Fell into the freezing river: My observations....

Joined
Apr 7, 2006
Messages
5,169
My wife and I have a place in far up North that we spend a lot of our weekends at and we headed up there last weekend for some relaxation.
We are on a Nationally known trout river and I like to fish a section of it during the winter for Steelhead. They stay-over from the spring migration run up river and are a great trophy when you can get one. Browns are pretty regular in the river as well, so there’s usually always a catch to be had.

In the winter I shore fish, so I wear boots and OR gaiters for walking through the snow. Show shoes don’t work well because of all of the bushy growth and broken ice on the shoreline. Fishing was slow so I decide to fish upstream of the landing for a while, then back track and fish downstream from the landing (this kept my car in the center of my activity). It had really warmed op that day (somewhere in the low 20’s) and I was able to get in about a dozen casts before I had to clean the ice out of the eyes of my pole which makes fishing a lot faster. I was throwing Brass head Wooly Buggers and some Prince Nymphs but hadn’t gotten a bite. I switched to spinners at the end and got hung up on a sunken log near shore. In my efforts to free the spinner I slipped down a sheet of ice that hangs on the shore and fell into the river on my side. Between the initial fall and slipping back in several times trying to get up the icy shore I had soaked everything but my left arm. It had taken me an hour to get to this spot on the river (fishing slowly) but I figured I could make it back going as fast as possible in as little as 15 minutes or so. During that slog I found out just how much warmer wet wool actually is than anything else:

I am big wool fan and always wondered how it would fair in the winter when soaked. I have been winter backpacking and hunting often and wear merino everywhere except my shell layers. I thankfully have never been soaked while backpacking because we are usually a day’s hike away from a road at that point.

On this fishing outing I was wearing a 100% merino long sleeve thermal shirt, a 100% merino wool mid layer, and a Woolrich Alaskian Jacket (80/20 wool/nylon) for my outer layer on top. On bottom I was wearing some polyester “long john” thermals and a pair of double-thick Arborwear cotton pants. On my hike back my legs started to freeze up while my upper body started to warm considerably. It appeared that as soon as my body warmed up the water in the wool my upper body was completely warm and quite comfortable (though much heavier). My gloves were fingerless 100% ragg wool and within a minute I could feel a drastic difference between the soaking wool (warm) and the exposed skin (freezing). My legs only got colder on the way back. My knees were especially cold and started to lock up a bit by the time I got back.

Though this experience could have been dangerous had any variable worked out differently, however I am quite thankful for the learning experience it gave me. I am going to look into a pair of wool pants (I have heavy Codet and military surplus wool pants, but they are both too warm for the constant movement involved in fishing). I think I’m going to work out a completely wool suit to wear on these fishing trips from now on.

The idea of building a fire after you fall in is close to ridiculous unless you NO OTHER options. Looking around the snowy shore (every branch was frozen and finding dry earth to build it on would have involved digging through a foot of icy snow) it would have taken me over an hour to get a fire going at best and most likely a fire without serious man-made kindling was impossible in these conditions. There's a reason the Forest Service's sign reads: "Fire danger today: Have a Nice Day"...


A picture of the river earlier in the day:


My usual catch (from a few months earlier):
 
First of all..nice trout! Secondly..well done..you kept your head and wits about you. By staying mobile, you kept the heart pumping and thus kept the juices flowing. Im glad you got out of that mess intact.
 
...Between the initial fall and slipping back in several times trying to get up the icy shore I had soaked everything but my left arm....

I'm assuming this was the hand you were holding your fly rod in? If so, I like your priorities. :D

Seriously though, I think you make a very good point about getting a fire going in real winter conditions. It's one thing when there might be a couple inches of snow dusting the ground, something else entirely when it's several feet of snow. I think a lot of people kid themselves about the reality of this. Not saying it can't be done, but as you point out, it will take a lot of time and effort and even then, it won't be easy to get it going and maintain it for a length of time. Just for starters - how do you go about finding downed wood when everything is covered under a couple feet of white stuff?

The bottom line is that the margin of safety quickly becomes reduced in real winter conditions, and it's good to really think through the contingencies and adjust your judgment accordingly. I'm glad to hear it turned out ok, and that your layers worked for you. Good learning, for sure. :thumbup:
 
I'm assuming this was the hand you were holding your fly rod in? If so, I like your priorities.

Exactly right! Ironically I even switched hands at some point and soaked both gloves but kept the reel dry!

Looking back: even attempting to start a fire would have probably put me in danger, buy keeping moving kept me warm enough to never fear hypothermia.

I see a lot of kits around here that include redundant fire starting supplies (myself included) but no high-energy food. If I was less than a day's hike from my car I would rather load up on calories and hike out wet then attempt to dig for a place to build a fire. Wearing wool would make this much easier.

I participate in an annual winter hike where we build snow shelters for sleep and like to sit around a fire after dark. Temps are between 10 and 20 degrees with 2 to 3 inches of snowfall. It takes about 6 of us at least 4 hours to build the (large) shelter, dig a fire pit, then collect burnable wood. With a shovel the fire pit digging is extremely tiring and takes a good half hour. If you don't go deep enough the fire will never start due to the steam it creates from melting the ice beneath it. Of the wood we collect, less than a quarter is dry enough to catch from the tinder (standing trees that died that year stay dry). Everything else must be dried over the fire continuously or you will run out of dry wood. I've never been able to start one of these fires without tinder we brought with us (usually fatwood and purchased fire cubes).

Bottom line: I'm going to start bringing a few energy bars when I fish.
 
Yup. I always keep a few of those high-energy packets (GU, or Stinger, or whatever) in my emergency kit, along with a bar or two. On longer hikes, I've also started taking my Emberlit and a Mountain House meal. They weigh very little, and while I may not be able, or want, to get a raging fire going, I can probably get enough fuel together to boil a little water and make a hot meal and then keep moving.
 
Wool, the original miracle fiber.

I have family that have been Chesapeake Bay watermen for generations. Crabbing in the summer and oyster harvesting in the winter. They all swear by wool clothing for working out on the water. From socks and long johns out.
 
On the fire issue, I wonder if you had planned on camping or if the car wasn't within a reasonable distance the best/safest course of action might be to prep a fire space and collect wood/kindling and prepare a ready to light fire before you start fishing(or any other activity you might get soaked doing). An hour spent dry and and warm in preparation may mean only a few minutes to start the fire when you need it, though clearly your course of action worked, largely because you had wool so your insulation was not compromised. Thanks for sharing your experience!
 
Another vote for Marino Wool.:thumbup:

I fell through thin ice when I was young on late spring ice. I was with two friends fishing and it happened REALLY FAST. By the time they knew I went through, I was coming up. Only went to my waist. I had wool pants and socks on; took them off and wrung them out; put them back on and fished the rest of the night,,,,warm.
Nice fish and nicer save on the rod.:cool:
 
Merino is great... A changing into dry merino is even better. :D

It's a good idea to never be far from a FULL change of clothes packed in a waterproof container of some sort. It's no good having dry socks if you don't have dry boots to go with them and so on. That's what my vehicle kit is... If I can get to it naked I can layer up for any kind of weather my area can throw at me. That kit stays there year round with food and water rotated. In extreme cold I don't stray far from the car or sled.

Bringing high energy food is a GOOD idea. Being able to prepare a quick hot meal is also a good idea.

I'll leave the improvising to the experts and pack appropriate gear in. :D
 
I have some experience in this area also.

I was on a day hike with a buddy in the mountains of NC. This was not even in the wintertime either-but cool weather and the creek (almost a river by local standards) was very cool...coming out of headwaters in the highest elevations.

We planned on a day hike down a well-used trail about a mile long. Our plan was to pass a well-known set of falls that most hikers stopped at, but to go past that to a large campsite about ¼ mile on down the trail.

I had taken a set of nylon shorts and Tevas JUST IN CASE the water was tolerable to wade in (I love soaking and cooling my hot feet in the cool water after a hike.) I carried these with my other "day hike" essentials in a large daypack, along with a Patagonia Snap T as my "contingency" layer (always a good idea, especially in the NC Mountains.)

The first half mile of this trail winds down through several switchbacks and loses a lot of the elevation. The second half pretty much follows the wide fast creek.

As we got to a fast flowing cascade, we walked past it to where the rock is about 10 or 15 feet higher than the creek but rounded perfectly. I was going to try to walk out to the edge and work my way down C-A-R-E-F-U-L-L-Y to the water to see the water temperature in a wide pool at the bottom of the cascade. I said to my buddy "I'm going to ease down here and check to see how cold the water is." He was in mid-reply telling me to be careful on the rounded rock: "Well be careful...don't ‘check’ it by falling in..." At that point I lost my footing and fell onto my butt and started sliding feet first. I knew I was going in and all I had time to process was "Jesus-just don't let it be so cold I pass out!" and to hold my breath. As I went in, it was so cold and sudden but I recall thinking "Wow this isn't as bad as I THOUGHT it was going to be!" :eek:

THEN my only issue was being a terrible swimmer and being under ice water (long story but I'm a certified diver but can't hardly swim!) I struggled back up from the deep pool under the cascade falls and swam a couple of hard strokes forward and then my feet touched bottom and I stood up, only in water to about my waist then. As soon as I came up, I saw my buddy quickly fighting his way down through the vegetation toward the water at an angle downstream, obviously to try to assist me in the current. I knew I was okay and standing on a sandbar so yelled “STOP! I’m okay! Don’t YOU fall in too!” I was able to walk off the sandbar to the side and out onto the bank.

