Off-Season? No Way!
Weathering Winter in Style
On the Home Front
By Farwell Forrest
December 21, 2004
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water hard as stone
Christina Rossetti, "Mid-Winter"
Christina Rossetti's words have been on my mind a lot
lately. For one thing, the carol is a favorite of mine. (The poem was set to music by
Gustav Holst in 1909.) For another, it's hard to ignore the relentless southward
retreat of the sun. Mid-winter's day is today, after all. The calendars may
say it's the "first day of winter," but anyone who spends many hours outdoors knows
that General Winter invaded the northern latitudes a long while back. By this time of
the year I see "water hard as stone" just about everywhere I look.
It's a trying time for many paddlers, and I'm no exception. There's still open
water on the big
lakes, of course, and some of the steeper rivers still run free. Yet there's no
denying that the prospect of an unplanned swim in water only one or two
degrees above freezing is downright discouraging, particularly when the air
temperature is even lower and the sun is only a watery blur a hand's width above the
western horizon. And then there's the ice itself
well, the less said about ice
the better, I suppose. Except this one very important thing: Avoid venturing out
on any waterway where wind or current can sweep you under the ice. Why? That's
easy. Any paddler can
become a swimmer in an instant, and without any warning. Folks who've found
themselves underwater, walled off from air and life by a cold, translucent ceiling,
won't need any reminder from me about the hazards of ice, I'm sure. But what about
all the canoeists and kayakers who've so far missed out on this seasonal treat? They
can thank their lucky stars. And if they're smart, they'll resolve never to follow
where more foolhardy paddlers have led under the ice.
Which isn't to say that winter canoeing and kayaking can't be fun, even in the
frozen north. In past years Tamia and I paddled right round the calendar. We chose
our times and places carefully, to be sure, but we went out in all months and all
weathers, despite having to hammer our paddles against the gunwales to keep the
shafts free from ice. Nowadays, however, we're a little less eager to defy the
thermometer. And that's not such a bad thing. Each season has its particular joys,
and the return of
free-running rivers and open water in March and April is all the more welcome for
the enforced hiatus of winter. Or so it seems today. Years ago, I dreaded winter. As
I looked at the golden needles dropping from the tamaracks those hardy
conifers are just about the last of the trees in the northern forest to change color
the long, dark months loomed ahead like a prison sentence, with no prospect of
parole. Not surprisingly, my thoughts inevitably turned to escape.
This remains an attractive option. If your work schedule is flexible enough (and
your pockets deep enough), the whole world lies before you. And while the north
shivers in the dark, the south basks in summery warmth. You can stay and fight it out
with General Winter, in other words, or you can run and any veteran campaigner
will tell you that discretion is sometimes the better part of valor. So far, so good.
Suppose, however, that you have the money to flee to warmer climes, but you don't
have the time. Or maybe you've got the time, but lack the cash. Perhaps, like
Micawber, you're waiting for something to turn up. What can you do in the meantime?
Are you condemned to risk life and limb on ice-rimmed waters? No. If you can't run
and you don't want to fight, there's always the Third Way: embrace the enemy. A
one-sided compromise, you say? Not necessarily. It's true that General Winter doesn't
give any quarter. That much can't be denied. But you can still defeat him without a
fight, and you don't need to invest in a heated drysuit to do it.
The formula for victory is simple. If paddling your home waters is impossible in
winter or at least unattractive just do something else. Something
connected with paddling. Something that will make you a better, stronger, happier, or
more knowledgeable paddler. Something that's fun. Once you start to think about it,
you'll discover a wealth of choices. Broadly speaking, they break down into two
groups: things you can do in and around your home, and things you can only do out of
doors. Let's start by exploring the options for the home front first. And the best
place to do that is
In the Library
After all, reading is a time-honored way to spend the winter months. And if you're
in the mood for a vicarious voyage, you can take your pick from hundreds of
shelf-feet of travelers' tales, both classic and contemporary. How about R.M. Patterson's aptly
named Dangerous River? Or Robert Louis
Stevenson's timeless and elegant Inland Voyage? Looking for something more
modern, perhaps? Then try Jonathan Raban's Old Glory. There's not a canoe or
kayak to be found in it anywhere at least I can't remember any but few
writers have done a better job of capturing the awe-inspiring immensity of the
Mississippi, or the colorful tapestry of life along its banks.
Maybe you prefer how-to books and practical articles to travelers' tales. There,
too, you'll find that paddlers are well served. Not only are all the resources of Paddling.net only a click away from your desktop
including the nearly 300 columns and half-million words of In the Same Boat but
you'll also find dozens of paddling and camping titles at your local library or
bookstore. Are there too many choices? Do you need a bit of help separating the wheat
from the chaff? Then take a look at the suggestions in "Starting Out in
Canoeing" and "Starting Out in
Kayaking," along with "A Paddler's
Booklist" and Tamia's
and my "Spotlight" reviews. Good books, all. But of course they're only a start.
New titles are appearing every month. Explore!
Is fiction what you fancy? Here, paddlers are less fortunate. There's Deliverance, of
course. And our own modest
effort. But canoeing and kayaking don't seem to attract novelists in the same way
that fast cars and tall ships do. Still, any paddler who reads widely will stumble
across interesting finds in the unlikeliest places. For some reason, children's
literature is a particularly rich source. Take the opening chapters of Wind in the
Willows, for instance, with their celebration of the joys of "messing about
in boats." Or how about the lyrical descriptions of life on and near the river in
L.M. Boston's The River at Green Knowe? Readers seeking more adult fare will
need to look harder, however, and they may have to content themselves with less. Even
so, there's much to be discovered. Many paddlers have been fascinated by Patrick
O'Brian's 20-volume series of historical novels that begins with Master and
Commander. O'Brian is no canoeist, but he stands alone among contemporary writers
in conveying the beauty and romance of the sea, not to mention to borrow James
Joyce's unforgettable phrase its occasional scrotum-tightening terrors.
Nor is that all. A neglected trove of dramatic fiction can be found in the
journals and letters of explorers like Francisco de
Orellana, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Sir John Franklin, Sir George Back, David
Livingstone, and George Kennan.
Collectively, they represent an unequalled portrait of the wilder reaches of the
globe, sketched from life at a time when the footprint of industrial civilization was
scarcely perceptible on the land. Ostensibly factual works, these letters and
journals are wonderfully rich in incident and character, though tactful omissions and
the desire to flatter wealthy patrons along with the need to protect friends
and punish enemies often led the author-explorers to stray from the truth in
telling their stories. No matter. Whatever the proportion of fiction to fact, they
are stirring tales indeed, and well worth seeking out, even if your search ultimately
leads you to the dusty shelves of a university library. Many journeys of discovery
have begun right there.
There's a lot more to life than can be crammed between two covers, of course. Even
a waterlogged hack like me has to admit that. So next week, I'll look at other ways
to weather the season of hard water in style without leaving home. Till then,
Tamia joins me in hoping that all paddlers everywhere will find the wind at their
backs, from this mid-winter's day right through till the next.
Copyright © 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights