Lessons Learned Searching for Frosty Rapids

An icy Wisconsin River below Grandfather Dam.

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When I set off on a winter kayaking trip, I thought I knew what I was getting into. But on our first river, a wall of ice rose up in front of me, the current pushed my boat from behind, and suddenly I realized there was more to preparing for icy boating than poggies, drysuits and fleece layers.

I grew up boating in California, where the only things restricting kayakers from paddling in the winter are water levels and personal discretion of how cold is “too cold.” When I took my kayak on a winter road trip through the northern U.S., that all changed.

Cold weather had never stopped me before, so people’s opinions that our road trip was a crazy idea, didn’t phase me. My early days of cold-water paddling held memories of numb fingers and beating frozen wetsuits against the concrete to make them pliable enough to crawl inside, so taking a winter kayaking trip didn’t sound out of my realm. A little pre-trip research had me reading blogs about the best layering strategies and importance of poggies, but nothing prepared me for the added risks and hidden obstacles downstream.

My fiancée and I left California in mid-November, heading north with kayaks strapped to the top of his Ford Taurus, ignoring the advice from family and weird looks from strangers. Our aim was to see the northern reaches of the country and paddle as much as possible along the way. While other people were donning skis and hopping a lift, we navigated our way down snowy mountain roads to reach the river. We learned just as many lessons about driving a Ford Taurus on those snowy mountain roads, but here are the lessons we learned around the (frosty) river bends.

Reevaluating Risks on the Gallatin River in Bozeman, Montana

We had convinced a couple friends to put ditch their skis, dig out their boating gear, and join us on the water for the day. Even though ice completely covered the riverbanks—the thick kind you can walk on—when we launched our boats, we didn’t expect any challenges. The House Rock section of the Gallatin is a class III-IV run and, while we had never paddled it before, it’s completely roadside making it an easy read-and-run. We launched off ice shelves into the river and bopped down the rapids. We marveled over the way ice filled every eddy even choking out some of the channels, but we didn’t consider the hazards it could present.

When we reached the largest rapid of the day—House Rock Rapid—my friends all headed off down river left. I entered farther right and followed a separate line. I didn’t think much of taking a different route; from the top, it looked open and I assumed I would be able to duck behind a big boulder and rejoin the crew at the bottom. It wasn’t until dropping into the final move behind the boulder that I realized what would normally have been an eddy behind the rock was blocked by ice. Before I could change course, the current had pushed me against the ice shelf preventing not only a downstream exit but any possibility of retracing my paddle strokes. One wrong move and suddenly I was acutely aware of the added risks of winter boating.

With the water pushing me against the ice wall I had to act quickly, but carefully. Flipping over now could mean pinning against the ice and not being able to roll back up. I pulled my hands out of my poggies and popped my skirt off. Gripping the ice ledge, I pulled myself out of my kayak and over the wall. My hands went numb instantly against the ice but the adrenaline filled me with the energy I needed to pull my boat out after me. When I finally got my kayak over the ice and back to moving water, my hands were too numb to put my skirt back on. Luckily, not all the eddies were frozen and one of my paddling partners was able to paddle back upstream and help me pull my frozen spray skirt back over the cockpit.

I forced my hands back into the poggies and continued downstream, but it was a wake-up call to how quick a casual day of paddling can get serious in winter conditions. Ice had not only narrowed the river channel, but also the margin of error, making looking ahead—and back upstream to keep an eye on each other—more crucial than ever.

Running—er—Sledding the Shuttle on Spearfish Creek, South Dakota

Of course, winter makes setting shuttle more difficult too. It was already late afternoon and snowing steadily when we reached Spearfish, South Dakota but we headed out of town to scope out the Spearfish Canyon, a class III section running along Spearfish Canyon Road. As we drove into the mountains the dumping snow, winding road, and our two-wheel drive Taurus led us to decide to wait out the storm in town and see if we could return the next day. Instead, we woke up to several inches of fresh snow covering the kayak-topped car. Even many of the city streets were impassable, so we knew heading back to Spearfish Canyon Road would be hopeless.

Luckily, there was also a runnable section of Spearfish Creek right in town, and that was when we discovered that while snow restricted us from some runs, it also introduced a new shuttle opportunity.

We had slept in a parking lot near the Spearfish Campground at the put-in for the urban section of the creek, but snowy city streets made traditional shuttle strategies unviable. Instead, we turned to a footpath that ran along the two-mile section of Spearfish Creek. Looking at the snow-covered path, I imagined warm summer days of running laps on Spearfish Creek and jogging/walking this path in between. But in November it meant that rather than having to set shuttle in advance, we could get right on the water. At the end of the run, we loaded our gear into our kayaks, attached our tow ropes to the nose of our boats and trotted back to our car at the put-in, pulling the boats behind us along the snowy track.

Sledding the Put-in and Ice Skating the Take-out on Wisconsin’s Rivers

Bagley Rapids on the Oconto River, WI

Adding ice and snow to the riverbanks didn’t just affect the paddling, but also made put-in and take-out some of the most dangerous, and fun, parts of our trip. While sledding from the car to the river and seal launching off the ice embankments on the Bagley Rapids section of the Oconto River was a highlight, when we got to the end of the run, we weren’t so thrilled about the conditions.

