The Happy Camper: One Last Paddle

Kevin Callan talks about the dangers of hypothermia during late-season paddling, as well as key techniques for rescuing victims of The Big Chill.

The good news about global warming is that it’s lengthened the canoe season. During the last few years, I’ve extended my days on the water right up until mid-November. Last year, I even did a trip in December, the morning after the local Santa Claus Parade.

It’s a gamble, however. Each time I’ve gone out late-season, I’ve had a paranoia of waking up and seeing the lake I’m camped on frozen solid. So far, I’ve luckily only had the back bays covered with a fine sheet of ice.

The problem about having more time on the water in the off-season, however, is that it can be quite dangerous. Even if climate change is extending our possible time in a canoe in Canada, that’s not to say it’’s safe to paddle across glacial-like water.

Only once have I suffered the ill effects of The Big Chill. Once was enough, however, for me to quickly realize how easy it is to die from hypothermia.

I foolishly paddled through some difficult rapids during the off-season, without the proper clothing and safety equipment, and I flipped over. In less than three minutes my body went numb and I had to be rescued by my fellow canoeists. The most embarrassing moment was having to borrow a trip-mate’s extra clothing to stay warm — the trip mate happened to be a woman.

Who would have guessed that before the end of the season I would use what I had learned from the experience from my mishap to save someone else…?

It was mid-November and my wife, Alana, and I were spending the weekend at a local campground. It sounds silly but enjoyed having the place to ourselves. Just as we were about to leave, I happened to spot an overturned canoe floating in the middle of the lake. We immediately paddled out to rescue the paddlers, neither of whom were wearing a PFD.

By the time we reached them, the swimmers were in a state of panic and showing the first signs of hypothermia — awkward motor control, minor mental confusion, uncontrollable shivering and worst of all, a constant denial that they were in trouble. Their refusal to let us help, not to mention the state of panic they were in, made saving them all the more difficult and by the time we completed a canoe-over-canoe rescue and got them to shore, the victims were dangerously hypothermic. Their body temperature had dropped below 32 degrees Celsius, shivering had stopped, one canoeist had lost consciousness and the other’s mental status was severely limited, forcing him to become uncontrollably convulsive.

At this stage we had only one choice of action. We immediately removed all their wet clothing, since this is what conducts heat away from the body almost 30 times quicker than usual, and placed them in sleeping bags. Then, Alana and I disrobed, crawled in the sleeping bags with them, and attempted to warm their bodies with our own body heat. Trust me. It was not a time to become self-conscious; we were dealing with a life and death situation.

Thankfully the incident happened at a local campground and we had the luxury of being able to call an ambulance. If it was on a remote trip, however, we would have had to continue warming their bodies up with hot (non-caffeinated and non-alcoholic) drinks, high-calorie snacks, a warm fire and a hot pack placed over the major blood vessels in the neck, armpit, and groin.

For extreme cases, the medical treatment would have been even more invasive. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation and cardiac massage must be given to a patient whose heart has stopped. This must be maintained until the patient is re-warmed and shows a pulse. In the hospital, people have survived after hours of resuscitation efforts.

Of course, when thinking back to the incident, prevention is again the key. They should have never been out paddling across the middle of a large lake in November in the first place. Just like I should have never been paddling down dangerous rapids in the off-season without the proper equipment and skills. Experience, well-practised rescue and first-aid techniques, proper preparation, especially those during the spring or fall, and basic common sense are the most essential lifesaving ingredients to avoid the “Big Chill.”

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