Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: Sunscreen and Life Preservers Won’t Cramp Your Style

By Shawn Perich

This spring, I’m shopping for a new hat. Like many hunters and anglers, I’ve always worn ball caps. Now I’m looking for a wide-brimmed hat that will shade my oh-so-sensitive face, ears and neck from the sun. You might say I’m following doctor’s orders.

Last fall, I travelled to Duluth to see a skin specialist about a small growth on the back of my hand with a persistent, annoying itch. The doctor informed me that I had a squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. The itch was from nerve damage caused by the cancer. If untreated, a squamous cell can spread to other parts of your body.

The doctor cut it out, leaving a dime-sized hole in my hand. Carefully examining my face, hands and arms—places on my body frequently exposed to the sun–he went on to freeze several pre-cancerous spots with liquid nitrogen. Before leaving his office I made an appointment to return to the doctor in six months. Now that I am, in a very small way, a “cancer survivor,” regular check-ups are in order.

I went back to the doctor in April. The squamous cell hadn’t reappeared, but the pre-cancerous spots on my arms and hands had to be frozen again. The doctor also made a new discovery. What appeared to be a rash near my right eye was actually a skin condition called ocular rosacea. It, too, is worsened by exposure to the sun.

I come by my sensitive skin honestly. My fair-skinned Irish mother had her first bout with skin cancer when she was in her 30s. Now, many years later, she undergoes regular, aggressive skin treatments and occasional minor surgery to have cancerous growths removed. She is careful about minimizing sun exposure and using sun screen.

Mom bought me a bottle of sun screen for Christmas, because I’ve never use the stuff. As someone who spends lots of time outside hunting, fishing and working around the yard, I’ve been—with the benefit of hind sight—pretty casual about protecting myself from the sun. While I sunburn so badly that I virtually never wear short pants, go shirtless or go swimming, I’ve never protected my arms, face and hands. That’s where my skin troubles are now appearing.

Very likely, the damage to my skin occurred long ago. Among the first questions the doctor asked was whether I remembered being sunburned as a child. What I remember is not only a couple of cases of severe sunburn, but many instances when my face and hands burned, peeled and burned again. At the time, I thought that was what happened to fair-skinned people.

As an adult, I’ve done a better job of covering up on sunny, summer days. Usually, I seek shade during the middle of the day, which means I rarely spend eight hours or more baking in a boat while trying to catch fish. However, I get lots of sun exposure while fishing and hunting on cool or cold days. Until now, using sunscreen to prevent it has never crossed my mind.

Starting with this fishing season, big changes are in the offing for me. Wearing sunscreen whenever I’m outdoors must become a new habit. My new hat will be an essential part of my outdoor wardrobe. While I can’t reverse the sun damage to my skin that has already occurred, I’ll do my best minimize repeated damage in the future.

Most of us know the sun will damage your skin, yet many folks remain unabashed sun gods or goddesses. You know the type—by mid-June they’ve already acquired deep tans. I hope they don’t someday regret having done so. At the risk of sounding preachy, here’s a friendly reminder to apply sunscreen and wear a hat before you hop in the boat.

On a similar note, I recently read a story draft by an aspiring outdoor writer about how he and a friend capsized a canoe while fishing on a wilderness lake. While the story had a happy ending—the pair were wet and cold, but safe—the author made no mention of whether they’d been wearing life preservers. When I asked him about it, he nonchalantly replied that they were both good swimmers, so they normally just tossed a couple of life preservers into the canoe. He seemed a little miffed when I told him that no outdoor editor in the country would accept a story about capsizing a canoe that did not emphasize water safety.

I told this tale to Outdoor News editor Rob Drieslein, who agreed with me. He generally doesn’t run photos showing someone who is standing in a boat and not wearing a life preserver. As an editor, Drieslein believes presenting proper image of water safety is as important as doing the same for gun handling. The Minnesota DNR takes boat and water safety seriously. Statistics show the agency’s outreach efforts have reduced accidental drowning in the state. Nevertheless accidents still happen—often to people who are not wearing life preservers.

A few years ago, I was fishing on Lake Superior with a couple of friends when one of our trolling lines became tangled in the outboard. It was wavy, so my friend motored to the lee of a nearby island so he could work on untangling the line. Bending over the stern he lost his balance and tumbled head-first into the lake. The water was shallow enough so he could easily stand; the only harm done was to his pride. Had the same thing happened out in the waves, the outcome may have been different. We would have had a man overboard and a disabled engine.

Today’s life preservers are comfortable and come in many styles, so you really don’t have an excuse not to wear one. And, aside from a couple of months during the summer, Minnesota’s lakes and rivers are dangerously cold. Even an experienced swimmer can get in trouble in a hurry. So (preaching again) be sure to wear a life preserver. Staying safe in the sun and on the water won’t diminish your fishing fun.

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