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Letters 07-25-2016

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Splash Zone

Winter paddling has both risks and rewards

Mike Terrell - February 25th, 2013  
Northern Michigan, despite recent warmer winters, isn’t going to be thought of as a tropical zone anytime soon, but some who love to paddle don’t necessarily put their passion on hold until spring.

Those who like winter paddling seek the solitude and quiet beauty of area rivers adorned with a mantle of snow. They find the rewards are worth the risk and cold.

Sara Cockrell paddles area rivers through all four seasons, but she is a lot more cautious during the cold weather months.

“I love to paddle all year long, but I do take a lot more care during the winter months, especially not to spill, which fortunately I never have” she says with a laugh.

“I wear a layer of poly-pro, wool socks, downhill ski pants and a cross-country ski jacket topped off with rain gear. On my hands I wear Gore-Tex mittens, not gloves, a cross-country ski cap on my head and woollined Sorrels on my feet. And, I always have my cockpit spray skirt on.

“In my dry bag I pack even heavier layers than I wear, and, in addition, a fulllength down coat, full wetsuit, hand and foot warmers, and a thermos of hot water. You can never be too careful,” she cautions. “In my van I have another complete change of clothes, which I change into normally within 10 minutes after arriving at the take-out; once boats are loaded and gear stowed.”

IN & OUT

Cockrell adds a few more caveats for would-be winter paddlers.

“You need to be able to take care of the shoreline if it’s needed, and it probably will be. Steps may need to be shoveled at both the put-in and take-out. In addition, you need to think about access roads into and out of the river. Some may not be plowed or, at least, less frequently.

“Trees can come down year-round, so you need to be prepared for a possible portage around them, and logs and banks may be covered with ice. Just take care and be very careful,” she cautions.

Despite the cautions, Cockrell notes there are rewards to paddling in the winter.

“It’s a beautiful time year to on the water. Trees bowed down in winter finery remind me of flocked Christmas trees. I once saw six eagles at one time in a barren tree along the banks of the Manistee River. That’s never happened any other time of year.”

She likes larger, slower rivers for winter paddling, and advises novice paddlers to stick to summertime outings until they gain more experience.

“With the risk of hypothermia, which is real for even more experienced paddlers, I wouldn’t recommend winter paddling for novices. I would recommend that even experienced paddlers stick to the slower, wider rivers, like the Manistee, AuSable, Lower Platte or Boardman below the put-in at the old Brown Bridge Dam just taken out. There are fewer obstacles and less chance of an obstruction blocking the entire river,” the avid outdoor adventurer emphasized.

HYPOTHERMIA RISK

John Lewis, former owner of Backcountry Outfitters and former resident of Traverse City, used to enjoy winter paddling on the bay and led outings, which I joined a few times. I remember him saying that he had his cockpit spray skirt freeze from waves breaking over it. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it can be beautiful on a calm, sunny day.

You dress in layers to create dead-air space for warmth and to trap the warmth. The spray skirt helps to trap warmth for the lower body. I even wear Gore-Tex socks. Try not to get wet as you get into your kayak if you can help it.

The two terms you need to be cognizant of when heading out on the water during winter, bay or rivers, are “cold shock” and “hypothermia,” which has already been mentioned. Both can happen if you were suddenly dumped into cold water and both can be fatal.

Avoid heading out onto rivers after a storm like we had last March; wet, heavy snow that brings trees down creating impassable areas on the river. Wait until spring when the river can be cleared of debris if that occurs.

Following the advice and warnings of veteran paddlers will go a long way in protecting you during a beautiful, quiet time of year on the river. An added bonus is that you won’t have to put up with the hordes of inexperienced paddlers you find on summer outings.

 
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