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Illustration of canoeist capsizing.

Paddler Down

A cold-water canoeist find that he's in for a shock.

by Keith Goetzman

Suddenly I was in the water, and this seemed inconceivable, even ridiculous, like bad slapstick comedy. One moment I had been paddling in a solo canoe on a small lake in a slight breeze, and the next I was treading water.

I impulsively wanted to laugh at my predicament, until I realized in a few heartbeats just how serious it was. The frigid water engulfing my body told me I had to get out soon.

My few belongings bobbed around me as my empty canoe drifted slowly away. There was my paddle. There was my backpack. And there was my personal flotation device, a vest, which I swam to and put on.

Cold-Water Safety

Minnesota's year-round temperature variability and abundant water bodies mean that anyone who spends time on or near water needs to be aware of the dangers of hypothermia from cold-water immersion. Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. The resulting drop in body temperature can impair the functioning of your heart, nervous system, and other organs, and it can lead to death. In water between 70 and 79 degrees, 11 percent of recreational boating accidents were fatal. In water below 59 degrees, more than 36 percent of accidents were fatal.

Canoeists and kayakers are more often at risk of ending up in the water because smaller watercraft are more vulnerable to capsizing. Fortunately, most paddlers wear life vests (86 percent in one DNR study). However, in a 2007 study of Twin Cities metro-area boaters, only 18 percent wore PFDs.

To help ensure safety while paddling, consider taking safety and skill-building classes. Three Rivers Parks in the Twin Cities and the Recreational Sports and Outdoor Program at the University of Minnesota Duluth offer canoeing and kayaking courses. The Superior Kayak and Outdoor Adventure Club offers sea-kayaking instruction.

Minnesota DNR Boat and Water Safety.

I'm still not exactly sure how this accident happened. But I believe that I swiveled my head around to look at the shore behind me, and the slight shift in my body weight caused the canoe, a borrowed and unfamiliar craft, to roll under me and transfer me neatly, with hardly a splash, from the comfortable cane seat into the very uncomfortable water.

It was mid-April. The ice on this metro-area lake had gone out only recently, and the water temperature had barely climbed above 50 degrees. A person immersed in water this cold could expect to have three to 30 minutes of what safety experts call "meaningful movement." After this, it's just flailing—slower and slower flailing, that is. In 30 to 60 minutes, most people would become hypothermic and lose consciousness.

I didn't know these statistics at the time. But I knew that I needed to act fast. With my life endangered and the clock ticking, I had to make rational, informed choices in order to survive. Unfortunately, I lacked the information, preparation, and practice necessary to make the best choices. I had long considered myself a pretty experienced canoeist, but like far too many swimmers, anglers, and boaters, I had some serious gaps in my self-professed knowledge. The day's events would make me urgently, painfully aware of what I didn't know.

I had done a few things right. First, I had notified someone of my plans, telling my girlfriend I was going canoeing at Howard Lake in the city of Columbus—a spot of blue I had randomly picked off a map for my first paddle of the year. Next, I had checked the weather forecast, which showed no big winds or severe weather. Finally, I had brought my life vest.

These measures were no match for my other lapses. The single biggest one: Without training and practice in canoe self-rescue, I shouldn't have been paddling solo, especially on cold water in an unfamiliar boat.

If I had even logged some simple prep time perusing canoeing books, videos, or the Internet, I would have known that after falling into the water, my best course of action would be to climb back into the canoe. Cold water robs the body of heat 25 to 30 times faster than air, so I would have stayed warmer longer in the canoe. Even a totally swamped canoe can be paddled, albeit sluggishly, to shore while the paddler keeps his body core up and out of the water. My canoe was not swamped and, in fact, had barely a drop of water in it, yet I didn't realize it was my best route to safety. It simply didn't seem possible that I could get back into it.

As I later learned, re-entering a canoe from the water isn't something you just pick up naturally. It's a demanding, unnatural, and ungainly maneuver that requires the paddler to make swift scissor kicks while hoisting himself up over a gunwale and into the boat. Bruises, scratches, and awkward body positions are almost inevitable.

With a bit of training in self-rescue techniques from a local paddling club, I would likely have been able to end my predicament much more quickly, happily, and independently. Spending a few hours at a local lake practicing the techniques would have almost certainly ensured this outcome.

Instead of attempting re-entry, I put on my life vest, squirmed out of my rubber boots, and began swimming toward the nearest shore as fast as I could. I also began issuing high-volume, targeted bursts of sound specifically intended to alert onlookers to set in motion a rescue. In other words, I swore. I noted, to anyone who might be listening, that I was "(adjective) freezing," in case there was any doubt about the severity of my situation.

Also, if I died, it would have to be said that I went down cussing—raging, in my own way, against the dying of the light.

As I swam, my life didn't flash before my eyes. I thought not about things I had done, but about things I should have done. That's what I would miss out on, after all. Why hadn't I married my girlfriend? Had some children? Cashed in the skydiving gift certificate I once got?

Apart from surveying my regrets, I felt an overwhelming sense of embarrassment and stupidity. I had rafted remote rivers, ice-climbed glaciers, backpacked rugged mountains, and taken more canoe-country trips than I could tally, and here I was thrashing around in a piddly little city lake like a toddler tossed into a water fountain.

Suddenly, whatever good luck I had accrued in my life kicked in. Of all the random lakes to canoe on, I had chosen one that had a fire station on its shore. A man who was jogging at a nearby park heard me and ran straight to the station. The Forest Lake Fire Department dispatched its brand-new airboat, which the local Lions Club had recently helped it purchase.

I was approaching the shore—actually a thick stand of nearly impenetrable cattails growing in muck—when I heard the sirens. Even though my thoughts were becoming scrambled, my mind at once racing and bogging down, I was conscious enough to feel a great sense of relief at the sirens' whiny din, knowing that my chances of living through the ordeal had just shot up greatly.

I ended up taking a nice, warm ambulance ride to a nice, warm hospital, where nurses wrapped me in an inflatable blanket called the Bair Hugger, which worked like a forced-air heater to slowly bring my core body temperature back up from 93 degrees. I must have looked ridiculous, like an absurdly oversized marshmallow, but I was happy to be alive rather than bobbing lifeless in the lake.

That was more than a decade ago. I have since married my girlfriend and had three children, assuaging some of my earlier regrets. (Skydiving can wait.) I've also gotten my own, more stable solo canoe, though I've avoided open, cold water when paddling alone.

Ever since the incident, my ears perk up and my empathy flows when I hear news of a boating accident. Last fall the sad news emerged that a couple had been found dead in their life vests, near their overturned canoe, on a Boundary Waters lake after cold, windy weather had swept in. The two, Thomas and Cynthia Pineault, were known to their friends as expert canoeists.

Among many who heard the news, there was a sense of mystery about the couple's deaths. How could such a thing have happened? But I did not wonder.

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