Saturday, January 10, 2009

Winter Standup Paddling

I broke my rule and went for a paddle in sub-freezing temperatures. I learned my lesson last winter that ice forms on the deck and if you move your feet, its all over. Balancing a standup paddle board is one thing but balancing the board while ice skating is disaster.

Eddy and I couldn't resist, it was the first sunny day in January and I'm sticking to my commitment to paddle in every month, and anyway it was a whopping 34 degrees! We decided to launch at Aspen Camp on the Deschutes River (near Bend, Oregon) and do the Big Eddy Rapids to Dillon Falls stretch. This is one of the "must-do" 5 kilometer paddles when you're on a paddle trip to Bend. The road was finally passable in four-wheel-drive after Decembers two feet of snow. A warm front did a rainy mush-meltdown to the current situation of icy ruts.

There's something special about being on the river in winter. There's snow on the banks and ice chunks floating down the river. The ice sounds a harmless racket on the bottom of your board as it slides underneath. The colors of the water, forest, and lava flow (this stretch is flanked by a lava flow) were dazzled by the sun, and truly amazing!

Winter paddling isn't for everyone so here's some tips:

Confidence - You need to have such a standup paddle skill level that you're confident you won't fall in. Falling is part of the risk that makes it exciting, but you don't take risks here. It's like riding a bike confidence. You know you're not going to fall off your bike yet there's always the risk you could crash.

Standup Paddle Board Stability - You use the most stable, predictable, comfortable cruiser, period. There's no sense being "The Duke" on your 10'3" Gerry Lopez in this situation. I'm paddling a 12'1" Laird soft top this winter and Eddys on a Mistral Pacifico. This emphasizes the point, you don't want to fall in. Only go on smooth water, waves/chop decrease the stability and are caused by wind, wind adds wind-chill and decreased visibility of obstacles just under the surface, you don't want to add these variables to the danger. Know your water!

Clothing To Wear - This depends a bit on your confidence. Eddy, and I were wearing cross country ski wear, including gloves and hats. Outer layers are wind resistant and breathable. Use base layers that are moisture wicking. We often shed our outer layer jackets during the work-out of upstream and put them back on for downstream. We both wear sealed-seam wetsuit booties over wool sox.
If you lack confidence and still want to paddle then an Alaskan Ocean Survival Suit would be a good choice. At minimum a 5 mil wetsuit or dry suit is necessary because if you think you might fall in then you definitely will and these suits keep you safe when wet.

Emergency Plan - Hypothermia is the big risk and it can happen even if you don't fall in. It starts with being cold and un-controllable shivering. It progresses to lack of judgement and drunken-like state so you can't paddle. You could croak and its very serious. Never winter paddle without a partner and an emergency plan. Your partner will know you're in trouble, they can tow you back to the car, crank the heater, give you warm fluids and get you to the emergency room.

We had no problems on our sunny day in January. The water was less clear than usual due to the rains and run-off. Eddy didn't see the rock he hit with his skeg. It gave him a jolt but he caught his balance OK. We were really tempted to play on a small standing-wave that's at the bottom of Dillon Falls, but common sense prevailed. We'll save that for summer and warmer days.

We paddled about an hour and were on our final stretch when we noticed the ice on our decks. The sun was lower in the sky, the hills and trees shadowed the river and the temperature had dropped. We got to the take-out and were stymied on how to get off our ice covered boards without getting in the water. Usually we sprint, paddle the nose up on the bank and walk the board up to the nose, stepping gracefully onto land. Eddy went first and with the nose stabilized on shore he literally ice skated up the board! I slipped off into shallow water and only got my booties wet, so it was OK for a few minutes while we loaded he boards. Our final challenge was stacking our two icy boards on the roof rack. The boards slip around so easily it's comical. This is another reason to have a partner, to hold the boards while you hook the rack straps!

Check out this stretch of the Deschutes River with the Bend Paddle Trail Deschutes River Guide. All 125 miles of the river in Deschutes County are charted in stretches that show every put-in, hazard and difficulty (even potty stops). Order yours at and receive a free Lakes Guide too.

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