Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Winter Whitewater

A little rain and a little thaw opened up the Vermillion River this week.  I was working hard so I had to wait until the weekend to paddle.  Saturday morning dawned with a fresh coat of snow covering everything. Beautiful!  Snuggled in my electric blanket and sleeping in for the first time in quite awhile I did not want to leave my bed to go to a frozen river and paddle.  Thoughts of "Are you crazy?", You're old, you can beg off this run." Yes just about every excuse it the book went through my head.  But I got out of bed and threw the gear in the truck and headed off to meet Josh.
  Instantly my attitude evaporated as I left town.  The fog hugging the valley, frosted trees and new snow brought back the feeling of why I love paddling in the winter.  Sure my bed was warm but paddling in the winter is in itself a surreal feeling.  I was glad I was on my way.

  This was Josh's first winter paddle.  The class V hike down to the river was a new experience for him.  So much more to see with the foliage gone.  Cliffs, caves, crevasses, and many sights that are unseen in the spring and summer.
  We walked to the put in below the falls.  Ice had started to form at the sides.  Long before winters end the whole falls will be covered with ice.  An incredible sight!  Ice lined the banks. Sometimes in little rows of ice bells just touching the water.
  Josh and I put on.  It felt so good to be on the river again.  The last time we had paddled any whitewater was the end of September when we did the Lower St. Louis.  It had been a long time.  I told Josh to splash his face with river water to avoid the gasping reflex if you flipped. Brrr! Chills ran through me again remembering how cold it was.  I then pointed out that the ice shelves at the banks actually form undercuts and were to be avoided.  Then we were off.
  The beauty of paddling in the winter is hard to describe. Brutal cold water. Stunning ice formations and the soft quiet of new snow. Truthfully an environment hostile to life, challenged by those who seek...
  The river was low but still navigable.  Little bits of play here and there.  Triple had a nice feature.  Railroad was in, as was S-Bend.  Donut was great!  We surfed our butts off in Donut until time ran out and we had to leave.  I spent the following day with old pros at winter paddling, Bryan and Dennis, and a third day again with Josh.  The river may be low and the features easy but it's all fun practice for the spring flows.
  The river shows no sign of freezing anytime soon and I believe the level will stay what it is right now.  Winter paddling is dangerous.  Even class I or II can be easily fatal.  If you decide to paddle in the winter take into consideration the temperature, length of river, class, gear, and your skill level. Then make an intelligent decision and err towards safety. Even a large plastic garbage bag can be a survival blanket and keep wind off of you. Easy to store in a boat. If your footwear isn't adequate your feet will literally freeze within a minute. Wool or fleece socks inside your drysuit work good.  Check the large pools on the river to see if they're frozen over. You don't want to be surprised by a river wide ice shelf.  Check the take out to make sure it isn't iced in.  If possible go with someone experienced in winter paddling and knows the river. Winter paddling is beautiful!  Just make sure your prepared.

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