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Cold Comfort

by Tamia Nelson

Cold isn't confined to the backcountry. A few days ago, a walk to the local library left me chilled to the bone. The library is just close enough to be a pleasant stroll in good weather, but it's far enough from home to be a bit of a slog in less clement seasons, and this time I was caught in a hard shower. To make matters worse, there was an autumnal nip in the air, an east wind was blowing half a gale, and I was dressed only in light clothing. Still, my folly didn't result in a life‑threatening emergency. After toweling off and changing my clothes I was perfectly comfortable. But if the same thing had happened when I was living out of my rucksack, the incident could have had more serious consequences. And it reminded me of something that befell a neighbor more than 20 years ago.

It happened when Farwell and I lived in an small cabin on the impoundment we've dubbed the 'Flow. Though it was late October, the day was shirtsleeve warm, and a hazy sun shone through high cloud. But a rainy cold front was forecast for later that afternoon, and we decided to stay indoors. As the hours slipped pleasantly by, Farwell read — I think he was rereading Goodbye to a River — and I tied salmon flies at my desk. Finally, the moment came when I dabbed head cement over the carefully wound threads of a Jock Scott and sat back, raising my eyes to look out the window that gave a view across the expanse of the 'Flow. The cold front had arrived right on schedule. A freshening breeze now tossed the tops of the tall pines, while a pelting rain was hammering down the crests of the gray waves. It was a chilling sight, and I suddenly realized that it had grown noticeable colder in the little cabin.

I pulled on a sweater. Farwell padded out to the kitchen to make a pot of tea. Then there came …

A Knock on Our Door

It wasn't a polite tap, either. Someone was pounding hard enough to rattle the windows. And when we went to see who it was, we found our next‑door neighbor, a young woman I'll call Anne. She was wet through, and her teeth were chattering so violently that it was impossible to understand her when she spoke. But this didn't matter. It was obvious what was needed. I dried her off and wrapped her in a blanket. Then I fired up the oil heater and stood her in front of it while Farwell brewed another pot of tea. After she'd gotten a few cups of the sweet, steaming tea in her, she told us her story.

But the rough outline of the tale was already evident from the soaked clothing dripping on our bathroom floor: a cotton tank top, gym shorts, and sandals. And once Anne's teeth had ceased their discordant tattoo, she was able to fill in the details. It seems she'd downed a couple of beers before taking her little pack canoe out onto the 'Flow, paddled to a secluded bay — a summertime playground for jet‑ski jockeys, the bay was now deserted — and then dozed off, only to be wakened by the first cold drops of rain. One look at the sky was enough to tell her that there'd been a change in the weather. (Anne hadn't troubled to check the forecast before setting out, and she didn't own a barometer.) That was all it took. She grabbed her paddle and headed for the mouth of the bay. The upshot? She was on the open water of the 'Flow when the full fury of the storm front hit.

She couldn't say how long she'd battled the wind and the waves, but it was long enough for the cold rain to have sapped most of her strength. By the time she reached the shore near her home, she was shaking uncontrollably, and her hands were trembling so much that she dropped her house keys in the 'Flow. That's what brought her to our door.

Suffice it to say that her story had a happy ending. Anne was soon in full possession of her faculties, and we recovered her keys from the shallows with little difficulty. But the incident remains in our memories as an illustration of …

The Ever‑Present Threat of Hypothermia

And the risk is probably greatest during the "shoulder seasons" of spring and fall. Daytime air temperatures can be balmy then, and the sun smiles benignly on the woods and waters. Until it doesn't, that is. After all, changeable weather is the norm in both seasons, and therein lies the danger for casual paddlers and day‑trippers. Parties of expert boaters who travel off the beaten track go prepared for cold water and harsh weather. But even they can make costly mistakes, as our bad day on the Rivière Inconnu illustrates all too well. Novice paddlers — and any boater once she's downed a couple of beers — can get into trouble even on Golden Pond.

Nor is hypothermia something that only canoeists and kayakers have to worry about. Farwell's had three close calls, none of them on the water. One was on an autumn climb on a mountain in Vermont; the second, on a long bike ride in late November. In fact, cyclists — and amphibious trekkers — are particularly vulnerable to changes in the weather. Not only is cycling often exhausting, and staying dry on a bike in a heavy rain almost impossible, but a cyclist creates his own wind chill as he rides. Fatigue. Wet. Wind. They add up to a triple whammy. And what about Farwell's third brush with death's chilly hand? It came during a spur‑of‑the‑moment jog in the hills near our home. A t‑shirt and shorts offer very little protection when the weather turns against you.

