In the days before his home waters in the Canadian Rockies froze over for winter, Dream Team member Bruce Kirkby took his wife on an unusual date–paddling amidst ice and snow. Below he shares what it takes to paddle safely in such chilly conditions…
Christine and I have enjoyed paddling together since we met 20 years ago. Long before SUPs became popular, we kayaked and canoed around the planet, from the East Coast of Greenland to Borneo and Burma. Our kids have joined us on expeditions along the outer coast of Vancouver Island and down the wild Churchill River. Today, everyone in the family loves paddleboarding, and we spend much of our summer together in swimsuits and board shorts, paddling sunny, warm waters.
But last week, as fingers of ice began to stretch across the dark waters behind our home in the Canadian Rockies, I asked my wife if she wanted to join me for one last paddle before the lake froze. Without hesitation, she said yes–in large part, I suspect, because she now has a wonderfully warm drysuit, which makes winter paddling much more enjoyable!
It was snowing hard as we pulled up to the lake with two Zen Touring boards strapped to the roof of our truck. Ice covered the shoreline, and we had to carefully wade through waist-deep water before launching our boards.
But out on those silent waters, we found magic.
Alone, bodies warm from exertion, we revelled in the majesty of snow-capped peaks. A pair of eagles perched on a lonely snag, and a family of river otters swam nearby. A gentle river drains the lake, and we follow it deeper and deeper into the mountains, past pine forests draped with early-season snow.
When we returned home, most people seemed to think we were nuts. And I get it! Winter paddling can seem uncomfortable, and downright dangerous. But with the proper precautions, for those who love paddling, the season never stops.
Here are a few tips on staying safe and comfortable during winter paddle boarding:
Hypothermia–a potentially fatal cooling of body core temperatures–is a serious danger. Many factors affect how quickly a body will lose heat including water temperature, air temperature, wind speed, time of day, strength of sun, along with activity and energy levels of the paddler. A good question to ask yourself before setting out for any paddle: “If I fell from my board at the very furthest point of this route, could I return to the start and still remain warm?” If unsure, change plans, take more clothing, or don’t go.
Wetsuits are generally limited to temperatures above freezing (their warmth based on thickness), so when snow is on the ground, a drysuit becomes essential. Additional layers of insulation should be worn beneath any drysuit, and the cooler the day, the more layers you should wear. It is important to always wear synthetic or wool layers, and never cotton. Synthetic and wool both provide warmth when wet, while cotton cools–and can ultimately kill.
Hands, feet and head require special attention. Gloves are essential. I like to use rubber-coated work gloves (cheap and available at most hardware stores) and I always bring a spare pair along, in a drybag, as gloves usually get damp with time from handling the paddle.
A warm wool or synthetic hat is crucial, for a significant amount of heat is lost from the head. I suggest always keeping a spare hat handy, so if you do fall in the water, you can quickly pull a dry hat on afterwards.
Keeping feet warm can pose a challenge. Drysuits that include integrated socks offer the best protection, allowing a paddler to wade into water up to their neck without a drop getting inside their suit. I wear thick, warm socks inside my drysuit, and protective, insulating booties over top.
Always carry extra warm clothes in a dry bag—like a puffy jacket and fleece pants. You can change into these after paddling, or in case of an emergency. A warm drink and high-energy snacks are also a good idea, as both can rewarm a cool paddler.
Finally, always paddle with a partner in cold weather. If either of you fall in, it is essential to act as quickly as possible, helping the wet paddler get out of any damp clothing and into dry gear. Jumping around or swinging arms vigorously can help rewarm a chilled body. There is only a limited window before you begin to lose dexterity and mental acuity—and hypothermia sets in.
If you are new to winter paddling, please begin slowly and cautiously. Make conservative plans–no speed or distance records! Prepare meticulously. Paddle with more experienced mentors. And always place safety first.
But despite these warnings, cold weather paddling offers profound rewards to the prepared paddler, for nature serves up a special beauty during the depths of winter.