Edmonton

Cold comfort: Alberta man finds peace in Peace River ice baths

Every day of winter, John Mark Earle nestles into a hole carved out of the thick river ice and submerges himself up to his neck.

Daily polar plunge proves the perfect medicine

John Mark Earle plans to take 150 ice baths this winter. (John Mark Earle/Facebook)

John Mark Earle finds inner peace in Alberta's icy Peace River. 

For Earle, plunging into the frozen river is a form of meditation.

Every winter day, he nestles into a hole carved out of the thick river ice and submerges himself up to his neck.

The ice baths have become a daily ritual, providing an unusual kind of cold comfort. 

"Although it is incredibly difficult to do, I completely underestimated how great you feel," Earle said. 

"I feel so much lighter, I feel more alert. I feel in a way better mood, way less stress." 

As long as the river remains frozen over, Earle — a contractor from Peace River — will walk down the river bank for his daily plunge, occasionally lighting a fire to warm his bones and melt the icicles off his beard. 

Earle estimates he took about 121 ice baths last winter. 

He began his daily ritual in mid-December, finally taking a reprieve in late April when the river ice started to turn rotten.

Earle's experiment began in 2018. His son, an avid swimmer, had wanted to go for a cold dip in the river but winter hit early that year.

"I started mostly out of curiosity," Earle said.

"I had just thought, hey, I wonder if we can go every day until the river freezes? And the river froze a little bit sooner than I had expected it to. So we decided to cut a hole and I started going in the hole." 

Once my body started to relax in the water, it was a different experience.-John Mark Earle

Earle plans to continue his daily ritual during the icy season ahead, aiming for a total of 150 ice baths.

Earle said it's a mental challenge to get in the water and even more of a feat to stay in for more than a few seconds.

"It's such an intense experience and it actually activates your stress response in your body," he said.

"Everything within you physiologically is screaming to get out of the water." 

Earle says he was partly inspired by The Iceman, a Dutch extreme athlete named Wim Hof who is known for breaking several world records for cold exposure.

Earle's not particularly keen to break any records, but his longest stint in the water so far was 20 minutes and 20 seconds to mark the start of 2020 when he hit 100 days of consecutive baths last winter. 

When he first started, he could only handle 30 seconds or so.

"What I started to do was to stay in until I got calm," he said. "When you first get in, your body will tense, you'll gasp for breath. 

"Once my body started to relax in the water, it was a different experience." 

Although Earle is usually alone in his icy swimming hole, he always has a spotter for safety. And he has recruited a few fellow swimmers. His family and a small contingent of hardy locals will occasionally join him on the weekends.

Ice baths aren't for the faint-hearted and river safety is critical, he said, but he encourages others to take the plunge. 

He loves the determination it takes, it's allowed him to embrace winter, and the adrenaline rush is addictive, he said. 

"I just can't help feeling this pull to do it again and again," he said. 

About the Author

Wallis Snowdon

Journalist

Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca

With files from Pippa Reed

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