Winter Special

Now the ice is gone and the snowdrift on the hill across the road shrinks daily. I have had two fair weeks of steelhead fishing and am gathering my equipment for a trip to Key West. Fantasies of a record tarpon are rife, though as unlikely as a record starlet. I feel somewhat benign about the preposterous winter I have endured. A crocus has appeared in vulgar purple glory. I will avoid hammerheads and moray eels and rattlesnakes and other imagined dangers, and go through more winters not unlike this one, where the depleted imagination narrows to a singular point. Fish. Anywhere and almost anytime. Even when trees split open from cold and the target is a bowling-ball-sized hole in a lid of ice. CP

WINTER

HAZARDS

What to look out for!

The main winter hazards include hypothermia, frostbite, falling through the ice, blizzards, carbon monoxide poisoning, snow blindness, and avalanches.

Hypothermia, which is lower-than-normal body temperature, is usually called "exposure" by the news media. Your body loses heat faster than you can produce it. You can get hypothermia at temperatures well above freezing if your body is wet or subjected to wind. Hypothermia saps your strength and inhibits your reflexes. Several symptoms arise as your body temperature drops from a normal of about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. One of the first is uncontrollable shivering. With a further drop, you might experience difficulty in speaking, poor muscle coordination and thinking, and drowsiness. Unconsciousness may follow. Below 78 degrees, death is likely, although some people have survived with a body temperature of less than 78 degrees.

Prevent hypothermia with adequate clothing, but don't overinsulate, which leads to unwanted perspiration. Keep fortified with food and water. Seek shelter well before you actually need it. And avoid falling through the ice.

For treatment, get out of the wind, shed wet clothing, and restore body heat quickly. A good remedy is to crawl into a prewarmed sleeping bag with another person. Hot drinks and fast, energy-producing foods, such as chocolate, help, but avoid alcohol, which tricks the brain into thinking the body is warm and can release cold, near-surface blood to your body core. If you later have access to a modern dwelling, immerse yourself in warm (about 100 degrees Fahrenheit) water. It may take six to eight hours or longer for you to rewarm.

Frostbite is the freezing of skin and underlying tissue, usually on the face, hands, and toes. It happens when you are underinsulated, experience severe wind chill or water chill, or touch cold objects that conduct your body heat away.

Near-surface frostbite shows up as numb, gray or white waxy skin; it is stiff on the surface but soft and resilient below. Deep, more serious frostbite is similar but causes stiffness below the skin's surface as well.

A number of steps can prevent frostbite. If your face is threatened, grimace or make faces. You can also warm your face briefly with a bare hand. Wear several insulative layers on your hands and feet, and keep your fingers and toes moving when they feel cold. If truly surviving, stuff dry cattail down in your boots and mittens. Avoid touching cold objects and liquids.

Treat frostbite by getting out of the wind, covering the frozen part with extra clothing, and warming it with your body or someone else's. Place a warm hand over your frostbitten face or toes. Warm your toes against the stomach of a companion. Hold frostbitten fingers under an armpit or in your crotch. Don't rub the frostbitten parts: Ice crystals in the frozen tissue may further damage the tissue. If possible, sip hot drinks. Don't let frozen parts refreeze once they've been thawed. If you have access to a modern dwelling, soak the frostbitten parts in warm (about 100 degrees Fahrenheit) water.

Depending on the severity of the frostbite, aftereffects include tingling, stinging, itching, blistering, swelling, and darkening or mottling of the skin. Frostbitten parts become more susceptible to cold. Don't take frostbite lightly: In extreme cases fingers, toes, and larger parts of hands and feet must be amputated if gangrene sets in.

One precaution to avoid falling through the ice is knowing safe ice thicknesses for various loads. Lake ice should be at least four inches thick for walking on it, five inches for snowmobiling, twelve inches for driving a car, and fifteen inches for driving a pickup truck. For added safety, apply even greater ice thicknesses.

Ice strength depends on more than thickness. Lake ice is stronger than stream ice. Clear ice of midwinter is strong than slushy ice of early winter or dark ice of late winter. Clear ice is stronger than white ice with trapped air bubbles formed under windy conditions. And ice near shore tends to be weaker.

Realize that ice can vary on the same water body, and avoid the thinner places. Snow, by its insulating effect, slows down the ice-forming process, so ice under snow is thinner. Ice is thinner where warmer-water springs seep in. On streams, ice is thinner in turbulent places near snags and boulders, and on the outside of stream bends.

Besides watching for weak and thin ice, you can take other precautions. Ski or snowshoe on ice to better distribute your weight. Carry a heavy-duty ice awl in each hand to help pull yourself from the water should you break through the ice. Mine are made from short lengths of thick, hardwood doweling that fit comfortably in my hand. I've force-fitted thick nails in the ends of the dowels, cut off their heads, and ground the cut ends to sharp points. I keep the awls, analogous to single polar bear claws, fastened to my wrists with stout cord.

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