It was quite a few years ago and the annual deer-gun season found me heading out for an afternoon hunt. The frigid wind nipped at the exposed flesh on my face as I trudged toward my old reliable hunting spot. I was younger then, and had a lot more zeal than good sense and though it was bitter cold outside. I planned to sit in a wooded lot bordered by farmland on the west and south side, about half a mile north of my in-law’s farm just south of Pasco. It was 36 degrees and drizzling rain when I went to bed the night before, but Thursday morning brought gusty winds and an abrupt drop in temperature. The cold Canadian blast headed our way promised near-zero temperatures by midnight and that prediction was coming true.
When I left home I was wearing my normal cold weather outfit, which included a good pair of felt-lined pac-boots and several layers of my best tried and true cold-weather gear. And I took a large thermos bottle full of hot chocolate along to take off the chill. I also brought a large, heavy, brown–colored comforter along just in case I needed to wrap it around myself for a wind-break. I drove to my destination and parked my pickup truck in its usual spot back a long lane at a deserted old farmhouse; from there it was about a 300 yard walk westward to where I would sit and hopefully harvest a deer.
The wind didn’t seem too bad at first but picked up as I walked on. Arriving, I made the necessary preparations and tied an extra orange hunting vest high-up in a small tree nearby so as to be seen from all directions. I loaded my gun and sat down on my plastic five-gallon camouflaged bucket with a swivel seat. After about 15 minutes, it occurred to me I was the only one crazy enough to be hunting in that area, which seemed unusual, but soon a chill ran down my spine followed by a massive shiver reminding me why most fair-weather hunters were resting-up from the morning hunt in a nice warm house instead of sitting outdoors freezing like I was.
I eventually broke out the hot chocolate and pulled the heavy blanket up around my head and shoulders to ward of the gusting wind. The hot chocolate took the chill off and I felt snug as a bug in my little cocoon. I nodded off and took a short nap; after all there were no deer stirring and it seemed like the best thing to do. For the next hour or so I managed to hang in there fighting off the chills with my hot chocolate and cat-naps that were getting longer and longer. Soon I went to sleep for what seemed just a few more minutes, but in reality was about an hour!
I awoke to find myself feeling a little weird in a dream-like state of mind. For a few moments I had trouble concentrating, I was confused and briefly wondered where I was. As I came to myself, I noticed the front of my chest was covered in frozen saliva; I was still drooling and shook my head in effort to gain total consciousness. My movements were slow and uncoordinated. I did not know what was wrong with me but fear gripped my heart as I tried unsuccessfully to stand up. I could barely move my right arm but managed to reach out and hook the fingers of my right hand over the fence wire in front of me and pull with all my might which allowed me to stand up. I still wasn’t sure what was up, but I knew one thing, I had to get back to that truck, and I had to do it right away! I never worried about gathering up my stuff, I just wanted to get help, and I just wanted to get warm! My first steps were small and unsteady and I was careful about not falling down as I reasoned that if I did so, I might not be able to get up again. Again and again I stumbled and nearly fell as I dragged my feet through the brush and undercover. My feet felt like cement blocks were tied to them and each step was a challenge in itself. I thought I might get a little warmer and limber up as I plodded along, but such was not the case. Several times I felt like stopping to rest for just a minute or two, but something inside said “keep going” … thankfully my truck soon came into view and gave me a new sense of determination which was by now running low.
I finally reached the truck and a new challenge presented itself: how to get in! It took some doing, but long story short, I managed to get in and get the old Ford started. I was barely able to shift gears and steer, but slowly I putted toward the home-place. I pulled in the drive, turned off the key before stumbling out and staggering like a drunk to the back porch door of my in-laws home. I could not work the door handle so I just kicked the bottom of the aluminum storm door until my mother-in-law, Rosie came to see what all the fuss was about.
Rosie opened the door, took one look at me and said, “Git your butt in the house boy, you’re froze!” The tone of her voice told me I was in trouble and a good scolding was coming, but for now, her attention was on thawing me out. Modesty was not in the picture. She instructed me to sit down on a chair in the kitchen, unlaced and removed my boots then unceremoniously stripped my off my clothing off down to my underwear. I followed her to the bathroom where the next step was a warm shower, then a soak in the tub. As I walked into the bathroom I momentarily looked in the mirror and was not prepared for what I saw; no wonder Rosie reacted the way she did. I looked like “death warmed over” as Granddad used to say. My flesh was an ashen color and my lips looked like two thin strips of liver; those creepy-looking zombies on the TV shows had nothing on me!
I later learned that my experience was truly a brush with death. Had I decided to linger until sunset, I would never have made it home. I was suffering from hypothermia, a condition where our bodies lose heat faster than it can be produced. I will forgo an in-depth discussion on hypothermia, just know this: it comes as a thief in the night, and by the time you realize it’s there, it may be too late.
My situation happened while hunting, but being unprepared for the effects of extremely low temperatures and suffering the consequences can happen to anyone and in the most unexpected ways. The results can be devastating and range from frostbite to death.
This time of year it pays to invest in an ounce of prevention so that a cure is not needed later on. Keep an eye on the local weather forecasts when making plans to travel or be outside when the temperatures are exceptionally cold and wind chill factors present a danger to your well-being. Be prepared; keep a sleeping bag and a cold-weather survival kit in the trunk of your car just in case. If you’re going outside for an extended period of time and it’s colder than normal, dress appropriately and let someone know your plans. My story is not unique. Anytime the subject comes up in a room full of people, it always seems there is someone in the crowd who has suffered similar circumstances. It’s an easy thing to do. A little research online will provide a wealth of information on how to prepare for the extreme cold. Do your homework before heading out. Hypothermia is nothing to mess with!
The writer, who resides in Sidney, is a regular contributor to the Sidney Daily News.