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I’m planning a vacation in eastern Ontario in mid-May (Bon Echo area).

It looks like Pike and Walleye fishing opens around that time. So the people I’ll be vacationing with want to do some fishing by boat/canoe.

I’ve heard there can be ice on the lakes in that area in late April. So that makes me think the water will still be ice-cold in mid-May. I figure it would be foolish to go fishing by boat or canoe at that time of year; if there was ever an accident and people fell in the water, I imagine they’d go into shock and be in serious trouble. (Not all that different from falling into freezing water in the middle of winter.)

That makes me wonder, how can I gauge when it is safe to go boating/canoeing in terms of water temperature/time of year?

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  • If it was as dangerous as you are making it sound people would be dying left and right during the numerous polar plunges around the world when in reality actual serious injury or death is incredibly rare. And that's in water that's basically freezing.
    – eps
    Apr 6, 2023 at 13:55
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    @eps While it's true injuries from polar bear plunges are fairly rare, that usually involves a controlled dip in waist-deep water a few feet from shore, not a surprise dunk while fully clothed in the middle of a lake. You will basically never find an organized polar bear plunge that does not have emergency medical staff standing by on shore. The risks are certainly not something to discount entirely. Apr 6, 2023 at 14:29
  • No need to reinvent the wheel here, surfers have it all figured out. Just ask a surfer what they wear in that temperature water. Apr 8, 2023 at 21:42
  • @eps -- Have you never heard of cold shock or sudden drowning? See weather.gov/safety/coldwater or coldwatersafety.org/always-wear-your-pfd
    – Martin F
    Apr 11, 2023 at 0:29

5 Answers 5

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Cold water immersion makes a difference, but the season probably doesn't matter as much as you may think. Many Canadian lakes are cold throughout the year anyway.

There are a bunch of resource you can consult.

Red Cross Canada

  • drinking
  • no life vest on (PFD)

Recreational Boating-Related Fatalities in Canada, 2008–2017

The temperature (page 12) doesn't figure highly, but... keep in mind people are more out in summer, so an equivalent number of deaths in cold weather likely means more risk (as your question presupposes).

Risk Factors for Recreational Boating Deaths in Canada

again, alcohol, no PFD.

Another resource I found had a cause of death contribution factor and water temperature was only listed as a principal factor about 20% of the time IIRC.

Ah, found another one by Red Cross, the cheerily titled BOATING Immersion and Trauma Deaths in Canada

Table 11b, page 45. There is certainly a correlation, especially considering that fewer people will be out in cold weather.

enter image description here

From a quick look at the map, this is a small lake so it should be fairly calm and easy to get back to shore if the wind rises.

On the other hand, I own a book called Outdoor Survival in British Columbia. The author is down to earth about most risks such as bears, cougars, lightning, etc...

He reserves his strongest warning about risk of death when being out on a cold lake unprepared.

Bottom line is that you would gain more safety from insisting on some ground rules when you do go out fishing with these people any time of the year than paying too much attention to the exact season.

No alcohol beforehand or during for you or anyone operating the boat. WEAR a PFD (must be on for it to work, having it in the boat doesn't count if you can't access it while in the water). Make sure the boat is in good shape and reasonably stable, enough so that it won't tip over if one person falls in and the next person screws up bringing them back onboard. Talk through what you would do if someone fell in. Make sure no one has any medical risks worsened by cold water. Do you trust these people?

That all said, as long as you are careful, this doesn't look much like a high risk outing. Don't let yourself feel pressured, but enjoy it if you do decide to go through with it.

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    I managed to talk to a local who says lots of people do go swimming in that lake that time of year. So between that, wearing a PFD, and not drinking, I’m feeling less nervous. But I will also keep in mind that if you gasp under water, you die (that’s something I read recently). Thanks for your objective answer.
    – User1974
    Apr 11, 2023 at 9:03
  • @User1974 I am not sure saying you die if you gasp underwater is correct. Inhaling water does not kill you in itself. However, what is true is that inhaling water is usually part of the chain of events that happens early on, causes you to panic and lose buoyancy thus drowning. That's where PFDs help, they help you past that initial moment and make it non-lethal. The same way they help with cold water shock as well. If you want to know more about drowning google "recognize drowning", here's one video youtube.com/watch?v=M8G9Gam8jf8 for example. Apr 11, 2023 at 16:43
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This is hard/impossible to answer on various levels, depends on too many factors including on your definition of 'safe'.

There are a couple of charts giving a rough estimate on survival/passing out times in cold water. For example here and here.

