Have you ever been close to death? I think most everyone can point to one or two times in their lives when they might have died. One thing doesn’t go your way, and that would have been it. Sitting here, I can think of three times in my life when I almost died. I’ll share the most Darwinian of my foul balls…
I had a bug in my head during the spring of 2003. I was determined to recapture some idealized notion I had about the grace of canoeing. April can be a cruel month on Lake Ontario. The air is warming, but the water will be bone cold for another 6 weeks. I cast caution to the light spring breezes, and launched my new We-noh-nah into Irondequoit Bay. Spring Perch fishing is a tradition here, and I wanted to join the imaginary club. I was immediately unsteady. This wasn’t the canoe for me. It was too narrow, too short, for my bulk. I paddled about cautiously for a few minutes. I thought… well, I didn’t think, that’s the point of my story. “If I sit on the floor of the canoe, it will be stable enough for me to try fishing.” Paddling became more difficult, but I was determined. I picked a spot about 100 yards away from the other boats. This is the area of the bay where the depth goes from 10 feet to 80 in just a few hundred yards. Perfect for those wily perch. I dropped my anchor in 10 feet, and cast my line in 50 feet of water.
This is the point of the story that I obfuscate when I tell it. In that version, it is a boat wake that flips me. In truth, I caught my first perch, yanked too hard, and went in.
It wasn’t that simple, of course. The moment involuntarily draws out in my memory. I feel the strike. I set the hook. I see the blue sky. I balance on that knife edge for a moment, leaning LEFT as hard as I can. I accept that I’m going in, and relax. The shock is more intense that I could imagine. My breath is swept away. All thought is swept away, and I’m under water. I open my eyes and see my belongings all around me. The sky is green now. The paddle, still grasped in my hand, stops me from flailing wildly. I grip it harder. It’s the only thing that seems real right now. I try to reach for it with my other hand, but that one is still wrapped around the gunwale of the canoe. I don’t understand why I can’t let go of the canoe. I pull on it as hard as I can, trying to free my hand.
When the canoe rolled out from under me, I was able to break the surface again. That’s when I realized how cold I was.
That first shock of cold never really wears off, it just deepens. It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced the first stages of Hypothermia. My hands refused to do anything on time. It felt like wearing very thick mittens. The sense that I remember best was that my body felt like a suit that I was wearing. It happens when your body starts to ignore extremities and concentrate on the really important stuff. It was the first time I’d ever felt my “Body Core” everything else just hung off of me.
Now, you might be thinking “hey, there were boats within 100 yards, how’d he get that cold?” You’re right of course. One of the fishermen watched me go in; indeed, he was motoring over while I was still sputtering.
He was a friendly enough guy, maybe a couple too many bruzkis in him this Sunday morning. It’s not so easy to pull someone out of the drink sober. The local Fire Department has a 3 person hovercraft specifically for cold water rescues on the bay. My rescuer seemed insanely obsessed with my possessions, though. I’d given up on seeing anything again when it all sank to the bottom.
“Hey, are you all right?”
I spit some water at him and slapped my paddle on the water.
“Oh, right, here, I think I can reach your canoe if I get on the other side.”
5 minutes later, after chasing him as he motored around my canoe; I was hanging from his bow, half in the water, half out. I couldn’t seem to say anything louder than a whisper, so I pulled myself up a bit more and grunted at him. He was leaning over a gunwale, tying my canoe to his boat. He turned to me,
“There’s something stuck here.”
“What’d ya do that for?”
“Oh, right” He cut my canoe loose, and it drifted away.
That’s when he did have a good idea “I don’t think you can climb over that bow, why don’t you work your way back to the stern?”
D’OH, I was not thinking right. Outthought by a drunk perch fisherman. Well, I’d already been outthought by a perch, this was just the triple double of my personal Darwin Award. I worked my way back to the stern.
This is the point where I started thinking those stranger thoughts. Somehow, keeping my boots became very important. If I ditched the boots, I’d be admitting that this was indeed life or death. Something in me refused to believe that this was really dangerous. The water was 40 degrees. I’d been in the water for 20 minutes. A dangerous amount of time.
Hanging from his outboard motor, it didn’t seem that safety was too far away. Just a quick plunge upwards and I’d be in the boat. Any other day, it would have been easy. This was different. He wasn’t strong enough to pull me out sober, and he was none too steady with me rocking the boat. Soaking wet, I was over 300 pounds, and I didn’t seem to have any strength left in me. My last ditch effort had me balanced precariously on top of the outboard. He grabbed for my hand, but I slipped back, spread eagle, into the water.
Before, well, perhaps after, you lecture me; I was wearing a type III inshore flotation device. My problem was that I was wearing it backwards. Scoff at the people who say that having a life preserver with you is not the same as wearing one. Scoff at them like I used to. It should have been easy to don my preserver, but somehow, I couldn’t seem to grasp the steps involved. I clung to it like a life ring most of the time. It wasn’t until the 2/3 mark of my rescue that I managed to get it on backwards.
That would have to do, because I wasn’t about to let myself get killed trying to get it right. Lying on my back in the water, I looked at his outboard with a renewed determination. It felt like I was trying to drive my whole body with just my brain. It’s like a car lurching forward on the starter motor. I kicked my shins against his propeller to find a place to stand on. My feet were quite numb now. I grabbed a steering cable. Too flimsy. I wrapped an arm around the motor. I watched my hand so that I could grasp a downrigger mount. He grabbed my jacket sleeve. I growled something at him. He had no trouble anticipating my push, it seemed to take too long to gather myself. I tumbled over the motor and into the bilge. My first taste of rescue came courtesy of 10w30. I won’t say it tasted sweet, but I didn’t mind.
As we picked up speed towards the docks, I was sure that I’d cracked. Zipping by was this orange balloon boat, skimming over the water towards my canoe. I waved, and they waved back. I turned back towards the docks, and was greeted by a new spectacle. Three Sheriff’s cars, an ambulance, a fire truck, and a news van were waiting for me in the parking lot. They’d all gotten there within 45 minutes of me going in the drink.
The perch fisherman must have been as stunned as me. He had a terrible time trying to dock his boat. After three attempts, I just jumped back into the water and swam up the boat ramp. A cameraman and an EMT shuffled me back to the ambulance. The squeeze of the blood pressure collar brought a fiery tingle to my whole arm. I don’t remember what he said it was, but I remember thinking that’s a basketball score in a football game.
Like a breathe of air to a suffocating man, 10 minutes under a heater did wonders for my outlook. By the time the EMT started to talk about emergency rooms, I was feeling more myself again. It took another 2 forms and 20 minutes to convince him that I was ok.
I did manage to get most of my stuff back. It surprised me most of all. Fishing rod, tackle box, canoe, even the anchor. Some fine kayakers came to the rescue. They even loaded my stuff back into my truck. The only piece missing was my paddle. That steadying bit of reality that had seen me through the first part of my adventure was gone. A fine paddle it was, too. Old Town Birch/Walnut with the Poly edge. $80 dollars in any canoe shop. I hope the kayakers think of me when they feel the impressions of my fingers in their new paddle. A smaller price to pay than I would have expected a little earlier.
What did I learn? Not as much as I would have expected a lot earlier. In every endeavor, when you cheat, you will get away with it… until you don’t.
I don’t cheat at canoeing anymore.