In Maine, freshwater temperatures are known to hover below freezing throughout the winter months and saltwater temperatures, very near freezing. This winter is no exception. If we happen to fall into either freshwater or saltwater, our bodies are not capable of surviving for long.

A Maine game warden releases a deer on the shore of Long Lake in Princeton on Jan. 4. The deer went through the ice and when a local man tried to save it, his canoe overturned. The fact that he was wearing a life jacket undoubtedly was a factor in his survival. Photo courtesy of and Maine Warden Service

As some may recall, a gentleman from the Washington County town of Princeton attempted to rescue a deer that had fallen through the ice on Long Lake in January. During his heroic efforts, his canoe overturned, and he too found himself immersed in the freezing waters. According to reports, when he was finally rescued, he was hypothermic but conscious. His internal body temperature had reportedly dropped significantly from being in the water. Luckily for this man, he was wearing a life jacket, which undoubtedly helped save his life.

Over the past few years, there has been an abnormally high number of incidents and deaths that have occurred as a result of cold-water immersion. Knowing the facts about the subject might help to save your own life. Many are unaware that there are actually three stages of cold-water immersion that the body goes through before experiencing hypothermia.

Stage one is cold-water shock. During this stage, we quickly inhale (because of the gasp reflex) upon immersion, often taking in water. Surprisingly, this kills more people than any other stage, because those not wearing a life jacket may not be able to resurface to cough or spit out the water they inhaled.

Stage two is immobility. In as little as two to three minutes in cold water, you may not be able to move. It is critical that you get out of the water as soon as possible while you are still able to do so. If you’re not wearing a life jacket, now is the time to put it on, while your fingers are able to work the buckles. Many individuals drown during this stage due to their inability to move to stay upright in the water.

Stage three is hypothermia. For this to occur, the body temperature must drop by at least 4 degrees and, while many get cold, it is not common to get that cold before rescue.


What can you do if you find yourself in any of the stages listed above? Experts suggest getting into the Heat Escape Lessening Position (HELP) by bringing your knees to your chest and hugging them while wearing a life jacket to keep your core warm. In addition, shift your body weight to your back so you can take deep and slow breaths.

If you become the rescuer of an individual who has fallen into cold water, remember that it’s common for the individual to experience a post-rescue collapse. Follow these steps to prevent it from happening.

• Warm the individual slowly by starting with their core, not their extremities. This allows the blood to warm up and move around the body. Blankets or a sleeping bag will work well after removing the wet clothing.

• Do not give the individual hot liquids or alcohol.

• Call 911 and get help from professionals as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, many people don’t realize the deadly risks associated with cold-water immersion. Even the best swimmers will face difficulties if immersed in frigid waters for too long. Before venturing out on the boat or going hunting or fishing near bodies of water, make sure you are prepared, wearing a life jacket and thought about the situations you could face and how you will keep yourself safe.

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