A Cold-Water Omnibus
Staying Alive When the Thermometer
By Tamia Nelson
December 2, 2008
It’s not likely to make it into the nightly news anytime soon, but there’s a big story out there: General Winter’s forces have invaded Canoe Country. In my corner of northern New York, the wetlands and small ponds that are my favorite summertime haunts have frozen over, while the margins of many of the big lakes are already sheathed in ice. The rivers still run free, of course—but there’s a translucent skin on the edge of every bay, and there’s ice in plenty of the eddies, too, not to mention the slippery glaze that now sheathes the exposed crowns of most midstream rocks. In short, this is the start of the Season of Hard Water and the end of the paddling year. The winter of our discontent is upon us.
Or is it? Not necessarily. A few hearty souls simply refuse to chill out. For them…
Winter’s Just Another Word
And they’ll keep paddling as long as there’s open water to be found anywhere close to home. I once belonged to this indomitable cohort, in fact. I took pride in being the last one to hang up my PFD—and the first to take it down again. I even managed to paddle right through the Adirondack winter on a couple of occasions. Admittedly, I was helped along by unseasonably warm weather both times I did it. (Eager as I was to stay out on the water, I wasn’t prepared to trade my Tripper for an ice-breaker.) That was then. Now I leave my boats in port from December to April. I guess I’ve grown more timid. Or maybe I’ve grown wiser. Whatever the explanation, I no longer challenge General Winter’s occupation of my home waters. I play a waiting game, instead. After all, I figure time is on my side.
That said, there are a lot of canoeists and kayakers living on the southern fringes of Canoe Country and beyond. These lucky folks are usually out of reach of General Winter’s army of occupation. They have cold water to contend with, true enough, but their local lakes and rivers stay mostly ice-free all winter long. What about them? Can they really paddle year-round without putting their lives on the line? Or do the risks outweigh the rewards? As is so often the case, there’s no clear-cut answer. Each of us—children excepted, obviously—has to make his or her own calculation, balancing threats against thrills and arriving at a (probably unique) level of acceptable risk. All I can do, all any paddlesport hack can do, is to point out dangers where they exist, and suggest ways to avoid the avoidable. And that’s what Farwell and I have attempted over the years we’ve been writing In the Same Boat, as a glance at our archives will show. But with nearly 500 of our articles online, it’s not always easy for curious readers to find what they’re looking for.
This was brought home to me recently when I received a letter from a first-year kayaker:
Good Morning, Tamia—
Weather has turned chilly here in South Carolina, and will stay that way until March or so. I’d like to keep paddling on the lakes and ponds, though, and therefore have given thought to a wetsuit for safety. My Advanced Elements Expedition kayak is pretty darn steady, but who knows what can happen, especially because I’m usually alone?
Drysuits look nice, but are well beyond my limited financial resources. Maybe a drytop and drypants? Well, that’s still pretty pricey for me.
So, a “farmer john” wetsuit came to mind. What do you think for my kind of easy-water paddling and limited expertise, after only a season of kayaking? I saw an NRS 3-mm farmer john advertised for around USD115 or so, and I’ve found even cheaper ones at some other places. Would that do the trick? With some warmer layers?
Tough questions, those. Bob’s note is a pretty good summary of the dilemmas confronting many cold-season paddlers. Topflight, state-of-the-art gear can minimize many risks, but it’s often prohibitively expensive. And while it’s never a good idea to paddle alone—this is doubly true in winter!—not everyone can find suitable companions…or wants to, for that matter. Some canoeists and kayakers simply prefer the joys of solitude to the comforts of conviviality. Maybe Bob is one of these.
OK. With the proviso that each of us decides for himself how to evaluate risk and reward, let’s address the points Bob raises in his letter, in the hope that some discussion of the relevant issues will make his decision easier. It remains his decision, of course. That said, here are the major considerations:
- Water temperature
- Skill level
- Going it alone
Water temperature heads the list. By far and away the biggest danger in cold-season paddling is…
The Risk of Hypothermia
Here’s the bad news: Cold kills. For humans, as for all other mammals, heat is life—provided we don’t get too hot, that is. Our bodies have a pretty narrow operating-temperature range. If the temperature at our body’s core surges too high, the result is entirely predictable. We die. And if it drops too low? No surprise there. Here, too, we die. Now guess which of these problems is more likely in winter? Right!
