A winter’s paddle, by Jude Holloway

In The Outdoors

There’s probably a scientific explanation why rivers and lakes appear so much darker and consequently reflect and mirror things so much more in the winter—probably something as simple as just not having much light filtering in, like looking at a window at night from inside with a light on. Perfect reflections.
Such is the illusion when paddling rivers in the winter. The waters reflect so perfectly the surrounding banks and trees and sky that it becomes hard to tell where the above world ends and the reflected world begins. Several times while paddling, I had to hold on to the rim of the cockpit of my kayak because I became overwhelmed by my loss of perception. I was floating on the sky, while the trees and banks were laid down beside me, joining the banks and trunks of trees that towered around me reaching up to the sky above me.
This time of year serves as a reminder of how many shades of black and white there are. Even the evergreens take on a colorless look when encompassed by such a surrounding.
Whatever the reason, winter waters draw me. And it puzzles me why more people aren’t drawn to them. Maybe it is the discomfort of the cold or the perception of danger. But I have yet to come across other paddlers on my winter treks, which, selfishly speaking, is another aspect of this time of year that I love.
The air is so still that the quietness of the woods calls too loud to resist. I brush and bang the snow off my kayak as I load it into the back of my truck. I keep trying to think how I can sneak past the locals and get to my river of choice without being seen. If people already think you’re crazy, driving past them with a kayak in the back of your truck full of snow, in the winter, doesn’t aid your situation. Not to mention stopping in for a coffee to go while wearing a wet suit in December. To many people the scene would look a bit off. But there’s no other experience in the world that you can compare to winter paddling.
When I get to the river, I throw everything I need into the kayak, put on all my winter gear, grab the bow handle and stride off into the woods on my merry way. Kayaks slide very easily over snow, but it doesn’t take walking very long in the woods to warm up a body.
The river is so beautiful and inviting, I can’t wait to get on. Once on the water, I have to consciously slow myself down. Whatever I leave behind is far enough away now and I can relax.
I paddle upstream with almost no 0701iodeffort. I hope to reach the lake upstream and do some exploring in the area around it. You know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men and I soon find that the busy beavers of this river refuse to allow me full passage. Beavers certainly are quite the engineers. Several of their dams I have been able to pull and push my way over, but others I have to portage around. Finally, I come to a dam and winter stockpile way too high and long to try to get over without serious risk of going in the drink. The site is between high banks that are thickly covered in tags too entwined to walk through much less drag a boat though. I have reached the end of my journey for this day. I am close to the lake, but getting there from where I am is more than I have left in me, so, a bit reluctantly, I allow the river to draw me back.
Surprisingly, nothing looks the same. All the backsides of the logs and overhanging trees are new and keep the journey going forward—not like backtracking at all. Snow begins to fall, adding to the enchantment. Every dark is lined in white, and soon the air is white with snow. I float on silently.
There’s something surreal when you’re moving through a scene, not making a sound or moving anything out of place. The waters before me are black satin and behind me are barely wrinkled. I only drop the blade of my paddle once in a while to keep me flowing with the current.
A swooping cedar overhanging three-fourths of the river provides a good spot to pull off for a bit. I know from previous visits that cliffs with caves and waterfalls hide here, and they might like a visit. It feels good to be on my legs again. All is silent except for a few chickadees and the distant sound of water falling, and I follow the sound to the base of the cliffs. I round a section of the face and find myself standing face to face with icy water flowing over massive icicles hanging from the cliff’s top.
I drink my fill of this cold, fresh beverage, then hike along the base just a bit further, following the footprints of a lone wolf, protected from getting buried by snow by the shelter of the cliffs.
Soon, I realize I need to follow my tracks back to find my boat, and they are getting buried by snow rapidly. As I slide down the hill from the cliffs to the cedars and tags, I spot my tracks and am thankful. It gets mighty thick along a river and many cedars look alike. I return to the river with dusk at the door. This river would be very difficult to navigate in the dark, but I am unwilling to rush my return paddle.
I am accompanied by a few birds, the occasional scolding squirrel, and the flipping, tail-slapping, invisible beaver who sends adrenaline through my veins like lightning when he decides I am too close.
Soon, however, it is too dark to make things out, but I notice a large shadow leaping and bounding along the side of the bank. At first I think it is my imagination, but no, it is there. Then there is another. They are big, like a large dog, but have arched backs and bound silently. Oh, for just a tad more daylight.
The creatures dance in and out of the shadows, making their way along the bank and down towards the river—and me. I put on the breaks. Do I really want an encounter, in the dark, on cold waters with who-knows-what?
I back-paddle for a while, contemplating what to do. The wet and cold are setting in, and I know I have to get warm soon, or I will be in trouble. I call out to these phantom creatures, telling them I am coming, and I ask for passage. As I float downstream, I search the bank and river’s edge, but I don’t see them. At what I think is the last place I saw them, I now see what looks like a den opening in the bank and I realize they were not a threat to me, but just resident wildlife returning home for the night.
I am beginning to shake uncontrollably from the cold, and my take out is a bittersweet, welcome sight.
So what were those two bank dwellers? Another good reason for me to return to this river soon.
—Jude Holloway

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.