Paddling around a group of islands in the North Branch of the Susquehanna River below Shickshinny three Novembers ago, Scranton native Roger Swingle’s fishing pole became tangled in a tree.
“I reached behind me to untangle the pole, and I lost my balance,” he said, plunging into 42-degree river water he estimates was about 15 feet deep.
“It was not a good experience. I had never dealt with that before, and I immediately panicked,” he said. “My kayak was upside down and the water and coldness was wicking through the layers of clothing I was wearing. At that moment, I was extremely scared.”
“We consider anything below 70 degrees to be cold water, and if someone is suddenly submerged in it inhales water during that involuntary gasp, they usually don’t resurface. Those who have a life jacket on when something like this happens are in a much better situation if they unexpectedly capsize.”
Dr. Gregory Frailey, emergency medicine provider for UPMC Susquehanna and a former survival instructor with the US Navy, agreed.
“The most important thing you can do is wear a life jacket. The body’s time of consciousness is very short as the temperature goes down. When your face hits cold water, it causes the larynx to spasm,” he said. “The only way to survive is to keep the head above water for breathing.”
Frailey estimated in many places, the river water is around 50 to 55 degrees at this time, “and at that temperature, the useful time of consciousness is between five to 10 minutes. As the water temperatures drop more moving forward, you may have only a minute or two to react.”
According to Walt, the Fish and Boat Commission uses a 1-10-1 ratio when teaching boating safety.
“You have around one minute if wearing a life jacket to gain your composure, about 10 minutes for movement toward safety until your muscles tighten up and takes heat away from your body and one hour before hypothermia sets in and you succumb to that,” he said. “Of course, that is a general guideline, but the key is that time is limited.”
Refocus on the next steps
After the initial panic of being submerged in 42-degree river water, Swingle focused on calming himself down and figuring out his next move.
“I realized I needed to stop and relax a moment and get my bearings,” he said. “I then decided to kick myself toward the shoreline where I could touch the bottom. The air temperature was also very cold that day. I was paddling with a friend and my brother, and they were able to get my kayak upright and work our way to a sandy point of the island where we could make a fire and dry out my clothing.”
For anyone in a similar situation, Frailey agreed that finding a heat source and shedding wet clothing is critical.
“Wet clothing continuously removes heat from the body,” he said. “As your body temperate dips below 95 degrees, shivering will start as your body tries to warm itself. When we are caring for someone with cold weather exposure, the most dangerous situations come when the body stops shivering, because then no additional heat is being generated.”
Mindfully calming yourself before taking action is important, Walt said, as is knowing your kayak and how to handle it in unfavorable situations.
“Those who are new to paddling should reach out to a local outfitter and get formalized education ahead of time on how to properly right your canoe or kayak and get it dewatered,” he said.
“If you are not able to right the kayak, you can still use it for additional floatation to get to a place where you have better footing closer to shore,” he said.
Boating with others is also a smart move, or at the very least, letting others know where you will be boating, how long you plan to be and when you plan to return.
“It is also very helpful to be familiar with the waterway that you are paddling on, and doing it together with someone who can help if something unexpected happens,” said Walt. “This time of year in our area, the weather can change quickly, and it helps to be as prepared as possible ahead of time.”
After his cold-water experience, Swingle admits that he has revised his outfits for paddling this time of year.
“I learned that outside of a life jacket, the next most important thing is wearing proper attire,” he said. “I lost the hip waders, and you shouldn’t be out in jeans and a sweatshirt. I now use a synthetic base level with layers of dry clothing and use waterproof pants and a jacket.”
“It is important to have, at least, an appropriate inner, middle and outer layer of clothing,” he said. “The base layer should be something poly-based like Under Armor or Nike Pro. The middle layer should include some sort of wool or synthetic – you want to stay away from cotton. Then, you want an outer nylon shell to protect you from wind and weather.
“Depending on when you go, some people utilize a dry suit, which almost fully encompasses a person in a nylon shell. Keeping that water away from your body can be very important during cold-weather trips.”
Frailey suggests creating a survival kit that you keep with you on all floats.
“Be prepared with an extra set of drying clothing in a water-proof container, along with a signaling device and drinkable water,” he said. “It may be hard to understand why bringing water is important, but when you are in extreme temperatures, your body naturally starts to lose excess fluid. The body shuts down certain organs like the kidneys.”
Frailey also suggests bringing items that will help you generate and maintain heat, such as an insulated blanket and fire-starting equipment.
“Thanfully, along the Susquehanna, there typically are a number of downed trees and wood options,” Swingle added. “But it still is good to bring some paper and a fire starter in a waterproof container.”
Walt also suggested staying extra alert while paddling to avoid a potential flip – especially with additional hazards exposed currently due to a lower water table.
“Keep a proper lookout whenever on the river or other bodies of moving water,” he said. “Read the water going from river right to river left. Be more cautious, because obstructions can cause quite a bit of trouble and we currently have a lot of obstructions that aren’t typically there.”
Another element that is unique this year – additional people using waterways as a distraction from the pandemic.
“We were interested to see how the pandemic, and increase waterway usage this year, would impact overall boating fatalities – assuming it would likely go up,” Walt said. “Actually, so far, it has been a lower year based on 10- and 20-year averages. There have been 62 reportable boating accidents and 10 fatalities, which is never good, but definitely trending better than we had expected.”
The best way to avoid adding to those statistics, Walt reiterated: “Wear your life jacket. Be proactive and plan ahead.”
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.
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