen a growing interest in both in his own community and more broadly. Last year, he took more than 100 people out with him, and he said he’s had many people contacting him to go into the river this year.
He says some scream the whole time. Others, like his teenaged daughter, are able to stay calm in the icy cold. (He says this week his daughter spent 10 minutes in the river on a night that was -24 C.)
Proponents of cold exposure say there are mental and physical benefits and that it helps with inflammation, chronic pain and mood. At the Sparkling Hill Resort in Vernon, B.C., patrons pay to spend time inside North America’s first “Cryo Cold Chamber,” which sits at a brisk -110 C.
But you don’t need a cryotherapy chamber to get cold. Mr. Earle says some people who find him online are doing cold dips in ice-filled bathtubs at home.
He says he thinks there’s “a lot of different layers” to this interest, but that he sees a common desire from people to challenge themselves, to face their fears, to add meaning or purpose and see what they can withstand, something he has found himself in the still of that numbing cold.
“I think there’s so many different things in my life that I’ve avoided for a long time because it was uncomfortable, and part of the benefit I’m getting from this is being willing to move towards things that I haven’t wanted to face,” he said. “I think that we could all benefit from that, whether it’s pandemic-specific or just moving through life.”
Inside a lab, inside the wintery city where I live, batches of hundreds of thousands of atoms exist in clouds of gas at temperatures so low they are measured in nanokelvins. One nanokelvin is one-billionth of a degree above absolute zero, the coldest temperature possible.
Experimental physicist Lindsay LeBlanc is among those working at the University of Alberta’s Ultracold Quantum Gases Laboratory, exploring cold that is, for most of us, well beyond comprehension. There is a lot to be learned in that unfathomable freeze.
When atoms are warm, they are active, moving. But the ultracold temperature forces them to slow down. The cold suspends them in place, exposing behaviour that cannot be observed otherwise.
The lessons they hold in that state are profound. Atoms are the building blocks of all matter, and understanding how they interact and work together in the cold holds the key to the forces that shape many aspects of our lives and the world, even the universe.
Edmonton is the coldest city on the planet with these ultracold atoms, and people move here to study them. Ms. LeBlanc says some of the students who come from warmer places barely go outside the first winter.
Having grown up in Winnipeg and Regina, and now living in Edmonton, Ms. LeBlanc is used to the cold, and she says she likes it. Her partner is also a low-temperature physicist, and the cold plays a big role in their lives. Ms. LeBlanc says she especially appreciates how vast and clear the sky is on a cold winter’s night, and lately she and her family have been going out to look at the stars and planets. There are some things you can only see in the cold.
She encourages those who come to the city to embrace the winter, and says after a while, they get used to it.
She says she thinks it’s mostly the shock at first, the challenge of finding new ways to live. The feel of the icy ground so slick and uncertain beneath your feet, the experience of seeing your own breath before you, of air so burning cold it hurts to draw it in.
“You know, you feel that you’re breathing,” she says.
And in that breath, a reminder that we are strong and that we are vulnerable, and that, even in the cold – or maybe especially then – we are alive.
Bonus: A cool science experiment
Globe and Mail Update