Flirting With Hypothermia
I recently returned from a week long fishing-canoeing-camping trip in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. My 26 year old son was my paddling partner and fishing companion. This park is a canoe/kayak only wilderness area northwest of Lake Superior. A typical trip into this area requires carrying camping gear across portage trails from lake to lake until you reach your destination for the day where you set up a tent and prepare for the next day of paddling to a new campsite, while enjoying scenery and fishing. Weather can be unpredictable in early June, which is when we planned our trip since that time also provides the best fishing prospects.
We entered the park on a warm and still Friday evening, paddled to the first portage and then arrived at a campsite, just before an ugly thunderstorm rolled in. It brought dark and unusual clouds, heavy rain, hail and stiff wind. We managed to set up our tent before the worst of it and remained in our sleeping bags until the next morning.
Morning came with somewhat cooler but not uncomfortable temperatures, and a slight rain accompanied by light winds. We decided it would be wise to at least start our day of travel in a full complement of rain gear. We usually come prepared for wet and cool weather. We knew the day would be wet, but since the morning started with moderate temperatures we both decided that it would probably warm as the day progressed so addition layers under the rain gear would not be needed.
The day did not warm as we had predicted. As we traveled the weather gradually deteriorated. The rainfall increased, the winds rose and the temperatures fell to a point where rain drops turned to sleet. My son, unwisely chose to wear water shoes with cotton socks. About 5 hours into the day, we decided to find a spot to land our canoe then start a fire to warm up so that our discomfort would be lessened. My son was cold, especially his feet. I was cold. We both knew we were cold but the extent of chill we had developed was not of too much concern as we were paddling. The activity of paddling helped us from cooling too rapidly.
I was confident we could start a fire and was not worried since we were merely uncomfortable. Once we landed the canoe at an old campsite and started our search for firewood, my concern started to deepen. Both of us were shivering as soon as we started walking. Any wood we found was extremely wet from the past 14 hours of steady rain. With some birch bark and pine needles I managed to get a small smoldering fire started. I quickly tried to gather as much small kindling as I could find and scraped the wet outer wood off with my field knife. I also whittled long slivers of slightly drier wood to feed the fire. I was beginning to worry about my son because he became inactive and his shivering became more noticeable. I fought off urges to panic but worked almost frantically to get the fire started. I finally decided to use some gasoline from my camp stove to accelerate the growth of the fire. Even that took several attempts until the fire would burn on it’s own.
I set up a tarp between two trees near the fire pit to block wind. After several rounds of gathering wet wood and placing it near the fire to dry, we finally had a fire sufficient to warm us.
A few observations from this experience:
- Even an open fire that’s on the smaller side provides a lot of heat.
- When you NEED a fire, you NEED to be able to start it quickly.
- You don’t realize how cold you actually are until you start trying to move around.
- Do something about being cold before it becomes too difficult to act.
- Next time bring a candle, and keep it lit to dry tinder.
- Green pine needles will flare up like gasoline when they finally catch fire
- Wet birch bark does burn, but is hard to start with a lighter.
- Bring a few more emergency fire starters, Triox or the like. I had one package of Triox but didn’t use because I thought this was not truly an emergency and I hadn’t exhausted my options.