Donning New Dry Suit Almost Lethal

Safely packaged in his dry suit, our Viking correspondent shows off his steelhead. Photo Dave Mull

By Dave Mull

The irony that the dry suit almost killed me after I had bought it to save my life was hard to miss.

Okay, it didn't almost kill me, but I was a red-face, sweaty, angry mess by the time I did a reverse Houdini and fully climbed into the infernal thing. The process of crawling into it through diagonal zippered gash across its chest made me an hour late to meet my fishing buddies, too.

Dry suits are getting popular among kayakers because they keep you dry and ward off deadly hypothermia in the event of an accidental dip. The rule of thumb is you should wear one if the air temperature and the water temperature, added together, equal less than 120 degrees. That's Farenheit of course. And in Michigan, that can be until June.

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Donning that thing for the first time just wasn't a pleasant experience.

First, at the advice of my fishing buddy Ted Garneau of Grand Rapids, Michigan, who had been wearing his new dry suit for at least a month, I donned two sets of long underwear followed by the heaviest sweat suit I have. The air temperature was supposed to stay around 30 degrees that day and Ted said I'd want every bit of the undergarments.

Putting on three layers of thermal clothing wasn't the big deal. It was having three layers of thermal clothing on in the family room near our hot wood-burning stove that turned my morning into a sauna.

This was a day in early January and I was supposed to meet Garneau and soon-to-be captain Kevin Ouzts for some steelhead fishing on the Kalamazoo River up at the Allegan Dam access. I was expected there at 8  a.m. sharp and arose early, fed the dogs, ate a little breakfast and had plenty of time to spare to get in the SUV and make the 20-mile drive north from my home in Paw Paw.

Heck I was going to be there early and I had allowed myself five full minutes to get that suit on—how could it possibly take any longer? Well, if a round in a prize fight is five minutes long, I almost went the full 10 rounds. After eight, my corner was close to tossing in the towel.

I'm not kidding when I say I thought I might have a heart attack getting into my new suit.

The challenge is, instead of a vertical zipper that starts at your neck, a dry suit has a diagonal slash of a zipper, roughly at the level of your sternum. This is what you must climb through to get the thoroughly water-proof suit on your body.

I was in trouble from the moment I started putting on the suit. The floppy yellow and gray thing felt sort of like a brand new tarp you might use for a tent as I sat on the couch and laid it out flat in front of me. I shoved my left leg in and immediately saw the tip of my sock sticking out the pant leg hole, which is supposed to be covered by a rubber boot. I thought one of the dogs had chewed through this boot of my $600 suit before I even had a chance to wear it. I was glad to feel dumb when I realized I had stuck my leg down the arm of the suit and my toe was sticking out the sleeve.

Eventually I squeezed each foot into the its proper, stretchy rubber booty, and then it was time to get the upper half of my body through the sternum zipper. This is where it would have been helpful to be able to dislocate both shoulders, a la Mel Gibson in "Lethal Weapon." Even more helpful would have been bending my elbows backwards.

Eventually I squeezed all the way in, finally getting my noggin through the tiny rubber neck hole, which was a lot like putting one's head through the blow hole of a party balloon. The neckline is tight and keeps water out. I feared it also might cut the supply of blood to my brain.

Maybe eight rounds into this fight, the worst was yet to come. First, I closed the watertight zipper, which was also airtight. I was inflated and looked like I should be floating over the streets of New York in a Thanksgiving parade. I pulled the zipper back open and let out some steam—I swear I could see actual hot vapor clouds.

Now it was time to put on the neoprene boots and, well, I just couldn't bend down and get them on over the sticky rubber booties. Wife Kathy came to the rescue, me lying on the top of our bed; she shoving the boots over my footsies with all her might. Pretty sure no woman has done that for me since about 1957. Note to self: Put the boots on before putting your arms and head into the suit.

The rest of the day improved as we caught three nice steelhead in a heavy snow. And even though the snow melted upon contact with the suit, I never did get wet. That was worth it.

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