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Cold Water Survival

The Columbia River is known for its winds, heavy waves and currents. Cold water temperatures can also make it dangerous. From February through April, the water temperature on the river is around 50ºf. From May until the latter part of August, temperatures usually range between mid 50ºf to 68ºf. (Data from Fish Passage Center.)

Your odds of surviving a fall into the river are much better with a life jacket. Here is how to improve your chances of survival:

  • The very first thing to remember is just survive the first minute. Don’t panic. Get your breathing under control.
  • Keep your head above water. The gasp reflex is automatic, and if your head is underwater, you could take in enough water to drown.
  • Control your breathing. Gasping and hyperventilation is a natural reaction to the cold. If you can’t control your breathing, not only could you have difficulty swimming, you could breathe water in and drown. Concentrate on breathing slowly and evenly.
  • After getting your breathing under control that first minute, there are 10 minutes of meaningful movement in your arms and legs to complete escape or survival activities. Use that time to re-board your boat and summon help via an emergency distress call or signal. As the body cools, muscles and nerves will not work well. Even if you are a good swimmer, swimming failure looms. Without some kind of flotation aid, a person will drown.
  • Depending on water temperature and other factors, it will be at least one hour before you risk losing consciousness due to hypothermia. A life jacket will keep your airway above water if you are unconscious, and even an unconscious person may still be successfully rescued and revived.

—from “Beyond Cold Water Bootcamp” 

Distances on the water are very deceptive. Generally individuals should not consider swimming unless they are very close to shore or a floating object, or they have little chance of rescue. Columbia River fishers have been successfully rescued after waiting six hours with their floating boat. Try to get into the boat or as far out of the water as possible. Boats with their flotation removed or without places to cling to in rough water may not offer this option. Fishers wearing a life jacket can be more liberal in deciding to swim because flotation allows them to gradually make their way to safety and they can still float if they become incapacitated by the cold.

 —“Hypothermia, Frostbite, and Other Cold Injuries”
Giesbrecht and Wilkerson, 2006

Clothing is invaluable; if you wind up in the river, it will help insulate you, and nearly all of it is neutrally buoyant. An average-size person wearing light clothing and a life jacket may survive three to six hours in 50ºf water by remaining still.


Sanitation Handbook CoverThis article is an excerpt from the CRITFC publication “Tribal Fisher’s Handbook.” This booklet offers fishers a wealth of information on food sanitation, safety, marketing, and other topics to help improve the quality and safety of tribally harvested salmon. To request a copy, contact Les Brown at (503) 799-8640.


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