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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Hands-On!

Getting a Grip on Gloves and Mittens

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

April 19, 2005

Winter's loosing its hold on canoe country at last. The rivers are flexing their muscles. Even in the shadowy creases between the mountains, lakes and ponds are responding to the call of the returning sun. Ice-bound paddlers can now do more than just daydream about canoeing or kayaking. The open water is singing. But — there's always a "but," isn't there? — while the air may be warm, the chilly touch of winter can still be felt in the snowmelt-swollen rivers. Piece of cake, right? You just have to dress for the water temperature. Maybe so. For some lucky folks, at any rate. But the rest of us have a problem that won't go away: our hands.

Not that our hands are a problem in themselves. In fact, hands are mighty handy. Cold hands, though, are something else: painful, clumsy, and uncooperative. Very unhandy, in short. Unfortunately, I've always found it difficult to keep my fingers from freezing during the shoulder seasons. This dates back to my antediluvian period, when the construction of snowmen and snow forts filled winter days after school. I can still remember the numbing cold that turned my hands into claws, even as balls of frost accumulated on my wet woolen mittens.

Ah, yes. Wool. The original miracle fiber. I like the feel and smell of it, and it figures prominently in my backcountry wardrobe to this day. But wool leaves my hands cold. Of course, there wasn't much choice back when I abandoned snowmen for skis, snowshoes, and crampons. The Fleece Age was in its infancy. Synthetics were costly, scratchy, and short-lived. So I continued to clothe my hands in wool. After all, my Grandad always wore wool mittens when he strapped on his babiche bearpaws to take "sports" into the Adirondacks on late-season hunting trips. If wool was good enough for him, I figured it ought to be good enough for me.

Except that it wasn't. All the books reassured me that wet wool kept you warm, but my fingers weren't convinced. Trunk, torso, and legs? Yes. Even my feet seldom complained, no matter how long they stood around in sweat-soaked wool socks. But my fingers stiffened and went numb in the wet and cold. I gritted my teeth and endured. That, the books also assured me, was the climbers' way, and I carried the habit over into paddling. When the rivers ran cold, I sheathed my hands in wool and prepared to endure. Then new problems appeared. The heavy boiled-wool Dachstein mitts that I'd used for winter climbing proved unequal to the challenge of whitewater. For one thing, hanging on to slippery paddle shafts with mittened hands was almost impossible. I tightened my grip in response, squeezing all the blood out of my fingers in the process. My cold hands got colder still. Then my forearms went into spasm. This did nothing to improve my technique, and after I lost my grip (and my paddle) in the floodwater-swollen Schoharie — that was the first time I'd seen cars hanging from trees — I knew I needed something better.

I rang all the combinations, looking for harmony. No joy. Leather shells worn over Dachstein mitts? Impossibly bulky. Coated nylon shells? Slicker than snot. Wool gloves, with and without shells? From bad to worse. Then inspiration struck. Why not use fingerless cycling gloves over wool liners? That worked better: the leather palms of the cycling gloves were sticky enough to grip the paddle shaft while leaving my wool-sheathed fingers free. But it was still no go. The foam padding in the gloves' palms was too bulky, and the wool liners simply weren't warm enough. I kept trying. Neoprene diver's gloves? Too thick, too clumsy, and (this was before they were available in smaller sizes) too big. Rubber gauntlet mitts with flocked linings? I found some on sale in a local hardware store, and I thought I'd give them a try. It was a near miss. They fit snugly over the sleeves of my paddling jacket, but they were stiff, better suited to hauling traps than handling a paddle. Worse yet — I was getting used to this by now — the single one-size-fits-all size didn't fit me. In the end, I made do with unlined leather driving gloves. They were cold, but they retained just enough of my body heat to keep my fingers semi-flexible under most conditions. Or maybe I just got tougher. At least they clung to the paddle shaft.

Then a kayaker showed up with a pair of pogies at one of the gang's weekend river trips. It was a Eureka! moment. I stared shamelessly at these novel appendages. Pogies were paddling mitts in the truest sense. The paddler didn't wear them. His paddle did, instead. He just stuck his hands into the cosy berths when he was ready to go, gripping the shaft with his bare palms. Admittedly, it took him a little wriggling to get the second cuff up over his wrist, but that was what front teeth were for, wasn't it? There were a few other problems, however. I was a canoeist, not a kayaker. (Kayaks came later in my life.) While pogies were sold for canoe paddles, too, they made the already fussy job of switching sides between drops fussier still. And how could I move my hand up or down the paddle shaft? I decided pogies weren't for me.

So I stuck with what I had. For more than two decades, leather driving gloves were my staple paddling handwear, though in truly arctic conditions I resorted to rubber gauntlet gloves — once I found a size that fitted me — worn over wool liners.