This isn’t much of a mystery, of course. The water is colder in winter, for one thing. But that’s not all. Water is a very efficient tool for transferring heat away from the human body at any season of the year, which explains why it’s such a joy to go for a swim on a hot day. You cool off even in water that feels pleasantly warm to the skin. Yet while water’s efficient heat-transfer properties are welcome on sultry summer afternoons, the vital fluid shows another face in winter. Stick your hand in a basin of ice-water, and your first reaction is to pull it out immediately. Cold water hurts. And that’s just a taster. Imagine the pain you’ll feel if you capsize in a freezing—but not yet entirely frozen—river on a cold winter’s day. In fact, there doesn’t have to be ice on the water for the agony of immersion to be the last thing you ever feel. Death can come quickly, and in the most unlikely places. This is well illustrated by one of Farwell’s early misadventures.
It happened on a little stream in April. The sun was shining. It was a warm spring day. So warm, in fact, that Farwell had stripped down to his shorts and a t-shirt. Then his companion (not me; someone else, a novice paddler on a first outing in moving water) misjudged the force of an eddy. Unfortunately, Farwell’s attention was elsewhere. It was only a Class II rapids, after all, and it was a beautiful spring day. That’s Farwell’s explanation, at any rate. The upshot? He and his companion were in the water before he could bring his brace into play. The little stream was high and fast, not yet in flood but still swollen with snowmelt, and the water temperature was only about 35° Fahrenheit. Farwell remembers how it felt when the water enfolded him in its icy embrace. Cold fire seemed to shoot though his body. He gasped uncontrollably. (Luckily, he was wearing his life vest, and his mouth and nose were both above the water’s surface. If they hadn’t been, his heart might have stopped then and there.) For long seconds, his arms and legs refused to move, and when at last they began to stir, they were sluggish, weak, and unresponsive. His companion suffered the same fate, and it took them several agonizing minutes to cover the ten yards to shore. It was exhausting work. They crawled the last few feet, and more than an hour passed before they were ready to head back out on the water.
There’s no doubt that this was a very close-run thing indeed, as a celebrated general is supposed to have said about his most famous victory. If the day hadn’t been unseasonably warm, if the sun hadn’t been shining bright, and if both Farwell and his companion hadn’t been young and fit, with the shore only ten yards away, they might not have lived to tell the tale. They had no matches and no thermos, and their spare clothes had been swept downstream. In short, they made just about every mistake that they could have made, except for one vital thing: they had life vests, and they were both wearing them. It was a salutary lesson, and a humbling experience. Farwell will never forgot it. He needs no convincing that cold can kill.
It kills by stealth, as well. You don’t have to capsize in freezing water to become dangerously chilled. You just have to sit out in a cold rain for long enough, or put off donning that extra sweater you know you need—maybe it’s buried in the bottom of your pack and there’s no ice-free eddy nearby in which to park your boat—until your hands are trembling and your wits have deserted you. Farwell, who seems to have had a knack for narrow escapes, once became so addled on a solo winter climb that he forgot how to tell time. He’d been shivering for what seemed like forever, and he remembers looking at his watch to estimate how much further he had to go, only to realize with a start that he no longer knew which hand told the hour. (This was in the days before digital watches.) Fortunately, he didn’t have much further to scramble, and there was a mountain inn at the end of the trail. He finished the climb, staggered into the inn’s restaurant, and downed three large mugs of hot cocoa in as many minutes. His hands were shaking so badly that he spilled much of the first mug over his anorak, but this didn’t bother him. He found the warmth agreeable, and the other two mugs went where they were supposed to go. The moral of the story? General Winter has many weapons in his arsenal. Some kill quickly. Some kill slowly. It makes no difference in the end. But you can fight back. See “Winning the Cold War” for some ideas, beginning with a few hints on…
What the Well-Dressed Paddler Wears
This isn’t a question of fashion. Nor is it a concern only for paddlers who live in the northern latitudes I call (a little whimsically, I admit) “Canoe Country.” There’s plenty of cold water to be found south of the Mason-Dixon line. Not even southern California is immune. As Farwell can attest, it’s water temperature that matters most. And a t-shirt and shorts won’t hack it. Start with a well-fitting PFD. They’re called life vests for a reason. They do more than keep you afloat. They insulate, too. But your PFD is just the foundation of your cold-water wardrobe. If the water temperature is any lower than comfortably warm—and even then, if you’ll be venturing far offshore—you need more. There are really only three good choices: a full drysuit, a drytop and drypants combo, or a wetsuit.
