The Water is Cold
The water is always cold in the Boundary Waters but right now it’s really cold. With the ice having just gone off of the lakes we’re probably somewhere in the 40 degree temperature range. Anyone out on the water with temperatures that cold should use extreme caution and common sense in order to prevent a disaster.
People have died in the Boundary Waters and Quetico Park from drowning due to hypothermia even in the middle of the summer. Cold temperatures and rain can cause hypothermia but most people who die have spent time in the cold water. Cold water will conduct heat away from the body 25 times faster than the air temperature and 35 times faster if it’s choppy or there are currents along with a blowing wind.
Since water chill is much greater than wind chill someone who has capsized must get out of the water as quickly as possible. We tell people to paddle along the shoreline so if a person does capsize they are within a canoe length from shore. If you’ve tipped it’s best to get as much of your body out of the water and onto your watercraft. Swimming to shore is generally not a good idea because distances are difficult to determine and it burns up body heat quickly. In 50 degree water even great swimmers will not be able to swim a mile. You are also more likely to be seen and rescued if you remain with your watercraft. It’s very difficult to see people on the shoreline of a wilderness lake.
The weather this past week has not been favorable for paddling. The temperatures have been cold and the wind has been blowing. We see people panic when there is wind and waves. Even if they don’t need to be off of the water for 2 days they will decide they must paddle out immediately. This is a huge mistake. I don’t know how many times we’ve plucked people out of the lake because they were trying to cross Saganaga to get back to their car and they weren’t even due back for two days. If it’s windy then it’s best to just wait it out. Most people would rather be late than dead and that’s the risk you take when you paddle in high winds and waves on a cold and unforgiving body of water.
We also see groups who get split up because of wind and waves. One of the canoes can’t handle the waves as well as the other and can’t keep up. This leaves one group with food and shelter and the other with nothing. It isn’t smart to get that far apart any time you are paddling with a group. Stick together and if one person isn’t comfortable paddling then everyone should stay put.
What happens if you capsize and you make it to shore without any of your gear? Do you have an emergency blanket in your pocket or waterproof matches? I hope so because without them you’re not likely to make it especially if you leave your wet clothes on. If someone has been in the water strip them down to nothing, take off all of your clothes and get inside of a zipped sleeping bag together. Yes, I’m sure it’s akward to cuddle up to someone you know or don’t know but would you rather save a life or let someone die? Start campfires around the person and get them out of the wind and rain if you can.
I hope everyone has enough intelligence and courtesy to wear a life jacket in these type of conditions. Think you’re a good swimmer? How about when your unconscious? Cold water shock can cause a reflex action of gasping for air, not good if your head is under water. A life vest can keep you warm and alive and if you do die it can help searchers locate your body more quickly. Think about your family never having a body to bury, that’s what can happen if you don’t wear your life jacket.
It’s best to leave the early spring and late fall paddling to those with some wilderness paddling experience. If you must head out into the canoe country when conditions are still cold then be sure to be prepared. Wear your life vest, be smart, use common sense and you’ll most likely be able to return to the BWCA and do it again.