Selection from Eddies for Outdoorsmen
One of the dangers of canoeing, and many other outdoor activities, is hypothermia. This is a condition when the temperature inside the central body drops below the normal 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Our bodies are designed, not only with a will to survive, but with automatic responses that help to preserve life as long as possible. As the core body temperature begins to drop, the person begins to shiver uncontrollably. This helps the muscles to generate more heat. At around 95 degrees the heart rate slows down and the blood pressure begins to drop. Breathing and all other body functions slow down as well. Although this allows the surface of the body to get much colder, it also reduces heat loss from the core where the vital organs are located. While this increases the length of time the person can survive, it also decreases his ability to rescue himself. His thinking becomes cloudy and as the temperature reaches about 93 degrees he looses manual dexterity as his muscles become rigid. Between 90 and 86 degrees the victim usually becomes unconscious. As the temperature of the brain decreases, the brain’s need for oxygen also decreases. At low temperatures the brain can endure long periods with no blood flow and suffer little or no brain damage.
It may be possible to resuscitate a victim even after there are no signs of life. Organizations like the Red Cross and the Coast Guard can provide you with plenty of information on first aid for hypothermia. If you haven’t already, take time to learn how to treat this dangerous condition.
Plan your outdoor activities in a way to avoid the risk of hypothermia. Dress in layers. Wear clothes that will keep you warm even when wet. When boating on cold water, take extra clothes in a watertight container. Remember, any alcohol in your blood stream will increase your risk of hypothermia. While alcohol makes you feel warmer, it is actually cooling you and decreasing your chances of survival.
Our bodies are equipped with some wonderful tools for survival. The greatest of these is common sense.
Selection from Pyramids of Thrush Creek (Names have been changed.)
Max and Ben had already come about and were paddling hard against the swift current as Zack floated helplessly toward them. “Get ready to grab him!” Max yelled as he guided the canoe into Zack’s path. Ben was hunched over on his knees, reaching over the gunnel with his right arm as they approached. “Grab him! Grab him!” Max shouted. Ben got a firm grip on Zack’s life vest and pulled him up against the side of the canoe as Max started ferrying toward shore. “Just hold him like that!” Max ordered.
“Hang in there, Zack!” Ben shouted to the unresponsive deadweight.
Thatcher came charging through the knee-deep torrent, grabbed the bowline and started towing them toward the shore. As soon as the bow hit the shore, Thatcher grabbed Zack by the armpits, dragging him up on the shore to a flat area covered with long dry grass and dead weeds. “Zack! Talk to me!” Thatcher shouted as he gently laid Zack on the ground. “Ben, get my dry-bag!”
Max pulled his canoe well up onto the shore then hurried to assist Thatcher, while Ben sprinted almost a hundred yards up along the river to Thatcher’s canoe. He unleashed the dry-bag, slipped his arms through the shoulder straps and jogged back to where Max and Thatcher were busy removing Zack’s wet clothes. “I’ve got a wool blanket in there.” Thatcher said. “Get it out here!”
“Are you going to do the honors or should I?” Max glanced at Thatcher.
“Okay then, why don’t you start getting undressed? By the time you get out of that dry-suit, I’ll have the rest of his clothes off.”
Ben came with the blanket as Max stripped off the last piece of Zack’s underwear. “Let’s get that blanket around him! Here, tuck it up underneath him!” Max said as he rolled Zack on his side. Ben spread out the blanket behind Rick and tucked the one edge along the length of his body. Max pulled the rest of the blanket toward Zack, scrunching approximately half of it into a narrow pile against Zack’s back. Then he rolled Zack onto the blanket, grabbing the edge and pulling it through underneath Zack.
As Max wrapped the blanket around Zack, an idea hit Ben, “We should have put the life jackets under him for padding.”
“Good idea!” Max gave a quick nod. “That’ll help insulate him from the cold ground. Get all the life vests and spread them out flat.” They quickly arranged the life vests into a layer beside Zack. Then they each took hold of one edge of the blanket and gently lifted Zack onto the pad.
By that time, Thatcher had stripped himself completely naked. He quickly lay down on the blanket beside Zack and wrapped his arms around him. “God, he’s cold!” Thatcher said as he pulled Zack’s shivering body tight against himself. “Wake up, Zack! Talk to me!”
Max wrapped the blanket snugly around the two, and then pressed his fingers against Zack’s neck, checking his pulse. As Max got up and started toward his canoe, Ben and asked quietly, “He’s just trying to warm him up, right?”
“That’s right,” Max replied with a slight grin. “There’s nothing else going on here. We just want to have as much skin to skin contact as possible. We need to transfer heat from one body to the other as quickly as we can.”
“I never heard of anything like this before,” Ben marveled that the other two seemed to know exactly what to do without any discussion.
“It’s a recommended treatment for hypothermia,” Max gestured toward the bow of his canoe. “Let’s bring our canoe up here and put it behind them to break the wind.” After they carried their canoe up to where the other two men were, Max suggested, “Why don’t you start gathering some wood for a fire, I’ll finish this.” After removing his dry-bag, and everything else from the canoe, Max rolled the boat over and slid it close behind Thatcher, partially covering the two on the ground.
