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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Spring of the Waters

Pleasures and Pitfalls of Early-Season Boating

By Tamia Nelson

April 10, 2001

Spring means different things to different people, depending on where they live. For folks who make their homes in hot climes, spring can be little more than an arbitrary division between the temperate and the torrid. For those of us in higher latitudes, however, spring is anything but arbitrary. It marks one of the great watersheds of the year. On one side, the frozen and apparently lifeless world of winter. On the other, the lively, fecund warmth of summer.

In fact, those of us living north of the 32°F January isotherm—that's one more or less meaningful way of drawing a line between merely temperate and "up North," at any rate—are twice blessed. We enjoy two springs. The first is what the Russian naturalist Mikhail Prishvin christened the "Spring of the Light." This comes early in January, when the wheel of the year has turned a bit more than full circle, and when the days are already perceptibly longer than they were in dark December.

Wonderful as it is, however, the Spring of the Light is full of false promise. The days are longer, of course, but winter's grip is still strong. Brilliant days are followed by Arctic nights, and storms move relentlessly across the country, piling new snow on old, and burying the landscape beneath a monochrome mantle.

But then, months later, comes the "real" spring—the Spring of the Waters. Sometime in March or April (or even May or June in the highest latitudes), the snowy mantle melts away at last and the ice on the lakes breaks up. Even the most matter-of-fact among us can't help but be moved by this magical time. Stockbrokers and attorneys skip down their office corridors like schoolgirls—at least when they think no one is looking. Used-car salesmen pause in their spiels to listen to the cries of north-flying geese. The landscape begins to come alive.

So it is with us. Our Spring of the Waters is upon us. Just last week, the 'Flow was frozen from bank to bank. Today the water in the main channel runs free. From dawn to dusk, and all night long, as well, rafts of ice ranging in size from pillows to football fields sweep downriver past our windows.

And winter's long silence has ended, too. Whereas December nights are eerily quiet, their stillness broken only now and again by the chorusing of coyotes or the almost imperceptible plop of flying squirrels landing on the snow, the nights of the Spring of the Waters ring with the gabble and honk of waterfowl. We see them in the morning—wood-ducks and mallards, mergansers and Canada geese—all gathered together on great moving slabs of ice, gazing placidly at us as they sail along with the current, looking just like passengers on a cruise ship taking in the sights. The only thing missing is the cameras.

At such a time, it's impossible to stay indoors. Our canoes have emerged from the snowpiles that sheltered them all winter. The shore ice is gone. The open water calls out to us. And we go.

But we don't go heedlessly. The mallards, mergansers and geese slip easily from the ice into the water and hop out again unscathed. They forage, preen and court like teens around a heated pool. But nature's pools aren't heated. And in the excitement of the Spring of the Waters, it's all too easy to forget what fragile things we humans really are. The waters of spring are full of life and promise, to be sure, but the water of life can be deadly, too.

"In the midst of life we are in death." These are somber words indeed. They're taken from the "Service for the Dead," in the Book of Common Prayer. Solemn words. Chilling words. But words worth bearing in mind nonetheless, and as true today as they were in Thomas Cranmer's time. Human life is precious. It's much too valuable to put at risk unnecessarily.

So, when we make our maiden voyage of the year, we go prepared. The air may well be warm, but the water is still icy cold. And cold water kills. So we wear wetsuits in addition to our life-jackets, even on the quiet waters of the 'Flow. We know from experience how easy it is to capsize.

Am I exaggerating? No. And it's not just whitewater hotshots who have to worry. There's danger even in a beaver pond. Put yourself in the picture: It's late April. You're in your little pack canoe on a local lake. The canoe is a stable, well-designed boat. You're an experienced paddler. You catch sight of an osprey plunging toward the water after a fish, and you follow it with your eyes. The big bird swoops down. You swing round to keep it in view, caught up in the excitement of the moment. And your trailing paddle blade twists ever so slightly.

Suddenly, your boat starts to roll beneath you. The gunwale dips under the surface. You throw out a brace to keep from going over, but your paddle slices uselessly downward. In a heartbeat, you're in the water. Very cold water.

It's happened to us. Both of us. And it's no fun, even when you're wearing a wetsuit and a life jacket, and when a friend in another boat is paddling right beside you. If you're alone, or if you're not wearing a life jacket, or if you have nothing on but jeans and a t-shirt, well…

In the midst of life we are in death.

A moment's carelessness or inattention needn't end this way, of course. If you follow a few simple rules, you can enjoy the Spring of the Waters without unwelcome reminders of mortality. Here's how:

  • Wear a good, properly-fitted PFD. Always. And don't leave any straps or ties undone.

  • Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. In spring, in high latitudes, this means a wetsuit or drysuit.

  • Have adequate, well-secured flotation in your boat. This is just as important on flatwater as it is on rivers. It's almost impossible to re-enter and bail a swamped boat if it doesn't have additional flotation.

  • Don't boat alone. This is good advice on moving water (and tidal water) at all seasons of the year.

  • Be careful on and around ice. If you must push a canoe over ice to launch or retrieve it, keep one foot in the boat at all times. Keep your weight centered, too. And stay off rivers with extensive ice shelves. If you dump in such a river, it's all too easy to be swept beneath the ice.

  • Don't paddle any river when it's in flood. If you simply can't resist the temptation, go with a very strong party and scout everything.

  • Keep to the inside of bends on high-water rivers. When floodwaters recede, the outside of bends is where you're most likely to encounter sweepers and strainers. These are both deadly traps, particularly during high water. And beware of cut-banks, too. Farwell once escaped being crushed in a landslide by only the narrowest of margins.

  • Know your limitations and stay within them. Runoff-swollen rivers and icy lakes are not good places to learn to paddle. Even experts should go slow at first. We all need time to get back in the groove.
That's it. A few minutes spent in preparation won't spoil anyone's day out. And a river in flood can always be paddled later in the year. So enjoy this year's Spring of the Waters in a way that insures you'll have many more to come. L'Chaim! To life!

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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