Now you have to figure out what you deem 'safe', i.e. how much 'risk' you are wiling to take, realistic response times and likelihood of an accident. Plus equipment and experience of you and your friends.

For example, if you were to go fishing on the lake on the outskirts of town with your Canadian lifeguard friends who are testing out their new cold weather wetsuits and the local first-responders are having their annual hypothermia rescue training on the shore, I'd feel pretty safe even if the water temperature is around freezing point. If I went with just my buddy (and neither of us have a lot of boating experience) to a remote island in northern Norway in bad weather and a heavy sea state, it'd feel a lot riskier even if the water temp was in the 60F to 70F (15.5°C to 21°C) range.

I don't think there is a "one size fits all" rule of thumb but it needs to be a case by case consideration.

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    Also: wear a damn PFD! Apr 6, 2023 at 10:21
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    @fyrepenguin we live near a small lake and a few years ago a father and son were fishing at night. Even though the son was only 5 years old, he survived, but his father tragically did not. You can guess which of the two was wearing a PFD. This was in June, so the temperatures weren't even as extreme as in OP.
    – stannius
    Apr 7, 2023 at 17:30
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I do kayaking in Ontario and belong to some canoe/kayak groups, and while I'm strictly a fairweather kayaker (If I can't wear shorts I'm not going) some others are getting ready for their first trip at this time (April).

The key word that is always mentioned is "wetsuit". Pretty much everybody is wearing a wetsuit at this time of year, and many are wearing drysuits. Many of the people are commenting that canoeing without a wetsuit at this time of year is dangerous. Now it's true that you are more likely to land in the water kayaking than fishing, but I think it gives you an idea of how people are thinking.

And whatever you do, be absolutely sure you wear your PFD. You know it legally has to be in the boat, so just put it on. You will pass out from cold before you die, but passing out is as bad as death if you sink when you pass out. And you don't want your buddies to have to dive in and rescue you from the cold lake bed rather than just take the boat over to your unconscious floating body and haul it in.

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    "and haul it in" is difficult by itself. Depending on the stability and size of the boat, getting somebody back on board is a really hard task. Many have drowned just because the crew wasn't able to get them out of the water.
    – PMF
    Apr 7, 2023 at 7:39
  • This is a good answer except, i think you should clarify/correct this "...you are more likely to land in the water kayaking than fishing..." I'm not quibbling over your "kayaking" versus the OP's "canoeing/boating" as the risks are very similar. But you seem to compare kayaking (ie, boating) to fishing, while the OP is asking about fishing while boating. Maybe you wish to compare fishing by boat with fishing from shore? That is a reasonable Q but not the OP's Q.
    – Martin F
    Apr 11, 2023 at 18:38
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Our sea kayaking club is very conscious of cold water safety. San Francisco bay stays around 55F (13C) all year. Without a wetsuit or drysuit the rule of thumb at that temperature (much warmer than you are thinking) is you have about 10 minutes where you can assist someone rescuing you and another hour where you can't. At your temperature I wouldn't go without a drysuit and sufficient insulation under it plus a PFD. You should also know how to get back in a canoe and have practiced it in conditions like you will be out in.

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  • While I agree with your post, and have upvoted, that temp guidance can be a little misleading. Here in Scotland the sea never gets anywhere near that warm, but with a bit of cold water swimming experience you can happily swim for an hour at 10C, 30 mins at 9C, 20 mins at 8C and maybe 10-15 at 7C. When it's down at 4 or 5 degrees, a 5 minute dip is sufficient to start shivering
    – Rory Alsop
    Apr 7, 2023 at 10:57
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    @RoryAlsop: people can train to swim in cold water much longer than usual. I am amazed at the crossings made. My impression is that most people don't last that long. Apr 7, 2023 at 13:53
  • Oh, I know, and I'm not recommending most people to try it. Most countries are closer to the equator than Scotland so folks will not be used to what for us is just normal
    – Rory Alsop
    Apr 9, 2023 at 14:59
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I think if you have to ask, it probably indicates you shouldn't go.

If you want to go boating/canoeing without trained rescue swimmers nearby, you should do rescue swimming training yourself. You don't need to be a very strong swimmer to do a rescue swimming course. Do a course for lakes if you want to go on lakes and a course for cold water if you want to go there when the water temperature is below 10C or so.

If you absolutely want to go based just on advice on the internet, then wear a personal flotation device and be aware that if you are not wearing a suitable wet or dry suit, once you are wet there is a risk that you will become too cold to paddle back to civilization. How much of a risk depends on the weather.

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