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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Caught Out!

Weathering Roaring Wind and Rain

By Tamia Nelson

March 4, 2008

Such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder,
Such groans of roaring wind and rain, I never
Remember to have heard. Man’s nature cannot carry
Th’ affliction nor the fear.
    The Earl of Kent, caught out by a storm in King Lear

It’s a fair guess that Kent hadn’t spent much time out of doors. Or if he had, he was uncommonly lucky. Few canoeists or kayakers with many miles under their keels have escaped too-close encounters with “horrid thunder,…roaring wind and rain.” I know that Farwell and I haven’t, and I remember those unlucky run-ins all too well…

Caught on the big lake by a breaking storm, half-blinded by wind-driven sleet, hungry and tired, we dug deep to make each choppy stroke count. Ahead of us we could see a sliver of boggy land cloaked in leatherleaf. It seemed to be no more than a few hundred yards away, but the Old Woman wasn’t disposed to help us. So we clawed forward into the wind, sweating and grunting with the effort, while our faces were stung by pellets of ice. At least the effort kept us warm. Eventually—and none too soon!—the bow of the Tripper grounded on a gently sloping sand beach. We leaped from our boat and half dragged, half carried the loaded canoe up on shore, well out of reach of the waves. Then we looked around, as gust after gust snatched at our sodden clothing. We agreed that it wasn’t a very promising campsite, but this really didn’t matter. At least we wouldn’t find ourselves swimming for our lives.

A hasty bivouac followed. The canoe was emptied and upended to make a windbreak, and a tarp was hurriedly pegged down over the bilge. Out came our sleeping pads and bags, and in we went. We ate our supper in bed. It wasn’t much, just leftover bannock, hunks of cheese, and a few squares of chocolate, washed down with hot, sweet tea from the thermos. After that, sleep came quickly. The wind still roared, but we were warm and dry.

If something like this hasn’t happened to you yet, chances are that it will, sooner or later. When planning a trip, it’s tempting to gloss over the possibility of rotten weather and hope for the best, but veteran paddlers know that even on day trips it’s important to…

Plan for the Worst

The rules of the game are simple. Carry the ten essentials, pack carefully, and outfit your canoe or kayak to cope with the nastiest conditions you’re likely to meet. But planning for adversity begins even earlier. Study maps and aerial photos of your chosen destination, read others’ trip reports if you can get them, and chart your route with the prevailing winds in mind. Don’t assume that average wind directions are guarantees, however. (You’ve probably heard the one about the man who drowned in a river with an average depth of three feet. He stepped into a 10-foot-deep pool. Averages don’t tell the whole story!) Bad weather can come from any point of the compass, and summer thunderstorms are notoriously capricious. So plan alternative “bad-weather” routes, and be prepared to be flexible. Of course, river trips don’t give you much choice. You mostly go with the flow. Then again, on a river you’re usually close to shore. Shelter and safety are only a few paddle strokes away. That’s why most canoeists and kayakers get caught out by storms on big lakes or along the margins of the sea. And this is where planning pays off.

Big LakeWant a for-instance? Good idea! First, let’s set the scene. The lake in the aerial photo at left is about three and one-half miles wide at its midsection; the distance from the southernmost point in the southwest arm to the northernmost point in the northern arm is more than eight miles. A river flows into the lake at its southwesterly extremity; the outlet is near the end of the northern arm.

Now let’s take a look at the weather stats. Westerly winds prevail in summer. Cold fronts typically sweep down from the northwest; warm fronts move in from the southwest. Conclusion? If you plan to traverse the lake from south to north—from inlet to outlet, say—the odds favor a route that follows the western shoreline. But what if a storm blows in from the east? What then? If you’re in an arm of the lake, no problem. You’re most likely covered. But if you’re crossing the lake’s big belly when an easterly blow hits, you’ll find yourself on a lee shore, and that’s not a comfortable place to be. With as much as three miles to build (mariners call this the “fetch”), waves can grow to formidable heights, particularly when the wind gusts to Force 7 or more (that’s a “near gale,” by the way—about 35 mph). So you’d better keep a weather eye to the east as you cross the belly of the lake, and plan to get off the water at the first sign of trouble. Otherwise, it’s…

Any Port in a Storm

And landing a loaded canoe in surf is no fun, particularly if the shore is steep, rocky, or lost behind a heaving tangle of storm-tossed logs. This is why planning doesn’t stop when you leave the put-in behind you. It’s a never-ending job, and you can’t afford to go off watch till you’re in camp at day’s end. So make a habit of eyeballing the shoreline as you travel down any lake. Look for sheltered bays and gently shelving beaches. Make a game of it, if you want—call it the “What-If Challenge”—and invite your companions to join in.