Drysuits are simply waterproof garments with watertight seals at neck, wrists, and ankles. Drytops and drypants are similar, though each offers only half-body coverage. (Paddling jackets are light-duty drytops. Call them semi-drytops. Some have waterproof gaskets at the wrists, but few have neck gaskets. They’re intended for cool but not cold conditions.) The drytop-drypants combo is arguably more comfortable than the drysuit—you can tailor your protection to conditions—but the overlapping waist seal can prove troublesome, and it remains a potential failure point. All “dry” shells work by keeping water out of your insulation. In other words, they’re only as good as their seals, and only as warm as the clothing you wear underneath them. Synthetic fleece tops and bottoms are favorite undergarments. They’re cozy and light, and if a little water seeps in around the seals, they still retain some of their insulating properties. What’s the bottom line on drysuits (and drytop-drypants combos)? So long as their seals are intact and any waterproof zippers live up to their billing, they make ideal cold-water wear. They allow great freedom of movement, while minimizing cold shock in a capsize. After all, they’re dry. And so will you be, if you wear one. Except for your sweat, that is. Drysuits can get pretty steamy, and some folks (I’m one) can’t stand the constricting neck gaskets. Worse yet, a lot of people find the high prices almost as much of a shock as a sudden capsize in icy water. Classified ads sometimes yield real bargains, but watch out for blown seams, chafed fabric, wonky zips, and torn gaskets. A leaky drysuit is worse than useless. Buyer beware.
How about a neoprene wetsuit, then? They’re cheaper than drysuits, and they’re available in a bewildering array of sizes, cuts, and thicknesses, from sleeveless shorty “farmer johns,” made with 0.5-mm neoprene, to 3-mm-thick full suits. Still, choice is a good thing, right? And it seems like there’s a wetsuit for every purpose. Downsides? I can think of three. Wetsuits aren’t exactly comfortable. I’ve never owned one that didn’t chafe me somewhere, and full wetsuits make me feel about as lithe and supple as the Michelin Man. Moreover, there’s an unavoidable tradeoff between comfort and protection. Thin suits and shorties allow you to move freely, but offer little protection in freezing temperatures. (The armpits are an especially vulnerable area, and sleeveless farmer johns leave them exposed.) Full suits made from thick neoprene are warmer, but they’re terribly restrictive. Farwell once had a ¼-inch (6-mm) full suit. He said he’d rather wear it in the water than in a boat.
And then there’s the problem of cold shock. Wetsuits are—you guessed it—wet. Water infiltrates the narrow space between suit and skin. The neoprene now serves as an insulting barrier, allowing the trapped water to warm rapidly to body temperature and slowing heat loss from the body’s core. So far, so good, but the warming doesn’t occur quickly enough to prevent cold shock, with predictable results. The first minute after a capsize is likely to be mighty unpleasant for wetsuit-clad paddlers, who’ll most likely spend the time gasping and flailing about.
In short, you pays your money and you takes your choice. Sometimes minor considerations loom large. Many drysuits now come with relief zips. That eases the difficulties attendant on “pumping ship” while under way, though women will find the necessary paraphernalia awkward, to say the least. Unfortunately, relief zips aren’t yet universal on wetsuits. This requires making alternative arrangements when caught short. It’s something you get used to. Well, some of us do, at any rate. It’s an unpleasant throwback to our days in diapers, but at least it’s warm.
The same thing can’t be said for paddlers’ extremities. No boater is ready for cold water if he hasn’t taken steps to protect his hands, feet, and (most importantly) head. While fleece hoods and balaclavas are better than nothing, a neoprene hood provides the ultimate in survival headgear, insulating your scalp and neck, as well as keeping cold water from being forced into your ears if your head is immersed. This can trigger attacks of vertigo in susceptible individuals, and vertigo isn’t something you need when you’re upside down in the water, trying to roll back. Nose clips are worth considering, too, at least in extreme conditions, since a jet of ice water up the nose can sometimes make an unlucky paddler’s heart stop beating, a phenomenon variously known as “vagal inhibition” or “reflex cardiac arrest.” By either name, it’s a disheartening prospect.
One last consideration: If your cold-season paddling trips will take you to or through places frequented by hunters, be sure that your outer garments advertise your humanity in no uncertain terms. Hunter Orange isn’t just for hunters, after all.