An Outdoor View: Close call

Author’s note: This column first appeared in the June 8, 1990, edition of “The Tides,” a Clarion supplement. — LP

Death is inevitable, sure, but most of us strive to avoid it whenever possible. Trouble is, a premature end can surprise us, say, when we’re out in a boat having fun.

Every summer it happens. People start out thinking they’re going to have the time of their lives, and the time turns out to be their last.

Often as not, what kills us is something we didn’t know was dangerous until it was too late to do anything about it.

Here in Alaska, the places where we usually die in pursuit of fun are the lonely spots, where the odds of being rescued are slim. Skilak Lake, the Kenai Canyon, the Naptowne Rapids, Tustumena Lake, Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay come to mind. Some places are benign in one season, but deadly in another.

Sometimes a warning and a healthy dose of common sense steers us out of trouble. Other times we have to learn the hard way, from experience. Unfortunately, many of us die learning.

In Fairbanks a few years back, while kayaking on the Chena River with a friend one early spring, I got a lesson that was almost my last.

It was our first float trip of that year. The ice had just gone out, and it was an idyllic spring day to be on the water.

I’d spent many hours in my one-man Klepper kayak, and was confident that it wouldn’t capsize. In fact, I was so confident that my brand-new Nikon camera was on the floor between my legs, instead of in its waterproof bag.

So there we were, without a worry or care. We had been leisurely floating along for about two hours. Sure, the water was high and swift, but the sun was warm, the birds were singing, and all was well with the world.

And suddenly I was swimming.

The shock was numbing. My God, the water was cold! I once swam in a high mountain lake in springtime, but it was downright toasty compared to the Chena that day.

For a few seconds, I thought about swimming to shore. Even as I considered it, I felt the cold sapping my strength.

My buddy paddled up beside me and began towing me toward the bank, but the current was too swift, and the bank too steep. We could do nothing but float downstream, hoping to find a sandbar.

But there were no sandbars. Minutes dragged by.

In a very short time, I could barely move my arms and legs. I was wearing a life jacket, so all I had to do was hang onto the kayak, but even that was becoming an effort.

We were both getting seriously concerned, when we heard an outboard motor. It was the most welcome sound I’d ever heard. In minutes, strong hands were hauling me aboard a boat. An hour later, I was safe at home, explaining to my wife how I’d lost my new camera.

When my adrenaline returned to normal, I realized how close I’d come to dying. A few more minutes, and hypothermia could’ve killed me. If I hadn’t been wearing my life jacket, I might never have surfaced, a victim of “sudden disappearance syndrome,” caused by sudden immersion in cold water. The shock can cause rapid, uncontrolled breathing, cardiac arrest and other things that lead to death by drowning.

Why did I capsize?

The only other time I turned that kayak over was intentionally, just to see what it would take to do it. It never again came close to capsizing. The only reason I’ve ever come up with for capsizing was that we’d been drinking beer. We each had a six-pack, and I had drunk three on an empty stomach before the accident.

Those three beers, for someone my size, may not have been enough to get me a DWI citation back then, but they may have been enough to affect my balance and coordination. Studies have shown that even a single beer affects reaction time. And things like balance, coordination and reaction time become critical when you’re in a boat, which may explain why half of all boating fatalities involve alcohol.

I cut my teeth on boat gunwales, and I’ve boated in all kinds of bad weather, but that close call on the Chena really made me stop and think. I had become cocky, which made me careless. I had forgotten how things can go to hell in a big hurry, and how sometimes the only thing between living and dying is luck.

I’ve often wondered what would’ve happened if that boat hadn’t come along when it did. It was the only boat we saw all day.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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