|Worn at all times while camping.|
Yes, I actually wear this ID bracelet. I didn't always, but after the events of 2008 on Umbagog Lake, I decided perhaps it might actually be a good idea. I don't always keep my wallet in my pocket when canoeing or sailing, and after that Friday on the lake it seemed to me that having some way to ID the body might be a good idea.
We arrived at the lake around noon as we do every year. It was windy, but the forecast was for wind around 12 to 15 knots, and Ian's sailboat, a thistle, is designed for 15 to 20 and handles it quite nicely; actually, it proposed to be quite an excellent day of sailing. We loaded up the boats (Joe had his skiff) with all the gear and Joe and Eric went in the skiff, and Ian and I went in the thistle.
|Umbagog Lake and surrounding area.|
Then we passed through the "neck" of the lake which separates the much larger northern section of the lake from the southern. The northern expanse of the lake is many miles long and it gives the waves and wind plenty of open space to build up. When we passed through the neck we were hit with what we were certain were winds in the area of 30 to 35 knots; way more than the thistle is designed for. This is when the challenges began.
Because of my height, we don't usually have the boom vang attached. The boom vang is a wire (in this case) which attaches the boom to the mast which puts downward force on the boom and helps control the shape of the sail. Since I have to duck under the boom during maneuvers and since I am 6'6" tall, I tend to get caught up on it when diving under the boom. It is a small boat, after all, and it had never been a problem. Well, the first thing that happened when we hit the wind was the mast flexed, the sail loosened and the boom slid off the pin. We now had the boom whipping around in rather heavy winds, and we had lost control of the sail entirely. Ian worked the rudder while I dropped the sail; all things considered, this went rather well. We had the sail dropped and the boat back stable within 30 seconds, as I recall. I then worked on securing the sail and boom as best as possible given the conditions while Ian hooked up the electric motor he uses for maneuvering into harbor. Noticing a small island not a quarter of a mile away, we made for it immediately. We got to the leeward side of the island and things seemed to be improving. On the leeward side, there was a small cove with a landing area for boats, so we made for the landing, intent on getting out and waiting out the wind. On our way in, we noticed quite a few rocks, and the landing itself was a stone pier, so I worked my way to the bow to protect the hull.
This is when the day started to get, shall we say, interesting.
To this day Ian still says he has no idea how it happened, but I just suddenly went overboard. To me, I was crawling to the bow when the boat heeled over and I went flying. Fortunately, a lifelong bass player, I have rather strong hands and I never lost my grip on the railing. I went under momentarily, but pulled myself back above water instantly and once I had gathered my bearings, I swam towards shore, pulled the boat with me (worked along with the motor). We made shore, tied up the boat, and then took stock of our situation.
The island was very small, had a few trees on it, and offered pretty much zero shelter from the wind. I was soaked to the bone, all my dry clothes were on the skiff (as was all the food, tools and most of what might have been useful in that type of situation) and being May, the ambient temperature was probably in the mid 40s. There was a house on the island, but the owners were not there and it was locked (logically so). It wasn't long before I was chilled. It wasn't long after that when full hypothermia set in. I lost all feeling in my hands and feet and was shivering uncontrollably. We called Joe and Eric on the radio, but got no response. At this point, we had no idea where they were or what was going on and could only hope they were faring better.
After about an hour or so, we flagged down one of the park launches which was heading south from the northern shore of the lake. These are large pontoon boats, most in the 30' range, which can handle quite a lot of wind and rough water. Once we had confirmed that he had not seen the skiff on his trip south (giving us hope that Joe and Eric had made it more safely than we had) the captain of the launch got the thistle out of the landing area, and towed us towards our campsite (instead of back towards the campground base, where there was medical care and warmth, which might have been a tad bit more logical, really).
Unknown to us at this point, Joe and Eric had been effected similarly by the wind and waves. When they hit the northern expanse of the lake the skiff was quickly taking on water. Eric was bailing madly to keep them afloat and reported that at one point there was more than six inches of water over his feet. It's a fairly large skiff and was terribly overloaded, making it unstable in the waves. Joe made for shore as quickly as he could to get shelter from the wind and worked his way towards camp slowly. If there's one thing that can be said; we don't quit easily. They made it to the island where we were camping, but not all that long before Ian and I.
Looking back on that trip, we were quite lucky. Three of us were firefighters, two were medically trained, and one was an Army combat veteran who also had medical training. I was able to manage my hypothermia once I got to camp where I had dry clothes and we had started a fire (and had coffee on to brew) and none of us were prone to panicking when the stress hit (having served on the same fire department together, we all worked well together in dangerous situations). I sometimes look back and think it interesting that the park ranger had opted to deliver us to camp, but it goes to show you what self confidence really can make happen (besides, he had been rescuing kayakers "from the city" all day and we were in far better shape than any of them had been).
The only long term effect from that trip was a rather irritating bout of plantar fasciitis. During the time I had lost feeling in my limbs I had managed to damage my left foot and I carried that with me for over a year before it had healed entirely. Looking at all the things that could have happened on that trip, I think I probably got off pretty lucky.
To date that trip was the most dangerous we have had yet and without question the most difficult. It was also the first time we were glad we had no novice campers with us, as it was a trip which could have easily broken someone who did not have the experience and training the four of us carried. There were moments of levity, but in all the trip was one which was endured, not enjoyed. Sure, it makes for some amazing stories (adversity always makes for good copy) but in all, it was, in the true definition of the word, an adventure.