The Winter Snow Storm Paddle in Toronto

Monday, 17 January 2011
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Winter Boat Repair - AKA Cleaning Spilled Hot Chocolate...

This past Saturday I had the opportunity to get out for a quick morning paddle. What made this day a bit exceptional was that a gale snowstorm was rolling through Toronto leaving about 8-10cm of snow in its wake.

Anybody who has been out winter paddling will agree that even the shortest paddles are an adventure and Saturday was no different. It snowed about 5-6cm overnight so getting to the water was exciting on my bike but by sticking to the busy streets that had been plowed and salted already it was just a wet and sloppy 5km ride to the water.

I met Erik and Costain and we loaded up the boats and drove over to Cherry Beach as gave us access to the open water of Lake Ontario that never freezes. The temperature was about -1c or 30f so it wasn't too bad since we were properly dressed with fleece and Kokatat drysuits.

The Launch

Jumping on the water the wind and snow were still raging with the local wind gauges measuring the speed at 43km/h or around 25 knots. For me, 25 knots is right at the top limit for my skinny little arms. After 30min of beating it into the wind we only traveled about 1km so we decided to take a quick break so Erik could switch his neoprene gloves over to pogies as his fingers were getting to cold.

Jumping back on the water we busted out through the surf (which included several splashes to the face by the incoming breaking waves) with the plan to head out into deeper water and play in the swells that were forming but I quickly realised that the plan would have to change.

Dragging Boats to the Beach

In our group we have a very strict rule that I encourage all groups to develop. It's the idea of a safety veto. If anybody is feeling uncomfortable with the situation they can veto out and the whole group backtracks and figures out a solution to the problem. The group commits to respecting the veto with zero pressure or questioning.

As I mentioned the plan was to go out into deeper water and play in the swells. It was nothing beyond our skill level but about 10 minutes into it my arms were calling out for a break and I was getting worried that if anything went wrong and I found myself swimming it would be a real disaster for either me or my paddling partners.

I whistled, gave the thumbs down and the plan was scrapped with zero pressure or complaining. It still worked out ok as we had a great downwind run back to the car with some great waves to catch some smaller surf in.

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Winter Paddling Tips
If you have never had the opportunity to get out and paddle in cold temperatures you should give it a try sometime. Paddling in the winter has two distinct advantages compared to the summer. 1) Even the shortest trip on the calmest waters makes for a great story back home. 2) You very quickly learn to appreciate warm summer paddling even more.

Here are a couple tips if you are interested in trying it out:

  • Get yourself a dry suit. Wet suits won't cut it so don't bother if you don't have proper immersion gear.
  • Dress properly. I can't emphasise it enough. Over dress with long underwear and fleece.
  • Think about proper hand and head protection. Come up with a solution that will keep your hands warm yet still give you finger dexterity when you need it. Don't forget about a warm toque and a face mask if it is windy to protect against frostbite.
  • Never paddle alone. Find a competent buddy. I can't emphasise that enough.
  • Make sure your paddling skills are up to speed and self rescue is dialled in. You basically on your own so don't expect to survive long enough for help to come from shore.
  • Be conservative and don't plan on going far. Winter paddling isn't about getting out and doing a lot of miles. It's about being active on the water in the season when you should be on skies on the slopes.
  • Bring friends who are as experienced as you and develop a plan before you go. Talk about route, the rescue plan, gear check and extra snacks/drinks.

The last piece of advice is that if you are in doubt bail on the plan and head back to the cars. Remember that the story is only good if you are the one telling it to your buddies back home. Oh yes, remember to exaggerate in both temperature, wave height and miles covered. That's key to any good story.

David Johnston

David Johnston

David Johnston has been introducing people to the sport of sea kayaking for the past 15 years. He is a senior instructor trainer with Paddle Canada and teaches for several paddling schools in Ontario, Canada. Full Bio.

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