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Surviving Hypothermia
by Marc W. McCord

Of primary concern to any paddler, camper or other outdoor enthusiast who ventures out to play where the air and/or water temperature is cold should be hypothermia. It can kill a person rather quickly, and unless prepared to deal with it there may not be time to act before serious injury or death occurs. Knowing what to do and having the resources available to do it are critical elements in preventing and treating hypothermia. Prevention should always be the first objective, but being ready to treat it if and when it occurs is of paramount importance, especially if you are in a remote location where outside help is not readily available.

In January, 2006, a friend who shall remain nameless, but whose initials are Tom Taylor, talked me into doing something that I lived to refret having agreed to do. Just three weeks earlier our club took a "day trip" on a remote river where none of us had ever paddled, but which we knew to be a flatwater stream that usually had adequate flow for a trip. We also knew that it was a short trip, though we did not know the actual distance. December 26, 2005, was a warm, sunny day - the kind that makes a paddler want to be in his boat after spending the past several days landlubbed and surrounded by doting family members, so we decided to head for the Upper Sabine River between Mineola and Lindale in Northeast Texas, about 90 minutes from our homes in the Dallas area. Typically, Texas has mild winters, and this one was no exception.

We prepared for a short trip of a few hours. Some wore shorts and T-shirts while others wore long paddling pants and longsleeve paddling shirts. We took lunches, enough drinks to last for a few hours and not much else. It was, after all, a day trip. What we did not know was that we would encounter about 120 deadfall logjams that we would have to portage in the river or from muddy banks. Considering teh prolonged drought we had been suffering we were surprised by teh amount of mud we encountered, and it slowed our portages appreciably. To make a long story short, we did not make it off the river that day and ended up camping overnight without benefit of warm clothing, camping gear or adequate food and drinks.

Fortunately, the temperature only dropped into the lower 50's, but three of our group had gotten wet and were quite chilled. Burn ban be damed, we built a nice, big fire and kept it going all night to warm us while we attempted to sleep on the cold, hard ground. A PFD does NOT make a good mattress or pillow! But, we survived the ordeal and had great stories to tell about it. For most of the group the adventure ended there, but not for Tom and me.

Tom had taken off his Camelback hydration pack to get to his headlamp as darkness set upon us while we were still trying to find our take-out. In spite of our efforts we never found where he left it, and so we went on downriver without it. By three weeks later Tom had already replaced the camelback, along with his paddling gloves and binoculars that he also lost when he forgot to put his Camelback on after removing the headlamp. Those deadfall portages can do a number on rational thought processes! We were all tired, and Tom made a financially costly mistake.

Three weeks later Tom and I were heading to the Colorado River just below Austin for a three day trip from Webberville to Bastrop when he came up with a "bright" idea. We would go by the Upper Sabine, take lightly loaded boats, and "blaze" down the river to find his Camelback, then return so that we could get to Webberville to begin our trip the next day. Things did not go according to plan. First, we got a later start than we should have had for our intended purpose. Second, we never found Tom's Camelback, which was by now in the possession of a feral hog or giant beaver, both of which we saw along the river on our previous trip. Third, lightly loaded boats were not THAT much faster or more agile than almost as lightly loaded boats of three weeks earlier, and we made no great time, though we were faster than before because there were only two of us and we knew what to expect.

Finally, around 7 pm it was starting to get dark, and I told Tom that I was calling the ball and we were turning around. We still had to paddle back upriver about 4 hours and the temperature was starting to drop. The day had been very nice, with moderate temperatures and very light wind, and we had dressed a little more warmly than before - we were both wearing Farmer John wetsuits over base layer undergarments - but the onset of darkness was bringing with it much cooler air. We had no clue as to what was about to happen next.

At about 10 pm, I was passing under a deadfallen tree truck when I made a classic mistake, the kind you make when you are tired and in a hurry to get off the river. Instead of laying back and sliding under the tree I leaned forward, but failed to get low enough, and my PFD rubbed on the truck of the tree causing my boat to stop. Unfortunately, I was in my round-bottom whitewater canoe that is built to carve waves, and one of the few spots with any significant current just happened to be where I was stopped. The current rolloed my canoe to the right and dropped me into very cold water. Instantly, I felt the shock of extremely cold water on a now soaking wet body surrounded by wet clothing. The light wind seemed much stronger because of the convective coling effect it was having on my body.

I was hanging onto my boat and unable to feel the riverbed. In fact, I was in about 12 feet of water - one of teh only deep spots on the whole river. I was treading water, holding onto my canoe and trying to get Tom's help. He was about a tenth of a mile in front of me on the other side of the tree truck. Having has several Swiftwater Rescue classes, and being familiar with hypothermia and how to prevent it, I knew that I had to get myself and my boat out of the river. Inside my boat was both my First Aid kit and my very expensive digital camera (safely packed away inside a SealLine drybag where it remained a lot drier than my body!)

