Why Chill Out?
The Challenge of Late-Season Paddling
By Tamia Nelson
November 11, 2003
In northern latitudes, the season of hard water is
fast approaching. Languid summer days are now a distant memory. Optimists are
already drawing up their New Year's resolutions, and active outdoorsfolks are
turning their minds to winter sports.
But we shouldn't be too quick to give up paddling. Even in New York's
Adirondack mountains, many waters still flow free, and calm, warm days often
the numbing advance of winter. Better yet, late-season
boating has pleasures all its own. In much of canoe country, the leaves have
already fallen, stripping the ridges and valleys of most of their concealing
drapery. The earth's ribs and backbone are visible again, and long-hidden hills
can be seen through the trees. Familiar scenes now take on a startling new
Paddling through a November landscape is a bit like entering a house right after
someone has emptied it of furniture. You're conscious of light, dimension, and
proportion in a way you never were before: you've entered a world defined only
space, shape, and shadow. Come to think of it, it's the one type of space travel
that's open to anyone.
Wildlife watchers and birders will have a field day in the late autumn.
no longer limit the view through their binoculars,
and while most migratory songbirds have left for warmer climes soon to be
joined by the last of the ducks and geese the year-round residents
In fact, the woods are a lively place in fall. Animals ranging in size from
chipmunks to bears forage or gorge, readying themselves for the long sleep to
come. Wide-awake squirrels churr from the tall pines. Foxes probe the thickets.
Families of beavers work frantically, felling tree after tree for their winter
Something is missing, of course. The summer hordes of biting
depart with the first hard frost. Few paddlers will mourn their passing.
Other creatures respond to the changing season, too. As rivers and lakes
fish leave the deep pools for shallower waters. Anglers whose eyes and hands can
cope with #22 flies and 6X tippets (and who don't mind ice-clogged guides!) will
find that, local regulations permitting, trout season needn't end with the last
the mayfly hatches. Pick the right day, and even lake trout can be taken near
surface in fall. You'll need luck or local knowledge to connect with an autumn
laker, but once you succeed, you'll find that it's a far cry from the
technology-driven, antisubmarine-warfare-like "fish hunting" of the summer
And after the golden days of October have ended? Why not give fly casting for
pickerel or perch a try? You'll probably get a few fishy looks from the Trout
Trust, but don't be dismayed. Isaak Walton would have understood.
In any event, you'll probably have the water to yourself, or near enough as
makes no difference. Rivers and lakes that are noisy and crowded in August will
deserted in November. Why? Like blackflies and mosquitos, many boaters live
that are ruled by the calendar. The jet-ski jockeys, in particular, will have
garaged their craft and retired to their dens, there to wait until the
trails are groomed and ready for them. Call this the Silent Season, if you will
and make the most of it. It won't last long.
It's not really as simple as that, though, is it? Cold can be a killer, after
all, and the "shoulder seasons" of spring and
good times for novice paddlers to venture out alone, even on familiar waters.
are low temperatures the only problem. Rivers, while seldom as high as in
are often swollen by autumn storms, or
planned releases from upstream impoundments. And autumn storms can be fierce,
indeed. Listen to the official forecast, by all means, but don't stop there.
You're the expert on the weather where you are. So keep your weather eye
peeled, and don't be afraid to cut a trip short if you don't like what you see.
too, is as important in fall as in any other season. There's simply no shortcut
safety. If in doubt, doubt. That remains the only universal rule.
What else can you do? For one thing,
Dress for Upsets
Air temperatures in fall may be delightful, but the water is almost always
cold. And no matter how expert a paddler you are, or how cautious you may
be, one thing is certain: you'll go for an unplanned swim sooner or later. So
dress for upsets. A flannel shirt and light wool pants may be all you'll need
comfort when you're in your boat, but they won't do much for you once you're in
the water. Your foam PFD will help keep you warm if it's zipped
up, that is. But it's not enough by itself. So it's time to bring the rubber
underwear out of the closet. Wetsuit or dry the choice is yours. Just be
sure you wear one or the other.
And don't forget the wind. Windchill gets a lot of airtime later in the year.
Too much, perhaps. (Do we really have to be told to cover our ears when it's 40
below and the wind is gusting to 30 miles an hour? I don't think so.) But wind
also robs you of heat in the autumn. Just ask any late-season cyclist. A
run into the teeth of the wind can turn a pleasantly cool day into a numbing
deep-freeze in nothing flat. Of course, not too many paddlers push their boats
20 miles an hour. Still, even a moderate breeze can make 35 degrees Fahrenheit
feel more like 15. Brrr!
The moral? When you venture out on the water in the fall, you better cover
rubber underwear with something windproof. Or else. Gloves and warm headgear are
Want to know more? Medicine
Mountaineering has a good discussion of cold injuries. Read it before
OK. It's time to
Autumn trips demand more preparation than summer outings, and preparation
time. But the days are shorter now. How can you speed things up? Easy. Get into
the habit of keeping a "ready bag" on hand for spur of the moment excursions. A
waterproof pack or deck bag works fine, as does a sturdy rucksack
with a waterproof liner. First, draw up a list of
essentials. Then check each item off as you load your pack. Don't forget
gear and spare clothes, a (full) match-safe, a simple first aid kit, and some
high-energy food. Perhaps you'll also want to add a tarp, or
least a poncho
the latter makes a serviceable emergency shelter,
even if it's nearly useless in a boat. You'll also want plenty of cord, a
knife, a compass,
a waterproof flashlight
(good) or headlamp (better). Remember to bring spare batteries.
