It has been “sixty great years" for the Bon Soo Carnival featuring the incidental polar bear swim. But that’s not what we are talking about.
We’re interested in the long-term health benefits of taking regular cold-water dips or plunges. They call themselves 'dippers.' And cold showers are a way to start.
As recalled, it was a come-by-chance meeting at Olmsted Beach, a small municipal beach located at the west end of Trout Lake in North Bay, on the east side of the watershed divide.
After visiting with our Canadian Ecology Centre’s accountant, it was a needed noon time break, plus it was my birthday, Oct. 21.
It was cool enough outside and the first fall was premature but predictable snow of 2022 had graced us the night before. I sat inside my car sipping a medium-regular Tim’s coffee and immersed myself in looking out at the perimeter hills and the remaining colour.
The grey-black water indicated the change of season that was on its way and I sat wondering how many late-season paddles remained.
To the left or north, you can see the lower entry portal of what was the underground NORAD Complex, a secret military installation that's now decommissioned - a Cold War souvenir talked about in a previous story.
A half-ton truck arrived, and soon enough out came a lean-looking man ready to go swimming.
At the boat ramp, there was no toe dipping. With no hesitation, he walked right into the water and started the breaststroke as if he was doing lengths at the YMCA pool.
After a few minutes out he came. Naturally, we struck up a conversation. We agreed a story would evolve as a result of this experience. A photo was taken to record the moment of what was to come. It was a snow angel on the dock.
He's Clint Gore, a family man who identifies as “… a cold exposure and a breathwork educator.” You can find him on Facebook – Cold Plunge Crew.
How did he get started?
“I started dipping after an accident and I wasn't mentally well," Gore said.
It was 2015 and he was working as a petroleum mechanic when a 50,000-litre fuel tank exploded nearby. He sustained second and third-degree burns to 35 per cent of his body.
“I was on a lot of different medications, and I just felt like the shell of a human. I felt hopeless and I needed something different to try to get my life going in the right direction," he said.
He came across the Wim Hoff method which will be explained in a bit.
“I learned about his story and why he started to dip and I decided that it was something that I'd be willing to try. I started searching for any ways that I could feel better mentally and physically, and I turned to different strategies like breathwork, cold plunges, meditation, and endurance sports.
“The cold plunges were the pillar and the beginning of everything changing in my life. I believe that putting myself through these uncomfortable situations really changed my mindset and allowed me to build grit and resilience. I started feeling better and because of that started to connect with more people and then.”
He then took a course. By taking a Wim Hof course he started to understand the scientific side behind why the dips made him feel better.
“The first three years that I was dipping was basically myself and usually at most one or two more people,“ Gore said.
Since then, he has expanded this into a small community of enthusiasts.
“There are now a few regular dippers and I created an online Facebook group called the cold plunge crew (Facebook) and it has grown to more than 2,000 members.”
He meets interesting people.
“So many people reach out and ask about the benefits of the cold and are interested in trying to take a dip with myself and our little community. It brings me great joy to see people stepping out of their comfort zone and realizing that they can do hard things and are capable of overcoming their self-limiting beliefs.
“When new people come to dip for the first time, I like to remind them that I'm so proud of them just for showing up for setting their intention and then following through. It's amazing to see how proud and connected each person feels with me and the others in the group after their first dip. It truly is a community and there is definitely a collective energy that helps you overcome your fears and doubts when you're dipping with the group.”
There are some basic first steps for beginners.
“It is the breathing I review, you want to take full breaths all the way in all the way out and we go through some breathing exercises before we get into the water. We also explain that there's no expectations," Gore said. "All I ask is that when your body says get out, take a couple more breaths and then get out. Try to resist the initial thought for around 10 seconds. I remind people that cold plunging is a practice and that we're all in different spaces in our practice and we don't need to compare to anybody else.”
He reminds them to listen to their body rhythms.
