Take heart, fellow paddlers. We should still have a few nice days left to get out on the water this fall despite our recent bout of cold temperatures. However, keep in mind that inland lakes and rivers (which cool off faster than Lake Michigan) may be considerable chillier than they were a couple weeks ago. Those of you who do not have a wet suit should probably consider your season over unless you get out and purchase one. This cold snap should also be a reminder to those of us who do own a wetsuit or drysuit, that it is time to start getting into our cold weather paddling mindset again. By that, I am referring to three things in particular.
1. The time for “pushing the envelope” with our skills is over. When the water gets below 60 degrees, it is not a good time to paddle in conditions that are at or above the limit of our comfort and skills. In cold weather, you need to allow an extra measure of safety since the consequences of a capsize or other mishap are much more serious than when the water and air temps are balmy. Now is not the time to try paddling in big waves for the first time. That’s what August is for. If you haven’t practiced or, heaven forbid, even learned how to do wet exits and rescues, stay off the water until next summer when you can. Solo paddlers are especially vulnerable. Find a paddling buddy for the colder months. If that is not possible, you will have to really ratchet back the difficulty level of the waters you are paddling and take every extra precaution you can. One very calm but chilly January morning many years ago, a concerned friend sat in his car watching me as I paddled down at the lakefront so that he could get help immediately if he saw me capsize.
2. Dressing for the water temperature has now become more than just a matter of comfort, it is now a matter of survival. We also have to start thinking seriously about the air temperature as well. Those cold winds paired with the damp conditions we paddle in can easily bring on a case of slow onset hypothermia even if we never actually capsize. You need to be thinking about protecting your head and hands from wind chill with pogies, neoprene gloves, neoprene hoods, and wool/polyester fleece hats. If you plan to paddle longer than the next few weeks, you better get an order in for a drysuit. Once the water temperatures start heading south of 50 degrees, I wouldn’t be caught on the water without one. The wetsuits out there that are warm enough for 30 and 40 degree water temperatures are rather thick, restrictive, and uncomfortable for paddling. For more on paddle clothing, you may want to go back and read my blog posts on “Dressing for Paddling”.
3. It’s never OK to forget your safety gear, but from now on you better always have it and know how to use it, too! Someone’s life could depend on your having a stirrup in the pocket of your PFD or a VHF radio with a charged up battery. In both cases, you better know how to make use of both of these life-savers. Talk to the people you are paddling with and get an inventory of the safety gear that you have with you on the water. How many of you are wearing tow belts, carrying cell phones, first aid kits, stirrups, VHF radios, flares, etc. This is also the time to add some extra safety items to your arsenal. Does anyone have an emergency shelter for warming up? Do you have a bag of extra clothing – warm hat, mittens, oversize sweater and windproof jacket? Is anyone carrying a flask of hot tea, coffee, or chocolate or the means to start a fire? Hopefully, everyone you paddle with has done wet exits and recoveries for getting themselves and other paddlers back into their kayaks. It is still a good idea to initiate a conversation and find out where everyone stands in this regard.
If after reading the 3 points above, you have decided that you are not prepared to be out on the water safely this time of year, don’t despair. Winter can be a good time to do a lot of other things in preparation for next year’s paddling season. I’ll give you a list of all the things you can do in a future blog post. For now. . .
Stay warm and dry!