Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: Jerry Paine

The Dramatic Story Of A Life Saved On Nuttings Lake And The Heroes Who Did It

It happened in an instant. I dropped my canoe paddle in the lake and as it started to float away, I instinctively reached over the side of the canoe to grab it. Bad move. In the blink of an eye I was dumped into the middle of Nuttings Lake in December with no life jacket. As I struggled to right my canoe and retrieve fishing rods and tackle boxes, the numbing cold water brought me to a stark reality. The clock was ticking. I had little time. I had to make decisions fast.

My first thought was to un-swamp the canoe mid lake. A difficult and tricky maneuver during ideal conditions. With several layers of clothes clinging to my body and extremely cold water making it even more difficult, I quickly abandoned this plan. I then decided to swim for shore. After an assessment of my position, I determined the closest point was a friend’s dock on the south shore. I estimated the distance to be between two hundred and two hundred and fifty yards. During warm water conditions this would normally be an easy and leisurely swim. During December in Massachusetts, I was about to learn a lesson about cold water physiology and its effects on the human body. I did not know it at the time, but I was soon to be in a battle for my life. The clock was ticking.

I had moved to Massachusetts from Texas in the fall of 2007 with my wife Julie and young son, Josh. We had bought a house on the shore of Nuttings Lake and moved in on Halloween day. We came to love the serenity and beauty of the lake. We fished and swam in the summer time and skated and sledded on the shores in the winter time. The fishing on the lake was extraordinary. I spent many hours plying the lake for its big bass. The fishing was one of the reasons we decided to buy the house on the shore. We could catch fish from our dock or drop a small boat or canoe in the water and be catching fish within minutes of deciding to go out.

I grew up in Texas and was in and around water for most of my life. I passed a junior life saving course when I was in thirteen years old. I could swim underwater for fifty meters on a single breath of air. I spent many vacations in tropical waters where this aptitude allowed me to free dive to depths of forty feet and search the coral for lobster.

I bought my first motor boat when I was twenty years old. In later years at one point in my life I had one boat for water skiing and one boat for bass fishing. I learned to canoe white water in my twenties. In later years I took annual canoe trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on the border of Minnesota and Ontario Canada.

During all these countless hours in boats and on the water, I was conscious of water safety and had learned to respect the power of water. The number one rule of water safety had been engrained in my thoughts and actions. Always wear a life jacket. It can easily save your life. I was about to learn the hard way, violation of this rule could have dire consequences.

December 2, 2011 was a beautiful late fall day of bright sunshine and calm winds. I had spent the late morning and early afternoon playing golf with friends. After a late lunch I decided that the conditions might be good for catching some fish on the lake. I had recently caught a three pound bass just off the shore of my dock. Fishing slows down considerably as the water temperature drops, but the fish you do catch can be large fish feeding heavily in anticipation of a long winter under the ice.

Within minutes I had my canoe in the water, along with three fishing rods each with a different lure, a tackle box and a small bucket. In my hast, I left my most important piece of gear in the shed, my life jacket.

It was approximately three fifteen PM when I paddled out amongst the receding lily pads just off my dock and began my quest for Micropterous Salmoides, the largemouth bass.

Nuttings Lake is an approximately ninety acre pond In Billerica, Massachusetts. It is bisected by the Middlesex Turnpike into two ponds. The smaller of the two ponds is about thirty acres and the larger of the two is about sixty acres. The ponds are relatively shallow, with the deepest parts no more than fifteen feet deep. There is abundant aquatic vegetation throughout the lake. The lake is feed by a small stream and numerous springs which eventually flow out of the lake and make their way into the Concord River watershed. The conditions are ideal for a freshwater fishery and indeed Nuttings Lake is known for the large bass that can be plied from its water.

Living on the shore of the larger of the two ponds afforded me access to fish the lake during the best of times. I had spend countless hours in a two man bass boat learning intimate details of the lake’s topography and best fishing spots. One of the best spots for catching large fish was a boulder field in the middle of the lake. After unsuccessfully fishing in the lily pad fields along the shore I headed out to the boulders in the middle of the lake.

Frank McLaughlin had decided to spend this beautiful Friday afternoon having a few drinks with friends at Mickees On The Water, a Restaurant and Tavern. Mickees sits on the corner of the Middlesex Turnpike and the north shore of the small pond on Nuttings Lake. From there, one is afforded a scenic view across the turnpike looking into the large pond. While passing the time over drinks, Frank and friends watched me as I canoed toward the bolder field in the middle of the lake.

I had become much too comfortable maneuvering my canoe around the lake. So much so, that I sometimes would fish standing up in the canoe. This affords one a better position for making casts and viewing the water as one fishes. It is extremely dangerous and should never be done in the best of conditions, much less in December when the water is cold. Frank noticed that I was fishing standing up and made a mental note as they continued their conversations on this Friday afternoon.

