Your #1 source for kayaking and canoeing information.               FREE Newsletter!
my Profile
Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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 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 reserved.

Sponsored Ad:
Follow us on:
Free Newsletter | About Us | Site Map | Advertising Info | Contact Us


©2015 Inc.