I had to work my way UP through the thick rhododendron bushes at the water and the other bushes. I worked my way up about 20-30 feet to the trail which took a couple minutes and we quickly assessed things. He asked me I could get out (back to the truck) okay. I was wearing heavy blue jeans and Danner Acadia boots, and a cotton T-shirt. I know and am known to recite the mantra “COTTON KILLS!” but on that day that’s what I had on (!) :mad:

By this time, I felt my hands/fingers getting stiff and cold(er) and although I could think FAIRLY clearly, the cold was starting to intrude on my thought processes. My lower body was WAY colder, possibly due to the heavier denim cotton still holding cold water to my skin and/or because it was under for probably a minute or two, whereas my upper body was only “under” for a couple seconds (in fact, the contents of my day pack were bone dry!) The cold in my legs though felt like ACID burning my skin! It was that intense.

I remembered I’d packed nylon shorts, Tevas and a fleece top (the Snap T). I told Jeff “Look out for me-screw it!” and started stripping right there on the trail. The trail at this point cut right by the base of a large almost sheer mountain, and on the opposite side was the thick rhododendron bushes I’d just came through, so I figured the trail was the only flat spot…also this was mid-day on a Monday so there was no one else on this trail. I stripped naked (the ice cold water’s effect was obvious on all body parts) :eek: ;) and changed into the nylon shorts, Tevas, and long sleeve fleece top. I looked funny but started feeling better almost immediately. Jeff suggested I down some sugar snacks also for immediate calories so I did.

After a few minutes I felt better, and Jeff asked “Well, you ready to start out?” I thought about it for a second and said, “Nah-let’s go on to the campsite”. This surprised him because I’m usually the first to want to head back if it starts raining on a trip, but I knew then I was okay. I DID “stash” the wet pants, Acadias, and T-shirt behind a tree about 10 yards off the trail so I didn’t have to carry them until we came back on our way out. We did continue and had a decent trip afterwards.

Things I learned that day:

It happens FAST. I went from la-de-da to SOAKING WET and COLD in a few seconds.

The cold cotton held immense cold next to my skin-so bad it “burned”. Get out of those cotton clothes even if you will be naked.

I used to carry a coil of rope on the outside of my pack (looped into the top straps or under the bottom of the pack) when I was an inexperienced hiker, based on being in the National Guard and used to carrying a 30 foot section as part of our loadout. I always thought it might be used if someone fell in the water. We realized that it happened so fast that if one were “in the current” that rope would have been of NO USE. Has I not found the sandbar, I would have been swept past Jeff before he could even get to the edge of the creek. We spit-balled the idea that if anyone of us "went in" again, the other or others would take off quickly and get down stream and quickly chop a long limb or green sapling almost on the run to have a chance to get to the one in the water. I soon bought an Ontario Spec Plus SP8 machete (the 1/4 inch thick one) and carried it high on my pack on the right side for YEARS for just this reason. I ONLY gave this up when I started going ULTRAlight on my hiking and camping.

I agree with the OP that it would have been dang nigh impossible to start gathering tinder and firewood and prepping a fire if I was as cold as I was when I was still dressed. Decide on some FAST fire prep tools and carry Wetfire, or cottony dryer lint and Vaseline, and/or other quick starts, and practice before you need the skill.
 
Exactly right! Ironically I even switched hands at some point and soaked both gloves but kept the reel dry!

Bottom line: I'm going to start bringing a few energy bars when I fish.

The reel comment is funny as that is exactly what I do... got to protect that rod & reel. Energy bars are a good idea as well and I tend to keep a few in my truck for a snack or just in case.

Interesting about the wool. I would have expected that but was surprised you noticed much difference so quickly. I know what it feels like to be completely soaked in the freezing cold and be at some distance from a warm dry place. I have a couple pairs of heavy wool pants that I keep for emergencies or sometimes for hunting. Wool is heavy wet, but at least you still get some warmth.

David, it never fails when you are on a trail and you feel you have to strip that somebody and they always turn out to be female comes strolling toward you.... :D
 
Yep, wool is where it's at! I'm often the organizer of back country camping and skiing trips in my group of friends and always insist that nobody wear cotton. Wool or synthetics only!
 
Last edited:
Great write-up, and thanks for sharing!

High cal food was always a staple of my survival gear when in Canada, here in tropical paradise its less important, but still handy. I recall it even caused a fair bit of debate here for a while, food vs. fire became rather heated, to pardon the pun. I think they both have a place, but for me personally food trumps fire if I can only have a chance at one.

