PADDLING: Lessons I Have Learned
The are numerous ways we can learn about a subject but, for many of us, there is nothing like first-hand experience to really drive a point home. However, some of those experiences are best avoided and we can learn by listening to the voice of experience whether it be in print, video or in person. There are a few paddling-oriented things that I do not think get enough attention and I will touch on some of them here.
The Weather - There are several ways we can get a weather forecast these days and, thanks to the internet, it is possible to get a forecast for the exact location we are planning to paddle. Knowing that it will be warm and sunny is nice but it will be the strength and direction of the wind that will affect your paddling day the most. The wind (and resulting waves) will be a greater factor when paddling large lakes and less important when paddling small streams – I have changed plans from the former to the latter when I saw that moderate to high winds were in the forecast. The greater the fetch, the distance over which the wind travels unimpeded, the more you will feel its effects. When the forecast is predicting winds of 10 to 15 mph I usually anticipate it to be 10 to 20 mph once I get out on open water and I question whether that would be advisable.
The direction of the wind is also very important. For example, if the lake is oriented in a south-north direction, and the wind is coming from a north or south direction, it will affect the conditions much more than if the wind was from the west or east. A number of years ago, a small group of us kayaked out to Valcour Island on Lake Champlain and camped on the island's east side only to find that the wind had turned to south the next morning and waves were in the 3-foot range. None of us wanted to attempt to return to the Peru boat launch in those conditions even though it was only 2 miles away. I wondered if I had brought enough food to stay another day and wait for things to calm down. Luckily, by late afternoon, the wind direction changed to westerly and we were able to paddle out uneventfully.
If you must paddle in the wind, you will have an easier time of it if you paddle along the same shore that the wind is coming from – for example, if the wind is coming from the west then paddling along the west shore should be fine. I have often paddled a longer but safer distance by following the shoreline – plus I find that there is always more to see there anyway. Mornings are usually the best time of day to paddle when the lake surface is often calm and special memories can be created while experiencing sunrises and morning mist. Kayakers have the advantage of choosing to use a spray skirt to keep water from entering the cockpit area and there can be times where paddling in waves can actually be fun when so equipped.
Decision making and the warm and sunny day syndrome - It's a sunny spring day with the temperature in the 70's, so let's go kayak the Schoharie Creek despite having limited skills - like being able to maneuver in a strong current - and despite the fact that the water level is sort of on the high side.
Two people, in separate incidents a few hours apart, were rescued from the creek early this May. A fair amount of rain had fallen that week and the water level had risen to 3 feet on the gauge at Burtonsville. Through my research and experience, I have learned that a level of between 1.5 and 2 feet is best for a fun trip on the Schoharie above and below Middleburgh. At 3 feet, the flow is three times more powerful than when the river is at 2 feet – 4,500 cubic feet per second versus 1,500 cfs. My biggest fear when paddling moving water is coming up on strainers – trees that have fallen down across the water. Often, there is a way around them but there may only be a small opening and aggressive maneuvering is necessary. This was the case at the time of the incidents on a stretch of river across from the cliffs of Vroman's Nose and the kayakers were unable to paddle past successfully. Rescue personnel included fire and ambulance, swift-water rescue, search and rescue, police and homeland security – not good in these days of Covid-19.
When exploring moving waters for the first time, I highly recommend that you go with someone who knows the river well, learn and practice some maneuvering strokes like draw strokes and do some research before venturing out.
Painters - A painter is just a rope that is attached to your canoe or kayak, most often to the bow, but it does not hurt to have one attached to the stern too. A painter can be used to line a boat through shallows, pull it over beaver dams, and to secure it on shore when you stop for a break or at a campsite so that it does not wander off when you are not watching.
I was once camping on one of the islands on Lake George and sat enjoying my morning coffee by the water when I spotted an empty canoe floating between the islands. I jumped into my canoe and towed it back to my island where I tied it to a tree in a spot where it could easily be seen. Unfortunately, I did not get to see the faces of the owners when they discovered their transportation out of there was missing. Since then, I always tie down my boat even when I bring it in well away from shore – you never know when the wind could kick up and take your boat away.
On a downstream trip on the Batten Kill a few years ago, our group of six solo paddlers stopped for lunch on a gravel bank. A pretty good rainstorm had passed through earlier that day and the water level rose slowly throughout the day. After a time, one of the group counted only five boats. All of us jumped up and made our way downstream and luckily found the stray canoe hung up on a strainer (a downed tree) about 200 yards below our lunch spot and we were able to extricate it with a little effort. The paddle had remained with the canoe but the life jacket was missing – we found it about a mile further downstream. Now, if that canoe had been tied to a tree, this never would have happened.
Speaking of trips that involve shuttles, the group should make sure that the owners of any cars at the take-out should remember to bring the car keys – this did not happen once on an Oswego River trip in New Jersey's Pine Barrens. Hitch-hiking was not working and we had to wait an extra-long time in cool temperatures for a ranger to come and bail us out.
Our lives may have changed recently but nature and life on the water are not much different – please enjoy safely and responsibly.