Never wing it; cold water kills

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Aaron Baker, an avid duck hunter, looks out over the waterways near Wachapreague, Virginia, Sept. 26, 2016. Baker's passion for the sport is on par with his passion for doing it safely. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn/Released)

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Aaron Baker, an avid duck hunter, looks out over the waterways near Wachapreague, Virginia, Sept. 26, 2016. Baker’s passion for the sport is on par with his passion for doing it safely. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn/Released)

Story by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn

The memory of a frigid December morning on the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina stands out for Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Aaron Baker. As he and two fellow Coast Guardsmen sat in their boat about half hour before sunrise, Baker said the sky, woods and water before them came alive with waterfowl in a way he’ll never forget.

Baker recalls the day not because it’s tied to a heroic Coast Guard rescue, but because he spent it off duty, doing what he loves.

“It’s awesome to sit on a boat or in a blind just before shooting hours, and watch the world around you wake up,” said Baker. “To listen to ducks coming in from miles off in the distance and to hope and pray your decoys are set up right to bring them in.”

Baker said on that day the air and water were so cold the spray from their moving boat actually froze in midair. Dressed for the weather and prepared for anything, he and his two friends had a remarkably successful hunt, taking a variety of duck species including ring-necks, redheads and widgeons.

“Just to be out hunting on a beautiful morning like that is enjoyable,” said Baker. “But when ducks keep coming in like they did that day, that type of nonstop action and the adrenaline that comes with it is what gets people hooked on duck hunting.”

While his enthusiasm for the sport remains undaunted, Baker acknowledges that waterfowl hunting is inherently dangerous – and for reasons many hunters fail to consider.

“Almost all hunters learn and religiously abide by gun safety rules, but I would say the vast majority of duck hunters I know don’t wear any sort of flotation device while they hunt,” said Baker. “People think it will interfere with shooting, like the butt of the gun getting hung up, or the extra gear slowing down arm movement. The truth is, as long as you select the right PFD for you, and adjust it to fit snugly and properly, there is absolutely no problem getting the gun up to your shoulder.”

During most open waterfowl seasons, water temperatures are cold. If a hunter ends up in the water, it takes as little as a few seconds for their arms and legs to cease functioning. Even the strongest of swimmers don’t stand a chance in cold water.

“Accidents can happen at any time, but one of the most common times for people to fall out of a boat is when they are getting in and out of one,” said Baker. “Stepping from a boat onto a dock or onto land, from one boat to another, or climbing from a boat into a duck blind, it is very easy to end up in the water.”

What compounds the risk is that many waterfowl hunters wear water-resistant waders with an opening at the top. If that opening dips below the surface, waders will fill with water and pull a hunter under very quickly.

A hunter that enters the water but is able to make it back to dry land in cold weather must get their body temperature up as quickly as possible. As hypothermia sets in, a person can become completely immobile. Ensuring rescuers can get to you is also a crucial part of any hunting plan.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Aaron Baker, a machinery technician and boat crewman at Station Wachapreague, Virginia, returns from a patrol on Wachapreague's waterways, Sept. 26, 2016. Baker's passion for the outdoors and for keeping people safe make his job a perfect fit. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn/Released)

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Aaron Baker, a machinery technician and boat crewman at Station Wachapreague, Virginia, returns from a patrol on Wachapreague’s waterways, Sept. 26, 2016.  (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn/Released)

“As a Coast Guardsman, I know that when a survivor has a personal locator beacon (PLB) it takes a lot of the guesswork out of it for us,” said Baker. “Instead of having a general description of where a person is, we know almost exactly where they are.”

In cold weather, even if a person falls in the water and gets out quickly, their ability to perform normal functions could be severely impaired. With hypothermia setting in, they might even lose the ability to describe their situation and location to rescuers. Aside from that, a waterlogged cell phone or radio will be useless. Having a PLB is a great option to eliminate those type of risks.

Baker said he always keeps his sons Hunter, Luke and Matthew and his wife Hilary in mind when he heads out to hunt. He said he always checks the weather, tells his family where he will be hunting and when he plans to return.

“I need to make sure I come home to them,” said Baker. “It’s not just about me. If I hurt myself, I’m hurting them. On top of that, Hunter loves to do anything that I do. He hasn’t been duck hunting yet, right now we’re working on gun safety. I can’t wait to get him out in the boat with me, doing what I love. I have to keep in mind that he’ll be doing it the way I do, so I’d better make sure I’m doing it right.”

When Baker isn’t spending time with his family or hunting for ducks in North Carolina, he’s often standing duty at Station Wachapreague, Virginia, where he works as a machinery technician and a boat crewman.

“The Eastern Shore of Virginia is known for duck hunting,” said Baker. “It can be painful to work in a place so rich with waterfowl without being able to hunt. But just getting out on the water is a blessing, whether I’m on duty or off.”

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