At the end of each trip, dry anything that got wet, replace whatever you
and repack immediately. You'll be ready to go again at the first sign of a break
in the weather.
Short days. Long nights. Cold temperatures. These all take their toll of
paddlers' energy stores. Fall trips are no time to diet. You need plenty of
Fuel for the Furnace
The emergency ration in your ready bag is just that, something for
emergencies. But you'll need to eat on the move, too. And there's no
why it shouldn't be enjoyable. That being the case, let yourself go. Nuts, dried
chocolate, and cereal
are all good, as are jerked meats and hard sausage. (If you're normally a
watercress and tofu type, however, take it easy at first. Give your gut a little
time to adjust to the change in menu.) A thermos of something hot and sweet (and
nonalcoholic) is also mighty welcome. Campers will need to plan
Short days place a premium on ease of meal preparation.
You'll need to drink, too. The sweat may not be pouring off your brow, but
you're losing a lot of moisture as you breathe, and you'll want to keep your
topped up. To that end, drink something at every break, even if you don't
particularly thirsty. And be sure to bring some method of disinfecting
water if your trip will last longer than a day. (It's a good idea to keep a
bottle of purification tablets in your ready bag, just in case.)
Speaking of "just in case" precautions, don't ignore
The Guns of Autumn
Remember that fall is hunting season. Most hunters are good guys (and gals).
least I like to think so I was once a hunter myself. But even good guys
make mistakes, and there are always one or two bad apples in every bushel. So
don't take chances. Before you leave home, check with local authorities to make
sure your destination isn't closed to non-hunters during the waterfowl or
seasons: some "wildlife management areas" are off-limits to anyone but hunters
from early September on. And even when you get the green light, it's best not to
paddle through any popular waterfowling area early in the day. If you must do so
for some reason, it isn't a bad idea to wear shooting glasses or other ballistic
eye protection. "Spent" shot can still do harm, and you only have two eyes.
On land, make sure you don't look like a deer, even to a near-sighted
accountant who only takes Ol' Betsy out of the gun cabinet once a year. Wear a
blaze-orange hat and vest when hiking, and drape the vest over your boat or pack
on the portage trail. Carry a loud
whistle, too, and sound it if gunfire erupts nearby. If you bring your dog
with you on trips afield, keep him on a lead when he's not in the boat, and be
sure to outfit him with a blaze-orange vest all his own.
Is this making too much fuss over nothing? Maybe it is. The overwhelming
majority of human casualties during the hunting season are other hunters.
Still, remembering my own days behind a gun, I don't feel it's silly to be safe.
I'd hate to be the exception that proved the rule.
Such hazards notwithstanding, nature still has the upper hand in the
out-of-doors. That's why you need to keep
An Eye on the Sky
I've said it before, but it bears repetition. Autumn weather is changeable,
the old New England saw "If you don't like the weather, just wait a
is also true of a lot of places outside the Northeast. Warm, sunny autumn
mornings can give way to chilly, drizzly afternoons, to be followed immediately
a fast-moving cold front complete with snow squalls. Be prepared!
And then there's
Some folks like to push the envelope, and that's fine. But that kind of
paddling involves special risks. Attempt it only in a group of experienced
boaters, and only when you're confident that you're up to the challenge.
or kayaking in sub-freezing temperatures is no picnic. Little annoyances can
quickly become serious problems. Your spray skirt can freeze to the rim of your
kayak cockpit, for example. Passing the grab loop through something like a
Wiffle® ball will make it easier to tug, but it may not make it any easier
free your skirt or exit your boat. Keep a knife handy, just in case. Deck
can freeze in place, too. Whether this is a nuisance or a disaster depends on
badly you need to get at whatever lies behind the frozen hatch.
There's more. When the temperature plummets, ice forms on everything that
into contact with the water: the paddle blade and shaft, the boat's hull and
the rudder assembly (if any), your painters and tow ropes, your packs, your
clothing, your PFD
and you. Why does this matter? Ice is heavy. Your
ultra-light paddle can become an unwieldy club in a matter of minutes. You'll
to spend a lot of time banging on things to keep the ice build-up to a minimum.
Ice forms on the surface of the water, too. At first, it simply thickens into
syrupy slurry, but soon bergy bits of true ice form, and paddling becomes an
exhausting struggle. The ice grinds away at your hull, into the bargain. When
happens, it's time to go home. But ice can also form quietly in bays and other
sheltered areas while you're paddling elsewhere. Such ice shelves make it hard
get back to land at the end of your trip. Your choices then are limited. You can
cross your fingers and search for an ice-free take-out, or you can fight your
to shore. If you opt for the latter course, you'll find yourself using the same
technique employed by skippers of modern-day ice-breakers. Paddle hard, driving
your boat up onto the ice shelf. If the ice beneath you is thin enough, you'll
break through. Then repeat the process again and again. You'll gain a few feet
with each lunge, clearing a channel as you go. If the ice is too thick for you
break, however, you'll have to get out and push your boat along, being ready to
jump back in at the first ominous Crack! Be warned: this is as hard on
nerves as ice-breaking is on your boat. The middle of an ice shelf is no place
a beginning paddler.
* * *
Of course, even the most expert (and stubborn) boater will reach a point when
he has to yield to winter's relentless advance. That's the time to retire
gracefully to a seat by the fire, and to dream of paddling in some far-away
tropical paradise. Or maybe you'd rather take up sled-dog racing. The choice is
yours. I know which I'd prefer, though. Aloha!
Copyright © 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights