Seasons Final Icy Paddle

Posted by Robert N Pruden on Dec 7, 2004

Here's a trip report of my final paddle for the 2005 season. Enjoy the images and no, I was not cold because I was dressed warmly.

-20 C and Hung up on Ice

I headed out today for what would be my last paddle of this year. After work last night I drove over Groat Bridge near my usual put-in at Emily Murphy Park to check out river conditions; I saw lots of open water. I imagined that I would probably be able to get in two more paddles before the river ice became overwhelmingly difficult. The weather, however, got very cold during the night with a wind chill factor that plunged temperatures to –27 C. That caused the shore ice to thicken and spread out further into the river. The increased shore ice caused the ice pans to have to crowd through the now narrower stretches of open water, which created relatively impassable sections of ice filled water.

We lucked out with the snow during this cold spell. There must be six-inches of new snow that combined with the colder temperatures to make for a prettier landscape. If there’s one thing I don’t like about Canadian winter conditions it’s when we get the extreme cold and don’t have any snow to go along with it. I was happy to get out today and happier to be paddling through a true winter landscape. Besides, how else can I perpetrate that Canadian myth of tough men who paddle in all conditions and say with a firm nasal sniff that: “…it could be worse.”

My first problem was how to launch. The shore ice had extended at least twenty feet since my last paddle and the edge out there was stacked with hard raggedly stacked ice chunks. I could not launch safely in my usual spot. Yeah, I hear some of you thinking to yourself or saying to your monitor: “Safe? He talks about a safe launch in THOSE conditions, the guy is nuts.” Well, there is always a safe spot to launch, it just takes a bit of a hike to find it.

After prepping the kayak and myself for today’s run, I dragged the kayak through the fresh snow across the parking lot and down to the river. The ice at the shore was brittle and thin. I stepped on it with tentative steps only to have my foot sink through into slush. No problem there, I was wearing my MEC knee-length neoprene boots so the deathly chill water was a non-issue for today. I should mention at this point that I was also wearing two pairs of heavy running tights, my thin kayaking pants, two nylon long-sleeved full-neck shirts topped off with a fleece top over which I wore my Kokatat dry top. The dry top was cinched up as tight as I could get it just in case I had to swim. A tightly cinched dry top will keep the shockingly cold water off of the torso; I learned that lesson last February when I tipped the Rebuild and swam in the river after a very lazy inefficient ice launch. For my head I wore my sheep skin hat with the big earflaps. Gloves were Gill neoprene with leather palms over which I used pogies on the paddle.

I had to walk along the river shore to find an adequate spot for a safe launch. Such a spot gives me a free run into the water without any banked up ice chunks to have to push up over. I found such a place after walking along the shore further upstream. While I was walking I stepped in one spot that gave way only to have my leg shoot down up to the knee or more. I hastily yanked up my leg before it touched bottom or upset my balance. One fall to get wet and I would have had to go home instead of paddling. I cannot afford to get my gloves wet in these weather conditions.

I found my spot and set the bow pointing towards the water at an angle. I donned the spray skirt while watching traffic cross over the Groat Bridge. I prayed that no cell phone maniac would think to call the police to claim that the re was a nut case trying to get his boat into the river. I wanted this paddle and no cop was gonna stop me unless he was willing to come out and get me. I know the fire department has their hovercraft and they could and would use it to bug me to get off the river but I decided that I would be belligerently ignorant of any attempts to hail me. I do, after all, have a hearing problem. Convenient excuses always by time during the translation period. Hee! Hee!

I did not have my two awls handy to push across the ice today so I broke my paddle and used the steel ferrules I installed earlier this year. The ferrules handily cut into the ice to give me a dependable hold so I could shove off into the water. Once the kayak slid onto the thin ice near the edge the ice gave way and the kayak neatly settled onto the water. I reattached the paddle halves and began my one-hour trek through nasty river ice.

It felt awesome to be out there again. I knew this would be my last paddle for 2005, the river was badly choked with ice pans that had frozen together to form larger masses. One good thing was that the larger masses if ice were not solid so that in most cases I could run the VJ right through them. I never really had a change to stretch out my strokes and enjoy the feeling of a long easy movement. I spent my time immediately upon entry trying to avoid the spinning masses of ice while I attempted to swing the bow into the upstream current. That was a tough job. Every time a chunk of ice mashed against the side of the VJ I was immediately forced downstream. Eventually I had to accept the fact that I was going to lose headway in order to turn the VJ around to go where I wanted to go. At this time of year the river is a difficult entity to argue with and she has plenty of convincing arguments as to why anyone trying to use her should do what she wants done. I fought her though and eventually won my way. I got the VJ heading upstream to play a dangerous but fun game of icy dodgeball with ice chunks many times heavier than me and my boat pushed me around.

