The Cold Hard Truth
I stepped out of the tent on the morning of the third day feeling exactly as exhausted as I had the previous night. Rest had eluded me. And while my sleeping bag—rated to zero degrees—didn’t keep me warm that night, it did keep me from freezing to death.
My second hard lesson in winter camping: a sleeping bag rated to zero degrees implies that you will survive at zero degrees, not sleep soundly in a warm cocoon of synthetic or natural fibers.
What was the first lesson? The first lesson was condensation. The lower the mercury; the lower the dew point. In other words, cold air cannot hold as much water vapor as warmer air before releasing the water in a solid form, liquid or frozen.
The inside of my tiny single-person tent looked like an old freezer, covered in layers of frost. Worse, the frost turned to water where it touched my sleeping bag.
“That’s not going to dry out,” I thought. “I’ll let it freeze, and maybe I can shake the ice off later.”
And there was a third lesson. In sub-freezing temperatures, wet synthetic garments freeze the same as wet natural fiber garments.
The wetsuit was still wet. Only now it was a frozen block of ice. I gingerly pulled it over a thin t-shirt, shivering in pain as the cold wetsuit chafed against my body.
As I moved around, making breakfast and breaking camp, my body warmed the wetsuit. Now my core was warm and wet, again.
I fired up my old flip phone and received a text from my parents.
“High of 8 degrees today. Winds gusting to 30 mph. Yesterday winds gusted at over 50 mph.”
This was the moment I created a rule that, unknowingly, saved my life many times in the course of the voyage.
The rule was simple: No paddling in predicted winds over 20 mph.
From the previous days’ experiences, I saw that anything over 20 mph crossed the razor-thin line between being in control and being out of control.
On this enormous river, the wind could whip up tall whitecaps and spin my canoe like a weathervane. The wind worked against me to wrest control of the canoe from my hands. If it won, the canoe could easily capsize. And if the canoe overturned, I would have a high probability of dying from hypothermia in the swift freezing water, far from shore.
And then came the second rule: If you fall in the water, you die.
“Don’t fall in the water,” I thought.
I opened my atlas. The next place where I could meet up with my supply team—a.k.a. my parents—was about 20 miles away.
At this moment, I made a tough decision. A decision that never comes easily to anyone who seeks to find that sacred place beyond their limits—whether it be the summit of Everest or the last mile in a long run. It is a decision that pits the ego of the mind against the honesty and passion of the heart.
I did not abandon the voyage. I wouldn’t do that. My heart wanted to complete this passage. My heart wanted to express, in its way, love for my family members affected by autism.
I decided to abandon the conflicting, Odyssean vision for this voyage that I secretly held—a non-stop, mostly unsupported voyage of epic proportions. Deep down, I wanted the danger. I wanted a single paddle stroke to be the difference between life and death. I wanted the thrill. But I knew that I could not put my life on the line again and again. There would be trials and risks, yes. However, they had to be calculated. I could not repeat the foolish risks that I had taken the previous day; it was selfish.
I saw that if I fought nature, I would pay a heavy price. Mark Twain’s characters, the voyageur mountain men, Lewis and Clark, and the boatmen who came before me knew this. This voyage would have to flow with the rhythm of the river, the wind, and the snow. I would paddle when nature saw fit to allow me forward progress.
My near miss caused me to reflect on how important this endeavor was to my family and my community. They followed my progress from the riverbanks. They would emerge from the towns to offer support. They did this because they too were a part of this voyage. They believed in the cause and the statement that we made through my actions on the river and their support on the shore. We were acknowledging autism and voicing our support for our family, friends, and neighbors affected by it. This journey was about more than me.
Still, significant challenges waited ahead. At that moment, I had to figure out how to deal with wet clothes, a wet shelter, a wet sleeping bag, and a river that seemed to conspire with the wind to make each paddle stroke an effort for my life.
I needed to dry out. If I could make it twenty miles, I could meet my family and get warm clothes. So that’s what I did.
That night I slept in a warm hotel, had a shower, and watched The Weather Channel anchors talk about the looming mega-arctic-blizzard about to descend on the Midwest.
I thought one word, “Damn.”