Cold water can end a life all too quickly. My son almost became a victim last week.I needed some time to process everything that went right and wrong before telling the story and now it’s time.
Winter has been milder than normal in Central Texas and has allowed for a lot of late afternoon bank stomping sessions. I’ve been hiking to small ponds and throwing my fly rod to stave off fishing fever for a few weeks now. That afternoon was pretty similar to most with air temps in the mid 50s. I called a buddy of mine, RJ who had been doing the hike and fish routine with me some and he was able to go at about 3:30. I asked my son if he wanted to go with and he enthusiastically accepted.
My son Z is a bit of a hybrid outdoorsman. At 11 years old he fishes some, searches for arrowheads and tracks a lot more and generally just enjoys being outside. We grabbed our gear, loaded the truck and headed to the rendezvous point.
RJ arrived about the same time we did, we chatted as we slung our packs on and started the hike down into the valley. This valley is really the back side of a dam that has hiking trails, biking trails and some small ponds scattered about. The trip down is always easy. The trip back I usually have to stop a couple of times. It’s an intense stairmaster workout without the stairs or solid footing. What takes only about 10 minutes to get down into usually takes closer to 30 minutes to get out.
The three of us were in good spirits as we hiked down to start fishing commenting on how it was good long sleeve weather and a jacket might not even be necessary.
A few minutes later we reached our destination. The fish were active and the clear water made it a fun challenge to find a fly they wanted. Z quickly got bored of spotting fish and started climbing trees. He thought it would be cool to relax over the water on an overhanging tree branch which might also offer him a better perspective of where more fish might be. As soon as I saw what was going down I hollered at him. I told him the water is dangerous and too cold for him to be playing on the branch. With nights in the 30s and having landed a couple of fish, I knew the water temp might be 50. Maybe not even that. These ponds weren’t big and the north wind had been blowing 30 knots for two days before.
He reluctantly climbed down and started digging with a stick in the ground looking for cool fossils or whatever else he could find. Pretty quickly he find a very nice arrowhead. He called me over and we really gave it the once over. This fueled him to find more. I let him be and walked just around a corner out of sight. Not 30 seconds later I heard a giant splash. RJ and I locked eyes. Oh sh!t was went through my mind. I threw down my gear and told RJ as I was running that was too big of a splash to be a rock. As I rounded the corner a few seconds later there is no sign of Z. I can’t hear anything and move to the ledge where he was digging previously. At that time I see him, completely soaked about five feet down struggling to get out of the water. The entire area where he was standing had given way and he plunged into the water.
I couldn’t reach him standing so I laid down on my belly and reached out my hand. He grabbed it and I hauled him back up. I said, “Are you ok?!” He said he thought so but I could see him chattering, shaking and already starting to lose color. I started barking orders, telling him to strip off his shirt and do jumping jacks. He still had feeling in his extremities so that was good. I told him whatever you do, don’t stop moving. RJ rounded the corner and saw what was going down. I took off my jacket and dried Z off as best I could, put my cap and fleece on him and reminded him to keep moving. He kept looking at me puzzled. Knowing he was in better shape than me RJ offered to run back up the trail and start the truck. He knew we would be slower. I told him to fire it up as hot as it would go and check the back seat. He disappeared up the trail in a flash.
We were a normal 30 minute hike back to the truck and the sun would be setting soon. I didn’t want the cold to get to him anymore than it already had. His teeth were banging together and a visible tremor was coming on. I looked at Z and asked if he could still feel his hands and feet. He said he could so I said, ” We have to run!” He gave me that puzzled look and I repeated myself. He nodded and off we flew, as much as a bundled 11 year old and my old bones could move. We blew by my normal stopping points climbing the hill and finally emerged at the top of the trail. Now it was just 1/4 mile to the truck. My lungs were burning with a fierce fury. I asked how he was and he mumbled something but kept moving.
As we reached the truck I saw RJ. He had found my cold weather backup. He had the towel, cold weather jacket, ski bibs, towel and knit cap laid out. As soon as we reached the truck we swapped out all the clothes, put the hat on him, wrapped him in the towel and jacket and plopped him in the front seat with the vents blowing a furious 90 degrees.
I told RJ thanks and we sped off to the house which was luckily only five minutes away. As soon as we hit the house his mom had the hot shower running. He had stopped chattering and now had this embarrassed look on his face. I assured him everything would be ok. I sat in the bathroom with him while he showered and we walked through what had happened. I continued asking him how he was feeling and the status continued to improve. A few minutes later a warm towel and some warm clothes finished off the day.
The whole ordeal was scary. I have turtled, I have been in cold water like that but this was my son. My child that I am supposed to protect had submerged in 50 degree water 30 minutes from the truck. As we recounted the situation I realized he had never called for help. When I asked him why he said he couldn’t. He told me when it hit the water it was like being stung by 1,000 icy needles. He couldn’t hardly catch his breath. He did say it was a good thing he knew how to swim.
It was horrible.
I could have done a lot of things different but two things that helped were knowing the effects of cold water and how to combat them and being prepared with additional clothes and gear. Having a good friend who was in a lot better shape than me helped as well.
If you don’t know the effects and timelines of water exposure here are some stats from the PFD Manufacturers Association.
“Cold water (less than 70° F) can lower your body temperature, causing hypothermia. If your body temperature drops too low, you may pass out and then drown. The human body cools 25 times faster in cold water than it does in air.”
Water that is just above freezing temps (32.5F) has a survival time of less than 15 minutes.
Water up to 40F slightly increases that time to 30 minutes.
Water from 40-60F (where most of our waters are now) can cause death in 1 hour.
Be prepared as best you can. Know the stats and have a cold water backup bag. No one is immune to cold water. It’s not a matter of if but a matter of when.