Cold Water Danger – A Lesson

Recreation By Frank Bures

In the BWCA, it’s always cold water!

Last spring, I was canoeing on the Mississippi River when my solo canoe capsized in the wind. Before that, I knew in an abstract way that cold water was dangerous. Afterword, I learned just how dangerous it is: Within a few minutes of going in the water, it became difficult to move my limbs. Even with a lifejacket, I knew I would not make it to shore.

I was saved by a stroke of luck. Two other paddlers happened to be on the river at 7 am on a Sunday morning in March. One was an experienced whitewater kayaker, and had a throw line in the boat. They threw it to me and hauled me to shore.

It’s impossible to overstate the amount of luck involved in my survival. It took just 10-15 minutes for me to reach a point of no return. By the time they pulled me out, I was severely hypothermic, with a core temperature that must have been in the 80s. A few more minutes, and I would have been gone.

Two paddlers canoeing in the Boundary Waters, snow covering the shores of the lake.

Since then, I’ve tried to use my good fortune to help others see the danger that cold water poses. I’ve especially tried to reach people like myself, who knew this, but didn’t really get it. After all, cold water doesn’t look dangerous. It looks the same as it does all summer.

Many people aren’t as lucky as me. In May of 2020, three young men were camping in the Boundary Waters on Tuscarora Lake when a gust of wind tipped their canoe. Two of them made it to shore, but Billy Cameron, 29, did not, even though he was wearing a life jacket.

On Memorial Day of 2021, a 51-year-old man fell out of his boat while fishing on Trout Lake in the Boundary Waters. He was not wearing a lifejacket, sank quickly in the cold water and died.

In May of this year, a 43-year-old paddler named Dave Kasprak, who had been to the BWCA some twenty times, took a solo trip in on the Frost River in the eastern Boundary Waters. The banks were still lined with snow. The water was at record high levels. He told MPR that he was “more intrigued by the conditions than fearful of them.”

On his first day, a strong current flipped his canoe on Ham Lake. The current then pushed him further out, but he swam for shore pulling his canoe. It took him an hour to make it. His legs, “started going numb and tingly.”

After emptying his boat on shore, he paddled back to the portage, which was covered by a raging river. There he saw one of his food packs in the water, and decided try to grab it, but the current caught him, and sent him downstream, which he said was “like getting beaten with bats going down a waterslide.”

Kasprak managed to grab a branch on his way down the chute. When he pulled himself out of the water, he said: “I was shaking, beyond cold. I can’t describe the kind of cold. It wasn’t even cold anymore. It was like burning.”

He took off his clothes, wrapped himself in a tarp, vomited and passed out. When he woke up, he made camp. In morning he hiked cross country back to his car. He was almost as lucky as I was.

Water in the far north can be extremely cold into June. And according to the Cook County Sheriff’s Department it’s cold all year, “Our stance,” a representative said in an email, “is that all waters in northern Minnesota are considered ‘cold water’ no matter the time of year. Although the surface temperature can reflect 75 degrees, the water only a few feet down can be significantly colder.”

A tree over a river, covered with snow.

Cold water drownings are different from warm water drownings. In cold water, it becomes hard to disentangle drowning and hypothermia, because they work in tandem. According to Minnesota Sea Grant Director John A. Downing, “In the Great Lakes states, 35% more people die of hypothermia than drown, and many of those drowning deaths are due to exhaustion from hypothermia.”

Cold water drownings can happen very fast, especially without a lifejacket. The National Center For Cold Water Safety puts it bluntly: “Cold water is a predator – fast, powerful and deadly, with unlimited energy and no need for sleep. A predator so perfectly camouflaged that you can stand right next to it and see absolutely nothing dangerous – just a sparkling invitation to get out on the water and have some fun.”

Temperature matters. By some estimates, in water 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ll be able to swim for two hours, and your time to exhaustion is 7-12 hours. At 50-60 degrees, your maximum swim time is down to 75 minutes, and time to exhaustion is 1-2 hours. And at 32.5-40 degrees, you likely have 0-7 minutes of swim time, and time to exhaustion or unconsciousness is 15-30 minutes. (Times are longer with a PFD.) 

