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What it’s like … to almost drown in a glacial-cold lake

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It was my last day of fly-fishing alone at Jones Lake, a remote, glacier-fed lake in the mountains near Hope, B.C. It had been a great trip, and I was feeling awesome.

It was a sunny day in May, but it was quite windy and cool – probably 6 or 7 degrees. And when you're out on the lake, it gets really cold, so I was wearing multiple layers – padded winter hiking boots, two pairs of socks, long johns, jeans, a T-shirt, a light sweater, a heavy sweater and a winter jacket.

I was on shore, packing up the rubber dinghy I used for fishing, when the wind flipped the dinghy into the water. I went in after it with my gear on, as my boots were already wet. I jumped off the bank to grab it. The water was shallow, just up to my knees, but it got deep really quickly. There was a small ledge.

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The wind and the splash from my boots pushed the dinghy just out of my reach, so it was a matter of going all in or losing the boat.

I lunged after it. Once past the ledge, I knew the water was over my head. But the lunge had pushed the dinghy out even further.

The water of Jones Lake is very cold, even in the middle of summer. But I don't remember feeling cold; in my mind, it didn't affect me.

But when I hit that water and got in over my head, my clothes, which had felt light and loose on land, became constrictive and felt like cement. I was sinking.

I looked back. I was closer to the dinghy than I was to the shore and I thought: I need that dinghy.

I'm a pretty good swimmer, so I didn't think I was in total trouble then. But the water was really choppy, and the dinghy went out further. I managed to touch it but just couldn't grab the rope. At that point, I knew I was in trouble. I thought: If I make another try for this and miss, I'm dead.

I completely panicked. It was really weird. I just freaked out and thrashed. No thought. I just needed to get back to shore.

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I don't know how many seconds went by – maybe five or 10. Then I suddenly realized: I've got to take control of this situation, otherwise I'm going to drown.

So I settled down. I made strong strokes and kicked with my boots, using everything I had to get back. The shore was just 20 feet away. Everything seemed within reach. And I'm in really good shape. I can run a hard five kilometres – I've been running that for years. But if I hadn't been in good shape, or if I was five feet further from shore, I'd be dead. I have no doubt about it. It took every bit of strength. It took everything.

When I got to shore, I couldn't even lift my arms. My legs were still in the water, and I just lay there, panting. I didn't feel cold, but I was shaking.

We always read or hear about drownings, sometimes in a lake in the middle of summer, and wonder what happened. Was there drinking involved? Were they not being cautious? But here I went from being totally safe – I had worn my life jacket out on the water, but I had taken it off on shore – to literally fighting for my life. It happened so quickly. I was in the water for maybe five minutes.

In hindsight, I think a big mistake we make around water is not realizing how much weight our clothes add and how much they restrict us. One thing I'm going to check from now on is the weight load of life jackets; some are good for 50 kilograms or more, but you have to consider the weight of your clothes.

That day, I numbly gathered up my stuff and went back to my campsite. Seeing my truck and my tent there, it really hit me: Oh my gosh, I just about didn't come back here.

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I had a vision of my wife, Linda, and my kids. My wife doesn't come up there with me, but I've been taking my older kids for years. I thought: The kids would have had to take Linda here to pack up all my gear, all my stuff.

I'm not a big crier, but it was suddenly overwhelming. I just lost it.

Rob Craig lives in Surrey, B.C. He's a father of six children and the chief executive of a technology start-up firm.

As told to Wency Leung

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