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The Risks of Cold Water Paddling

Wearing the right gear for the risks of cold water paddling.

Even during the summer when Lake Superior’s surface temperature warms to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, capsizing in it can kill you. The most obvious form of death comes from drowning, but other not so obvious dangers, such as cold shock, cold incapacitation and hypothermia, are just as deadly, and can occur anytime the water drops below 60 degrees. Lake Superior kayakers experience those conditions for the entire paddling season.

Most kayakers visiting Lake Superior aren’t aware of the risks of cold water says Lake Superior kayaker Sam Crowley, who holds an American Canoe Association Coastal Kayaking Level 5 Advanced Open Water Instructor Trainer Educator certification, which is the highest level available. He’s the educator who trains many of the guides and instructors in the Midwest. He says, “Knowingly taking risks means you are aware of the dangers. Risk management is avoiding, minimizing or addressing those dangers. Avoiding is simply not going or going someplace with warm water. Minimizing means having a backup or alternative plan if something goes wrong. Wearing a wetsuit is an example. Addressing is knowing how to treat hypothermia.”

While you probably know about the risk of drowning, you might not know about cold water’s other risks. The first, called cold shock, occurs in the instant you capsize. Your body freezes up. You take several uncontrollable breaths. If you don’t surface before gasping, you drown without anyone seeing what happened. If you surface, you start an uncontrollable hyperventilation-like reflex. The reaction lasts up to several minutes.

In addition to cold shock, you experience cold incapacitation. To protect your body’s core temperature, your blood retreats from your extremities creating painful cramps and numbness. Within 10 minutes, your hands, arms and legs cease to function. Once your extremities cease functioning, all you can do is float. Crowley uses a bucket full of Lake Superior water and a couple of coins to demonstrate cold incapacitation. He says, “Have someone put their hand in the water for 15 minutes. Their hands will have cooled enough to lose functioning so they cannot pick up the coins.”

After cold incapacitation, assuming you wore a lifejacket, you’ll float silently in the water unable to move – even blowing a whistle will feel like too much work – until even your mind goes, and you die from hypothermia.

There are several things you can do to protect yourself from cold water. First, wear a lifejacket.  Crowley says, “A lifejacket is like your car’s seat belt or air bags. Nobody expects to get into an accident, but when you do, they make all the difference in minimizing potential injuries.”

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To stay warm in the water and extend the amount of time you have before cold incapacitation and hypothermia sets in, you should “dress for immersion,” which means wearing clothing that keeps you warm in the water even when the air temperature feels warm.  Crowley suggests wearing synthetic or wool clothing and a wetsuit or a drysuit. Both types of suits provide warmth in cold water. A drysuit keeps your body completely dry, but it depends on multiple layers of clothing worn underneath to provide warmth.  A wetsuit, made from tight-fitting neoprene, traps a thin layer of water between your skin and the suit. Your body heats the water, and it keeps you warm. Crowley says, “For summer paddling on Lake Superior I am always in a wetsuit. In spring and mid- to late fall and into winter is when I wear the drysuit or wetsuit and drytop combination.”

When kayaking on Lake Superior paddle with two partners and carry safety gear, such as paddle floats, pumps, tow ropes and VHF radios. Use a sea kayak with two bulkheads. Even though Lake Superior might look calm, wind can create shoulder-high to overhead waves in under an hour. If renting gear, rent your gear from a reputable outfitter that provides a wetsuit with rentals. Crowley says part of risk management is knowing how to do rescues. If you don’t know how to, then take a lesson.

If you prepare for cold water by wearing a lifejacket, dressing for immersion and preparing for emergencies, a capsize needn’t turn your trip into a tragedy.

Crowley says, “Someone who isn’t prepared for cold water risks is taking a huge gamble.”

Top picture: Wearing a drysuit on the left clothing not appropriate for cold water in the middle, and a wetsuit on the right.

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