Not sure what to look for? In a word: shelter. Something to put between you and any wind (and wind-driven waves). In sailor-talk, you’re looking for a lee. Confused? That’s not surprising. A lee shore—a shore that’s swept by storm-driven surf—is no place to be. But the lee of an island is the side away from the wind. It offers shelter from a storm. The confusion clears a bit when you realize that the dangerous lee shore lies on the sheltered side (aka the lee) of your boat. It’s all a matter of perspective.

OK. Islands, even small islands, make a welcome lee in a hard blow. But there are plenty of other refuges, too. Here are a few:

  • Headlands (the lee, of course)
  • Deep bays (unless the mouth is open to the wind)
  • Spits
  • Feeder streams
  • Swamps and marshes


Take your choice. Just don’t leave it too long. Then, once you’ve arrived at your port in the storm, you can rest, recover, and decide on your next move. Many sudden squalls blow themselves out in a hurry. You only need to sit tight and wait for the wind to subside. On the other hand, if the day is drawing to a close, or if you’re exhausted from doing battle with the weather—or if the storm shows no sign of moving on—you’ll want to…


Think of a bivouac as a sort of “cold comfort” camp. If everyday camping can be compared to kicking back in a cozy home-away-from-home, bivouacking is more like sleeping in a noisy airport terminal waiting for a long-overdue flight. On smiling, sunny days, you can afford to hunt for the perfect site. But if you’ve been caught out by a storm, you’ll have to downsize your expectations. Safety comes first, then comfort. And luxury doesn’t enter into the equation at all.

Here are your principal enemies:

  • Wind
  • Surf
  • High tides and storm surges
  • Flash floods
  • Slumping banks
  • Falling limbs and trees

In other words, you want to be high, dry, and out of the wind. On the seashore, get well above the high-tide mark (use the strandline as a guide). On lakeshores beware of the potential for seiches, the storm-driven, back-and-forth bathtub slosh that sometimes occurs on large lakes and that can raise the water level several feet in as many minutes. Again, the strandline is a guide, but it’s no guarantee. You want to be higher. Not too high, however. Stay well away from the edges of cliffs and banks—and avoid camping right under them, too. Don’t pitch your tent among large trees, either. Strong gusts can uproot even healthy giants, especially when heavy rains have loosened the soil around their roots.

Now that you’ve picked your spot, it’s time to get moving:

  • Pull all boats up and secure them
        (NB You should have done this already!)
  • Tend to any injuries (ditto!)
  • Put up your shelter
  • Drink something (something hot, if possible)
  • Eat something
  • Get some sleep

Canoe ShelterYour refuge doesn’t have to be a tent. It can be a canoe or kayak shelter, instead, or a tarp, or even a poncho. If driving stakes is impossible for some reason—you’re on rock, say—put on your warmest clothing (fleece is wonderful stuff on a wet and windy night), get into your sleeping bag, and wrap your tarp around you. Hypothermia is your enemy now, so don’t forget to cover your head. You’ll need fuel for your internal fires, too. A thermos of sweet tea or (even better) hot soup or oatmeal is fast food at its best. Failing a thermos, use your stove to heat up a quick meal. (A wood fire can be a great morale-builder, obviously, but dry wood is mighty hard to find in a storm, and nursing a smoldering smudge is a pain when you want hot food, fast.) End your bivouac supper on a sweet note. A high-energy snack like a chocolate bar makes a welcome dessert. Then get some shut-eye. With any luck, you’ll wake to sunny skies.


Since we’re talking about hard chances and desperate bivouacs, I suppose I should say…

A Few Words About Trespass

In a word, DON’T. Unless you have no choice, that is. “Commando camping”—camping on private land without permission, relying on stealth and subterfuge to avoid detection—has quite a following these days. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the increasing regimentation and bureaucratization of our daily lives. Or maybe it’s just that there are more of us and fewer legal places to camp. Whatever the reason, it’s certainly not much of an advertisement for paddlesport, and my own thoughts on the matter are easily summarized. I plan my trips so that I don’t need to trespass. Period. I camp on public land wherever possible, and on the rare occasions when I hope to spend the night on private land, I do so only with the owner’s knowledge and permission. This is often inconvenient, and it puts some routes completely off-limits. So be it.

That said, I wouldn’t hesitate to bivouac on private land without permission if I were caught out by a storm. But I see this as a last resort, one that’s justified only in a true, life-or-death emergency. And I’d continue on my way as soon as possible, leaving my temporary campsite in better shape than I found it. ’Nuff said? I hope so.

Canoeists and kayakers are outdoorspeople, and that means they’re no strangers to “roaring wind and rain.” Of course, we all hope for sunny days and gentle, following breezes, but Nature doesn’t always deliver what we order. Does this mean we have to stay at home? Certainly not! Hope for the best, by all means, but be sure that you plan for the worst, too. That’s the key to weathering any storm.

Copyright 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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