My favorite method of doing quick turns was to run the kayak towards the ice and lean away from the ice pan. The exposed hull would bounce off the ice and the kayak would be knocked into the desired direction. I spent a lot of time zigzagging around huge ice pans while trying to find my way through. My goal was to get around the corner upstream where the water is always slower and calmer. I would not make it that far. I got within a hundred meters of the curve when I became ensnared on top of a rather large thick chunk of ice. It dragged me a couple of hundred meters downstream before I could dislodge the bow. At that point the bow was hanging high and dry while the stern was in the water. Hmm, that was a painfully familiar position. Recollect that it was that position that got me into the water earlier this year in February during my lazy launch with the rebuild. I was kinda thinking to myself: “Oh shit!” while I was hung up but I did keep my mind in tact and kept the paddle stroking easy strokes to stay balanced while I maneuvered the VJ off of the ice.

One guy on the trails was watching me play amongst the ice pans. I’m not sure what he was thinking but I wondered if he was nervous. He saw me back out of tough spots enough times and could easily see that I was struggling to make headway. I hope I didn’t disturb his reverie too much. I was having a blast being out there despite the hardships I encountered. Being out there wasn’t about the distance traveled, it was about just being there where no one I know dares to go. I love paddling and I especially love paddling in difficult conditions, at least for a time.

One curiosity I saw on the water was a duck. I was very surprised to see it out there, it looked lost or something. I thought perhaps it was lame or partially frozen so I paddled towards it with the intention of rescuing it if that was what it needed. Well it wouldn’t be rescued so it flew off to another section of the river. No problemo! I didn’t really want a cold wet duck fluttering freezing water all over my lap anyway.

I lasted about an hour before I decided that it was time to end the season. I was struggling so much to stay in one spot and starting to not have fun so I figured I should have more fun by heading back to the put-in. Getting there was relatively easy: getting out was not. While I was trying to get across the river I was sideswiped by a few large spinners that locked me into such a jam that the bow ended up hung up on top of the largest piece. Again, I had to struggle to free the bow and again I had to worry about swimming. The ice settled deeper into the water enough so that I was able to slowly back out and find a better way across.

Once I got close to the put-in I aimed the bow to the shore and floated sideways to the current. My intent was to wait until I was just about to pass the spot where I launched then paddle hard to ram the VJ up onto the ice. I saw what seemed to be the right place and started paddling as hard and strongly as I could. I hit the thinner ice easily and shot up onto the thicker ice only to hit a higher ridge of jumbled ice. The kayak stopped moving forward about four feet past the bow, held for a few seconds the slid back into the river. I turned on all thrusters and paddled like crazy to stop the backsliding but I just couldn’t produce enough forward motion to get over that ridge. I gave up and let the VJ ease back into the water again.

I let the VJ float sideways again while I watched for another chance to run up onto the shore ice. I saw my next chance at a spot where there was no ridge of jumbled ice. Six hard paddle strokes later the VJ shot up onto the ice and came to a stop on relatively strong ice. I broke the paddle and shoved the kayak further away from the moving water.

I could hear the ice crackling under the weight of the VJ. I knew I couldn’t get out here and walk because if I went through the ice I’d be in at least three to four feet of water at 0 C. After releasing the spray skirt I stood on the ice with one foot on either side of the kayak and spun it around to aim the bow downstream. I could hear he ice crackle more loudly as I hastily worked to turn the kayak. Once done, I got back in and used the steel ferrules to shove the kayak along the surface ice back to the put-in, roughly one hundred meters away. I got nervous while shoving my way along. I could hear the obvious thwump-thwump of a helicopter flying low over the river. Damn! I prayed that no one called the cops and that Air-One was looking for me trapped in the ice now. The last thing I wanted was to be used as an example by the media of what not to do in cold weather. That sound caused me to tuck in closer to shore so that I blended in with the riverbanks more easily. As if a man dressed in a yummy yellow dry top and rescue red pfd is gonna blend in with muddy clay banks. The chopper never did get too close to me and eventually I saw it veer off somewhere else. It must have been coffee and doughnut time, it gets cold flying in those little things during nasty weather.

When I got to the put-in I noticed that the tracks I made while walking on the ice were now under a foot of water. Hmm! The rivers water level had risen a foot during the hour I was out there. The operators at the BigHorn Dam must have increased the release to generate more power. I just happened to be on the water at the time the release washed through Edmonton. That allowed me to basically float the kayak along the shore so that all I had to do was step out of the cockpit onto dry snowy ground.

The rest of this story is moot: I loaded up the kayak and went home, satisfied that I tried to paddle and couldn’t because the 2005 paddling season in the cold Canadian north has come to an end in Edmonton. Hmm, there’s always Wabamun Lake with all that thermal pollution. Maybe if I get desperate I’ll load up the VJ and see what the water looks like, just in case.

Robert N Pruden

A few images



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