What winter paddlers need to know
It didn’t take us long to learn that a winter paddle can turn into a winter hike in a hurry. Some friends of mine hadn’t been into winter canoe camping long before they found themselves iced in one day. They had to hike out, lugging their canoes and camping gear through the snow to the nearest road and calling for someone to pick them up.
I wasn’t with them on that trip. But I was on a winter trip with them when we popped a rivet out of an aluminum canoe pulling it out of the ice. We plugged the hole with a stick, which expanded and kept the canoe from leaking for the rest of the trip.
On my first solo winter canoe trip, I found something even more dangerous than ice — slush. The slush absorbed the force of each paddle stroke and shoved the canoe backward. After I realized that trying to move forward was futile, I worked the canoe to the bank with a combination of draw strokes and by rocking it up on top of the slush. It took the better part of an hour to move the boat less than 100 feet. The quarter-mile drag through deep snow to the road seemed like a day at the beach by comparison.
The fun part of winter canoe camping is facing challenges and learning to adapt. And survive. Unless you adapt quickly, survival can become an issue.
By observing the river — looking at the slush and the ice and seeing how they interact — I quickly learned what conditions produce water that is impassible. The key is learning to understand slush and ice crystals. Anytime you see slush floating by, it’s time to get the hell out of there. The slush congregates, building into bigger and bigger floes until it will bog your boat down. Getting through it is like paddling through oatmeal. As for ice crystals, I watch for them to start getting bigger and bigger. (They kind of look like snowflakes suspended in the water.) If you see them reaching the size of a nickel or clustering together, it might not be long until the river freezes all the way across — possibly overnight.
As a friend of mine once said, “This is a skill set most people wouldn’t find useful.”
But then, that’s the beauty of winter canoe camping; you have the world to yourself out there.