A cold, wet Montana spring always brings back a memory - a bone-chilling one.
In the early 1990’s, I moved from Indianapolis to Missoula to attend the University of Montana. After my first winter in the west, I couldn’t wait to partake in the delights of spring in the mountains. Eventually, the daylight hours grew longer, the rain subsided, and the angry rivers calmed.
It was 80-some degrees, blue skies, and sunny the June day my friends and I rented giant rubber inner-tubes from a local gas station. Ian, David, and I strapped the awkward vessels down to the back of my little red pickup and headed to the Blackfoot River.
All three of us slathered our skin with the first sun block of the season.
As I settled into my inner-tube, the blistering black rubber burned the backs of my bare legs and arms. I welcomed the sweltering midday heat - it had been a long winter.
Our friends floated this same stretch the previous day. It’ll only take a couple of hours, they told us. I was relieved by the day’s clear forecast; giant inflatable donuts don’t provide much storage space for precautionary gear.
The float started off nice and easy. The high water whisked our circling, cheerio-rafts along at a nice clip. Big sky country unfolded before us and around us, then faded in the distance - a doe and fawn grazing along the banks, eagles soaring overhead, wildflowers beginning to bloom.
That day, tubing was a delicate balance of two extremes - as my body baked under a fiery sun, my dangling feet and arms and bum were chilled by the frigid, snow-melt water.
There’s probably no need to tell you the rest of the story - almost everyone has their own weather-gone-wrong tale of woe. But this simple, afternoon float stands out to me over all of my other close calls backpacking on the Appalachian Trail and dog mushing in Alaska.
On the Blackfoot, I learned how easily and quickly a person can become hypothermic, and it taught me a lesson worth remembering and sharing.
First, came the breeze.
“As long as I’ve got that sun, I’ll be fine,” I remember thinking.
Unfortunately, the delicate breeze grew into a strong Montana wind. My smooth skin turned to goosebumps.
Of course, the gusts brought the clouds that eventually swallowed the sun - my only source of warmth.
Ian, Dave, and I began our trip all at the same time, but not long after we set sail the two ended up way out in front of me. At first, I didn’t mind - we all knew where the truck was parked.
Without the sun, I froze.
The wind became a wall, slowing my progress down river. Unaware of my sudden change of speed, my much heavier male friends disappeared around the bend out of sight. I yelled to them to stop and wait but the wind was deafening.
“Neither of them are cold,” I thought. “I just need to tough it out.”
Hind sight is 20/20. I should have paddled to the banks, thrown my inner-tube on my back, and walked the rest of the way to generate heat and stay warm.
But... I didn’t want to get too far behind my friends, and it would be a long, rough hike in sandals, and I shouldn’t be such a wimp. So I stayed in the inner-tube.
My muscles tightened, my body ached with cold. It’s all in my head, I thought.
I began to tremble uncontrollably, my teeth chattering like some scared character from a cartoon. I had an overwhelming urge pee. I couldn’t think straight.
Thankfully, my friends decided to stop and wait for me. They waded out in the water to pull me to shore; I couldn’t paddle with thick, useless arms.
Ian instantly realized I was hypothermic. I couldn’t step out of the raft - my legs wouldn’t work. While Dave huddled with me trying to share his body heat, Ian ran up to the nearby road to get help.
It all seems so silly now, embarrassing for sure. Still to this day, that one close call shapes the way I plan and pack for every single outdoor endeavor whether I’m picnicking, floating, or mushing.
How can a person get so cold so fast? I know it might be hard to imagine, but it can and does happen.
My body heat is precious - lesson learned.