Connecting Lake Simcoe's Community

By Michele Potter -- May 20, 2018, was a beautiful, sunny day in Orillia. It was a perfect day to get outside and go for a walk, take a bike ride or visit a local park. For some, it seemed the perfect weather to venture out on Lake Couchiching, to do some paddling.

For one young woman, it would be her last day of paddling, her last day of life.

On May 20, 2018, my kayaking buddy and I decided to launch our 17-foot sea kayaks onto Lake Couchiching for our first day trip of 2018. Denyse and I gathered up our gear, loaded up our boats, and made the relatively short drive from Keswick to Tudhope Park in Orillia.

The temperature that day was approximately 15C, warm enough to be outside in a short-sleeved shirt, a light hoodie or for some, tank tops and shorts. Venturing out on the water, however, means that one must dress for the water and not the weather.  

The water temperature that day was very cold, likely around 12C. Unless we are out practising our rescue techniques, Denyse and I never intend on capsizing our kayaks but we know that we have to dress for immersion should we find ourselves in that situation.

On May 20, 2018, we were dressed in wet suits with kayak dry tops and our PFDs were securely fitted on top. We had kayak skirts around our waist which affix to the cockpit of our kayaks. A kayak skirt prevents water from entering the cockpit and a kayak dry top is a type of kayaking jacket with rubber gaskets at the neck and wrist. They offer some wind protection and help to keep the paddler dry.

We launched onto Lake Couchiching and began our day of paddling, not knowing a tragedy had occurred only hours earlier.

Lake Couchiching can “kick up” quickly due to wind and at times, there can be heavy boat traffic which can also cause significant waves. We experienced the latter on this day, when a very large cruiser went by. Denyse and I are experienced kayakers and we delighted in riding the three-foot swells that the cruiser provided us. Had we been in recreational kayaks, however, we would have been in serious trouble. Recreational kayaks are not suitable for waters with large, rolling waves, as they have large, open cockpits that can take on significant water. Inexperienced paddlers could easily capsize in those conditions and the water temperature that day was extremely cold -- dangerously cold for anyone not suited up for cold water.

As we paddled towards the Atherley Narrows into Lake Simcoe, we passed a couple of young women in recreational kayaks. These young women were all smiles and laughter and were dressed for the weather, in tank tops and shorts. There were not dressed for the water. They were wearing PFDs which would help them stay afloat should they capsize, but PFDs alone would not help them survive the cold shock they would experience should they find themselves in the water. Tank tops and shorts in dangerously cold water offer zero protection.

My paddling buddy and I enjoyed kayaking through the Narrows from Lake Couchiching to Lake Simcoe with a visit to the Mnjikaning Fish Weirs National Historic Site. Although we were feeling rather “toasty” from our cold water gear, we were glad we wore it as we knew the water was extremely cold. We were feeling great on our first paddle of the season.

We pulled our kayaks from Lake Couchiching at Tudhope Park and started to pack up our gear for our trek home. Only then did we learn that earlier that day, two women were pulled from the waters of Lake Couchiching about 100 metres offshore, after the canoe they were in flipped over. Neither was wearing a PFD. Both were transported to a local hospital where one young woman was pronounced dead.

May 20 will always be a day when I think of this young woman and her family. On this day their lives were forever changed by what was to have been a fun excursion on a beautiful sunny day.

My paddling buddy and I went out for the first paddle of this 2019 season on Sat., May 18, on Lake Simcoe. We wore dry suits this year and although we were again feeling rather “toasty” in our cold water clothing, we knew it was a necessity and a small price to pay for the additional safety it would afford us should we find ourselves in the water.

1 – 10 – 1: The stages of cold water immersion

Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, at the University of Manitoba, studies the effects of extreme environments, including cold, heat, hypoxia, and hypobaria on the human body.

He created the phrase “1 – 10 – 1”, to outline the three critical stages of cold water immersion:

1  Cold Shock - This stage occurs upon immersion, with an initial deep and sudden GASP followed by hyperventilation. In this stage, you must:

  • keep your airway clear to prevent drowning
  • concentrate on staying calm
  • gain control of your breathing
    • PFDs are critical to keep you afloat during this phase, so you can concentrate on your airway and avoiding panic

10  Cold Incapacitation -  In the next 10 minutes, you must concentrate on self-rescue and, if that is not possible, try to find a way to keep your airway clear while you wait for rescue. In this phase, you will lose the effective use of your fingers, arms and legs. Swim failure will occur. If you are not wearing a PFD, you will likely drown in this phase. 

1  Hypothermia – it can take up to 1 hour before hypothermia causes you to become unconscious.

 Cold Water Safety

The U.S. National Center for Cold Water Safety in Virginia was established after two young women died while kayaking in Maine on a sunny May 16, 2010. Their kayaks capsized in 9C water and although they were wearing PFDs, they were dressed in shorts and light shirts. They were dressed for the weather, not for the water.

The National Center for Cold Water Safety’s mission is to study and promote cold water safety. Their website states: “Without thermal protection you can lose body heat 25 times faster in water than in air with similar temperatures and that can be increased by a factor of up to 10 with movement like swimming or moving water.”

There is more information on their website at www.coldwatersafety.org

Article and photo by Michele Potter, an avid kayaker who lives in Keswick and who has completed a Paddle Canada Level One Skills certification. She writes: “I love Lake Simcoe and the area in which I live, and I am concerned that others who love the area and our waterways may not know the dangers of cold water immersion. Too often, I see paddlers out on a beautiful, sunny May day who are not dressed appropriately, i.e. for immersion. 

Dressing for the water, not the weather should be an integral part of trip planning for anyone thinking of kayaking in the earlier parts of the paddling season.” Potter started the Facebook group “Lake Simcoe Kayakers” and hopes to encourage others to enjoy the sport of kayaking safely.  

You can see more of her photos at http://www.potterphotography.ca

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