The good news? All of Farwell's shoulder‑season misadventures were avoidable, as are most bouts of hypothermia. So let's see how to …

Give Hypothermia the Cold Shoulder

I've had something to say on this subject before, but now that the days are drawing in and the nights are getting colder, it doesn't hurt to revisit it. To be brief, hypothermia is a product of exposure — exposure to cold, wet, and wind. Indeed, not so very long ago, deaths that would today be attributed to hypothermia were simply described as stemming from exposure, and to my mind, the earlier tag was far more descriptive, even if it lacked hypothermia's Greek pedigree. But I suppose the fact that mountaineers employ "exposure" to describe the sensation of hanging above a void may help to explain the ascendency of "hypothermia" in contemporary outdoor writing.

Setting such lexicographer's quibbles to one side, here are the cold facts: Clinical hypothermia occurs when the body's core temperature drops below a critical level, usual somewhere around 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Shivering is usually the earliest sign, and only a very foolish paddler, cyclist, or hillwalker ignores it. Should he not take immediate action to restore his core temperature to near normal levels, however, the cooling process will continue, triggering a cascading series of physiological responses that end, ultimately, in death.

The following table, while of limited value to a paddler lacking access to a well‑equipped and fully staffed emergency department, is nonetheless instructive:

Hypothermia Classification*

   Stage

• Mild

• Moderate

• Severe

• Profound

   Signs and Symptoms

• Shivering but awake, motor impairment

• Drowsy, no shivering, incoherent or irrational

• Unconscious, no shivering, dilated pupils

• Vital signs absent, death

Body Temperature

      • 95‑90°F

      • 90‑82°F

      • 82‑68°F

      • <68°F

The message that I suggest you take away from this sobering presentation is a simple one. Once hypothermia progresses past the shivering stage in the backcountry — or anywhere else beyond the reach of prompt, expert medical attention — recovery is unlikely. The prognosis is particularly bleak if the sufferer is alone and poorly outfitted. Two conclusions follow immediately from this: (1) Solo paddlers must exercise redoubled care during the spring and fall, and (2) shivering should never be ignored. Even occasional clumsiness is suspect. If familiar knots are suddenly too much for your fingers to manage, if you find yourself tripping repeatedly on the portage trail, if your paddle seems more like an ax than a wand — do not delay. Seek shelter. Don an additional layer of dry clothing. Fire up the stove. Drink something warm and sweet and nonalcoholic. It is safe to proceed only when the shivering has stopped and your fingers are once again your obedient servants.

Of course, it wouldn't surprise you to learn that …

An Ounce of Prevention is Better Than a Pound of Cure

(That's just something I made up on the spur of the moment, by the way. The ability to coin such memorable phrases is one of the hallmarks of the professional wordsmith.) And the key to preventing hypothermia? Simple. Don't get cold.

I told you it was simple.

But perhaps I should elaborate. Be prepared for the season. Let function, not fashion, guide your clothing choices. Dress for the air temperature when on land and for the water temperature when afloat. Keep a weather eye out for the storms that often accompany frontal passages. Use extreme care when wading and lifting over beaver dams. (Neoprene chest waders are invaluable here. But keep your PFD on, too. Always.) And don't drink and paddle. Notwithstanding the fabled brandy‑toting St. Bernards of alpine folklore, alcohol has little place in the cold weather meal plan.

Those are major themes in any discussion of shoulder‑season safety. There are a few grace notes worth attending to, however, all of which deserve consideration in any season:

  • Carry the Ten Essentials and know how to use them.
  • Fill a thermos with something hot and sweet at breakfast and keep it in reserve.
  • Listen attentively to your body, and  …
  • Watch your companions for any of the early signs of hypothermia (e.g., shivering, fumbling, stumbling).

Enough. I'm sure you get the point. The key to surviving hypothermia is avoiding hypothermia, and that's as easy as keeping warm. Or as hard. But it's worth the effort, isn't it? You bet your life it is!

The shoulder seasons of spring and fall are some of the best times of the year for messing about in small boats. Don't let the soft breezes and gentle sun lull you into a drowsy complacency, however. Leave the t‑shirts, tank tops, and tots of rum for the lazy, hazy days of summer. Chilling out is one thing; checking out, another. And the distance between the two can be perilously short when the sun is hovering around the equator. Does this warning offer only cold comfort? Perhaps. But it's a powerful incentive to keep warm, and that's what really matters.  

* I drew on two sources in making this chart: Medicine for Mountaineering, 5th Edition, and the Wikipedia article "Hypothermia," which contains a similar chart derived, in part, from Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice, by John Marx, M.D., et al (Mosby/Elsevier, 2006).

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