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We were hunting moose in the Susitna River drainage on my favorite and secret moose river. Our mode of travel was my inflatable Zodiac raft and another Avon raft, both 14-footers. No motors on this trip only paddles. The river was influenced by a glacier coming out of the Alaska Range. The water temperature was in the low 40’s and the color of tea with lots of milk in it. That grey color is the thumbprint of a glacial river.
We’d be floating only 35 miles and negotiating a dangerous set of rapids along the way. In that the best hunting is in the first 20 miles we’d be base camping for three days at a big bend in the river where we had a great view of extensive beaver ponds. By day two, we had two beautiful bulls down and by the end of day three we had them packed back to camp. The next morning we began the remaining float with no urgency as the meat from two moose is all four guys could want for a year.
The part of the story I’ve left out was that the weather had been life threatening. The rain began to fall before we had camp set up the first day. The temperature hovered around 35-degrees until dark. Then it began to snow until we had 5-6 inches of wet snow on everything. By mid morning the next day it warmed and began to rain again. By evening, the rain had turned to sleet. This pattern repeated for the entire trip; snow, sleet, rain.
Although the hunting was good, our gear began to get wet. After all of the packing and moving around in the wet we were all at least damp. Even our sleeping bags were damp by day four. Wet is dangerous in Alaska, even more so than grizzlies. Cold water, falls and hypothermia cause death here.
During the morning float on day 4, it was still raining. I noticed one of my friends in the other raft wasn’t participating in the conversation. He was staring ahead and paddling slowly. I paddled over to him and asked him how he was feeling. His response was some slurred statement about being really cold. Then I noticed he was shaking. I saw hypothermia creeping up his spine. I called for a stop and we went to work.
After 4 days of constant rain and snow, not much wood was dry. We were floating past some big stands of spruce and after beaching the rafts, I began to crawl under the spruce trees to break off the dry squaw wood that hugs the trunks. It was the only dry wood around. Everyone helped. Soon a roaring fire 6-foot tall was crackling and we dug into our gear bags and donated our driest clothes to my cold friend. We poured hot water flavored with Jello into him. By adding heat on the inside with Jello water and the outside with the fire, we reversed the dangerous drop in body core temperature and he survived.
Hypothermia is the lowering of our body’s core temperature below 95-degrees. Beyond that it is difficult or impossible for us to create enough heat to recover. Death moves in quietly below 94-degrees. Water is usually part of the problem. When our clothes are wet, they lose their insulating qualities. Some fibers are much better than others are when it comes to insulating. Cotton is the worst. It doesn’t have a place in Alaska.
Fleece is a good choice and polypro long johns. Layers are the mantra up north. Layer up and don’t get wet. I use a base layer brand used by our special forces called XGO. It is probably the best wicking base layer out there. Rain gear must bead water to be effective. The breathable options are great but you must keep them clean so they can work. Even a little dirty and they water will begin to sheet on the outside and the breathability goes out the window.
The way to keep raingear clean is by washing it in Sport-Wash detergent. It is the only engineered detergent in America. It rinses completely out of the garment and allows fleece and base layers to wick and it keeps rain gear beading. If your rain gear does stop beading water even after you clean it the answer is to treat it with Silicone Waterguard. This is a spray-on silicone treatment will restore water repellency on raingear. It has no odor after 24 hours and lasts all season.
Hypothermia-related deaths in Alaska are 10 times higher than in the rest of the United States. If you’re visiting the Great Land or even bowhunting in cold wet weather remember that Hypothermia is waiting for you to get wet, so stay dry. If you can watch streaming video on your computer you will enjoy this clip…titled: Alaska Proof