As part of our preparation for our trip next year, we did some training on our recent overnight trip in the Experimental Lakes Area that really, really sucked. It's called cold water training and it's exactly what it sounds like. The idea was that immersing ourselves in the frigid lake in early May would give us an idea what to expect if we ever happened to go overboard.
Originally the plan was to take our canoes out to just off shore and jump out, then stay there for ten minutes. However, since the weather had been quite cold in the area (there was still snow on the cliffs in places) and we were so far from help if something should go wrong, our guide Pizey reconsidered. Instead, we would run in from the little beach at our campsite and stay in for five minutes. Running in would allow us to keep our heads above water at all times.
Milling around and getting ready was the worst part for me. In order to properly mimic a real situation we wore clothing that we would be paddling in, so we generally just removed a couple layers we'd need the next day and set up a fire that Chris (Rylea's boyfriend who came on the trip) would tend while we were off suffering.
I went in wearing thin pants, a t-shirt, fleece, wool socks, hiking shoes, paddling gloves and pfd.
We gathered at the edge of the water, going over the plan and rehashing how terrible the whole things was going to be - we weren't wrong.
Pizey gave us a countdown and the four of us ran into the bitingly cold water. It took a moment for the water to sink through the layers of my clothing, and then my thinking stuttered and my lungs tensed, trying to compress into nothing. This was my body's cold shock response, a phase of cold water immersion that encompasses the first minute or two. Hyperventilation is common, so we curled into balls, stuck our hands inside our life jackets and focused on breathing. It was my body freaking out and trying to figure what on earth I'd done to it.
Then came what Pizey calls 'working time'. At this point you have about ten minutes where you have more or less full capabilities. Of course for us, this was waiting time. We started to feel the cold more now and any exposed skin was in pain, including the others' hands. My own were fine because of my gloves, which are thick neoprene and I was exceedingly grateful that I'd decided to wear them. Our arms hurt and felt the cold in a stabbing way, whether they were covered or not, since our blood was being pulled back from 'non-essential' muscles. (I rather thing all my muscles are essential, thank you.)
The minutes seemed to pass glacially slow and be over in an instant simultaneously. Still, eventually Chris (who'd been timing us) gave us the go-ahead to get out. We immediately stripped out of our wet clothing and exchanged them for new dry layers then went to huddle around the fire.
It was only once we'd been out for some time, maybe 15 minutes, that I started to shiver and my hands got cold, and we were all at least somewhat chilled for a long time after.
All in all it was both not as bad and worse than I expected. My body didn't try and panic the way I was expecting, and the cold, while uncomfortable in the extreme, wasn't as freezing as I expected. However, the length of time I felt cold afterwards took me somewhat by surprise, though it probably shouldn't have.
It's not something I would ever look forward to doing again, but I'm glad we did. It's easy to forget things you only read about, or see videos about, but I can promise you this is not something I'll be forgetting any time soon.
More info on the effects of cold water immersion: http://beyondcoldwaterbootcamp.com/4-phases-of-cold-water-immersion