Cold Water Paddling – Be Prepared

Cold Water Paddling – Be Prepared

White water paddling is often at its best real early in the season as the ice melts.

The annual migratory urge is incredibly strong as we seek to put our paddles back in the water at a time when there are no bugs, lots of river power and very cold water. While the urge is not to be denied, there are increased risks that need to be respected. Lets be prepared.

Situation - it is a sunny spring day in early April and the air temperature is a comfortable 18 degrees centigrade. Our paddling muscles are just aching to get going. Reality checks tell us the water can still be a great deal lower, and at 0-1 degree C it has the ability to suck life preserving heat from our bodies at an incredible rate. There are also a lot of other freaky things afoot on our rivers in Spring, like increased presence of sweepers and human made strainers, flooded river banks, powerful currents, and ice.

While there are many short lived rivers that beg to be paddled in early spring, there are risks ranging from slight personal discomfort, thru hypothermia, a spoiled trip, loss of physical control, or even drowning. Are there strategies for avoiding and dealing with the increased challenges of Spring (cold water) paddling?

Lets Consider – What are some of the Hazards and Risks?

  • Ice bridges that create effective strainers that are virtually impossible to escape if we become caught underneath them.
  • Sweepers and other accumulated Spring river ‘junk’ (strainers).
  • Flood level currents with increased power and the ability to swamp an open boat
  • Very cold water that can quickly suck the life preserving heat out of our bodies.
  • Upon immersion in cold water – the gag reflex that can cause us to involuntarily inhale cold water.
  • Hypothermia.
  • Rapid loss of strength and muscle control which severely hampers our self- rescue ability.
  • Increased time delay in our traveling companions providing aid in pushy water conditions.
  • Dormant muscle-memory (or to avoid loss of self esteem, as some would call it, “rusty paddles”)..

Strategies to Consider

  • Lets check our gear carefully and ensure it is still serviceable and hasn’t deteriorated over the winter months (surprising what a few hungry squirrels can do).
  • Get to the pool in January, February and March and practice kayak/canoe rolling.
  • Take conservative lines, avoid taking on excessive water when paddling open boats.
  • Travel in relatively close mutually supporting groups (minimum of two or better still, three boats).
  • Be well fed, hydrated and rested.
  • Know how to prevent hypothermia, how to recognize early indications in self and our companions and what to do about it.
  • Be well protected with dry suit or wet suit, neoprene paddling gloves, wear a skull cap under helmets and wind-proof paddling jacket.
  • Stretch and Warm-up before commencing the run.
  • Be realistic in our self-assessments about our readiness to paddle a given spring river. Lets not get in “over our heads”.
  • Gather recent intelligence about conditions on intended rivers and weather forecasts.
  • Practice braces including that powerful “righting pry”.
  • Consider ‘shock loading’ wetsuits with warm water (or tea?) to avoid a potential gag reflex upon immersion in cold water.
  • If a wet exit is unavoidable, keep mouth above water, or shut, to avoid a gag reflex.
  • Carry a hypothermia kit (dry clothes, sleeping bag, matches, hot chocolate) on longer runs or where escape routes are not too accessible.
  • Take a river rescue course.
  • Paddle hard all summer and really build up a solid skill base.
  • Pray hard for Spring to come around again, real soon.

Happy paddling!