The coldest of seasons
The coldest season is not midwinter. The coldest season is upon us. It’s the wet and cold fall that is the hardest season to maintain proper body temperature. I had this driven home to me while standing in waist-deep water on a cold windy steel gray day in Iowa a number of years ago.My older brother and I had a passion for hunting ducks, but not just any ducks. The challenge of hunting and actually bagging green-winged teal exceeded any other waterfowl, in our estimation. Unlike mallards, teal are small ducks that would come into our decoys low and fast, like bats performing out of control aerial maneuvers while trying to catch insects. Even using number six shot with a spread pattern of 6 feet at 35 yards, we rarely bagged any of these elusive birds.My brother would watch the weather reports religiously for cold fronts heading our way, which would drive the migratory flights across our state. He finally saw just the report he was hoping for, and we made plans for a 4 a.m. meeting to make sure we would be in place over the decoys at sunrise. At the time, I wore cotton from head to toe, including an all-cotton canvas hunting coat. We waded out into the marsh approximately 1 mile from our vehicle. The freezing rain started as soon as we entered the water. Every few minutes we had to stop and clear the ice coating our shotguns. We stayed warm wading out and setting the decoys. By the time the decoys were all placed, we were soaked to the skin. Now was the time to wait. We started feeling the cold immediately.As we stood there, the temperatures began dropping, and the slight layer of ice across the water began to increase and thicken.Our father had taught us the wonderful art of suffering, and now we suffered in silence for about 60 minutes. We both realized that we were severely cold, so we decided to call it a day.Little did we know that we had waited too long, for neither of us would regain warmth from our movement that day. As we headed back to the car, the ice had increased to the point that, by lifting our knees under the ice, we could no longer break it. We unloaded our shotguns and used the butts to smash the ice. It was slow work, and the second person would freeze waiting for the first so to keep warm. We decided to work side by side. Still, each of us was freezing slowly. All our clothing above the water line was completely iced over like a suit of armor. It was quite comical, and even at the time we would laugh about our predicament at the same time knowing we were in serious trouble. We were in a marsh in Iowa, not on Denali, Everest or K2, and even with our car in sight I realized a person could die as easily here as in any wilderness or mountain environment.We were both shivering so violently that normal conversation was impossible, so we just trudged on toward the car. We never became so hypothermic that we started removing hats, gloves or other clothing. I’ve read that severely hypothermic victims may not only remove clothing but may experience memory loss.When we got to the car, we cranked up the heater full blast and removed all of our wet cotton clothing. Fortunately, my brother had a Thermos of hot coffee in the car. It was the last time I wore cotton clothing in wet cold conditions, and I also invested in real rain gear.It took over an hour to stop shivering, and both of us felt nauseated from the continual muscle contractions because of the shivering.I learned a lot that day on the marsh, and ever since, I’ve continued to modify my clothing systems to the environment. I’ve never had a day since when I let my personal warmth get to such a low point. I hopefully never will. My brother, on the other hand, had an almost identical experience on the same marsh two years later, only this time the companion he was with flipped the boat when shooting at a duck directly overhead. They made it back to the car, but it was the last time either of them ever went hunting. Ron is a senior National Outdoor Leadership School instructor who says more cases of hypothermia happen on NOLS’s courses in the fall than in midwinter. Ron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for additional thoughts on adventuring in cold, wet conditions.
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