“That helps,” Thatcher said with a slight shiver. “It felt like that wind was coming right through this blanket.”
“We’ll get a fire going here in a minute,” Max surveyed the area quickly.
“Not too close,” Thatcher replied. “Too much heat too quickly can cause problems. The main thing we need to do is get his body core warmed up.”
Max opened his dry-bag and pulled out a plastic container of emergency supplies. “I’ve got matches and fire starters in here,” he handed the box to Ben, as he began selecting the proper place to build a fire. He picked a spot about four feet from Zack and soon they had a small fire blazing. Ben kept gathering sticks, breaking them over his knee and placing them on the fire.
“Come on, Zack! It’s time to wake up.” Thatcher said loudly for what seemed the hundredth time.
“What’s goin’ on?” Zack replied in a slurred shivering voice.
“Hang in there, Buddy! You’re gonna be all right,” Thatcher sounded ecstatic.
“Stay awake! Don’t let yourself go to sleep!” Max instructed as he squatted down, pressing his fingers against Zack’s neck. “Your pulse is getting better. You’re coming around, man. Just hang on and stay with us!”
“We’ve got a good fire going now,” Ben said. “I can make some coffee. That should help get him going again.”
“No, no!” Thatcher replied. “Don’t give him any caffeine! That would stimulate his circulation and cause too much cold blood to come back to the core too quickly. That could cause a heart attack! We gotta let this happen at its own pace.”
“You could make some plain hot water, though,” Max nodded to Ben. “That would be good to give him when he’s ready to sit up and drink something.”
“We’ve got instant coffee for those of us who need it,” Thatcher added. “And I’ll be needing it myself pretty soon.” After putting a pot of water over the fire, Ben hiked back to Thatcher’s canoe. He hoisted it over his head and lowered the carrying yoke onto his shoulders, then headed back to the campfire.
Gradually Zack became more and more alert, as Thatcher continued to engage him in conversation, which at first was rather incoherent. “Max, can you slide this canoe back a little so I can get out of here?” Thatcher asked. “It’s time for me to get something hot to drink. Or next thing I’ll be the one that needs help.”
“Jeepers! You’re naked!” Zack observed as Thatcher got to his feet. “What the heck’s going on?” he suddenly seemed to realize that he too was lacking clothes.
“Nothing weird,” Thatcher assured him as he pulled on his long johns, which Ben had hung by the fire. “I was just trying to get you warmed up again.” By the time Thatcher had finished dressing, Ben had a cup of instant coffee ready for him. As Thatcher drank his coffee, Zack rolled over to face the fire.
“Looks like you’re doing all right there,” Max commented as he slid the canoe up close to Zack. “But I’d like you to stay lying down for a while yet. Your body’s blood pressure controls may be all out of whack. If you try to sit up, you might pass out.” The cold wind continued blowing as the three huddled around the fire, each holding a piece of Zack’s spare clothing to the fire to pre-warm them. As Zack lay on the blanket, Max and Thatcher helped him slip into his long johns, jeans and socks.
“Do you want to try to sit up so we can get your shirt on?” Thatcher asked.
“Slowly,” Max advised. “If you feel lightheaded, just lie down again.”
“I feel okay,” Zack said after he got himself upright.
“Your coordination seems to be getting better,” Thatcher observed as they got his shirt around him. With shaking hands, Zack started fumbling with his buttons. Thatcher watched for a few seconds then added, “But it’s not that good yet. You’d better let me do that.” Meanwhile, Ben and Max repositioned the canoe, more on its side, to create a taller windbreak.
“Can I have a cup of coffee?” Zack asked as the others came back to the fire.
“Not coffee,” Thatcher glanced at Zack. “We can give you hot water. That will help warm up your core temperature.”
Ben poured about a half a cup of water and handed it to Zack. His hands shook as he brought it to his mouth and began sipping the hot water.
“Your body was shutting itself down,” Thatcher explained as Zack continued sipping. “When our core temperature gets too low, our bodies do an amazing thing. They start shutting down circulation to the extremities. It seems the body knows that frostbite isn’t as bad as heart failure. So it allows the limbs to get cold while it tries to protect the vital organs. The heart rate slows and the blood pressure drops.”
“Animals do much the same thing when they go into hibernation,” Max added. “But they’re able to reverse the process and power up again without any problem.”
“We usually need a little help getting powered up again,” Thatcher went on. “But the process of shutting down helps the body to cling to life as long as possible.”
“So you’re saying this all happens for a reason,” Zack eyed Thatcher.
“That’s right,” Thatcher agreed. “The reason is to keep you alive.”
“That is really amazing,” Zack said with a twinkle in his eye. “I have a friend who says that there’s no reason for anything. Nothing has any purpose. This is just the way we happened to evolve through a random process.”
“I see you’re feeling much better,” Thatcher replied flatly. “There’s a lot of hot air coming out of your mouth again.”