Technique Clinic: Winter Whitewater

Tips for cold weather paddling

By Haven Livingston

Bluebird winter day on the South Yuba Summit (Daniel Brasuell).

Bluebird winter day on the South Yuba Summit (Daniel Brasuell).

When Buck Crocket and Brian Banks arrived to kayak the first spring run of Gore Canyon on the upper Colorado River and found that the banks were still iced over and so was one of the rapids, Crocket did what any resourceful multi-sport adventurer would do. He reached into his truck and pulled out his ice axe. Getting into the river would be a slide, but getting out would require mounting a few feet of overhanging ice and snow.

Paddling under these conditions may seem like a masochistic task, but consider the benefits: Instead of sitting in traffic en route to the slopes to ski groomers, you sneak off the beaten path to a lower elevation river and have the entire flowing wonderland to yourself. Rivers on the northwest edge of California come alive with winter rains and glow with the greens of mosses and ferns. When there’s storm chop on the ocean, wind over the ridges and rain on the roads, the rivers continue to slide by, offering the adventurous few endless options for whitewater fun.

Lucky for California paddlers, many of our rivers are runnable all winter long without the need for ice tools. In fact, some of the best rivers only run during the winter’s rainy season, but you do need some common sense and the right equipment to make winter paddling fun. The number one priority – as in any winter sport – is to keep warm.

Following is a list of must-have gear to keep in mind as you pack for cold weather paddling:

Dry Suit The key ingredient to warmth, preferably with waterproof booties attached. One piece fleece “union” suits work best underneath to keep the drafts out. Bring extra layers to add.

Skull Cap (Neoprene) Think about the worst ice cream headache you’ve ever had, then multiply it by your entire head submerged in sub-40 degree water.

Pogies, Gloves, or Both! Pogies allow your normal grip on the paddle, but will flush with water, gloves result in a less tactile grip. Try Sun Mitts – an open palmed mitten – inside your pogies for extra warmth. Once your hands go numb you are helpless to yourself and your team. If your hands get really cold, try sticking foot warmers to the inner wrist of your fleece to wear under your dry suit. These keep the blood vessels toasty and flowing into the fingers.

Ear Plugs Just like surfing, cold water flushing through the ear canal can cause exostosis, bone growth that will eventually close the ear canal and cause hearing loss. This can only be reversed with physically chiseling out the bone. Suck it up and stuff the plugs in.

Thermos (or Two) Take one on the river with you filled with a hot drink and have one waiting at the car for you. Keeping warm and hydrated in the cold is easier with a warm beverage and it comes in handy for defrosting fingers so you can get the key in the car door.

A few more tips as you head out on your winter whitewater adventure: If you’re likely to break a nervous sweat just driving to put in, change into something dry before you get in the water. Keep checking in with your buddies; slow onset hypothermia can start with numb fingers and lead to making stupid decisions before you even realize you are cold. If you’re having such a good time that you don’t notice your gear starting to freeze, remember this; bathrooms with blowing hand dryers are a great way to thaw out frozen life jackets and dry suit zippers so you can take them off.

Crocket and his axe after portaging a frozen rapid (Brian Banks).

Crocket and his axe after portaging a frozen rapid (Brian Banks).

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