 

That was then. This is now. And now is as good a time as any for me to rethink my decision, particularly as twenty-five years of cold water immersion are starting to take their toll, and engineered fabrics have broadened the range of choices. Maybe it's time for me to retire my driving gloves and move on. Let's examine the options together. First things first, though. When your fate hangs by your paddle, there's nothing more important than…

Getting a Grip

But you don't want it to be a death grip. As I learned when I struggled to hang on to slippery paddle shafts with equally slippery Dachstein mitts, you can't afford to white-knuckle it. That only makes for cold, numb hands. It can even do permanent damage. What's needed is a firm, relaxed grip, one that allows blood to circulate freely right to your fingertips, at the same time that the paddle is held snugly enough for complete control.

Unhappily for cold-season boaters, nothing beats bare skin on the paddle shaft. That brings us back to pogies. They protect your hands while permitting you to press the flesh in all the right places. But pogies ain't perfect. Canoeists may find them a pain, as will any boaters with aluminum-shafted paddles. (Cold aluminum defines COLD!) And what happens when — it's "when," not "if" — you go for an unplanned swim? At least one hand will have to tough it out in the cold with no protection. Wearing a light pair of gloves under your pogies would help, of course, but that defeats the pogie principle.

The upshot? If I'm serious about getting a grip, and if I'm not ready to bare it all, I can't afford to lose sight of…

Material Matters

Wool is warm but slippery. Cotton is "sticky" when wet, and so is leather, but wet cotton isn't worth diddly as an insulator. Leather has a slight edge here, and I've used it for years, mostly by itself, but I've got to admit that it still leaves me cold. Synthetic fleece is wonderfully lightweight and it keeps some of its warmth in the wet, but most synthetics slide helplessly on a paddle shaft, and — unless they incorporate some sort of membrane barrier — the wind whistles right through them. Shells beat the wind but add bulk and fussiness, and nylon shells are as slick as ice. What about rubber gloves? Well, they sure 'nuff hold tight, and I've worn them on many a cold river, with or without wool liners. And the price can't be beat. You can find suitable candidates in any hardware store or HyperMart. Like the idea, but want something with a little more flash? Check the outfitters' catalogs. I've seen some latex gauntlet gloves made specially for paddlers that look pretty good. They're not exactly cheap, though. Anything else? Yes. Neoprene. The stuff that wetsuits are made of. It's grabby and warm, and there's been an explosion of specialty offerings in the years since I first struggled to flex my fingers in oversize diver's gloves.

That brings up another point. You gotta have a good grip, and material certainly matters, but perhaps the most important question of all is…

Does the Glove Fit?

If it doesn't, you're in trouble. Too big and you won't hang on to your paddle for long. Too small and you'll end up with blocks of ice at the end of your arms. The solution? You need something that fits like…well…that fits like a glove. A second skin, in other words. And the only way to know for certain that a glove or mitten fits is to try it on and go through the motions, preferably with paddle in hand. It's a lot like trying on a new pair of boots. If the fit is right, you'll know it. If it's not, you'll know that, too. Either way, don't waste time arguing with yourself.

A hint: Even properly fitted mittens are clumsy, and they often interfere with your moves. But if there's ice floating in the water you boat on, there's nothing warmer or more welcoming, particularly if your hands have been badly frostbitten in the past. The choice is yours. Farwell wears mittens from early fall to late spring. I almost always wear gloves, even on sub-zero snowshoeing treks. We're both happy.

 

OK. That's a brief overview of the field. With my driving gloves headed for a well-earned retirement, I'm leaning toward neoprene, maybe with some kind of clingy stuff on the palm for a fail-safe grip. How thick? That's a tricky one. Neoprene gloves can be had as thin as 0.5 mm and as thick as 3 mm. The thicker, the warmer, but thickness means bulk and bulky gloves can restrict circulation. It doesn't do any good to add insulation to a house without a furnace, after all. So I'll start thin and work up.

It's not an easy call. Warmth without bulk. A fit that's snug without binding. A grip that won't let go till I want it to — and then lets go instantly. It's enough to make me throw up my hands in despair. Maybe I ought to toss my paddle in the trash and concentrate on growing…

Webbed Feet

No, I'm not serious, but I have met a boater who decided to leave his paddle at home and headed downriver with nothing more than webbed gloves. That's almost as good as webbed feet. I met him on the lip of a Class IV-V falls last summer. He eddied out right next to the granite boulder where I'd perched to study the drop. Something about him didn't seem right. No paddle! And then I saw the webbed hands. Shouting to make myself heard over the roar of falling water, I asked him the obvious question. Turns out he'd broken his thumb at the beginning of the paddling season and wasn't inclined to sit it out in a La-Z-Boy®. So he bought a pair of webbed gloves. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it. He had no trouble keeping his hands warm in the chilly water, either.

It's an attractive idea, but I think I'll stick to my paddle. Often I want to go somewhere the current doesn't, and webbed gloves don't do much in that line. I can't say I haven't had second thoughts from time to time, though.

No single type of glove or mitten will suit everyone, of course, but nowadays paddlers don't have to suffer frozen fingers in silence when the water runs cold. There are a lot more choices than when I started out. A little hands-on experience will show you which one is right for you.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.






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