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Special Report: Hypothermia Year-round Threat in Lake Superior


By: Justin Liles

Lake Superior is know for its beautiful water, rocky shores, sandy beaches, and clean, cool water. But cooling off from the summer heat can be dangerous.

"Since 2006 there have been three deaths in the Apostle Islands caused by hypothermia," according to former kayak instructor and park ranger, Ana Pratt.

Pratt knows these waters and knows just how cold it can be.

"Lake Superior temperatures are 39 degrees all year round... only the surface temps are changing."

Capitan Brent Consie of the Duluth Fire Department says one of the things about hypothermia is that people can be lulled into a false sense of security in the summertime.

But hypothermia is a condition that can happen 12 months out of year in Duluth.

"Statistics would show that a person in 50-degree water would begin to go unconscious in 1 to 1.5 hours, and their survival time is about 2-3 hours after that," according to Consie.

Water extracts heat from the body 25 times faster then air. That's something Pratt found out quickly while snorkeling in Lake Superior two weeks ago.

"After 40 minutes I had pretty much lost feeling in my arms and hands. At one point, I was barely able to get my fins off and had to climb up onto and sun heated rock and couldn't move," she said.

Rescue workers from the Duluth Fire Department train for such instances when a person becomes helpless in water. 

If you find yourself in the water with your life jacket on assume the position known as HELP: Heat Escape Lessening Posture. The technique, involving putting your arms across your torso and pulling your legs towards your chest, keeps the heat from leaving your body as quickly. 

"Hypothermia starts, you obviously start shivering uncontrollably, your body temperature goes down from 98 to 93 degrees and you may find you can't count back words from 10," according to Consie.

Both Pratt and Consie say wearing a life jacket is key.

It's also important to wear layers like a wicking layer near your skin, followed by fleece and then something to block the wind. Wearing anything cotton is strongly discouraged.

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