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Field testing the cold weather gear in lakeshore slush.
Cold Water Survival
The first winter that I paddled on Lake Michigan, I wore a cloth jacket, a stocking cap and wool gloves. I had a wide, stable fiberglass kayak and only went out on calm days. So thanks more to good fortune than common sense, I survived death by hypothermia. The next winter, I got a dry suit and some paddling gloves from the local kayak store and so was a lot better protected. I also learned how to roll. At about the same time that I learned how to roll, I also built my first Greenland kayak using H.C. Petersen's Kayak Building book for instruction.I finished the kayak by the last week in March. I called my friends and arranged to celebrate a launch on the last weekend in March. That Friday, a huge snow storm blew through town and on launch day, frozen slush extended a quarter mile out into the lake. Launching was out of the question.
So I launched the next weekend, this time without my friends. The Greenland kayak seemed a lot tippier in waves than it had in the heated swimming pool where I had practiced paddling and rolling it. Being reluctant to turn sideways to the waves, I just headed straight into them and got further and further from shore. But eventually, I had to turn. And almost as soon as I did, I capsized. No worries, I had on my dry suit and I had practiced how to roll. Except my paddle was in the wrong position for rolling and the buoyancy of the drysuit prevented me from attempting from getting set up to roll on the other side of the boat. So running short on air, I pulled the sprayskirt and bailed out of the boat. I turned it upright, crawled on the back deck and started swimming for shore. The last of the ice had melted that week, so the temperature of the water couldn't have been any more than the high thirties. I don't know how long that took, but it must have swum for 15 or 20 minutes. In any case, as I got out of the boat, I heard sirens, and as I was hauling the kayak back to my car, a fire truck pulled up and firemen with poles with hooks on them jumped out of the truck.
Then a guy walked up to me and told me that he had seen me swimming and so had called both the fire department and the Coast Guard. And sure enough, five minutes later, the Coast Guard launch arrived with six crewmen in red survival suits. After telling the firement that I was OK, I left the scene with my tail between my legs.
Fortunately, the only injury that day was my pride. But as a result, I launched a campaign to perfect my roll and to fine tune my cold water survival system.
The western shore of Lake Michigan, where I paddled for about 10 years is probably one of the best places in the world to get lots of cold weather paddling experience. The temperature in the winter while sometimes below 0 degrees fahrenheit for a week at a time often gets up into the twenties on sunny days. While all the smaller lakes are frozen from December through March, Lake Michigan stays ice free except in the coldest of winters. On some of the colder nights, bays freeze over, but once the wind starts blowing during the day, waves break up the ice and start pushing it east so that by the middle of the day the water is again ice free.
While residual heat from the summer keeps the lake from freezing over in the winter, residual cold from the winter also keeps the lake water painfully cold until well into July. Consequently, in order to do things like surf and roll in Lake Michigan, I needed cold water protection for a good 9 months out of the year.
All content copyright © 2004 Wolfgang Brinck. Personal non-commercial use permitted.