Willie must have run out of coffee this morning. To the OPer, you are not responsible for not knowing what you don't know.
I congratulate you on two things. One is making it to shore wearing the clothing you had on. There is a reason that the Girl Scouts used to make us show we could get off jeans, shoes and shirt (had to have buttons) in the water in under 2 minutes before we could go out in a canoe.
The other is realizing that the correct solution was to get some help. It can be quite surprising how many people don't do that part.
As to the drysuit/wetsuit thing... dry suits and good dry wear are pricey as hell and I can assure you that the wetsuit will look a ton better to your budget. And it is correct that a good surfing wet suit (better than the basic paddling farmer john) can get you into pretty cold temps, coupled with the ability to quickly re-enter your boat and with wind blocking layers on top depending on the wet suit.
Also, cold weather paddling means a hood, better gloves and good booties regardless of whether the basic layer is a wet suit or a dry suit. People who have been paddling a while have acquired all that stuff and tend to forget it. But when you are just starting out, those 20 to 60 dollar items can really add up.
There are people on this board who do quite well in a wet suit into winter, but if you are considering a major investment it is important to make sure that those recommendations are coming from people with similar habits to yours. So someone who is using a surf ski aggressively, for example, is probably generating a lot more heat than you are likely to on a casual paddle. Someone who is training for racing may be as well.
You also have to be conscious of the specifics of your environment. If you were to paddle right thru the winter, you are talking water temperatures under 40 degrees in lakes and streams, and I suspect under 50 nearer shore in any of the Great Lakes. Depending on your readiness and interest in discomfort, you could be looking at a perfect sunny day for paddling with air temps in the high teens before any wind chill effect. Everyone is different, but most people you talk with who have tried taking a swim in those conditions are going to come back saying that the dry suit was a much better idea.
A lot of this comes down to when you want to hang up the kayak. As far as paddling with others, I think you'll find no lack of meetup groups including folks who want to paddle right through the winter. But you may want to set your own parameters about what level of preparation is safe. Our smaller group locally has a no drysuit-no paddle with the pod after Thanksgiving rule. But we see folks out there that obviously do not adhere to that idea - and read about some of them in the newspaper unfortunately.
Br ready to be surprised a lot, and just take time to check out used sources etc. You haven't even gotten to the foam core paddle part yet - a moment which has sent many people to learn how to use a Greenland paddle that they can make themselves.
It is a great activity, and you will find you are within reach of some very good kayaking.
Shirts / Tops
PFD's (Life Jackets)
Classic Freestanding Rack
Touring Kayak Paddles
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