The Spring of the Waters
Pleasures and Pitfalls of Early-Season Boating
A Note to the Reader
Ed and Brenna's "Trip of a
Lifetime" will continue next week.
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
isothermthat's one more or less meaningful way of drawing a line
between merely temperate and "up North," at any rateare 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" springthe 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 schoolgirlsat 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
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
morningwood-ducks and mallards, mergansers and Canada
geeseall 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
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
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
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:
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!
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights