Waiting for Spring – why you can’t trust groundhogs

Spring canoeingWe all make mistakes. No one is right all the time. But what makes this particular error hard to swallow is that it has resulted in a delayed paddling season. The lesson might be to not plan an ice-out canoe trip on a prediction made by an albino groundhog, despite the fact that he gave us hope. Hope that has remained frozen in the lake as winter is only recently beginning to release its grip.

April 1st roared in like a cruel joke and put an end to any thoughts of a repeat in last year’s unseasonably warm spring thaw. That scorching March in 2012 resulted in the earliest ice-out in over 50 years. As much as this year is more normal than last, the “delay” in the ice melting weather still feels a little cruel.  The slow start to warm temperatures is also making ice-out predictions particularly challenging.  If you’re itching to paddle Algonquin this spring stay tuned to the Friends of Algonquin Park’s website for updated ice conditions.

But why wait?

There is open water out there if you are willing to find it. Here are a few places you can go to dip your paddle:

Whitewater Rivers

  • This is the prime time for many whitewater enthusiasts. Spring runoff means rivers are swollen and ready to ride. It also provides the only opportunity to paddle certain rivers that run dry in the summer, such as the Highway 7 runs.

 Slow Moving Creeks

  •  Impatient flat water paddlers can seek out day trips down creeks and slow moving rivers that have pushed their ice downstream. If you go out too early you may still encounter some ice but these places are sure to open up before the lakes. Just remember that if you choose a familiar river, the water levels will be higher than they were in the summer. This will create new features – rapids and obstacles, that might not have been there the last time you floated by.

Big Water

  • Wind plays a major role in clearing ice off a lake and you will be hard pressed to find windier lakes in Ontario than the Great Lakes. This is, however, a double edged sword. The same wind that clears the ice also builds waves and surf that some seek and others avoid. If you don’t like being sprayed by cold water, keep your eye on those quiet bays and inlets of the Great Lakes. Once the ice starts to break, a good wind can clear the lake in a few hours.

Early spring paddling tips – Stay out of the water

One of the challenges with early season paddling is being prepared for the unexpected. A mid-summer flip of the canoe might be welcomed but it’s a different story in the spring. Here are some safety tips for spring/cold water paddling:

  • Be Prepared – Know the water temperature and weather forecast before you set out.
  • Insulate your Body – Avoid wearing cotton clothing when paddling in cool temperatures. Dress in layers using synthetic fabrics such as polyester fleece to prevent getting over- heated or chilled from perspiration. Carry a waterproof jacket designed for splash and/or rain protection. Wear a warm hat that will stay on your head in the water. A fleece-lined skullcap is ideal.
  • Fuel Your Body – Keep your body well fuelled with high carbohydrate foods and lots of water.
  • Wear your lifejacket – When a paddler capsizes and is suddenly immersed in cold water, the body’s first reflexive action is to gasp for air, followed by increased heart rate, blood pressure and disorientation and can even lead to cardiac arrest. Without proper equipment and apparel, the body can become incapacitated in just a few minutes and without a lifejacket this can be a very dangerous and often fatal combination. ?
  • Have a Spare – Keep a dry set of clothing stored in a sealed dry bag while on the water.
  • Watch out for your group – Know your – and everyone in your group – emotional and physical limitations. It is important not to push them this early in the season. You must take into consideration that you haven’t paddled for 5 to 6 months and will not be at the condition you were at the end of last season.

With these safety tips in mind, it’s time to get out and enjoy the first paddle of the season. Check out the Ontario Parks’ paddling page for more information on canoeing at provincial parks.