“We just listen to our bodies and develop our practice over time. I think when we set the ego aside and really set our intentions as to why we're dipping because everybody dips for a different reason, but making those intentions clear, is a great way to move forward and really benefit from the practice," he said. "One way to start into cold exposure is with cold showers. At the end of each regular shower you have, finish it off with ten seconds cold and increase the time weekly.”
Gore describes the benefits of these plunges.
“It boosts immune system and improves cellular health, reduces physical and mental stress, increases cognitive function, mood and vitality, decreases systemic and acute inflammation, stimulates metabolism and increases brown fat production, supports hormone function, improves cellular resilience, enhances mind body and soil connections, trains, mental acuity circulatory health and improves overall brain cell functions, improves physical recovery.”
That’s quite a list to go through. A neuroscientist, Andrew Huberman, explains the benefits of the cold plunge in this YouTube video.
Gore appreciates and values the Wim Hof method, known as one of the leaders in this field of cold water benefits.
“As a person and a guide, I appreciate his work however but I don’t buy into the business side of things and therefore just refer to it as cold plunges," Gore said. "I am Wim Hof certified but I don’t use that as a credential."
Gore mentioned Wim Hof so I reached out to the person who is known as the 'Iceman'.
There are many good photos of the bearded one, looking like a yogi, cross-legged in winter settings. The website highlights “…his long and intimate dance with the cold, is that this age-old natural defence system is still in place. A glowing ember, dormant inside our DNA; waiting to be rekindled.”
They did get back to me with some promotional resources. It is business alright.
The power of the Wim Hof Method – as copyrighted – is the combination of three pillars as promoted through his approach and yes you can get certified as a participant or as a trainer for a price.
“It is a committed, consistent practice including the breathing technique and cold exposure can help you unlock a host of benefits,” as Gore described.
You can learn in so many ways, near and far. There is a “classic” ten-week online course, just add it to the shopping cart.
There are free mini-lessons and a blog as well as books and e-books. The most recent face-to-face retreat was in France on March 19 and the next retreat is in Portugal.
Continuing with applied science there is Dr. Susan Soberg. Review the video of her research. There is a huge section in her book about safety ‘Winter Swimming’ available through Amazon. The overview states, “Danish scientist Dr. Susanna Soberg leads us, step-by-step, into the icy water and explains the 'cold-shock response', the massive endorphin rush as our body reacts and adapts to very cold temperatures.”
Of course, there is everything on Google. On the cheap, you can convert your conventional ice freezer into a cold water tank. This one is explained by the somewhat comedic host sitting in the freezer in his apartment (listen for the dog barking comment; don’t forget the drain plug and the thermometer.
Twenty-three-year-old Michael Spivak, co-owner of Coldture did so. Their business is less than a year old and they are selling the larger “classic” models. He did a sixty-day cold water challenge, “Ice baths brought me to a better place," he said.
You’ve experienced it running out of hot water during your shower. That cold feeling jolts your brain and more, says an article from UCLA Health. The advice is to keep the water below 60 degrees (15 C). In a typical home shower, make the shower as cold as it can go. Take it slow: Start with 30 seconds of cold water. Work up to a minute and progress until you take a cold shower for two to three minutes.
When you Google: “cold water swim places in Northern Ontario” the summer ones are the only results. But there is what’s called “Ice Dipping” at the Nature’s Harmony Ecolodge near Mattawa, “new for 2023,” see the pic under the Winter Activities tab. There’s a ladder to help you get in and out of the water. Yes, it looks cold.
Perhaps it will start a trend with hospitality providers. For the compactness of travel on the trails, I wonder if snowmobilers will pack their Speedos.
Next year’s Bon Soo Carnival is February 2-10, start planning and make like you know what you are doing when you go in the water willingly and with confidence; it is all about the breath.
Soon there will be open water on the back roads cool enough and then there is the mandatory May 24 late spring, lake plunge. In the interim I have started taking cold showers, can’t wait.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this column mistakenly identified Bon Soo as the longest-running winter carnival in Northern Ontario. In fact, the Cochrane Winter Carnival has been running since 1934.