It took me about ten minutes, perhaps longer, to finally get out of the river with my boat. Tom's position afforded him no ability to assist me. Upon exiting the river I began to realize just how cold it truly was. As cold as the water was, the air was MUCH colder, and I was quickly going hypothermic. If we had violated a burn ban and built a fire on a 50 degree night, then we damed sure were going to build one on THIS night! I instructed Tom to start gathering all the wood he could find. Luckily, there was an abundant supply oweing to all the downed trees on the banks and in the river. While Tom gathered wood I went into my First Aid kit where I carry a piezoelectric charcoal grill lighter and several sawdust fire starter sticks for emergencies such as this one. In a matter of minutes we had a nice, roaring fire going, and it felt really good. Tom was cold, and he was still dry. I was freezing, and my core temperature was plunging rapidly.

I asked Tom to start heating some water, then asked if he had any sugar because sugar geenerates a lot of calorries quickly, and calories mean heat energy, which my core desperately needed. Tom did better than that - he had a couple of packages of spiced apple cider mix which he prepared, one cup at a time, and gave to me. Little did I know (or care, at that point) that he only had those two, or that I was about to consume both. I gulped down two cups of hot, spiced appled cider, and almost immediately felt my core temperature start to rise. I was still soaking wet and very cold on the outside.

Tom produced a space blanket, one of those thin, mylar reflector types, from his own First Aid kit, and after stripping off most of my wet clothing I wrapped it around me. As I sat close to the fire a vapor cloud of steam rose around me. I have never been that cold in my life, and I was in trouble. Due to our quick action I never lost the ability to think and act rationally, a condition that rapidly disappears when the body starts getting hypothermic. I knew that it was essential that I remain calm, lucid and in control of my mind even as my body was shaking violently from the cold. I began to think how much more intelligently it would have been to have gone a little heavier by carrying a dry set of warm clothing in another drybag, but that was just a pipe dream at this point. We were several miles from Tom's vehicle and our warm, dry clothing.

It took five hours to get me warmed and dried, and to partially dry out my clothing so that I could get dressed and try to paddle off the river. As we were about to extinguish the fire Tom said that he was going to empty any remaining water from my canoe. Then, he came back and told me that the water in the boat was hard frozen. My spirits sank because I knew that we were going to have to wade in the river on many portages going back upriver, and that the coldest hour is just before dawn. It was 3 AM when we departed, and getting warm did not last long. Even with heavy, winter weight Neoprene paddling gloves, my hands felt almost frozen within minutes. My face was feeling the sting of the north wind. To my ssurprise, my NRS Workboots, with their Neoprene lining and my wool socks, were keeping my feet amazingly warm even as I wades in the river on the portages.

My polar fleece top was breaking most of the wind from my body, but the slightly damp wetsuit was still sending chills through me. I was keenly aware that this was a true life-or-death moment, and I paddled hard to generate as much body heat as possible. Finally, at about 5:30 Am, we began hearing the sounds of highway traffic very nearby, and about 15 minutes later we landed on the boat ramp from which we had departed. Leaving our boats and gear on the ramp, we made our way to Tom's truck where we started the engine and heater. Looking at his thermometer on his overhead console, we discoverd that teh outside air temperature was 24 degrees. Now, I knew how fortunate I was to be alive, though I was hurting badly from teh cold and the contractions my body was enduring. It took over a half hour before the heater in the truck warmed enough to make a significant difference, but it eventually warmed us enough that we could load the boats and gear, tehn get the hell out of there.

In retrospect, we did many things right and many things wrong. We never should have gone that late in the day during the winter. No piece of gear is worth that risk. We should have taken additional clothing, and I should have worm my drysuit with a full body base layer, which I had in Tom's truck. We should have had some chemical hand and foot warmers with us. We should have known better than to return to the "River of Sticks", as we had dubbed the Upper Sabine just three weeks earlier. We should have turned around 2 or 3 hours earlier. We should have taken a hint when friends who intended to go to the Colorado River with us backed out when they learned that we were first going back to the Upper Sabine, they having been there with us three weeks earlier.

But, we also did some things right, and they saved my life that night. We had our First Aid kits, and in them we had some things that are not common such as the charcoal grill lighter, the fire starter sticks, the space blanket and the spiced apple cider mix. We reacted quickly and effectively to get me out of the water, build a fire and get me dried out. We recognized the fact that heating the core was far more important than heating the outer body, and preparing the hot apple cider was probably the single most important thing we did. We realized that the paramedic training Tom had received as a fireman, and my own Swiftwater Rescue and First Aid training had alloed us to act rationally and quickly when time was of the essence. And, we recognized the need for others with whom we paddle to be equally prepared for cold water immersion in the event it happens to them or others with whom they are paddling.

All's well that ends well, and we survived a night in frigid air temperature after taking a bath in near-freezing water far away from telephones, roads or outside help. I am just glad that we did not need to get naked and get our bodies close together for a heat transfer because Tom really ain't THAT good looking! Most of all, I am glad that I remembered my Boy Scout motto - Be Prepared! We could have been better prepared, but we were prepared enough to save my life that night, and such an event involving me in the water will probably not occur again.

Read previous "On the Water" Feature Stories
[ Rescues in Hydraulic Currents ] [ Texas Water Safari ]
[ Wilderness Tripping Protocols ] [ Dangers of Low-Water Bridges ]

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