As cold-water rescues pile up, caution urged on Maine’s lakes

Mainers consider Memorial Day weekend the unofficial start of the summer season, no matter what the actual calendar might say.

But make no mistake: In many ways and in certain parts of the state, actual summer weather — and lake temperatures — still are weeks away.

That’s the message Maine game warden Jim Fahey wanted to send this week, when we chatted briefly about a spate of cold-water rescues that wardens and alert bystanders responded to over the holiday weekend.

“Humid air masks it, but [the water in our lakes] is still cold,” Fahey said. “People ought to exercise caution.”

Cpl. John MacDonald said game wardens around the state had a busy weekend, as blustery winds helped cause several scary moments for boaters.

Some of what kept wardens busy over Memorial Day weekend included the following:

  • Separate boating under the influence incidents on Messalonskee Lake and Mousam Lake.
  • A minor boating crash in Orono.
  • A property damage boating crash on Sebago Lake in Naples during which a motorboat struck another boat that was anchored.
  • A personal-injury boating incident on Hermon Pond, during which a canoe overturned and a passenger was hypothermic.
  • Three search-and-rescue boating incidents, including one involving an overturned canoe on the Union River in Aurora, another involving an overturned motorboat on Pleasant Lake in T9 R11 and a report of overdue kayakers on the Aroostook River.

A fortunate consistency in those reports is that all the boaters lived.

But for the actions of camp owners at two different sites, that may not have been the case, Fahey said.

On Pleasant Lake, for instance, the boaters were fortunate to have capsized on a body of water where former chief warden Tim Peabody has a camp.

Peabody helped rescue those three boaters after they had spent about 45 minute in the frigid water, Fahey said.

And on Hermon Pond, a man fishing in a small canoe capsized in high winds and spent two hours floating with the boat. He encountered further trouble when he reached shallow water and his anchor hung up on bottom, stranding him, hypothermic, in the lake.

A visitor to a nearby camp saw the boater at that point and got him to shore, where he received medical aid and was brought to the hospital, Fahey said.

When the sun’s blazing and the mercury starts to soar, it’s hard to focus on the fact that the water you’re floating on can be deadly cold. But it is, Fahey said — especially if you spend an extended period of time in the water.

“I spoke to a firefighter at Pushaw Lake, [the site of another incident], and he said the water was in the high 50s,” Fahey said. “When people have a swimming pool, if it’s not 75 degrees, they don’t go in.”

Sgt. Alan Gillis offered a series of safety tips that can aid boaters as they head out for a day — or a few minutes — on the water.

“The very most important message I want to get out to people is you should always have a life jacket on,” Gillis said.

Notice, Gillis said “on,” not “in the boat somewhere.”

“Nobody plans to go out and sink their boat or capsize their boat,” Gillis said. “Things happen to people and they end up in the water, and then they can’t get it on.”

Gillis said flexibility also is important. Even though you may have been planning to spend time on the water, sometimes it’s best to stay ashore.

“Before people go out in a boat, [they should] pay attention to the weather forecast,” Gillis said. “The weatherman says it’s going to be a bad day, don’t go out on the water.”

Sometimes boaters are caught unaware, either because unexpected weather conditions arose or because they didn’t check forecasts. Gillis said in those cases, boaters have an important decision to make.

“If you go and a storm rolls in, get off the lake as soon as possible,” he said.

Gillis said some of the most important decisions are made before we even go on the water.

“[People should] keep their boat stable,” he said. “Don’t overload your boat. Pay attention to the capacity of your boat, and don’t exceed it.”

If you do end up capsizing, Gillis said that in most cases, it’s best to stay with your boat, which will continue to float and will be more visible to other boaters or from shore.

And Gillis said sharing your adventure plans with a trusted relative or friend can be essential to wardens who are trying to find you.

“When you go on a boating trip — and this applies to any outdoor experience — tell somebody responsible where you’re going and when you expect to be back,” Gillis said.

John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.