An insider’s tips on how to paddle through winter's worst conditions
Though I know they’re well meaning, I’m never overly impressed when my West Coast friends brag about paddling and skiing in the same day. For several years my off-season exercise combined both activities—loading my canoe with cross-country skis, ferrying through the ice chunks at the mouth of the Michipicoten River and skiing along the dunes of a two-mile-long beach on the snowbelt shores of Lake Superior—despite the fact that I was living deep in the hinterland of Northern Ontario where winter lasts a solid six months of the year. It’s always been my policy to paddle every month of the year by sea kayak, canoe or whitewater kayak, despite the vagaries of cold, ice and snow. Here are some things I’ve learned over the years. — Conor Mihell
Stick to the familiar: It goes without saying that cold, unpredictable weather ups the level of difficulty of off-season paddling, so you’re best sticking to river routes and coastal trips that you know have suitable options for bailing out if conditions deteriorate. It’s a good idea to file a float plan with a trusted friend even on a half-day trip.
Heed the forces of nature: One of my closest calls while sea kayaking had nothing to do with wind and waves. What sounded like machine-gun fire startled my wife and I on an April trip on Lake Superior’s Thunder Bay. We looked back to see a massive chunk of rock break off from the very cliffs we were gunkholing beneath moments before, peppering the water with deadly shrapnel. It was a gut-churning encounter with the freeze-thaw effect. I’ve experienced similar experiences—equally humbling—whitewater kayaking amidst flowing icebergs and undercut ice banks at spring breakup and portaging on treacherous ice-covered rocks.
Beware of ice: Photographer Aaron Peterson and I knew we were cutting it close when we planned an early May canoe trip into the backcountry of Northern Ontario’s Temagami region (see The Namesake, from the August 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak). We arrived to find the lakes of canoe country locked in ice. Dragging the canoes and following leads of open water along the shore allowed us to cover some distance, but after breaking through to our waists on several occasions, we made the right decision and turned around. Always consider the consequences when traveling in the shoulder season.
Layer up: You’ll be surprised how warm you’ll get while sea kayaking on a sunny winter’s day. To be comfortable while dressing for near-freezing water temperatures, choose fast-wicking layers and waterproof-breathable shells. Neoprene pogies are warmest for your hands, or choose neoprene mitts for better mobility.
Have fun: There’s no better way to reaffirm your love of paddling than by getting out on the water when most paddlers’ gear is collecting dust. Just pick the right time and place to do it.