WC is an avid fly fisherman. Mostly catch and release; what one friend calls “playing with his food.” And that zeal to catch just one more fish before freeze-up has gotten WC into trouble more than once.
Back in the day, Chena Lakes, the gravel pits from the construction of the Chena River Flood Control Project, were stocked with hatchery-raised rainbow trout. The “lakes,” now a borough recreation area, are pretty deep and don’t freeze immediately, making them a good spot for late-season fly fishing. A canoe is ideal – the water is just above freezing, after all – but in late October 1995, WC ventured out chasing the ‘bows in a bellyboat.
A bellyboat? Basically, it’s a large inner tube, with a nylon saddle rigged in it. Wearing chest waders, and swimming fins, you sit in the middle of the tube and float about chest-deep in the water. You navigate by kicking the fins. On this occasion, WC had extra-thick fleece on his legs but not, and this was a key mistake, on his torso. Over the course of an afternoon of fishing, the sky clouded over and a light breeze kicked up, not enough at first to make serious waves but enough to chill you more quickly than dangling chest deep in cold water would anyway.
Chena Lakes can be packed with folks on a hot summer weekend; in late October it was deserted. WC knew he was getting cold, but the fish were biting and there weren’t going to be any more chances. So WC stayed out in the water a little longer than was prudent. Maybe a lot longer than was prudent. You know, “Just one more cast.”
When WC’s teeth started to chatter uncontrollably, it was past time to get out of the water. Hypothermia is sneaky stuff. It makes you stupid. Among other things, your larger muscles get tired more easily. So as WC started to kick his fins for shore, first the legs got tired very quickly, and then they started to cramp. Usually, kicking will warm you up but not, WC can report, if blood flow to your limbs is so constricted that your muscles barely work. And, as WC said, the cold makes you stupid.
It can’t have been 200 meters to shore, but by the time WC got there he was shivering uncontrollably, and ended up sitting in the shallows, trying to remember how to get the fins off. One wouldn’t come off at all and, a little panicky, WC decided to leave it on and get to his truck. When he stood up, he immediately pitched forward on his face, filling the front of his chest waders with water. You wouldn’t think you could get any colder, but you can.
With the fins on, you can really only walk backwards. So WC shuffled backwards and crawled over to the truck, parked maybe ten meters from the shore. The keys to the truck were in his pocket, inside this chest waders. So there was a long struggle to get a hand in to the chest waders, find the right pocket, and pull out the key. WC spent an even longer time trying to unlock the rear door, completely befuddled as to why the key wouldn’t go into the lock that wasn’t there. WC did finally figure out the problem and, despite violent shaking, got the key into the driver-side lock, and then, even more difficult, the key into the ignition. The engine started. WC dragged himself in to the driver seat – fin still on one foot – and waited a long time for the engine and then his body to warm up a little.
WC had dry clothes in the truck and eventually got out of the fin, chest waders and soaking wet clothes and in to dry stuff. The wind had picked up by then and their were white caps on the water. The air temperature was 25° F. If WC had stayed out fishing a few more minutes, he’d have been a statistic.
Interestingly, even though WC thought he had warmed up a little, when he got out of the truck to retrieve his fishing gear, left down at the shoreline, he immediately started shivering again.
By the way, a brush with hypothermic shivering/shaking leaves your body aching and gives you a very bad headache. When WC got home, it took two hours in the hot tub to warm up.
You can argue that WC was being stupid well before hypothermia made hims stupider still. You’d be right. Don’t fish alone in marginal conditions. Dress for the conditions. And if you are alone, don’t press boundaries.