It’s the first day of May and I have to admit something. I hate being cold. And the only thing I hate more than being cold is being wet and cold. Which makes it hard to be positive when you wake up to a forecast like I had yesterday: high of 48 degrees and 100% chance of rain. I tried to just go about my normal life and ignore it, but it didn’t work.
I spent the whole day cold to my bones, miserable and uncomfortable until I got home into my flannel pjs.
I’ve always been partial to warmer weather, but my hatred of the cold emerged during the summer I was a camp counselor. In the northern forest of Michigan, they were short of lifeguards and as a lifelong swimmer I thought it would be an easy way to make some extra money. So, I signed up for the required lifeguarding class and settled into a new training routine.
I was nineteen years old and had grown up loving the water. If our high school had had a swim team, I have no doubt I would have joined it. Absent that, a childhood of recreational swimming left me more than capable in the basics and I held my own with the class. I leaned into the hardest pieces — deadman drills, escaping from a panicked drowning victim — and focused on building my endurance.
It was fun, but it wasn’t easy.
By the time we got to our 500 yard stroke test, 100 yards of five different strokes, I was feeling more confident but still worried. I was so focused on showing the instructors I could do what they required that I didn’t pause to think about whether I should do what they required. I didn’t stop to ask any questions when we stepped into the water, one after another, and started swimming. It was cold, really cold. But I pushed myself to swim and managed to finished it, shaking uncontrollably by the time I pulled myself out of the lake.
I only started to worry when, wrapped in a towel on the dock, I heard a faint voice calling for me. One of my friends was standing in the knee deep water on the side of the dock physically unable to pull herself out. In my own weakened state I struggled to help, but together we managed to get her onto the dock. None of the instructors seemed to notice, so I just got us into the fire-warmed cabin. We huddled with everyone else in the blankets they had suggested we bring.
The whole class sat there, each of us working hard to warm back up. It felt like any other camping moment until I looked over and watched one of the male counsellors tip over. Literally, tip over. A buff African-American man, a body-builder with almost no body fat, he had passed out and almost fallen into the fire. The instructors, woken up to the situation, mobilized. Suddenly, one of them was hovering over me asking me questions. My teeth were chattering so badly I could hardly speak.
In a matter of moments, my friend and I were assessed as the worst afflicted of the women. We were driven on a golf cart to the first aid station where they took our temperatures. I argued that since I could walk and talk that I was fine — finer than my friend. But my temperature was lower and so they put me in the bathtub. In my memory they told me my temperature was 95 degrees, but that is so cold I must be remembering wrong. It was a long time ago.
I do remember that it took me awhile in that tub to get back to a safe temp. It took another long shower to feel human again. But the funny thing is that by the time I called my parents from the camp pay phone that night, I shared the story as nothing more than an amusing anecdote. Later, when our instructors shifted us out of the water and to classroom instruction it was just a sidebar — and the irony that we went into a section on hypothermia was hilarious.
It didn’t take us long to realize that it wasn’t funny. That we needed to understand the risks and signs of hypothermia. That leading 20 teenagers into 54 degree water for a prolonged swim test was not just an example of poor judgement, but that it could have had serious results. I think about it now as a parent, wondering how I would feel if I learned that something similar had happened to my daughter. Nope, not funny.
A long time ago, I read an article stating that there was a long-term impact of hypothermia and heat stroke trauma on individual’s ability to regulate their own temperature. It was the first time that I felt like my hatred of the cold wasn’t a complete cop out. Fortunately, at this point (whatever the science) I don’t feel the need to apologize for it. So, on the first day of May I wore long underwear and fleece and spent a big portion of the day on the couch under a blanket. It may be wimpy, but it is what it is.
And that’s why you’ll find me on the beach — not on the slopes.