Winter Paddle

It is Christmas Day and the Grand River in Southern Ontario is unexpectedly open. The temperature hovers gently around the freezing mark, almost balmy. 


The warmer temperatures do not fool me. This is, after all, winter in Canada. I know what cold can do, respect it, won’t let myself grow complacent. As I untie my kayak from the car I fumble with the ropes, quickly losing manual dexterity, my fingers thick and slow. I slide the boat off the roof and onto my shoulder, carrying it to the river in a way that makes me look much stronger than I am.

Today, I have layered my clothes for ease of movement on the water. I wear lightweight dry-wicking long underwear against my skin, a turtleneck sweater with a big collar I can stretch up past my nose when the wind gets bitter, another shirt, and then a fleece jacket. Over top goes my lifejacket, a final layer to protect my body core against the cold and to offer flotation if I tip. I tug on a bright hunter-orange headband so that I am easily visible against the water and the snowy shoreline.

I don’t like to wear boots while I paddle. They stop me from feeling my feet against the foot pedals and give me less maneuverability. When I slide into the cockpit, I kick my boots off, shoving them deep into the hull. Since I am travelling boot-less, warm socks are a necessity. I wear two pairs of Micra Fleece socks especially designed for the cold, made of the same fabric as my long underwear.  


I wriggle into my seat, wiggle my toes, and then pull my spray skirt around the rim of the cockpit, seal myself into the kayak, seal the icy cold water out. I tug on double-lined mitts designed for snowboarders; I’ve adopted them because they give such a good grip on my paddle. All set, I push off. 

Today the water is fast, rough, high, wide. My boat rounds a bend and then the water is calm, almost flat, until it twists around another bend and picks up speed again. The wind turns brisk and I realize I am crying. The tears are an automatic response to the physical sensation of the cold against my skin. I am not sad. The opposite. The cold, the sensation, the tears feel wonderful. The waves are higher than usual, and I attack them. That, too, feels good. 

I like what the river does to me, combats the laziness of the every day. I move. I am like the night feline.


Buddha, my fat furry longhair cat, is lazy and sleepy during the day, meditating the time away. At night he awakens, prowls the floor, leaves me for the outdoors without a second thought. Both are lovely, the night and day of him, but it is his night transformation that reminds me who I am when I paddle, how I become aware of my surroundings, my body. 

It starts to snow. How exhilarating it is to be paddling in the flurries in the midst of the river. Upstream, hundreds of Canada Geese lift into the air in unison. The birds are immense as they pass over, the beating of their wings creating a loud single humming. Receding into the sky as if into the future, the geese become the "bird-Vs" my mother, now bedridden and having to dream her adventures, sketched for me when I was a child. Her doodles were filled with birds, wings stretched wide in flight, filling the horizon of the paper sky. She is with me now as I paddle on Christmas Day, watching geese fill my sky, snow falling thickly around me. 


This is not my first paddle of the winter season. A few weeks earlier, in sub-zero temperatures much colder than this Christmas paddle, my husband and I set out to find open water. Snow banks towered at the edge of the roads, and odd looks followed the boats strapped to our car. We had expected to find open water at the river bluffs in Galt, but when we arrived the river was iced up. Undaunted, we explored other places to put in and found a spot not far away where the river was wider. Channels of open water flowed five metres from the shoreline.

We unknotted the boats and carried them to the edge of the river. Both of us knew better than to walk across thin ice - instead we did what we have come to term the butt-scuttle. We geared up, then hunkered down in our respective craft. Low in our boats, we scuttled across the ice by pushing our butts in little hopping motions until, plop, we were in water. Along the narrow channels of open water, our boats skirted the edges, rather than breaking through. The surface groaned as if Old Man Winter’s knees were creaking with age and cold.

The ice startled and delighted me. Large crystallized shapes formed as the water hardened. River swirled underneath. The ice, fresh and paper-thin took on the outline of jungle ferns, folded fans spread wide open, long thin triangles, the veins of leaves. I was only able to see the shapes from the water. At the shore the ice had thickened, the surface white and opaque like a skating rink.

When it was time to come in out of the cold, my husband easily paddled his one-person canoe up onto the ice and butt-scuttled back to shore. I paddled bow-first at the ice, but the kayak veered around the edge, refused to hop atop. So I back-paddled, tried again, skirted the edges again, and then made a third futile attempt. I was marooned in open water. 


My husband prepared a rescue. I watched him from the water as he pulled ropes from the car trunk. I realized he intended to toss me a line and pull me unceremoniously ashore like some large fish.

No damn ropes for me! 

I paddled harder. 

Made straight for the ice. Didn’t hesitate. Squeezed in one last determined stroke before I hit the ice bang-on. 

The kayak slipped up smoothly. 

Put away your ropes, man! 

I was pumped. I had felt this same adrenaline rush on another excursion. It was summer, and we had miscalculated the length of an evening paddle. Our take-out point was a small pathway surrounded by trees near the crumbling ruins of an old stone mill, easy enough to miss in day, let alone in twilight. I watched for the Doon Pioneer Tower, the heritage landmark on the cliff high above the river in Kitchener that would tell us we were close to our destination. Not paying attention to the paddling and the river at its lowest level of the summer, I marooned myself on rocks. Fiddled five precious minutes, light draining from the sky, before breaking loose. Finally I spotted the tower and paddling with the relief of being home free, I ran smack into a thick swarm of insects. Their appearance was sudden; it was like hitting a wall. I paddled the last two hundred meters with my chin dug deep into my collar, my eyes shut tight at times, and my mouth clamped closed.

When I reached the take-out point, popped loose my spray skirt and climbed out, pulled the kayak up onto my shoulder and walked the trail to the waiting car, stars spreading above me, I felt exhilaration. The same rush as when I paddled hard, held nothing back and slid onto the ice. The same rush as I felt paddling on Christmas in cold that made me cry, along a river, surrounded by falling snow with geese lifting in unison to fill the winter sky.


The photo of the geese flying in V formation is reprinted under the Creative Commons License . Photograph: John Benson. Appearing originally on Wikipedia and Flickr.

© Marianne Paul 2011