Late season paddle
There was a small rim of skim ice along the shore of the lake as I launched my kayak yesterday. The air temperature was above 40 degrees and later neared 50 degrees but the water temperature is dropping. It is always hard to predict when ice up will come to the lake. A little skim ice around the edge is a long ways from a frozen lake and I’m sure that the ice was all gone by the end of the afternoon. Still, the ice is a sign that winter is on its way.
There is a problem with paddling on days like yesterday and it isn’t what someone who doesn’t paddle might expect. The problem is that I get too warm very easily. When I paddle, I always need to have a plan for self rescue if some unthinkable problem should arise. I always have contingency plans to keep myself safe. That means I have to be able to survive a wet exit. Were the kayak to roll inverted, a situation that is nearly impossible given the particular boat I was paddling yesterday, and were I to be unable to right the boat without exiting it, I would find myself in the water. Surviving a wet exit would be a tricky adventure without proper preparation.
Cold water carries heat away from the body 25 times faster than air of the same temperature. As a result the body core begins to lose heat to the outside environment. This cooling leads quickly to loss of dexterity, disorientation, unconsciousness and ultimately death. Once the water temperature dips below 50 degrees, a person with no protective clothing has a loss of dexterity in under 5 minutes and will be unconscious within 30 minutes. That is less than half of the amount of time that you have when the water is over 50 degrees. People have survived with proper flotation for up to six hours in water above 50 degrees. For the sake of planning, a kayaker needs to consider not the maximum survival time, but rather the point of loss of dexterity, because once dexterity is lost, reentry into a boat becomes impossible. Clambering up a steep bank may also be beyond the capacity of a boater who has been in the water too long.
In addition, getting out of the lake isn’t an absolute guarantee of survival. Once core temperature has begun to drop, steady decline in temperature continues after the person is removed from the water.
You get the picture. Paddling in a mountain lake without protective clothing can quickly lead to disaster even if the paddler remains close to shore.
So, I wear protective clothing when I paddle. I have to dress with enough protection to allow for dexterity to remain for the amount of time it would take me to get out of the lake and to walk to shelter, which is most likely my car on a day when there are no others at the lake, and still have enough dexterity to use a key in the door lock, start the car and turn on the heater. That means neoprene socks under insulated paddling booties, a layer of hydroskin that seals from the tip of my toes to my neckline, leaving only my hands and head uncovered, waterproof pants and paddling jacket with velcro closures at the waist and an elastic band holding the spray skirt to my waist over both the top and pants. I also have gloves with a water tight seal to the arms of my jacket, and a knitted stocking cap covered by two different hoods. OK, that is too much for paddling on a day like yesterday, so I quickly shed my gloves, carefully tucking them into my life jacket so that i could put them on quickly were I to make a wet exit. I also removed the hoods from my head to allow some cooling to occur there. But underneath all of that waterproof clothing, I’m sweating and, you get it, sweat is water, and it is wicking body temperature away from me.
The margin of safety on a day like yesterday is extremely wide and all of the clothing is probably overkill, but I’ve seen the statistics on survival in cold water and if you love paddling as much as i do, you are willing to endure a bit of discomfort in order to achieve a long paddling season. The reward of having the lake to myself and the space for quiet contemplation is very high and worth all of the layers and preparation.
The day was calm and there was no danger of capsize anywhere during my paddle and I was home with the boat back in storage a half hour after I pulled the boat from the water. With any luck, I’ll get the boat in the water next week. Weather doesn’t look too good for Monday, but if you add one more week, it will be December - not bad for a paddler in South Dakota.
When I got back home I looked back in my journal. My first paddle of 2016 was on March 7. There was a lot of floating ice on the lake that day, but the edges had opened up enough to allow paddling most of the way around the lake. I took a plastic boat on that day so that I wouldn’t have to worry about scratches if I got next to the ice and at one point even pushed my little boat up on top of the ice for a few minutes. Early March to late November isn’t bad for a paddling season in country where there are ice fishermen who can’t wait for the water to get solid enough for them to venture out with their snow machines and temporary shelters.
All of this takes place within a dozen miles of my home. I am aware of how fortunate I am to have access to such superb recreation just around the corner.
I’ve always said that I don’t mind winter, and it is true that there are wonderful charms when things turn very cold. Still, if I’m able to paddle into December this year I’ll be setting a personal record for the most days paddled in a single season. Not bad for a guy with a full time job!