The sky was still dark on a Sunday morning a year ago when I set my new solo canoe on the surface of the Mississippi River. I'd been thinking about this moment for years, dreaming of all the places I could paddle once I got this boat. Now, I was finally ready to launch on its maiden voyage.
I strapped my drybag onto the crossbar, waded into the river in my rubber boots, just north of the Ford Parkway Bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul. I slid the boat out. When I stepped in, I noticed that it felt unsteadier than boats I was used to. Then I sat down, started paddling and forgot about it.
Spring had come early. The temperature the week before had been in the 70s, and the snow and cold felt like a distant memory, even though a week or so before, ice floes had drifted past here. I knew the water was cold, but that seemed like more of an inconvenience than a threat. Besides, after the first pandemic winter, I was desperate to get outside.
“While the cold water beckons to us every spring, below its surface is a world of pain.”
The sun was rising. I paddled up the "gorge" section of the Mississippi, which runs between the high banks of the Twin Cities, with hills — cliffs, almost — on either side. To the east side, an owl called. From the west, another answered. I was in the middle of the city, but also very far from it.
Although I was a fairly experienced canoeist, I'd never owned, or even paddled, a solo canoe. I'd been to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness many times, and worked as the trips director for a YMCA camp in northern Minnesota. A few years earlier, my wife and two daughters had paddled down 125 miles of the Mississippi together on a five-day trip.
I was careful. I always stepped along the midline. In all that time, I'd never tipped a canoe, and I had no reason to expect today would be any different.
The air temperature was 31 degrees, but it didn't feel that cold. As I made my way upstream the wind started gusting out of the northwest, though I was protected by the west bank. I moved along, making good time, staying close to shore. But when I came to the Lake Street bridge, I decided to go around a footing in the middle of the river before heading downstream.
As I moved out into the main channel, the wind grew stronger. The canoe was light Kevlar, and as I tried to paddle left, it kept blowing me right. So I reached out for a big "C" stroke to correct my course. As I did this, the bow came up, and the wind seemed to catch it from underneath. Before I knew what was happening, the canoe was tipping slowly at first, then faster. I tried to shift my weight back to the middle but was too late. I was past the point of no return. I looked up at the underside of the bridge as I sank sideways into the cold water.
Submerged to my neck, I was shaken but still calm.
"OK," I said out loud, "just get to shore."
I knew this was dangerous, but I didn't know how dangerous. I'd never heard of "cold shock." I didn't know about the "mammalian diving reflex," where cold water on your face causes blood to move out of your arms and legs to your core. I didn't know that in waters this cold, I only had between five and 20 minutes before my body started shutting down.
In fact, most of what I knew came from an essay I'd read long ago by David Quammen called "The Big Chill." It was about a troop of Boy Scouts who'd tipped their canoes in a glacier-filled lake. They'd all died. Quammen thought hypothermia had killed them, but the autopsy concluded they'd drowned. Quammen tried, and failed, to answer the riddle of which one had really ended their lives — the cold or the water.
Now, years later, I was about to come face-to-face with the answer.
I grabbed my paddle and swam. I held my canoe and kicked for shore. A mile or so downstream was a dam, so I knew if I let it go it would be destroyed, which at that point was still my greatest fear. But it was already too hard to pull, so I pushed it ahead of me. My boots kept slipping off, and each time I tried to pull them back on. Because how — was the small question in my mind — could I walk down the rock shore without boots?
Such are the mistakes we make in our final moments.
My body temperature dropped. My right boot slipped off one last time. I let it go, and it was gone.
"Get to shore," I told myself, trying to focus on the one thing that mattered. "Just get to shore."
I made some progress. The bank got closer, but it was still at least 50 feet away. It wasn't enough. I kicked harder. I pushed the canoe. After about 10 minutes I started getting tired. My face dipped under the water. As a strong swimmer, this alarmed me. I had a life jacket on, but my armpits hung on the straps while I struggled to keep my head up.