As the slightest of breeze gently pushed my canoe around, I sat back down and decided to paddle to a different spot to resume my fishing. This is the point in time where I dropped my paddle in the water. My instinctive reaction to reach for it and snatch it out of the water dumped my canoe and threw me in the frigid waters of Nuttings Lake.

Frank had taken his eyes off me for a moment, and when he looked back I was gone. Nothing but ripples remained on the water where I and my canoe had been previously. After a few seconds he was able to discern my head protruding from the water with the canoe nowhere in sight. After processing this scene Frank realized the situation for me could be dire. Frank was a fan of the TV show “The Deadliest Catch”. From watching this show he knew people falling in the water under cold conditions had very little time to live. He thought about the temperature of the water in Nuttings Lake and my predicament.

There are two types of people in this world. People who take action and those who do not. Frank is a man of action. His response to the situation presented to him and his timely actions would be the difference between life and death. Frank told the bartender to call 911. Frank ran to his truck and made his way to the closest shore where he hoped he could help out. The clock was ticking.

The task at hand for me was to swim to the dock below my friend’s house. The friend was Eileen Conway. As I started my swim I was thinking to myself she should be at home and could help me dry off once I got to shore. Eileen was indeed home, but her action would soon involve much more than dry towels.

As soon as I hit the cold water a vestige of our evolutionary hard wiring took over. It is called the mammalian diving reflex. This is an autonomic response in which our body shuts down blood circulation to the outer extremities and slows down our heart rate. This is an effort to keep the core of the body warm. In marine mammals such as whales, seals and porpoises, this allows them to hold their breath for long periods and dive to great depths. For a middle aged human swimming across the cold water of Nuttings Lake, this reflex actually lessens the time one can effectively function in the water. As the blood circulation is decreased to your arms and legs, they stop working efficiently.

The water temperature of the lake I would later learn was thirty six degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature the standard hypothermia tables indicate the time before a person reaches exhaustion or unconsciousness is between fifteen and thirty minutes. However, there is one caveat. Remaining still in the water conserves body heat. Movement in the water, such as swimming, removes heat from the body at a much faster rate. As I was soon to find out, my time to exhaustion was quickly moving towards the lower end of the scale.

As I began my swim across the lake I had no idea of the difficulty of the task at hand. I started out doing a breast stroke, as that allowed me to keep my head completely out of the water. I had on several layers of clothes and some heavy shoes. All of these were impeding my progress at swimming. However, I was confident in my ability to swim to the dock and I was only worried about the embarrassing situation I would have to explain to Eileen, family and friends when I reached the shore. At about the halfway point I soon realized the swim was going to be much more difficult than I anticipated. A small amount of doubt began to creep into my thoughts. I tried to focus only on the dock that I was swimming towards. The clock was ticking and time was running out.

At approximately three forty five PM a 911 call was received by the Billerica Police Department of a canoe tipped over in Nuttings Lake and a person in the water. Police, Fire and EMS units were dispatched to the scene. It was reported that the person had abandoned his canoe and was swimming towards shore. Patrolman Stephen Cogswell was one of the offices in route to the scene. Patrolman Cogswell was aware of the drowning that occurred on Nuttings Lake in 2009. He hoped this would not be the second one in two years.

As I was swimming I noticed my efforts were getting more and more difficult. It seemed the rain jacket I had on as an outer layer was inhibiting my arm strokes. I stopped for a second and attempted to remove the jacket in the water. As soon as I stopped swimming, I immediately began to sink in the water. Normally I could just hold my breath as I sank and remove the rain jacket. But at this point my breathing was extremely labored and as soon as I went underwater, my need for air was extreme. I realized it would be very easy for me to accidently inhale some water which could arrest my breathing and ultimately lead to my demise. I decided to keep swimming with the rain jacket on.

It was about this point that it was becoming evident this was no longer just an embarrassing situation. I was in a battle for survival, a battle for my life. In a way it was an odd epiphany. This lake which I had come to know and love was soon about to envelope me and ultimately extinguish my life. Odd random thoughts started to enter my consciousness. I tried to push them away and concentrate on my only task that mattered now. Reach the dock. Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. I focused on Eileen’s dock like a laser beam. I had to get to the dock. Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, stroke breathe.
The lake was death. The dock was life. The clock was ticking. Time was running out and my time was near.

Frank had made it to the houses along the south east shore. He could still see me swimming towards this shore line. His plan was to borrow one of the many canoes or kayaks housed there, launch it and paddle out to me and assist me back to shore. The first canoe he came to he grabbed and pulled down toward the lake only to be stopped in his tracks by the locked chain preventing theft of the canoe.

He proceeded to the next house which happened to be Eileen Conway’s house. Eileen saw Frank as he ran by her window down to the shore. Frank proceeded to Eileen’s store of boats on the shore but these too were locked up. One more attempt with the boats next door to Eileen’s house, but again these were also under lock and chain.