The Bagley Rapids put-in is a campground with sloping paths to the river perfect for sliding down to the water’s edge, as long as you’re ready to navigate between a few trees. However, the short section of rapids ends in a lazy river, winding by fishing docks and quaint vacation homes. In summer, this makes for an easy paddle out. In the winter? An ice skating rink. Unfortunately, pulling yourself out of your kayak onto an ice shelf isn’t nearly as much fun as seal launching off one, especially when you’re tired, cold and lacking much feeling in your hands. “Skating” back to the shore pulling a kayak can be entertaining, but also leads to a few bruises. As it turns out, this Cali girl isn’t too good at ice skating.

Of course, icy river banks weren’t all fun and games. When we arrived at the Grandfather Falls section of the Wisconsin River, water was blasting from the base of Grandfather Dam, making it impossible to launch our boats in the writhing water at its base. Attempting to put-in a short way downstream along the ice-covered rocky shoreline was a slippery mess. The icy shore forced us to carry our kayaks farther down the riverbanks, bushwack our way to a decent opening, and pick our way across slippery boulders before we could start our run. And let me tell you, if I was bad at ice skating on the frozen Oconto, it was nothing compared to my performance skating on ice covered boulders on the banks of the Wisconsin River.

From then on, while we set the shuttle, we took a little extra time to scope out a good spot to get on and off the river, realizing some sections just aren’t worth the added hazards of the put-in and take-out.

Running Illinois’s Vermillion River—On Foot

While ice added new elements to many of our excursions, it also taught us that sometimes the most important lesson can come from not boating at all. The Vermillion River held the only whitewater run in the state of Illinois, so when the gauge said it was running, we were excited to make the two-hour detour to paddle it. We dropped a rented shuttle car at the take-out (surprisingly, there were no other boaters in the area to link up with and the length and situation of the shuttle made jogging or hitchhiking it as we normally would unviable) and headed to the top of the run.

The out-of-place canyon cut its way through the surrounding farmlands, surprising us with stunning rock formations and high cliffs. But the topography wasn’t our only surprise that day. When we reached the put-in, the river was frozen solid. Small patches of open water and chunks of ice swirled in the center of the river, but there was no continuous current leaving the put-in.

For once, it really was just too cold to go boating. We loaded back in the car, drove to a nearby state park, and went on a hike instead. When I recounted the epic fail over the phone to a friend in California that evening she said, “Hmm, I’ve never seen a river so iced over you couldn’t kayak on it.” The things us California girls don’t think of.

Facing Ice-Filled Eddies and Conservative Decisions on the Youghiogheny River

As we headed East, we set our course based on three main factors: American Whitewater’s river descriptions, water levels, and which runs were easily accessible with a one-car shuttle or in areas where we could meet up with other boaters. Winter taught us three other factors we needed to keep in mind: road conditions, weather, and how ice would impact the run. When the first two factors stopped us from being able to access a run, the decision was out of our hands, but the biggest challenge was having to make the decision not to paddle a run because of on-water conditions that made it unsafe. Scouting new rivers via online descriptions, Youtube, and Google Earth, we depended on being able to boat-scout from eddies or hop out and look at a rapid before running it. So, when rapids were choked with ice, it steeply decreased our options.

We generally tried to pick rivers that were easily within our skill level, but the Upper Youghiogheny drew us to Maryland despite being steeper than something the two of us would usually attempt alone. After watching videos and seeing photos of the section, we had our hearts set on the beautiful class IV/V canyon. But, when we reached the river, we realized iced-over eddies combined with the continuous nature of the run would make it an unwise choice. Yep, the conservative decision cut in, crushing our whitewater dreams.

Instead, we headed to the Lower Youghiogheny instead. With an attitude adjustment, the Upper Yough’s downstream little brother didn’t disappoint. Chunks of ice tumbling in the surf along our boats made the class II/III Lower Yough’s many surf holes more interesting. Plus, the added challenge of paddle blades heavy with ice and the glimmer of ice crystals hanging in the trees kept us from taking the section for granted.

This road trip introduced me to a whole new level of winter paddling. And I can also apply the lessons I learned to boating in any temperatures. When it comes to evaluating skills and risk tolerance, conditions must be taken into consideration. Even if I’m confident on a certain run on a warm summer’s day, it’s not the same as an equivalent run lined with ice when my hands are numb and my paddle is frozen. A tough hike to the put-in might be a fun extra challenge on dry ground, but when the trail is under a blanket of snow, it might not be worth the added risk—unless, of course, you can slide down it in your kayak. And, ultimately, even if you set out to kayak your way across the country, or drove hours to reach a river you’ve been longing to paddle, there are plenty of other activities to do along the way if weather prevents boating from being a safe option. Stay flexible and you can get just as much enjoyment from a local hike as that section you were planning to paddle.