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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Winning the Cold War

How NOT to Die of Hypothermia

By Tamia Nelson

January 11, 2005

It attacks the unwitting, the unwary, and the unprepared. It stalks its prey in all seasons of the year. It can strike during a summer picnic on Golden Pond, or in the middle of a rough open-water crossing in November, or while traversing the Grand Portage in a swirling spring drizzle. And it waits patiently in any water cool enough not to feel warm. Some of its victims never make it home alive.

What is this stealthy killer's name? Hypothermia, that's what, and it's every bit as deadly as drowning. Know your enemy. That's always good advice. So let's take a closer look at…

The Big Chill

The human body is a heat engine, and it functions most efficiently within a narrow temperature range. When the vital organs in your body's core are cooled below this range, you're already in hypothermia's claws. Since it's easier to get chilled to the bone outside in the cold than inside by the fire, hypothermia was once known as "exposure." The new name is more accurate, if less evocative. Every year, in cities around the world, men and women die of hypothermia in their homes. This killer recognizes no sanctuary.

Of course, risk increases with exposure to the elements, and anyone who lives, works, or plays outside is vulnerable. Paddlers are no exception. Indeed, they're in more danger than most. Long after the air turns balmy in spring, winter's chill lingers in the rivers and lakes. And then there's the problem of wet clothing. Air — dry, still air, that is — insulates and protects, but any water that's colder than your body just wicks heat away. It doesn't matter whether you're in the water, or the water's in your clothes. It's a one-two punch in either case, and it hits hard. For a few hapless paddlers every year, the first unplanned swim of the season is the last. Ever. Yet cold water isn't the only silent killer. Air that's neither warm nor dry nor still can also chill. So can rain. (After all, rain is water, isn't it? Good rain gear is essential.) The moral of the story is simple. Cold. Rain. Wind. Cold water. If this Gang of Four ever comes after you, you're in for the fight of your life. Even one at a time, they're bad news.

A case in point. The scene: The hamlet of North River, where the upper Hudson breaks free of the Gorge. The first Saturday in May. White Water Derby weekend. It's sunny and warm, with just a hint of a breeze. Spring is definitely in the air. But spring in the mountains isn't quite the same as spring in the city. Snow still lingers in the shadowed folds between the peaks, and the Hudson is running high and cold, well above the Mouse's Tail. It's a great day for the slalom, and spectators — 10,000 of them by one estimate, but who's counting? — are in a party mood. Most are wearing jeans and tees.

The competitors are feeling pretty good, too. One of them — let's call him John, shall we? — is paddling OC-1 for the first time. His partner cancelled at the last minute. But John's no timid beginner. He's been canoeing and kayaking for a couple of decades now, and while he isn't what the hacks call a "serious competitor," he takes the race seriously. Not seriously enough, however. He, too, is in a party mood. In fact, he's breakfasted on beer. And like most of the spectators, he's bewitched by the soft spring weather. He's wearing jeans, with only a t-shirt under his life jacket.

Out of the gate, John's in his element. Things are lookin' mighty good. But though the slalom's a short race in relatively easy water, there are plenty of places in the course where you only get one chance to do it right. And at Perry Eller rapids, John loses the beat, drifting too far to the left, into the middle of the really big stuff. A breaking wave dumps its load over the gunwale. Then another wave dumps a second load. Suddenly it's swim time. The first shock of the freezing water puts an immediate end to all thoughts of spring. It was May on the bank, but it's December in the river. Luckily, John's fished out in a minute or two. Once on shore, though, he discovers that he can't close his hands or get his fingers to work. To make matters worse, he's shaking so badly that he has trouble walking. Strangers offer to carry John's boat back to his van. Afterward, they hang around to help him open his thermos and change into dry clothes. They don't leave till they see him tying his shoes.

Four hours later, John's on the Northway, heading home. He notices that his hands are still trembling, just a little, and he turns up the heater. After a while, the trembling stops.


Happy ending? Yes and no. John made it out of the river and back home, but after only a couple of minutes in cold water his survival depended entirely on the kindness of strangers. What if he'd been alone? There'd have been no happy ending then. The irony isn't lost on John. Neither are the lessons of that day in North River. He made a lot of mistakes. To begin with, he thought he was immune. Exempt. In control. He could have quoted whole paragraphs from books about the dangers of hypothermia, but he didn't think they applied to him, and certainly not on a beautiful, warm spring morning. So he dressed like a spectator instead of a competitor. And his beer breakfast didn't help much, either. It blunted the sharp edge of his intellect, slowed his reaction time, and sent warm blood rushing to his skin, far away from his vital organs.

Sound pretty stupid? It was. And stupid is something no paddler can afford to be. The good news?

It's Easy to be Smart

Your body's a heat engine, right? But it's a cold world. And if your engine gets too cold it stops. Dead. Not so good. To keep everything turning over smoothly, though, you only need to do two things:

  • Feed your fire regularly

  • Insulate the firebox

Simple, eh? Snack often whenever you're on the move. Calorie-rich energy bars are good, as is dried fruit. Drink frequently, too. Dehydration isn't just a warm-weather problem. A thermos of something hot and sweet is always welcome on a cold day. No booze, however. And no beer or wine, either. Save these for camp, when you're warm, dry, and lazy — and confident you'll stay that way for a while.

