Blue Mountain Outfitters    river tales

Winter Clothing and the Limits of Cold

River of the month #46

February 2002

It's hard water time again. No, my water softener didn’t' break. No, I'm not preparing to tackle some 'hair' whitewater. It's the Susquehanna outside my window. It's hard again, frozen solid. Last year we talked about ice paddling. This year we'll try to answer the second most often asked question (right after 'Are you crazy?') that paddlers get from citizens (non-paddlers) who learn that they're going out in January or February to enjoy their sport, namely: 'What do you wear?'

Informed paddlers and anyone who attended the Blue Mountain Outfitter's fashion show at the CCGH December meeting, know that there is no substitute for dry suits. However, since I've never owned one I can't evaluate them. I've found that the high price tag, high maintenance of the gaskets and high difficulty of getting them on and off have deterred me from purchasing one. A dry suit is not missed since I don't do much play boating in the winter months. If you've just got to get out and flip and flop about in your favorite play wave or hole in the middle of winter you no doubt already have a dry suit or dry top at the least.

The 'what do you wear' question often comes in the form of 'do you wear a wet suit?' The answer to this specific query is 'very seldom'. Anyone that's worn one will attest to how uncomfortable they are. The rule I use here is - if there's any chance that I'll be immersed in deep water for more than a minute or two, I'll wear the wet suit. This rule excludes virtually all trips outside of the Susquehanna River. With a few exceptions, all other rivers that I might find myself on in mid winter will be narrow enough that one can reach shore before becoming hypothermic, in the event of a swim. When paddling the big Susky, I'll still venture to mid river if in a stable open boat or a touring or play kayak. When getting in winter exercise miles in a tippy race boat on the Susquehanna (a common occurrence), I merely stay close to shore where I can hightail it to dry land in the unlikely event of a capsize. In a normal winter I'll only break out the wet suit a few times, usually to paddle the big waves of Falmouth, where you can never be 100% confident of staying upright.

So if the wet suit is only for prolonged immersion, what's used for average outings? Well, I rely on good ole' polyester or polypro pile covered with a shell. I believe that good pile and a wet suit will keep you equally warm (or at least provide equal protection from hypothermia) if you are wet, even soaked. But the pile won't do if you're immersed, you've got to get out of the water. Pile works, it may not be comfortable and may not keep you completely warm, but it'll allow you to paddle and survive in cold, even really cold, weather. I've proven the worth of pile after many a mid winter swim. Sure you're cold in the water, but you're kidding yourself if you think you'd be warm in a wet suit. Once you're out of the water, just commence moving. Empty your boat, hop back in and start paddling again. As long as one keeps moving and keeps the heart rate up, even if just a little bit, it really helps. It's surprising how quickly the cold can set in once you relax. Keep those lunch stops short and keep 'ahead' of the cold. I usually wait for the car or dry clothes to really relax on a winter trip.

How about hands? There's just no way of getting by without pogies for your hands! At least not for me anymore. I believe there's something about age and blood circulation at work here; I've found it tougher to keep my hands warm as I age. But pogies do the trick, even with bare hands (though I wear liner gloves underneath). What about C-boatings? I simply use heavy insulated ski gloves. Not having mastered the off-side stroke, I still switch hands so I can't use C-1 pogies that 'lock' you onto the paddle. So what does a whitewater canoer do, that must get his/her hands wet and can't use the ski gloves? One could ask Lee Thonus, but I suppose they use those heavy wet-suit mittens. However, they don't work for me anymore (the age/circulation thing).

Feet? I just don't know how kayakers lived without those calf-high booties before. Now you can actually keep your feet dry on a kayaking trip. What a luxury! But keep in mind that you can get wet feet from water wicking down your pile pants, like when you're whitewater boating without a perfect spray-skirt seal (is there such a thing?). I'm still experimenting with the right combination of socks and bottom liners (since most cold comes up through the sole) to get these booties to work for winter camping. Until now, I've relied on my standard open boat winter footwear - hiking boots - for winter camping. But big boots are such a pain to haul along when minimizing gear on a light weight trip.

Hat? Use a helmet liner, even when not using a helmet. I lost 3 knit wool caps to tree branches in one winter alone until I wised up.

By keeping active to stay ahead of the cold and by following my 'shoreline' rule to prevent prolonged immersion, I'll always felt that I was being safe using the basic inexpensive gear described above, even in Harrisburg's coldest weather. But it's amazing how quickly conditions can deteriorate and how complacency can turn a routine trip into a potentially deadly situation. One very cold January night I headed down to launch in the Susquehanna at the mouth of the Conewago Creek just below the York Haven dam. Frozen most everywhere else, the river did not have enough time to re-freeze after going through the dam. I launched in a race K-1 and headed south along 'Brunners Island' (not really an island) using the 'hug-shoreline' rule due to the boat's unstable character.

I was surprised to encounter thin floating ice sheets as I paddled southward. 'Wow, it must really be cold if the water is re-freezing so quickly.' After a mile, a canal forms a delta jutting out into the main river. Rounding this obstacle, I found that the quiet water of the delta's eddy was frozen in a continuous sheet. It was thin ice and I broke through without much effort but grew more nervous by the minute as it slowly thickened. For a while I avoided the sheet by paddling further out but that put me precariously far from shore and the floating ice out there was getting thicker as well. I wanted to turn around but knew that a water outlet from the PPL Brunners Island power plant was coming up soon and I would find safe haven in the 60 degree condensed steam water. I decided I would get out and walk back when I reached the warm water, enough with the ice already.

However, the ice continued to thicken so I finally made the decision to turn, not an easy task for a long boat in sheet ice. In the process of forcing the turn, what I had been dreading happened. I caught a paddle blade under the ice. The wing paddle I was using doesn't brace well, but luckily I was able to grab a bit of water in a deep brace and managed to stay upright, barely. It was touch and go! To make matters worse I was opposite the intake grates of the massive power plant and a swim would have been a long one to give the grates plenty of leeway, lest the plant start drawing water and creating suction.

Fighting panic, I got the boat turned and started back up. Growing ever colder, the ice was thicker as I approached the delta the second time around. I again caught the paddle and again came oh-so-close to taking a dip. Now the fear was palatable, literally. I could taste the adrenaline in my mouth. I was listening to talk radio on a Walkman and I remember concentrating on the host's (Bruce Williams) words, something about mortgage rates. Thinking about such a mundane topic kept my mind from focusing too much on the ugliness of the situation. Just take it easy and do what comes natural - paddle.

Reaching the delta's north side again, I finally relaxed and headed back. For the first time ever, there was ice forming on the power face of my paddle blades. I believe the temp was in the single digits, a good time to get off of the water. I think of that trip often and hold it up as an example of winter stupidity. It's hard to say what could have happened. The gauge at Harrisburg was at 6 feet but was ice affected. I believe it was actually more like 4 feet. The water where I was paddling is not real deep, so I may have been able to merely walk to shore in waste high water breaking the thin ice as I went. On the other hand, if I flipped in deeper water and had to actually swim, breaking the ice in the process, 75 yards from shore, near those ominous plant intakes, wearing just pile and shell …. I don't care to carry that scenario any further. So I suppose the lesson is basically what we said in last year's ice column. Think things through, evaluate your skills and gear, and always plan for the worse case scenario. Come to think of it, that holds true all year around.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2002 Pat Reilly.  All rights reserved.

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