Paddling through Climate Change

Opinion: Time to prepare for (and enjoy) weather extremes

STRANGE CHANGE: The NOAA report notes longer, more intense hurricane seasons that paddlers of all stripes should heed. PHOTO: Sean Gardner/Getty
STRANGE CHANGE: The NOAA report notes longer, more intense hurricane seasons that paddlers of all stripes should heed. PHOTO: Sean Gardner/Getty

The following originally ran in C&K’s August 2014 edition.

Paddling through Climate Change: Time to prepare for (and enjoy) weather extremes

BY JOHN RUSKEY

AS THIS SUMMER BEGAN, I happened upon the NOAA's 2014 National Climate Assessment. The report was easy to digest, but the more I read, the more that the drastic findings made me feel ill at ease—the kind of sick gut you get when you see disaster unfolding in front of your eyes, like someone sliding over a waterfall.

Here's the brief: We're in for more violent river-level changes, stronger winds, more dangerous and severe storms, rising seas, inundated coastlines, warmer winters, hotter summers, and more noxious air conditions. Let's not forget about the noted increases in mosquitoes, snakes, alligators and poison ivy too. Sounds like an adrenaline junkie's safari, right?

Well, the findings confirmed worries that I've had—especially after harrowing experiences paddling with extreme water and atmospheric conditions that seem to be happening more and more frequently. Any paddler who enjoys big open water knows what I mean. Think Puget Sound, the Inside Passage, San Francisco Bay, Lake Superior, Glacier Bay, Acadia, the Hudson River and the Florida Keys. You have to pay more attention to the elements on bigger water. You're more exposed, and like climbing the big mountain, if you fall, you fall a long ways.

Here on the Lower Mississippi River, paddlers are plowing into this storm on a direct line of impact. Distance through-paddlers who leave the headwaters in early summer find themselves reaching the Gulf right in the thick of fall hurricane season, which now looks to last a little longer, with hurricane-associated storm intensity and rainfall rates projected to increase. Everyday paddlers are starting to feel the effects as well. Memphis kayaker and race director Joe Royer decided to move his massive Outdoors Inc. Canoe and Kayak Race from its traditional May date back to Father's Day Weekend in June because of the highly erratic and oftentimes violent spring weather patterns.

RISING TIDE: The author makes an improvised Lower Mississippi camp while catching the crest of the Mississippi River's historic 2011 flood. Photo: Christopher LaMarca
RISING TIDE: The author makes an improvised Lower Mississippi camp while catching the crest of the Mississippi River's historic 2011 flood. Photo: Christopher LaMarca

The dramas and comedies that my outfitting business has weathered over the past decade all came rushing back with front-line ferocity: the thunderstorm in New Madrid, sideways rain with gusts that whisked away all 12 of our group's tents; barely landing our 30-foot voyageur canoe on an island above Natchez before a molted blue and black storm front jumped the river, knocking a dozen trees over like blades of grass before a weed-whacker. Other paddlers' horror stories keep adding up as well, with canoes blown away from camps, or the small handful of worst-case tales where a wind-related capsize escalates to a loss of life.

Are these mishaps a direct result of climate change? That's a leap of logic not for me to decide. What I do know is that this assessment represents four years of work from over 300 scientists, supervised and approved by a 60-member committee representing a cross-section of American society (including representatives of two oil companies).

New millennial paddlers can expect a century full of surprises, along with everyone else on this ever-evolving Earth of ours. But our consolation is if anyone can handle it, we can. Nothing makes paddlers happier than having more water. When the river rises, it just means we have more places to play.

So it looks like we'll get what we want, just not always when we want it or expect it. A little preparation and planning go a long ways to safely returning home. Paddle wisely. Be patient. Use sailor's sixth sense. Assume the worst when listening to the weather report. Add on 5-10 mph to any wind predictions (old computer models are sometimes inaccurate with regard to these new patterns). Anticipate the sudden and drastic fluctuations in river volume, learn how to cope with hotter days and more humid nights.

I have faith that a group so accustomed to challenging conditions on an ever-changing medium will adapt to the realities of new climate models more easily than others. Land dwellers take note: Canoeists and kayakers have been paddling the waters of the world about 5,000 years longer than people have been driving automobiles, maybe longer. We've survived mega-floods, prolonged droughts, and mini ice ages, not to mention Pompeii and Krakatau. I'm sure we'll make it through the present era of climate changes—and have a few good adventures to share around a campfire after getting through it all.

John "Driftwood Johnnie" Ruskey floated down the Mississippi River 32 years ago in a homemade raft, crash-landing near Clarksdale, Miss., where he launched and still bases the Quapaw Canoe Company.

— Watch David Hanson’s latest film on Ruskey’s exploration of the Atchafalaya River.