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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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 defy 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 aspect. 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 by 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. Leaves 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 remain. 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 food stores.

Something is missing, of course. The summer hordes of biting flies depart with the first hard frost. Few paddlers will mourn their passing.

Other creatures respond to the changing season, too. As rivers and lakes cool, 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 of the mayfly hatches. Pick the right day, and even lake trout can be taken near the 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 months. 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 be deserted in November. Why? Like blackflies and mosquitos, many boaters live lives 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 snowmobile 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 fall aren't good times for novice paddlers to venture out alone, even on familiar waters. Nor are low temperatures the only problem. Rivers, while seldom as high as in spring, are often swollen by autumn storms, or by 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. Scouting, too, is as important in fall as in any other season. There's simply no shortcut to 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 for 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 downhill 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 at 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 your rubber underwear with something windproof. Or else. Gloves and warm headgear are important, too.

Want to know more? Medicine for Mountaineering has a good discussion of cold injuries. Read it before you need it!

OK. It's time to…

Get Packing.

Autumn trips demand more preparation than summer outings, and preparation takes 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 rain 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 at 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 utility knife, a compass, and 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 used, 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 reason why it shouldn't be enjoyable. That being the case, let yourself go. Nuts, dried fruit, chocolate, and cereal bars 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 ahead. 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 tanks topped up. To that end, drink something at every break, even if you don't feel 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). At 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 big-game 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, and the old New England saw — "If you don't like the weather, just wait a minute" — 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 by 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. Canoeing 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 to free your skirt or exit your boat. Keep a knife handy, just in case. Deck hatches can freeze in place, too. Whether this is a nuisance or a disaster depends on how badly you need to get at whatever lies behind the frozen hatch.

There's more. When the temperature plummets, ice forms on everything that comes into contact with the water: the paddle blade and shaft, the boat's hull and deck, 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 need 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 a 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 that 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 to 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 way 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 to 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 your nerves as ice-breaking is on your boat. The middle of an ice shelf is no place for 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 reserved.

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