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Give respect to the river; it can turn deadly: Woods & Waters by Tom Shank

Posted 5/16/18

Several years ago, I wrote about a horrifying situation I found myself in while on the Susquehanna River during frigid temperatures. I believe my story needs to be told again and again. Cold water …

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Give respect to the river; it can turn deadly: Woods & Waters by Tom Shank

This boater has smooth sailing. Tom Shank wasn’t so lucky when his boat got loose on the Susquehanna River several years ago.
This boater has smooth sailing. Tom Shank wasn’t so lucky when his boat got loose on the Susquehanna River several years ago.
Posted

Several years ago, I wrote about a horrifying situation I found myself in while on the Susquehanna River during frigid temperatures. I believe my story needs to be told again and again. Cold water can be life-threatening when you fail to respect and let your guard down for just a second. Tragedy can strike even to the most seasoned boater.

I still experience flash-backs of that morning. I cannot believe I did what I did to put me at the mercy of the Susquehanna River. I’m one of the fortunate ones. Many aren’t that lucky. So please, as you read this Woods & Water article, take the safety tips with you and use my mistakes to help you be safe.

The morning of the 14th of February began like many others. I had several beaver traps set from Steelton to Middletown. The Susquehanna River was smooth as silk. No ice, no wind, conditions were excellent for February. The outside temperature was above freezing and the water was probably in the 40s. I was pulling my traps and was making quick work of it. My Lowe 15-foot boat is a sturdy and well-made river boat. It takes on what the river gives it throughout the year. Powered by a Mercury 40-horsepower jet, it is a safe and efficient watercraft.

I had one more trap to pull in the area of Spades Wharf Island. This is where my story becomes a life-or-death situation. I pulled my boat alongside of the island and got out of it, with no problem.

After throwing my anchor onto the bank, I proceeded to walk toward my beaver set. It only took several minutes to unsecure my trap anchor and recover the trap. I was done. But as I looked back toward my boat, it was gone. In a matter of minutes the force of the current pulled my anchor. My boat was drifting downstream along the island.

At first it appeared to be no big deal. I knew the water and the area. It had a shallow shelf protruding out from the island a short distance downstream. I would merely walk out grab my boat and be on my way. The water depth was hovering around 6 feet or more. I made it a short distance from the island toward my floating boat when my first major problem occurred. I slipped and fell and was completely submerged.

Now I had a decision to make and I went for it. Everything I had was in my boat. My phone, additional clothing, it was my refuge. The boat was so close, I knew I could make it, so I went for it. Just a few strokes and I had the side of the boat in my grasp. I thought to myself that I made it.

But did I? I underestimated the effects of hyperthermia. I tried to pull myself over the side of my boat and couldn’t do it. The more I tried the less I accomplished. I couldn’t do it. My mind told me that I had to get into the boat but my body wouldn’t react. I was barely holding on. I knew I was in deep trouble.

It’s a strange feeling that comes over you when you think this could be your last day on Earth. I prayed and at one point felt like letting go, but I knew that would be giving up. During the most intense time when I felt no hope, something clicked in my mind. Go to the back (stern) of the boat. I slowly made my way sliding my hand hold along the upper rail toward my Mercury 40-horsepower jet motor. It was there where I found a foot hold on the motor. The cables and the way the motor is housed allowed additional hand holds and foot holds. I crawled up and over the bow of my boat plopping drenched and freezing into the safety of my boat.

I made it! But I wasn’t out of the woods yet. My boat ride back upstream to the boat landing and truck was about 2 miles. I was freezing and on two occasions I went off my boat route almost striking the Harrisburg International Airport dike. I was losing my ability to comprehend and was losing control of my mental resources. Even with everything going wrong, I still managed to keep it together enough arriving safely at the boat ramp. I called two of my friends, who promptly arrived and took over getting me safely home.

Now, when I think back, I made some terrible decisions that could have cost me my life.

First, never underestimate the effects of cold water immersion. Cold water can kill you.

Second, always secure your boat, so that it cannot float away. An anchor along with a tie-off rope to a fixed object is double security.

Third, personal floatation devices should be worn at all times, and it’s the law during cold weather months.

Fourth, finding yourself clinging on to a boat while adrift you can re-enter it remember the motor is where you can gain a secure hold. A safety ladder accessible is an added safety measure

Fifth, your mental state to fight and keep going must always be utmost.

Finally, respect the Susquehanna River. It’s a jewel for recreation. However, it can be deadly for those who fail to keep water safety paramount.

Tom Shank has been writing Woods and Waters for the Press & Journal for about 10 years. His expertise has been gained through more than 50 years hunting, fishing, trapping and exploring the full gamut of nature. The Susquehanna River and his cabin in Lycoming County are his true loves. Woods and Waters is his playground in life, and to write about it for the Press & Journal is a dream come true.