The National Center For Cold Water Safety disputes these estimates, and warns that they give people a false sense of security, because they understate how fast manual dexterity can be lost, and incapacitation (as opposed to exhaustion) can arrive, writing that, “You actually have a desperate race against the clock, and every minute, you get progressively weaker.”

The water I went into was 42 degrees Fahrenheit. The water in the BWCA in the weeks after ice-out will likely be in that range. But you can also become hypothermic in much warmer water, if you are in it long enough for it to drag your body temperature below 95 degrees.

Cold Water Danger – 4 Stages

If you find yourself in cold water, there are the four stages you will go through. And the colder it is, the faster they will progress.

  1. Cold Shock
    This is a very dangerous time, right when you go in the water, characterized by “uncontrollable hyperventilation” in the first 1-5 minutes. Many people inhale water, go under and die in this stage. It’s important to control your breathing and stay calm.
  2. Swim failure
    The next stage is physical incapacitation caused by “rapid cooling of skin, nerves, and muscles that results in a rapid loss of dexterity, sense of touch, muscle strength and speed.” The rate of loss depends on the temperature. According to the National Center For Cold Water Safety, in this stage “you can no longer control your arms, legs, hands and feet. When this happens, particularly in waves, you are very likely to drown.” According some research, nearly half the people who drown in cold water are two meters away from safety.
  3. Hypothermia
    In this stage your body temperature drops below 95 degrees, because your body is losing heat faster than it can generate it. This happens faster in the water than in the air. And it happens faster when you are swimming than floating. According to Pamela Doty, writing for the U.S. Army on how to survive in cold water, “any movement in cold water is going to deplete your body of heat 25-30 times faster than cold air.”  This stage can also see the onset of disorientation, lethargy and cognitive problems.
  4. Post-Rescue Collapse
    Even after you get pulled out, you’re not out of danger. While it’s not well-understood, many people, when they’re rescued, experience an abrupt drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness or heart failure. It’s important to seek medical attention immediately.

Cold Water Survival – What to do

The best way to survive a cold water plunge is not to take one in the first place, and to wait for warmer weather. But what should you do if you find yourself in cold water?

  1. Get out of the water–or get as much of yourself out–to minimize heat loss. This could mean climbing onto a boat or cooler, for example.
  2. Stay focused and determined. Panic and hopelessness will significantly reduce your chances of survival. Stay calm and control your breathing, especially in the initial stages of cold shock.
  3. If you do have to go out in cold water, stay near shore, wear a dry suit and get canoe stabilizers to attach to your boat.
  4. One common guideline is the “1-10-1 Rule,” created by Dr. Gordon Giesbriecht. It says you have one minute to get your breathing under control, 10 minutes (or less) for self-rescue, and one hour before you become unconscious from hypothermia.  But the National Center For Cold Water Safety disputes this, calling it unscientific, unrealistic and misleading.  Instead, they say, hyperventilation can last up to 5 minutes and incapacitation (lack of movment) can start in just a few minutes. You could have much less than 12 minutes, depending on the water temperature and how your body reacts. The bottom line is you have to stay calm and get out of the water as soon as you can.

After my story was published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, I got a flood of emails from people who read it and were moved by it. Some had lost loved ones, and others had nearly lost themselves.

But the letter that made me feel best was from a man who said, “Frank, appreciate your article about your near death experience. I wonder if, and realize we’ll never know, but I wonder if you’ve saved mine.”

I can only hope he’s right, and there are more out there like him.

Frank Bures is a writer based in Minneapolis. He is the former trips director and camp naturalist at YMCA Camp Olson, and was on the support crew for the Mile Marker Zero team, which paddled the entire Mississippi River in a world record 17 days, 19 hours and 46 minutes in 2021. He writes for Outside Magazine, the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer Magazine and the Star Tribune Outdoors, where he first wrote about his canoe capsizing on the Mississippi. More at frankbures.com.

Continue Reading

Canoe by a lake in the BWCA - Text says
| Advocacy

Speak up to ban mining near the BWCA

Sign your name to let the Forest Service know that you value the Boundary Waters and support a 20-year-mineral withdrawal…

Emily Ford in front of a red tent in the BWCA
| People | Recreation

Emily Ford | Lessons from the Winter Trail

Adventurer Emily Ford and her dog, Diggins, team up for an inspiring Boundary Waters adventure through harsh, winter conditions to…