I contend that Chinese water torture was invented by an accountant. It’s the cheapest torment known to man. Here’s how it works:
1. Strap your victim face-up on a table. Laugh at his pitiful screams.
2. Slowly drip water onto his forehead.
3. Wait 2-3 hours.
The victim, according to historians who documented the torture tactics of the Spanish Inquisition, would perceive a hollow bowl forming in the middle of his forehead and, given enough time, would go stark raving mad.
Mother Nature has its own form of Chinese water torture: Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
When my brother and I cycled from Spokane, Washington to Banff National Park on the Trans-Canada Highway, we were on a quest for a postcard. Limestone pyramids, crisscrossed by glaciers, looming over cyan lakes bordered by Douglas firs – these were the bucolic visions that propelled us over 20-mile mountain passes at six percent grade.
Science supported our hopes. Banff National Park has a subarctic mountain climate, characterized by cold winters and mild summers. It averages less than 12 inches of rainfall per year. We expected days in the high 60s, nights in the low 50s, and a partridge and a pear tree.
I never saw my shadow. After pedaling through the perpetual drizzle, I would meet him 220 miles away in Salmon Arm, British Columbia.
“Cotton: It’s comfy when dry,
And cheap to buy.
But to wear it in winter,
It’s a good way to die.”
– John Dunn, Winterwise
More people die from hypothermia in the summer than winter. Wind and rain are the culprits. Both are heat thieves. With a 20-mph wind on exposed skin, 50 degrees feels like 32 degrees. Water is worse. Water at 75 degrees or below will ultimately, inevitably, lead to hypothermia. Immersion in 60-degree water has a two to a six-hour time of survival. The colder the water, the faster your blood retreats to the core muscles and vital organs, leaving your arms and legs as stiff and useless as manikin limbs.
Most cyclists and hikers come down with hypothermia due to a plant fiber, a soft and fluffy boll cultivated in the American South: cotton. Cotton and its cousins – duck, flannel, denim and 50/50 blends – are hydrophilic. They can absorb up to 27 times their weight in water, and when wet, clothing conducts heat away from the body 25 faster than in air.
I verified this law of science empirically. Come 9:00 p.m., when the sun snuck under its horizon covers and I army-crawled into my one-man, single-wall, Aqua-Quest nylon taffeta bivouac sack to escape the pitter-patter, moisture from my breath would condensate onto the interior and inside my sleeping bag. As the night temperature sunk to 37 degrees, I had to rotate from back to stomach every hour to keep one side from being refrigerated. How I wished for an ultra-light trap and 550-lb paracord to make a rainfly.
* * *
Every morning, my brother and I would emerge as damp as two river otters, roll up our mildewed tents, and mount our rusting bicycles. Mornings began with increasingly bitter epithets against a loud crow that split the morning with his piercing siren.
We were denied all the postcard views: the Larch Valley golden autumn, the blue mirror of Lake Louise, and the spiraling steam of Banff Upper Hot Springs. Chained to the pavement and whipped along by low-lying charcoal clouds, we were kept company by red-tailed hawks searching for cute pikas in the tundra.
And it rained. Later, I realized that we were traveling parallel to the world’s only old-growth temperate rainforest. On the windward western side of the Canadian Rockies, high-pressure systems dump enormous amounts of precipitation, keeping the surrounding area cool and misty. One side of the range can receive two or three times as much precipitation as the other.
Here’s what the rain taught me:
- Slip waterproof gaiters or neoprene booties onto shoes.
- Always wear mid-weight synthetic thermal underwear. No cotton!
- Spray close-toed shoes, saddle bags, and jackets with waterproofing silicone.
- Erect your tent atop a heavy-duty tarp slightly smaller than the tent’s footprint.
- Burn your cheap poncho. Choose a hooded jacket with hood- and wrist-drawstrings. Raingear with Gore-Tex or a similar breathable, waterproof membrane is best.
- When desperate, use plastic shopping bags as exterior sock linings.
- Degrease all moving bicycle parts before and after a storm. Protect them with mudguards and tire guards.
- Apply anti-fog spray to glasses.
- To prevent mildew, wash tents with diluted vinegar or let them dry in direct sunlight.
- Brake pads will slip at the worst possible moment.
- Despite all these precautions, you will still get wet. Grin and bear it.
* * *
One day, our fortitude was rewarded. A motorist passing us driving the other way leaned out the window and muttered, “Watch out. Bear up there.”
We pedaled faster. We came upon a line of trucks on the roadside. My brother knocked on the window of the front pickup and asked, “Where’s the bear?”
As cool and collected as Dirty Harry, the driver jerked his chin towards the right.
My brother peeked over the hood. Gazing at him from the other side was a coconut-colored grizzly bear.
We instantly lost five years of age. We giggled and whispered and jabbed each other like two high school girls asked to the Prom. After retreating to the other side of the road, we gaped at His Majesty, the fearsome 1,000-pound, toothy antagonist of our childhoods, of Balto and Fox on the Hound. His Fearsomeness, meanwhile, was rooting for grubs and ignoring us completely as if we were a pair of mile markers.
As the days passed, the grizzly bear grew much larger, much angrier, and our getaway ride that much more impressive. By the time we exited Banff National Park and entered Yoho National Park, the bear was choosing between eating us medium rare or al dente.
I may have exaggerated the rain, too – just a little bit.