“Even with two paddlers, The current was hard to plow through. ”
My limbs felt heavy. Water came over my chin, into my mouth. Everything felt hard now. Then, in a moment of clarity, a thought came into my head. It was not a question. It was not a possibility. It was not panic. It was just a fact, solid as a stone: I am not going to make it to that shore.
It was around 7 a.m. on a Sunday in March on the Mississippi River. I hadn't seen another soul on the water. But suddenly there was a flash of red in the corner of my eye. It was another canoe, coming toward me. In it sat two young men. The one in the bow had a coiled rope with a float attached. They already knew I was in trouble.
"Can you guys help me?" I yelled.
He threw the rope.
"How long have you been in here?" he asked.
"Not long," I said, without really knowing, except that it had been too long.
He handed the rope to his friend in the stern, and started paddling toward shore.
"Don't worry about your canoe," he said. "We'll get it."
I let the boat go. The man in front paddled, while the one in back held the rope. I spied a small loop on the back of the boat and pulled myself closer.
"I can hold this," I said, and grabbed the loop.
Even with two paddlers, The current was hard to plow through. But eventually we got there. I felt my foot touch the muddy bottom, and I climbed out with one boot and one sock, then dragged myself onto shore. I turned back to them.
"Thanks, you guys. You're a lifesaver," I said, then added, "Literally."
They turned downstream to retrieve my canoe, which was already far away. Onshore, I pulled my phone out of its small dry bag and called my wife. She could tell something was wrong.
"Where are you?"
I told her what happened, and asked her to come.
"Turn the heat on high," I said.
Downriver I could see the men pulling my canoe onto a beach. I knew I needed to get warm, so I started running down the rocky trail, over culverts, through the woods, until l came to the paddlers. I couldn't feel anything on my bootless foot.
“I didn't know that in waters this cold, I only had between five and 20 minutes before my body started shutting down.”
"We put your canoe up on the beach," the man in front shouted.
"Thanks, you guys," I said. "I really don't know what I would have done if you hadn't shown up." I didn't know what else to say. How do you thank someone for saving your life?
"My name's Hunter," he called.
"And I'm Jake," said the man in back.
I thanked them again. They asked if I needed a ride, but I told them someone was coming. They waved and paddled back upstream. I ran down the trail, found my canoe, hoisted it onto my shoulders, and ran up the stone stairs to the road, powered by fear and adrenaline.
When I got to the top, my wife and two daughters pulled up. They opened the back of our minivan. My limbs were stiff, but I climbed in the back and started peeling off wet clothes. The water temperature, I later learned, was around 42 degrees. My core temperature was probably in the 80s. Once in the van, my whole body started shaking. The heat was blasting, but I couldn't feel it at all.
Back home I drew a hot bath and stayed in it for an hour and stared at the ceiling. And as I lay there, a similar tragedy was unfolding to the south. Just outside of Ames, Iowa, a college crew team made up of two young men and three women were rowing on a small lake when the winds — the same winds that tipped me — came up suddenly and flipped their boat.
The students tried to hold on to their boat, but the waves were too violent. They tried to swim, too. Two girls were rescued by locals in kayaks. One girl made it most of the way to shore and was pulled out. Both young men died.
To answer Quammen's question, when you die in cold water, it's not either hypothermia or drowning. It's both: Hypothermia paralyzes you. Then you drown.
For the next three days my fingers hurt. For the next few weeks it was hard to focus. I kept thinking about those college kids, about how lucky I was, about Hunter and Jake. I would wake up at night running through the events, examining the mistakes and miscalculations I hadn't known I was making. I had nightmares. I was treading water, the shore in sight, knowing I would never make it.
I can't think of any reason why those boys died while I lived. But maybe it can serve some purpose. Maybe you will read this, and you will wait. Maybe you will think twice before that post-thaw paddle. Maybe you will see what I did not: While the cold water beckons to us every spring, below its surface is a world of pain.
Frank Bures is a freelance writer. He lives in Minneapolis. • frankbures.com