SKOAC: Early Season Paddling:
Preparation, Safety and Gear

by Sarah Ohmann
April 2002
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Getting Ready River Paddling Hypothermia
Cold Shock Dressing for Cold Water Keeping the Extremities Warm
Weather and Ice

Spring can be an exciting time for paddlers who are anxious to get back on the water again after a long winter of deprivation. But early season paddling brings its own hazards and being prepared is an important part of venturing out on the first open water of the year.

Getting Ready

Before you leave, check your gear carefully for any missing pieces or winter damage:
  • Anything made of rubber, such as drysuit or drytop gaskets, hatch gaskets and hatch covers should be checked by stretching or flexing the material to look for cracks: if you find any it may be time to replace the part. The life of latex or rubber parts can be extended by treating with 303 protectant, available at local paddlesports stores.

  • Make sure to check battery levels in any of your electronic gear and replace or recharge as needed.

  • Check your first aid kit and make sure to remove any expired medications or replace any supplies you used last year!

  • Check your camping gear: tent still mildew-free? Stove still working? Thermarest not leaky?

    Finally, when your gear is ready to go, make sure YOU are in good working order. Many of us unfortunately loose a some of our fitness and conditioning over the winter. Remember that you may not be able to paddle at the same intensity or for the same distance you could at the end of last year and plan your outings accordingly. Start off with a few short trips at a relaxed pace before trying something harder. Stretching and warming up before paddling can also be helpful.

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River Paddling

Those of you planning river trips will need to keep track of the flood stage of the river, and whether the ice has completely gone from the section you are planning to paddle. Ice dams can form during ice out and when coupled with fast current can be extremely dangerous to kayakers. Anyone with many river miles under their belt knows that strainers, or logs and trees along banks or that extend out into the current, are another serious danger to paddlers. A kayaker pushed up against a tree by fast current will be capsized and pinned against the branches underwater. Don't let it happen to you! Scan the water ahead for obstacles and stay well away of any strainers.

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Hypothermia

Hypothermia is always a concern for paddlers but especially in spring. Any body of water, whether inland lake, river or Lake Superior is going to have temperatures in the 30's after ice out. Water this cold can be quickly lethal for those not dressed for it. Even without taking a swim, cold air temperatures and wind chill can bring on hypothermia. Unfortunately, one of the earliest symptoms of hypothermia seems to be a kind of numb stupidity, which leads paddlers to ignore the problem and fail to do what is needed to warm up. If you feel cold to the point where it affects your ability to function, do something about it right away.

There is a very nice page on hypothermia, symptoms and treatment at: http://www.seagrant.umn.edu/tourism/hypothermia.html. It is part of a section on tourism in Minnesota, appropriately enough!

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Cold Shock

Besides hypothermia, another risk to paddlers is cold shock, or the "involuntary gasp response". This occurs when cold water causes a sudden inhalation: for a paddler sitting upside-down in their boat, this can cause the lungs to fill with water instantly. This response is thought to be triggered mainly by the torso and head coming into contact with cold water. Wearing a drysuit or a paddling jacket on top of a farmer john will reduce your contact with cold water. Adding a neoprene or other insulating skull cap or hood will help keep your head warm, in or out of the water.

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Dressing for Cold Water

Like most sea kayakers, my first cold water outfit was a farmer john style wetsuit, a polypropylene top with an extra fleece layer, and a paddling jacket. This is a relatively inexpensive setup and effective for water temperatures from 50-60 degrees F.

However, in my opinion, a farmer john wetsuit will not provide good enough insulation for water below 50 degrees F. Myself and other club members have tried jumping in Lake Superior when surface temps were in the 40's or even 30's, and the gasp response, ice cream headache and quickly ensuing numbness and loss of dexterity in our hands convinced us that drysuits are the way to go in really cold water.

I recommend a plunge in Lake Superior or Lake Calhoun in April: you will know right away whether your gear is adequate for the water temperature! If you have learned to roll in a pool or in warm water, be sure to try it in cold water to make sure your roll still works.

If you are thinking of extending your paddling season into the spring and fall, consider investing in a drysuit. Stores that stock Kokotat drysuits in the metro area often only carry the really expensive Meridian model. A less expensive front-entry goretex drysuit as well as even cheaper nylon versions are available online or through mail order.

If you're not ready to buy a drysuit, you should factor your vulnerability to cold water into your "go, no-go" decision. Avoid paddling in conditions where a capsize might occur, be especially cautious about paddling early in the season.

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Keeping the extremities warm

A lot of folks use the neoprene gloves that are designed for paddling and have pre-curved fingers. I find them extremely uncomfortable, and the extra effort needed to close the fingers around the paddle shaft actually causes fatigue and muscle cramps!. I prefer a 1mm neoprene glove or other lightweight paddling glove, with nylon or neoprene pogies over the top. Pogies are very effective at keeping hands warm and out of the wind, and some paddlers find they provide enough protection without additional gloves

As mentioned above, a neoprene or other insulating skull cap is a great thing to have along. At the very least, bring a hat that is waterproof and windproof even if it's not designed for a dunking.

Even if you manage to keep your feet out of the water while launching, the cold creeping through the hull of your boat can leave your feet chilled. There are lots of neoprene booties for paddling at local retailers at different prices. I recommend getting at least ankle high or even knee-high boots. Many of the club's cold water paddlers use Chota paddling mukluks and find them to be excellent for spring trips when used with wool socks.

Make sure you wear enough insulation under your paddling jacket or drysuit. Drysuits provide no insulation by themselves, so fleece layers must be worn underneath for the suit to be effective. Again, a jump in the lake will tell you whether you are wearing "enough"! Drysuit users should also check to make sure their front zippers and relief zippers are securely closed before setting off...

Finally, when paddling Lake Superior early in the season, I always bring an extra set of clothes, extra food, a tarp or tent for emergency shelter, and a sleeping bag in case anyone in the group does get hypothermic, or sudden changes in the weather strand us for a day or a night.

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Weather and Ice

Since many people don't paddle in spring you may not realize that spring is a stormy season just like the fall. Calm, warm, sunny days are uncommon before May on Lake Superior, and the weather oscillates between tolerable 40 degree days and 25 degrees, 30 knot winds, driving sleet and freezing spray. Make sure to check the weather before paddling, and note that only the open water forecast is available year-round. [Editor's note: check our "Winter Weather Links".]

If the wind is blowing off the lake, the air temperature on the water may be 20 degrees colder than the air over the land, so don't be fooled by the balmy conditions in the parking lot.

Ice presents some special hazards for spring paddlers. Shorefast ice in the Apostles may persist into May, and can form an ice wall along beaches which can make launching and landing very difficult in anything but dead calm. The cool recesses of sea caves will also stayed iced in until late spring: beware falling ice chunks when visiting the caves. Changes in the wind direction can cause floating ice ("bergy bits") to fill bays and narrows where you're not expecting it.

Rescue? Forget About It.

In April and early May, Coast Guard, Park Service, and Sheriff's boats are still on blocks in the local marinas. There is no one monitoring the radio at Little Sand Bay, and there are no recreational boaters around to help you. You will have to save yourself in an emergency, and the best way to do this is not to get into trouble in the first place. Use extra caution and be more conservative than you would normally be when planning a trip.

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© 2002 Sarah Ohmann