On December 31, 2012 New Years Eve, an epic whitewater kayak adventure down the Youghiogheny River became real. A few hours into the trip I broke my paddle. The day would reach a high of 35′F from a morning low of 22′F. And we had a few choices to make. I could use another paddle and continue down the river or we could portage. It was a little after eleven and it gets dark quick. Sunset was 4:54 but realistically it would get dark sooner; due to, the mountains and trees would obscure the sun and bring on darkness sooner. Clouds were also starting to form and there was a possibility of snow.
We discussed our options and then chose to portage; due to, I was shaken by my second capsize and swim. I could not get back in the boat and the thrill of playing in an eddy was gone. It was easy for us to plot a course due to Darren having a GPS, compass, a basic contour map of river, and a hiking trail brochure.
In retrospect I could play the maybe game. Maybe I wimped out. Maybe I was under prepared for the water temperature. Maybe if I had more time in the kayak I was borrowing I could have been confident in paddling it after the swim. Maybe I was still thinking of how our friend Carl Schneider died October of 2010. Maybe we made the wrong decision in paddling that day. Maybe we made the wrong decision in portaging because of what happened to me.
We pulled and slid the kayaks along the riverbank then up the hill. Darren did a large amount of the work. He scouted logical routs up the steep ledges and through deep snow drifts. He was also an excellent positive motivator.
Being prepared is the Boy Scout motto. And Darren using those few items he had stored away for a possible portage made finding a hiking / cross-country ski trail easy. We stayed on the trail and out of deep snow for some of the portage. We had to diverge from the trail because it was a switchback and time was becoming important. I was beginning to display the signs and symptoms of a cold injury to my feet.
I was wearing a dry suit with a medium thickness wool sock and Kokatat Scout water shoes. I chose those light-weight shoes for the traction and support over rocky terrain. The shoe of choice did make it easy to wedge my feet inside the low volume white water kayak. And I had no problem exiting the cockpit during my unplanned capsize.
The problem was that the water shoe is not constructed with walking on snow and ice. The Scout is a 3mm double-lined neoprene slip on bootie. It is made of a medium thickness vulcanized rubber out-sole with vulcanized rubber toe cap and heel counter for traction. Moreover, the Kokatat Drysuit uses a gore-tex sock that increases the volume of the foot. Thereby, the drysuit requires a user to increase the size of their footwear to allow the use of a warm sock inside of a form fitting possibly tight neoprene bootie. Consequently, my footwear combined with the drysuit had an inability to keep my feet warm due to material and diminished circulation. I have found no water shoe made up to the task of keeping a foot warm in freezing temperatures while a person is wearing a drysuit. With possibly one exception to the Quicklace Mukluk by Chota. Nevertheless, I should have removed my drysuit and put on a pair of hiking pants and hiking boots.
The trail took us close to a set of train tracks. We chose to leave the trail at that location to save a good thirty minutes of hiking. It is not wise to leave marked trails in the event of injury or getting lost. Darren checked in with his wife in what our plans were and then we began trail blazing again. As we neared the tracks we heard a train. The train seemed to take forever but it was probably the feeling of ongoing numbness stiffness and glass like pain I was experiencing with every step. Finally we were able to continue and we quickly arrived at the helicopter landing site. No sooner did we start walking on the road, to where the car was parked, it began to snow.
Getting into the car I striped off the drysuit and constrictive booties. It was nice to put on some warm clothes. The snow had been only falling for about 10 minutes and already they almost blended into where we had left them at the edge of the road. Darren took to tying them onto the car and I started accessing my feet.
My chief complaint was that all toes, right ball of foot, and both heels were experiencing a burning numbness sensation. In addition to the chief complaint, the skin in the effected areas was red, white and very pale in places. The skin was slightly soft and slowly returned to its natural shape when pressed on it to make a dimple. My overall impression of my feet was they looked fake almost wax-like in appearance.
I began to warm the feet immediately and the skin transitioned to being mottled with small eraser size purple splotches. Seeing the skin do that freaked me out. The purple color change lasted maybe six to eight minutes. The skin then took on a consistent slightly pale red and swollen appearance.
Did I mention that as I was warming them I experienced the most intense feeling. I have had my feet fall asleep and waking them up has always been a tingly experience. What I was feeling at that moment was like walking on thousands of sand-spurs. First aid books inform a person that they will experience a burning sensation. What they are feeling is the raw nerves being woken up after ice crystals have shredded parts of the epidermis.
The waiting game began the moment I began rapidly warming my feet. Time is always important in cold injuries. It is a combination of how cold did the skin become and how long was the skin at that temperature. In other words tissue destruction is proportional to the time it remains frozen.
I drank fluids and continued to elevate and keep my feet in a warm moist towel at my aunt’s house. At 6:15pm that night the skin still felt swollen, it easily dimple showing good signs of circulation. The intense burning sensation did dull to a slight tingle. And I could wiggle my toes. Two doctor friends agreed that taking some NSAID’s, ibuprofen, was a good idea. But it still remained would I see any fluid-filled blisters. Twenty-four to thirty-six hours after rewarming a cold injury the skin could develop blisters.
After removing myself from the cold and smartly warming my feet my doctor friends questioned why it seemed to be taking awhile for the feet to feel normal. They questioned if I was a diabetic of if I have been diagnosed with high blood pressure or other cardiac issues. The reality is I am physically normal. And they agreed that my feet should return to normal. When I woke up in the morning my feet looked normal, no blisters. In a way they looked wind burned.
It took almost six weeks for the prickly feeling to fully go away. Sometimes I would get phantom tingles. And other times I felt like I stepped on a piece of glass.
After experiencing December 31, 2012, I can happily say I am done with the cold.