By Jeff Little
We floated out of sight of Hancock, Maryland before setting up camp on the banks of the Potomac River. The rural mountain town marked our halfway point in a 67-mile float trip. In Hancock, we had restocked on food, water and some combustibles to easily start a fire. We must have been an interesting pair to watch: two young men in mud stained clothing and four days of stubble, picking cardboard out of a dumpster.
The search for an appropriately level place to pitch a tent was rushed. The skies were darkening quickly, both from the day ending and quickly moving storm clouds. My buddy Rob shouted down from a steep sycamore tree lined bank, “Hey man, this spot is as good as any. We need to get this tent up before we get drenched!”
I hopped out of my kayak, carrying an armful of tent, sleeping bags and cardboard. Within ten minutes, the skies opened up. Within 12, the tent was pitched and our somewhat dry stuff was inside.
In need of a hot meal, we donned our rain jackets and left the tent to gather firewood. The cold mid October rain fell harder. Nothing we found was dry. Following a futile twenty-minute attempt to start a fire, we retired to the less than impermeable tent to eat cold Chef Boy-Ar-Dee out of the can. A half hour later, we were asleep.
At 2:47 a.m. Rob spoke to me in a clear voice that told that he had been awake for some time, “You wanna try starting a fire again?” I rolled over into a puddle that had completely soaked my sleeping bag hours prior. The sleeping bag was heaped in the corner. I had shucked my saturated blue jeans and cotton hooded sweatshirt. My top half was covered by only a rain jacket. My legs were pulled up into fetal position and wrapped in a garbage bag.
I replied only by clicking on a flashlight and nodding. We clumsily unzipped and exited the tent. It required an especially long time to put on my river boots. My hands just couldn’t do what I needed them to. All the dexterity in my fingers was gone. The same lack of coordination helped a tree root hook my ankle and take me down hard. Rob heard the thud in the dark and turned his flashlight onto me slowly getting up. We were both deep into hypothermia.
Without really discussing it, we both knew that we were in trouble. Lying in that muddy puddle in the middle of the night, not able to get my body to do what it needed to do, I felt something in the center of my torso. It was deeper than the coldness that lowered my core temperature. It was fear.
From our unsuccessful attempts to start a fire many hours earlier, we knew what didn’t work. The cardboard was soaked, as was everything else. Rob dropped the lighter into a puddle, wetting the flint. His hands weren’t working well either. I played with it, using both hands, grasping the butt end of the lighter with one hand and turning the wheel against the heel of the other. My thumb wouldn’t flick downward. My hands weren’t shivering, they just didn’t respond.
Using knives to whittle away wet bark, exposing dry wood, we accumulated a pile of dry shavings. That took a long time as well without reliable hand strength. The spark of the lighter returned after half an hour, and we eventually started a small fire, which promptly went out once we placed wet wood on top of it. With each failure came more fear. With more fear came more resolve. Unlike the previous evening, finding someplace warm and dry was not an option. We had to do this, or die of hypothermia.
To be completely honest, resolve likely had little to do with the fire we eventually started. I’m not going to whip out a God Squad message here, but we had help somehow. We were too messed up, physically and mentally to pull off what we did alone. Natural selection almost played out on the banks of the Potomac in October of 1999.
The fire we started moments before sunrise felt better than anything I’ve ever felt. The sunlight hitting our faces might as well have been a hot shower. We propped our wet clothing on sticks jammed into the mud, rounding the fire like Stonehenge. The steam rolled off the cotton. The feeling of a pair of blue jeans fresh out of the dryer has nothing on what we felt putting those dry and warm clothes back on.
Many lessons came out of the experience. One was to never let Rob pick the tent site. The most important is having gear that always keeps you dry, as well as a spare emergency set of non-cotton clothing in a dry bag. The next is related to having a way to easily start a fire in any condition
I receive emails and messages from kayak anglers each fall asking essentially the same thing: “I don’t have the money to drop on a dry suit. Is a pair of waders and a rain jacket OK?” That’s when I tell them the story you just read.
Going out with less than impermeable gear is like sitting down in your car seat and wrapping some duct tape around your midsection instead of using a seat belt. You probably won’t need it, but if you do, it will save your life. Our hypothermia set in over a matter of hours, but an accidental submersion this time of year brings it on in less than five minutes.
October through April, I carry a dry bag with a complete spare set of clothes for each person in my party who doesn’t have their own emergency dry bag. This includes clothing for my children. I’ve had one of my sons submerge fully in the middle of December, and that dry bag figured prominently in pulling him out of hypothermia. Fighting hypothermia is even tougher with smaller bodies.
Also in the dry bag is a fire starting kit. There are lighters, matches, fire starting packets, newspaper and cardboard. The cardboard is mostly for blocking wind, as cardboard actually requires more heat than you would think to ignite. I practice each fall, just for the security of knowing that my kit is stocked and functional.
People don’t think of recreational fishing as a pursuit that is life threatening. But when someone does die from kayak fishing, and it does happen each year, hypothermia is central to the story. Prepare for it.