Cold Water II – How Dry Am I?

Sleepy Hollow - here I come

This is post number two on cold water gear.  The previous blog was about canoe spray decks and this one, dry suits.  These were two big investments accounting for well over three quarters of the budget for the trip. I made them both because of Lake Superior. If the big lake wasn’t on the itinerary, I wouldn’t need either. I might want the spray deck to keep drier on rainy days but I don’t think I could justify the money. Here’s a sobering thought – Cold water can kill you three ways – Cold Shock, Hypothermia and Drowning. Here’s a sobering read – Shocking News About Cold Water Paddling.  But hey, more on that grimness in a bit. You’re thinking, wow, this guy can really plow through the dough. Big bucks, yes, but a smart shopper like myself is also thinking about value in the one dollar and under range.  I found this book on edible wild food at a 7th street St. Paul re-sale shop for 99 cents.

Some critter found this book "good eating"

The irony of it wasn’t lost on me or the store owner come check-out time. Notice the upper right corner in each photo.


Actually, Spring along the river offers some great opportunities for foraging. Best though to know what you’re doing.

Staying Dry

When I spoke with more experienced paddlers and equipment dealers they often asked if I owned a dry suit. I knew I wanted  protection from cold water shock and hypothermia but I didn’t know what all was out there. I’d thought about wet suits but wasn’t sure that was the answer. One paddling friend said they get real stinky, real fast. I thought about my friend Dave who skippers the Auklet in Alaska. He gave us the drill on survival suits before we weighed anchor and left the new, old harbor or was it the old, new harbor in Cordova (that’s a Cordovian inside joke).  Cordova has races each year where competitors don the suits, race to the water and swim to a raft, all the while cheered on by their shipmates and spectators. Something like that, anyway and necessary to keep crews in top form when trouble strikes. On the other hand, Dave calls the standard bright orange life preservers, “markers”, so that recovery (not rescue) folks can easily find you (or what was you) bobbing about in the frigid water. Survival suits, aptly named, actually keep you alive. They’re not so good for mobility when paddling a canoe. Enjoy the film. It’s a race like the one I’ve described.

Choosing a Drysuit -$$$

My internet investigation of dry suits led me to two conclusions. This was going to be a big expense but it might be a prudent equipment purchase considering cold water risks. My old outfit might not cut it if I took a tumble.

Old Outfit - Corey at Pine Lake in the Arrowhead, 1998 - photo by Dave Hedlund

I started looking for new or used suits on the north west coast where cold water kayaking has had a strong hold for decades. I liked the folks at the Kayak Academy in Seattle. Great customer service and a full range of California-based, Kokatat brand gear. In fact, that was the only brand they would carry. Be prepared to spend a little under $900 on the Gore-tex version and around half that on a waterproof but not as breathable fabric suit. The academy’s used Gore-tex ranged from $550 to $650. All these suits are inspected and repaired if needed fixing tears in the fabric or replacing deteriorating latex neck and wrist seals. For paddling in cold water where the air temperatures are wamish to hot,  you’re going to wish you had the Gore-tex. The same goes if you plan to portage and hump gear. Kokatat seemed to reign supreme in most dealers’ estimation, but, there’s a new kid on the block. NRS sells the Mission dry suit with “e-Vent” fabric – new and much heralded, extremely breathable, and light weight. These are made overseas, are well crafted, and have plenty of endorsements. They’re also about $100 cheaper than Kokatat. I bought one on sale, and sent it back. Too much fabric due to the built-in “over-spray skirt” meant to mate with the spray skirt on your kayak and keep you drier. Also, the zipper across the chest/ shoulder was just plain uncomfortable when making a paddling motion. NRS doesn’t offer a model without the “over-spray skirt. Kokatat does, and that’s what I went with. Two sales folks, one at Rutabaga in Madison, WI and one at the Kayak Academy,  said they felt that the GFER (Gore-tex Front Entry w/Relief Zipper) was the best option for canoeing and safer for wet exits from the craft because of the sleeker, no frills design. The relief zipper, if you don’t already know, spells relief when ya gots to go but don’t want to remove or can’t remove the suit. I’ve bought gear from Rutabaga in the past and I will again, but not this time. I found my suit at Outdoorplay kayak supplies on sale for almost $200 less than all other retailers – and they knew their stuff too. Fortunately, re-sale is good. I watched as a four year old suit, same model, sold on Ebay for only $100 less than the new suit – at sale price.

The Luddite Factor

However, when you’ve worn the same outfit (same rain pants, same wool sweater, same hat) in the Boundary Waters for ten years running, slapping on a brightly lit jumpsuit like this is quite a shock. When this trip is done I may be the one with the suit on Ebay. Don’t know yet.

Three shades pinker than my usual pink

Danger! Caution!

You may not want to enlarge these photos! Kokatat says if you experience trouble breathing, the latex neck opening may be too tight.

However, if you stretch the latex on an object larger than your neck by two inches circumference for two days, you would be more likely to experience the inner and outer blissful nature demonstrated below:

Okay, Mr. Puffy Cheeks hasn't stretched the latex yet.

So, is cold water equipment like this an expensive but good precaution or a waste of money? Obviously, great equipment can’t overcome poor judgment on the trail or make up for a lack of experience mastering  the equipment. I’ll be in the water March and April working with the new gear in conditions where going over isn’t life threatening. I’ll keep you posted. Let me know if you’ve had similar questions about gear and what you did about them. Check out the next post in a few days. For starters, you’ll hear a great blues version of Paddlin’ Madeline. Also, a call for your photos. I’d like to make Fridays’ posts, Photo Fridays and I’ll work to set up a way you can send them in. See you next week. Corey

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