By this time I had probably been in the thirty six degree water for about fifteen minutes. I was rapidly losing strength in my arms and legs. My progress towards Eileen’s dock had dropped to near zero. I was now in a life or death struggle with Nuttings Lake. The lake was winning.
I was still focusing on the dock, but now my head was starting to drift below the water. Stroke, stroke, stroke, underwater, pop up, breathe. Stroke, stroke, stroke, underwater, pop up, breathe.

At this point I was starting to swallow some of the lake water. It was only a matter of time before I would not pop up again. I did not want it to end this way. I had to focus. I had to dig down deep and use all my strength to get to Eileen’s dock. I thought of my wife Julie and my son Josh. I had to give it all I had for them. Stroke, stroke, stroke, underwater, swallow water, pop up, breathe. Stroke, stroke, stroke, underwater, swallow water, pop up, breathe. The clock was ticking. Time was running out. My time was near.

Frank could see I was starting to go under the water by now. He realized there would be no time to find an unlocked boat. I had made it to about twenty five yards of the dock. Eileen had come out of her house now to see what was going on. She had seen me canoeing earlier but thought nothing of it as this was a common sight out of her window. She had no idea I had gone down. She quickly realized the situation and proceeded to help Frank. At the same time Patrolman Cogswell, Patrolman Frank Rayne and Patrolman John Harring were arriving at the scene. Frank ran down to Eileen’s dock.

My focus was still on the dock. I knew the lake dropped off quickly away from the dock. I had to make it to the dock. The dock was life. The lake was death. I kept pushing on. Stroke, stroke, stroke, underwater, swallow water, pop up, breathe. Stroke, stroke, stroke, underwater, swallow water, pop up, breathe.

At this point my progress to the dock was zero. I was basically treading water and not doing a very god job at that. My head started spending more time underwater than above the water. All my strength was gone. It was all I could do to keep my head up long enough to breathe. I felt bad. I had failed. How would my wife Julie find out about my death? How would she tell my son Josh? I had to keep going with all my strength and all my efforts for as long as I could. I popped my head up one more time to take one last breath. My time was up.

“Are you ok?” Frank yelled at me from the shore. I could not believe it, someone was actually there! I tried to yell out but nothing would come out.
Frank yelled again, “Are you ok?” I popped my head up out of the water one last time and with all my strength I was barely able to get out the words, “No, help.” And with this l proceeded to roll over on my back and start to sink below the water. The clock was no longer ticking. My time had run out.

Frank knew there was no more time. Frank decided to take action. Frank dove in the frigid water and swam out to rescue me.

When Frank got to me he went under the water to pull my head above the surface. Eileen had pulled out several life jackets and was proceeding to throw them in our direction. Unfortunately, Eileen is not very good at life jacket throwing, and they were landing everywhere but close to Frank and I. She decided that she was going to have to dive in and bring them to us, and so she did.

As my time had run out and I was drifting down into the water a strange serenity befell me. The last sound I remember was Frank splashing in the water. I was on my back drifting down when I felt a hand on me. As soon as I felt his hand I relaxed. My struggles were over I thought to myself. I lay back and let him guide me to salvation. Frank saved my life.

Patrolman Cogswell upon seeing the situation also dove in the water to rescue me. I vaguely remember him coming around and putting me a cross chest carry and pulling me towards the dock.

Frank, Eileen, Patrolmen Cogswell, Rayne and Harring pulled me to safety and lifted me out of the lake and onto the dock. The dock! The dock! Finally I was on the dock! This band of strangers had come together and rescued me from death and given me life. At that point in time they had all become heroes. And for this I will be eternally thankful.

The effects of hypothermia are quite dramatic. I had reached the point where my skin was blue from the cyanosis. I kept hearing questions being ask of me, but forming and speaking any more than one or two words was impossible. My legs felt like lead and I am quite sure I could not stand on my own. Movement of any kind was extremely difficult to impossible. My mouth was as dry as the Sahara desert. I was not in very good shape.

I was stripped of my wet clothing and placed in dry warm blankets and moved into the ambulance and eventually to the Lahey Clinic emergency room. My core temperature measured in the hospital was ninety two degrees. This was after I had been warmed up. It is estimated that my core temperature while I was in the water was below ninety degrees.

After several warm IVs and treatment with warm air blankets I recovered fully in the emergency room. I spent the night in the hospital for observation. The next day I was deemed to be completely recovered and was discharged. My wife and son picked me up from the hospital and drove me home. My wife insisted I wear my life jacket on the way home as we would be crossing Middlesex Turnpike and Nuttings Lake on the way.

Mere words to express the gratitude of mine and my family to my heroes seem feeble. But try I must. Thank you Frank! Thank you Eileen! Thank you Patrolman Cogswell! Thank you Patrolman Rayne! Thank you Patrolman Harring! Thank you to all the others whom I do not know who helped rescue me from death and gave me life. I will do my best not to squander it.