I personally have the insulation value of a wet squirrel, so I get very cold very fast if it comes to that. So I can confirm that getting dry is a big part of warming up. On one of my last canoe training days, it was warm enough outside, but recent rain had made the river we were paddling about 18-20C. It wasn't a cold shock, but after spending 40 minutes in the water doing rescues, swimming and getting back in the canoes, (with a PFD, I swim like a brick otherwise) the muscles started to run out of fuel, and I needed to eat.

Pre-building a fire is pretty common in some places, especially with dog sledders and the like. Like I mentioned in another thread, I've had a fire prepped in an icecream bucket so it was easy to get going. I think that when you are in a higher risk situation, you need to have a combo of plans and prep in place, food for short term, dry clothes, and then fire. And despite all the skills we may have, there is nothing wrong with "cheating" by thinking ahead. I don't want to be testing my skills in a real life-death situation if I can help it.
 
I'd be curious to see just how long it takes to get dry with a fire in freezing temps. I suspect the answer is "too long" unless you have something dry to put on. :D

That bucket fire thing is a good idea... in Scandinavia they have a common practice that cabins and wilderness shelters are left with 1 match fires prepped to go and a supply of dry wood. A courtesy to the next guy who might be arriving in dire need. One guys courtesy saved his own life when he fell through the ice and had to return half dead to the shelter from the night before.
 
Last edited:
The idea of building a fire after you fall in is close to ridiculous unless you NO OTHER options. Looking around the snowy shore (every branch was frozen and finding dry earth to build it on would have involved digging through a foot of icy snow) it would have taken me over an hour to get a fire going at best and most likely a fire without serious man-made kindling was impossible in these conditions. There's a reason the Forest Service's sign reads: "Fire danger today: Have a Nice Day"...


A picture of the river earlier in the day:

Far be it for me to judge, and every situation is a little different. But I see a lot of fire materials readily available and I've never found it to be all that hard to do a fire in the snow. Just lay a base down and build the fire on it. Maybe the walk out was the best move, that's your call and none of my biz. Glad you made it after all that. I do find that a roaring fire and some hot tea change my situation pretty quickly. B.T.W. I was walking a creek last week and went in up to my crotch. I stepped into a snow blown over mink hole. And if you see a beaver dam with its winter feed sticks coming up through the ice, stay away from the food supply area. That ice is always weaker.



 
Just a quick note regarding energy bars...

Food does not make you any good unless you can get the calories into your blood stream. Getting them into your stomach is not enough.

From my alpine climbing experience I can tell you that by the time you feel the need to eat something, you are usually running too low on energy to afford waiting for you stomach to digest an energy bar. You will also need a fair amount of water to help digestion. And there is a noticeable delay between eating and recovering.

I suggest you look into gel-like / yelly substances. They are digested much faster and don't need barely any water. Think of the enery bars as a long term solution, but for inmediate recovery gels rule!

There are quite a lot of products out there. Some of them include some kind of stimulants on their formulas (cafeine) which, unless you are a heavy coffe drinker, are handy. Buy a few and try them out. We usually carry a mixture of gels and bars and have a quite strick eating/drinking policy to avoid running low on fuel.

Mikel
 
I suggest you look into gel-like / yelly substances. They are digested much faster and don't need barely any water. Think of the enery bars as a long term solution, but for inmediate recovery gels rule!

There are quite a lot of products out there. Some of them include some kind of stimulants on their formulas (cafeine) which, unless you are a heavy coffe drinker, are handy. Buy a few and try them out. We usually carry a mixture of gels and bars and have a quite strick eating/drinking policy to avoid running low on fuel.

Mikel

I'm diabetic and found that hypoglycemia can hit me fast. Glucose tablets chewed up will dissolve quickly for an almost instant sugar boost. A vial of honey works even better. Tubes of sugar used to decorate cakes can be pushed into someone's mouth and squirted to revive him even without him conscious enough to cooperate.
 
I'm diabetic and found that hypoglycemia can hit me fast. Glucose tablets chewed up will dissolve quickly for an almost instant sugar boost. A vial of honey works even better. Tubes of sugar used to decorate cakes can be pushed into someone's mouth and squirted to revive him even without him conscious enough to cooperate.

Yes, agreed. I forgot to mention that you can also find glucose tablets from several brands which will serve this purpose. So far I have tried Glucosport, Born and Isostar. Glucosport and Isostar disolve quickly in the mouth, while you need to chew on the Born ones. The packaging of the Isostar and Glucosport is more friendly. Born tablets come in a blister like package which is more bulky after eating them.

A friend of mine went even farther and for his last trip to a 7000m peak mountain he carried some vials of don't exacly know which substance. But it was supposed to get you up to speed in no time. And no, I am not talking about dextroanfetamine .

Mikel
 
A while ago, I picked up vials which are marketed as "tube vaults" or "baby soda bottles". They hold 2 ounces of liquid. At one time I even carried a couple with wine in them. :)

Very tough, excellent seal, compact general purpose containers.
 
Back
Top