One of these days I will take issue with Pblanc, but not on this.
1) Cold water response if very individualized.
2) People paddled cold water for years without dry or wetsuits. Precautions are necessary.
My canoeing mentor was an old school guy named Roger Corbett. He paddled for 50 years, year round. I don't think he ever wore a drysuit or wetsuit, but in winter, he picked his spots. He stayed off big waterways where a swim could possibly go on for a long time. He carried a huge drybag of back up clothes. I never did see him take a swim, but he made me put on stuff out of that drybag after I went swimming with the ice blocks, even though I didn't feel like I needed to.
I paddled for years with splash gear over polypro and polar tec. I took a few additional swims with ice blocks. If you are on a small stream, you can usually stand up or quickly swim over to the side and get out. I mention the splash gear because even though I would end up getting soaked, I think it acts much like a wet suit, and the water takes a minute to fully inundate the splash suit, so you don't get that immediate shock. Plus, you don't have ice water circulating through your clothes directly on your skin. I mention the polar tec because the threads do not absorb water and water literally falls out of the garmet minutes after a swim. If I was working hard, I wouldn't even change clothes.
Your paddling team is always important, but it can be critical in ice water. You may have to let your boat go so you can get out of the water, and if you do, there goes your dry clothes. So you have to be able to count on somebody helping you retrieve your boat, or loaning you their spare clothes until you get yours back.
Like I mentioned, Roger carried a big bag. Part of the reason is to loan out to people on your team, because if they have a bad day it can ruin your day, too. Another reason is once you've used your spare gear, you have no back up, unless you have a second set. So after that first swim, you have to decide if you have enough redundancy to go on, or if it is hiking time.
Anyway, you can paddle in cold conditions without the "necessary," high cost stuff, but you need to take precautions and have a plan.
All that said, a drysuit is a really, really, nice thing. I have one in extra large you can try to fix up if you want. It leaks somewhere. Aqua seal might be able to fix it. I replaced it and have been wondering what to do with it. I still fall out of my boat, and it is so nice to just be able to get back in the boat and resume paddling without having to regear.
Last thing I will mention here is that they say the first thing to go in hypothermia situations is your judgement. I took swims and remember thinking, hey, this isn't too bad. But then I'd ask myself, is that my judgement going, or am I really okay? And I'd usually decide to get the heck out of the water and think about it later. I've never figured out the answer.
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