It's not enough to feed the fire, of course. You still can't afford to heat the whole watery world. Dress to keep the cold out and the heat in. Remember what happened to John. It may be May (or August) on the shore, but it can still be December in the water. Get an armored stream thermometer — and use it. Leave the jeans, shorts, and t-shirts for the beach and the tropics. In canoe country, wear fleece and wool under your paddling jacket when the water's warm (above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, say), a wetsuit when it's not. (You always wear a life jacket, don't you?) But that's only part of the story. Exposure is a product of both time and temperature. Whatever the reading on the thermometer, the longer you spend in the water, the more heat you lose. So anytime you might find yourself swimming for more than a few minutes — and this means any open-water crossing, along with most sea-kayaking jaunts — wear a wetsuit. And not all wetsuits are equal. A shorty is better than nothing, yet nothing beats a full-length Farmer John with a jacket when the going gets rough. Protect your head and neck, too. A watch cap or headover is enough when the water's comparatively warm, but a wetsuit hood isn't too much in arctic conditions. The downside? It's about as comfortable as a neck-brace.

Can't stand the clinging, clammy feel of a wetsuit? A drysuit-plus-fleece will do the same job, and some paddlers find that the drysuit has the edge in comfort. On the other hand, a single tear will put a drysuit out of action, while a wet wetsuit is normal. The choice is yours.

Wetsuit or dry, be sure to cover your head and neck, and don't neglect your other extremities, either. The temperature of your body core is what determines your survival time in the water, but you can't do much without hands and feet, and these need to stay warm to function. Wetsuit booties are standard footwear for both whitewater boaters and sea kayakers. So far, so good. There's no consensus about what to wear on your hands, though. Pogies, neoprene gloves, convertible mittens, even trapper's waterproof gauntlets over wool gloves — each has its champions. Experiment and see which you like best. Just wear something.

All of this gear will feel pretty restrictive, obviously, and when you're fully kitted out, you'll find paddling very sweaty work. There are also the attendant problems of stink, chafe, and rot. (There's nothing like a wetsuit for growing fungi and foul odors, and for rubbing your tender bits raw.) This sometimes leads expert paddlers to throw caution to the winds. Many will echo Derek Hutchinson's complaint that no advanced kayaker should have to "paddle stinking, sweating, steaming and prickling in rubber equipment like an out-of-work frogman," on the remote chance that he may have to "meet [a] freezing rescue" someday. Less confident boaters have little choice, however. For us, the only rule that makes sense is the familiar "Be prepared." Wetsuits make us uncomfortable. But cold water kills.

Still tempted to cut corners? At least take the personal equation into account. Some folks simply survive longer in cold water than others. Generally speaking, skinny people, tired people, children, and older paddlers have the hardest time staying warm — and the shortest life expectancy once they're in the water. They need extra protection.


OK. Preventing hypothermia is a good thing. We all agree about that. But what do you do when prevention fails? And how will you recognize what's wrong before it's too late? How do you see…

The Smile of the Tiger?

It's surprisingly hard, particularly if you're by yourself. Hypothermia is a stealthy killer. One crisp autumn day, Farwell thought he'd go for a jog up a nearby hill. He was wearing shorts and a tee. Halfway up, he noticed he was tripping over his own feet a lot. Ten minutes later he was shivering uncontrollably. He didn't have any extra clothing. By the time he stumbled down the hill, he couldn't speak. He knew he was lucky, though. He could still walk.

It's happened to me, too. Not long ago, I had to stop to fix a flat on my bike. It wasn't particularly cold or windy — 25 degrees Fahrenheit, more or less, with a gentle westerly breeze — and anyway I was hot. I'd been climbing steadily for nearly an hour. But by the time I got the wheel off the bike, my hands were shaking so much that I couldn't hold the tire levers. Unlike Farwell, however, I was prepared. I had hot Newt Nectar in my thermos, and a thick fleece pullover in my pannier. I put on the pullover and drank deep of the hot, sweet Nectar. When the shaking stopped, I fixed the flat and went on my way.

The upshot? Easy. Look out for hypothermia whenever the day is chilly, the weather is foul, or the water is cold, and anytime the breeze raises goose bumps. Check yourself — and your companions — often. Notch your index of suspicion up if you're cursing your clumsiness, trying to remember where you put your hat, or simply feeling cold. If you're already shivering, your suspicions are confirmed. You're in the beast's claws. It's time to fight back. Get out of the wind. Towel off if you're wet. Put on your warmest clothing. Have something hot to drink. Build a fire. And do it right now. Don't delay. Don't tell yourself that the beast will go away. It won't. Minutes count.

Want to know more? Get a good book. (Medicine for Mountaineering is one of the best.) Take a wilderness medical course. Talk to a knowledgeable physician or other health worker. But don't count on science to save you from the consequences of folly. Once the beast gets his hooks into your vitals, it's too late for anything but the ICU, and you won't find many of them in the backcountry. Chilling out is great on the street, but you want to stay warm on the trail. 'Nuff said?

It happens every year. As soon as winter's grip loosens and the ice retreats, even for a few days, folks head out on the water in t-shirts and jeans. And every year there are more hypothermia fatalities. Don't add your name to this melancholy roster. Don't become a silent statistic. Dress for the water temperature. Keep warm. Keep your head. And never, never doubt the deadly danger lurking in the cold. It's knowledge we all can live with.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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