The morning of Nov. 11, 1940, was unusually warm in the upper Midwest as hundreds (if not thousands) of duck hunters took advantage of the warm weather and the holiday to take to the field along the productive Mississippi River flyway.
By mid-afternoon, temperatures reportedly climbed into the 60s, but then the weather began to change. Conditions deteriorated rapidly with parts of the Midwest ultimately getting up to 27 inches of snow overnight with drifts in places up to 20 feet deep driven by 50 mile-per-hour winds. Temperatures reportedly dropped more than 50 degrees.
Afterwards, surviving hunters reported that great flocks of ducks were pushed ahead of the storm and that everyone could have easily shot their limit, but the great hunting was quickly forgotten as the wind picked up and temperatures plummeted. By the time they realized it was a survival situation, it was too late. Waterfowl hunters who were dressed for warm weather took whatever shelter they could find on little islands in the face of 5-foot-waves and single-digit temperatures.
By the time the Armistice Day Blizzard passed, nearly 150 people had perished including nearly 25 duck hunters in Minnesota and 66 sailors on Lake Michigan.
The majority of these people died of hypothermia: a condition characterized by an unusually low body temperature generally caused by prolonged exposure to cold. Hypothermia is often called the Killer of the Unprepared, and although it usually happens during cold weather, it can happen at any time due to immersion in cold water or other situations.
While I have never experienced what I call real hypothermia, I do recall once as a teenager I was hunting in some woods that I knew fairly well, but found myself disoriented and walking in circles during a sudden snowstorm that reduced my visibility (I changed tactics, headed downhill and was back to the house within a half hour).
In hunter education, we instruct the students to always be prepared and to dress appropriately for anticipated weather conditions. Here in the Ohio River Valley, that usually means dressing in layers that you can add or remove, and wearing a waterproof outer layer. If you have to ask yourself if you need that extra layer or article of clothing, take it along. It is better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.
Being cold is no fun, and for the most part is an uncomfortable annoyance, but being both cold and wet is different – it is a crisis, an emergency requiring immediate attention. Hypothermia is compounded by being wet or submerged in cold water. The wetness draws warmth away from your body faster than your body can produce heat, and it does not have to be very cold for that to happen.
Six years ago I participated in an adventure race held in the mountains of West Virginia. The 12-hour race involved more than 30 miles of orienteering/map reading, running, paddling, and mountain biking, and although it was a warm, late August day, it was overcast. Once in the water we were cold and shivering, and it was conspicuously becoming an issue until organizers cut that part of the race short (instead we had to run farther). We quickly recovered from the cold immersion and completed the event.
Something as simple as slipping or taking a spill into water, or upsetting a boat or canoe can create a life-threatening crisis.
Walking on ice is another situation requiring caution; here in southeastern Ohio or western West Virginia, ice is rarely thick enough to venture out onto safely. If you do go out onto ice, don’t go alone, and don’t walk so close to your buddy that you both go in at the same time.
Being all bundled up, then engaging in strenuous physical activity, followed by inactivity, can also cause hypothermia. Imagine a cold day carrying your climbing stand up into the woods, then climbing the tree, getting all hot and sweaty inside your warm, insulated camouflage coveralls, then sitting inside those sweat-soaked coveralls for hours exposed to the cold and wind – hypothermia may set in.
Again, the key thing here is dressing in layers, and also knowing which fabrics can insulate when wet and should be kept on, and those that lose their insulating properties and will drag down your body temperature. In any event, the solution is the same: get out of the water or those wet clothes, get dry, and get warm.
Also pay attention to weather forecasts and plan accordingly. The ability to accurately forecast weather has increased greatly since the Armistice Day Blizzard.
Fortunately there is plenty of information out there about hypothermia and how to prevent it. Consult the internet for more information; a simple search should reveal hundreds if not thousands of survival tips.
Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District. His column In the Open generally appears biweekly. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org