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Danger in the Outdoors

March 05, 2017  •  Leave a Comment


From time to time I am asked "is it dangerous to do the the outdoors activities that you do"?  Sometimes. I'm out by myself about half the time, or more, which adds to the risks.  I try to be smart and to manage the risks.  But $*it can happen.


In 30 years, I've been charged by moose, elk, and deer (bucks in rut), but they were easily avoided by using trees as barriers.  For all the grizzlies I've seen (over 200), I've never been charged.  I've shivered uncontrollably all night long, one night, in freezing temperatures in a bivy (down sleeping bag got wet).  I've had heat exhaustion one time.  Twenty years ago, I overturned a snowmobile in the backcountry solo at night when the temperature was about -10 F.  That could have ended badly.   However, the closest I came to dying was the time that I almost drowned while kayaking a Michigan river.  I came very, very close.


It was about 25 years ago.  I was solo kayaking the Sturgeon River in Michigan.  The Sturgeon River is a small class I-II (light rapids) river in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula.  I was a competent kayaker and I have always been a strong swimmer.  The day was gorgeous.  The kayaking was fun....until I rounded a corner and saw a pretty large logjam on the opposite bank of a sharp turn.  I thought I could power through the turn, but the current carried me right into the logjam, the kayak overturned and I got carried underneath the logs.  I did not have time to take a breath.  The current in that spot was about 4-5 mph, so there was no fighting it.  


A logjam is known in kayaking circles as a type of "strainer", something that allows current through but that traps solid objects.  If someone gets caught in a strainer, as I did, the survival rate is only about 5%.


My first thought after being swept under the logjam was total surprise that I had not powered through the turn and that the kayak had flipped.  That surprise lasted a fraction of a second, and then I knew I was in serious trouble.  The logjam was big, and I was being carried to the very center of it.  The current slammed me into the underwater river bank.  I could see that there was no place to surface.  I started to use my arms to pull myself underwater toward the edge of the logjam using the logs, but I had gotten tangled in the underwater debris and was stuck.  It took me precious seconds to free myself.   I then resumed pulling myself underwater along the logs toward the edge of the logjam.  The problem was, by then, I was suffocating.  


Years later, I was asked about this event - "didn't you panic?"  I said "No, I did not panic.  I knew that if I panicked, I would be dead".  Interestingly, I had no fear.  What I did not say, however, was that I was desperate....as desperate as I have ever been.  I knew my time was up.  I was determined to not breathe water into my lungs.  The pain of suffocation, the pain of not breathing in, was excruciating.  As I pulled myself under the logs, I could tell my vision was narrowing -- the periphery was becoming increasingly black.  I kept saying to myself "don't breathe   don't breathe   don't breathe....".  I started to have very painful diaphragm spasms, which result from the body trying to force you to breathe.  I had about 20-30 spasms, the last few in rapid succession.  I estimate that I was underwater for 1.5 - 2.5 minutes.  I just kept pulling myself underneath the logs through the pain.  Just as I was blacking out, I cleared the logjam, my face found the surface of the water, and I breathed.


The only problem was that I had not yet fully surfaced.  I breathed in water.  My body reacted with a laryngospasm, which is where the larynx, to prevent drowning, clamps shut and thus closes the airway.  I went under a second time.  I stretched my arms out flat and pulled upward, struggling weakly to surface, and I did.  Reflexively, I put my head back (I did not know this at the time, but that is the exact thing you should do with a laryngospasm) and tried to breathe.  My larynx was completely closed.  My mouth was above water, but I could not breathe....I was totally confused at this.  More excruciating pain.  I was dying, and I could feel it.  There was no airway...the air just kind of leaked in...very little.  However, it was enough.  The laryngospasm relaxed ever so slightly.  I was able to take second tiny breath, and then a third, and then a fourth, all extremely small (not enough), agonal gasps.  Then the laryngospasm relaxed, and my airway opened.  


I later learned that if Navy Seal trainees get a laryngospasm, their instructors almost always have to pull them out of the water so that they do not drown.  Almost all people alone in a drowning situation don't recover from a laryngospasm...they suffocate and drown.  No one was there to get me out of the water that day.....live, die, it was up to me.


I sputtered and gasped and wheezed for about half a minute.   When I stopped wheezing, my hearing returned.  I had lost it due to the hypoxia.  I could hear everything around me.  It was eerily calm...like nothing had happened.  The birds were chirping.  The water of the river was gurgling.  I can still hear it all in my mind.   I knew how very close I had come to drowning.  My kayak was already more than 100 yards downstream, so I swam to get it and to collect my gear.


$*it can happen.  In retrospect, I probably should not have escaped the logjam strainer.  And even after I did escape it, the laryngospasm should have killed me in my hypoxic condition.  I faced two fatal events back-to-back that would kill almost everybody.  I don't know why I lived....grit, mental toughness, ability to bear intense pain, coolness under extreme pressure, intelligence, guardian angel, luck, .... or some combination thereof.  I just kept fighting, all the way to the bitter end.   There was no place for self-pity, nor fear.  All I had was fight.  I escaped death by about one second, maybe less.   I'm glad no one was with me.  If someone had been with me, I'd have died trying to save them....because I would have used up that one second and more.    


Since that event, I think long and hard about every single time that I ask Kathy or anyone else to go outdoors with me.  If it is too risky, we don't go or we stop.  We've stopped many times: the rocks were too slippery, it was too late in the day, there was lightning and no cover, there was a grizzly on the trail....  Sometimes, people don't understand why I sweat the risks the way that I do.  I've even had people get angry about it. But I have seen firsthand how easily an ordinary outing can turn very dangerous.  If I ask someone to go out with me, I mentally assume a lot of the responsibility to make sure that they return home safe and uninjured.  Why?  Because I asked them to be out there with me.


Get outside.  Enjoy the wild.  However,  if you get into serious trouble....my advice?  Don't panic.  Have no fear.  But be very, very desperate. It might just save your life.





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