Outdoors/Adventure

Into the cold: Strangers find community while plunging into frigid Alaska waters

I’m standing at the base of a Southcentral Alaska waterfall with a bunch of strangers, wearing a swimsuit. It’s the first day of May but patches of snow still cover the ground.

A group of us have gathered here to immerse ourselves in glacier-fed, barely-above-freezing waters of Eagle River. On purpose. For up to two minutes. This is going to make us feel great, says John Paul Huffer, our leader and instructor for the day. It might even change our lives.

“OK,” he says. “It’s time.”

The concept of cold plunging is far from novel in Alaska. Cold dipping in wild bodies of water has been part of Alaska Native cultures and traditions for thousands of years.

But the dozen people standing on the muddy banks of Barbara Falls on this Sunday evening are trying a relatively new practice called the Wim Hof method, which has been gaining popularity internationally since the mid-2010s.

Wim Hof is the name of a Dutch motivational speaker and athlete who, in the wake of his wife’s suicide, came up with a three-pronged approach to wellness involving breathing exercises, gradual immersion in cold and “mindset training.”

Also known as “The Iceman,” Hof gained notoriety through attention-grabbing stunts like running a half marathon barefoot in shorts above the Arctic Circle, swimming under ice and “standing in a container while covered with ice cubes for more than 112 minutes,” his website says. According to a Rolling Stone profile, Hof holds 26 Guinness World Records, mostly cold-endurance related.

Scientists in Michigan studied Hof’s brain and found that he seemed to be able to “consciously control his body’s autonomous system” to adapt to stresses like cold, according to Wayne State University. Critics say that not all of the health benefits Hof has claimed have been vetted by scientists.

But the method has spawned a worldwide industry, with Wim Hof instructors, workshops and trips.

Huffer, a former Chugiak High School football star who now heads up security at Bartlett High School in addition to coaching elite track athletes, is a certified instructor of the Wim Hof method — which he also just calls “the method.”

Huffer came to cold water immersion through a colleague at his job as head of security for Bartlett High. The first time he did a cold plunge, it was late November and about 15 degrees outside.

“Ice crystals were everywhere,” he said. “Just the whole experience was pretty visceral.”

Since then, he and a group of friends have plunged regularly in wild bodies of water, including Thunderbird Falls and Winner Creek. He has plunged on days when the air temperature is far colder than the water, and frost sprouts on beards and skin. Huffer says cold plunging and the breathing exercises he teaches helped him to lift brain fog he attributes to years of playing football and other contact sports. He believes that cold plunging can be a profound and even transformative experience.

“It’s the ability to learn how to deal with stress, anxiety and even depression on a pretty deep level,” he said.

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Now an instructor, he’s been holding workshops at warehouse gym spaces in Anchorage that start with an explanation of the Wim Hof method, progress to breathing exercises and culminate in a group cold plunge.

At the workshops and gatherings, he’s noticed a strong desire for community. A Facebook group he started to organize people interested in the practice quickly gained hundreds of followers.

Cold plungers say the practice has led to better mental and physical health. Some credit it for staving off bleak depression or gnawing anxiety.

Putting your body in nearly freezing water is not without danger. People die every year of hypothermia from cold water immersion in Alaska. Huffer is emphatic that people who want to try cold plunging should be cautious and go with a group. He cautions against trying cold plunging alone, or without training. People who want to try the Wim Hof technique should heed safety warnings detailed on the parent organization’s website, he said.

Historically, I’ve tried hard to stay out of freezing cold Alaska water. But on this day at the edge of thundering Barbara Falls, I’ve decided to try it alongside the rest of the group. There are a few CrossFit guys, an orchestra teacher, a nonprofit executive and a massage therapist among us. Several of the men are military veterans. Huffer’s wife is there, and his son. Everyone seems to be here for a different reason: Some people say they’re seeking better athletic performance. Some are hoping to release stress. Others say they like the idea of cold plunging as a community practice.

Vance Zuehlsdorff is a frequent cold plunger who teaches orchestra for the Anchorage School District. He tells the group that he suffers from depression that can make it feel like “my frontal lobe has got honey in it,” he said. He first cold plunged with a swim at Eklutna Lake. Now he does it multiple times per week.

“It just helps me be functional,” he said.

Huffer indicates that it’s time to get in the water. I find a gentle-looking pool deep enough to lay back in, like I’m on the world’s least comfortable lounge chair.

Zuehlsdorff is going to be my plunge guide: For first-timers, the experience can be overwhelming. The guide is there to make sure that you’re doing OK, and that you can get out when you need to.

I lie back into the frigid water, up to the shoulders. The cold feels electric. Zuehlsdorff is watching me closely. For some reason I’m laughing. The cold is painful and numbing at the same time, but every second that passes makes me feel better. It helps that other people are experiencing it along with me, and Zuehlsdorff is cheering me on. After what seems like a thousand years but is only one minute and 30 seconds, he suggests I get out.

Afterward, we gather at the edge of the waterfall. People duck into the mobile sauna Huffer has set up. Huffer stands above on a rock, doing a stretching pose that’s recommended for slow rewarming. I don’t feel chilled to the core, but I do feel a kind of instant sense of accomplishment.

I think about what Zuehlsdorff told the group earlier:

“Cold helps,” he said. “I don’t understand why.”

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a reporter who covers news and features about life in Alaska, and has been focusing on corrections and psychiatric care issues in the state. Contact her at mtheriault@adn.com.

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