You’re in for one hell of a shock if you do. Here’s what to expect.
While it might be incredibly tempting to hurl yourself into a cool stream, lake or other mountain water source in the Pacific Northwest, please don’t. If you’re new to the high country, you may not realize that just because the air is hot, the water often is just as cold as it always is, which can mean shocking temperatures. We’re struggling to cope with the massive heat dome which is baking the area, and that means the likelihood of drowning may go up when folks leap or fall into what they think is going to be nicely-warmed water. It isn’t.
That kind of impact can kill. Stay with me here.
The first experience I had with this phenomenon was back in the mid-eighties. At the time I was living in Melbourne, Australia. It was high summer, February. There was a huge fire raging west of the city, and I drove my ancient jalopy down the peninsula for a much-needed swim break in the small town of Mordialloc.
When I got to the beach, I took off my shoes to head for the water. First, triple-digit heat turns the sand into a baking zone, and I got blisters almost right away. I ran to the water’s edge and hurled myself into the water, thinking it would be cool, at the very least, if not hot.
That bay, fed by the ocean which is cooled by the Antarctic, was nearly the death of me right then and there. I couldn’t breathe, my heart nearly stopped, and I struggled to get out of the icy cold. The shock was unbelievable.
Fortunately someone saw me and helped me back to shore, where I proceeded to burn my bare feet again limping back to my car.
I never made that mistake again.
I spent some fifty years in Colorado high country. As with here in Oregon, the snowpack feeds the lakes and streams. Even in high summer that water is cold. According to this website, Trillium Lake, which is easily accessible, can be close to freezing. As you can see from the photo, there are plenty of mountains with snow even this late in spring.
People drown easily when their bodies suddenly land into ice-cold bodies of water. Your body goes into shock, it’s very hard to get air, and you can succumb to very fast breathing which makes it easy to suck in water. Not only are you struggling to breathe, you’re struggling to stay afloat in water that’s a bit like stepping into an ice bath.
If you’re kayaking or paddling, be sure to, at least, wear some kind of life vest. While this might sound like madness, wear a wetsuit. You might bake in the sun, but count on it: if you fall into that wicked-cold water you’re going to be very glad to have those layers on. That wetsuit, combined with a proper life vest, will keep your puddle paddle from becoming a death sentence.
The other factor that people forget when it’s this hot is that you can and may die of hypothermia from cold water immersion. Cold water- especially if you’re fully immersed in it- can cause you to try to swim, which according to the following article can reduce your survival time by 50%:
Above all, wear a hat. It’s not just about protecting your nose and face from sunburn. You lose a great deal of heat through your head, and if you’re in icy water, you have to stop losing that body heat.
A day on the lake in Oregon may seem light years away from being on a fishing boat in the arctic. However, high country bodies of water are little more than melted ice any time of year. As the article explains, 70 degrees may sound warm, but to your body, it’s cold. Imagine falling into a mountain lake on a very hot day when the water is close to freezing. The involuntary intake of breath might cause you to suck in so much water that you end up floundering too much to get to safety.
This is why, if you like to kayak or paddleboard alone, not only is it imperative that you take these precautions, but also that you let people know where you are and when you expect to get back.
High country bodies of water look inviting, but every year people drown because they aren’t prepared. Worse, they simply don’t understand how cold the water is, no matter how hot the air temperature. As uncomfortable as a wetsuit is, and they can be, it’s a small price to pay for being able to come home safely at the end of the day just in case you either capsize or you slip over the edge into that tempting blue.
Beaumaris Bay, which is the body of water that Mordialloc sits on just 24 km from Melbourne, was supposed to be for me just a nice comfy day at the beach escaping the heat and smoke from the wildfires. The locals know to wear their shoes right to the water’s edge in high summer. They also know what to expect when they enter the water. I didn’t. That was long before Google, and I didn’t think to ask. As a Florida-born girl, I just figured hot day, warm water. This is how we die.
These days, with Google making that kind of information widely available, there really is little reason to head to the high country unprepared. Yet people do all the time, gauging safety based on where they’re from, not where they are. Just like a Florida girl can make a near-fatal mistake of assuming that water off a hot sand beach is going to be nice and warm, a family can end up in terrible trouble if they’re up here from Texas and simply aren’t accustomed to how cold the water can be.
This year, and especially right now with the July 4th weekend just around the corner, please take proper precautions. No matter how hot the air, no matter how pretty the waterfall, no matter how tempting, don’t immerse yourself unless you have on proper gear. Dress for the water temperatures, not the air temps.
If someone in your party goes in and you’re able to get them out, they may well be suffering from hypothermia even if you’re sweating. From the article above:
Any victim pulled from cold water should be treated for hypothermia. Symptoms may include intense shivering, loss of coordination, mental confusion, cold and blue (cyanotic) skin, weak pulse, irregular heartbeat, and enlarged pupils. Once shivering stops, core body temperature begins to drop critically. Try to prevent body cooling and get the victim to a medical facility immediately.
Above all, handle people with care, as the dangers of cardiac arrest are very high after such an incident.
Best, though, is just be prepared. Know the dangers, respect the waters and wear the right equipment, especially a life vest. You might sweat more, but consider the alternatives.