canoeing, Lessons from the Wilderness, Outdoor Adventures, Wilderness Paddling, Winter, Winter Paddling, Winter Water Sports

The Ice Shelf

The question always at the back of my mind: is the reward worth the risk?

I really like to canoe. My husband Mark and his brother Hugh rabidly LOVE it, so much so that a winter paddle is never far from their minds. I guess it isn’t fair to expect a real waterman to stay grounded for long. One year, the three of us decided to paddle the lower end of a local river that winds lazily out to Lake Michigan through the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. In the summer, the canoes and tubes are five across as tipsy tourists float or flail their paddles with an astounding lack of expertise. No matter if they tip over, the water is warm, shallow, and not too swift.

Winter is another matter altogether. Winter paddling takes planning, the right clothes, and a spare set of dry clothes in a dry bag (a hefty water proof sack made for water sports). The winter we went down this particular river had been exceptionally cold, and the ice mantle butted ten feet out to create a narrow middle channel where the water was corralled into a swift current. We walked up and down the bank looking for a good place to “put in,” a canoeman’s “ism” for getting an awkward, land-lubbed craft gracefully (and dryly) afloat. But, with so much unstable ice, there were no good choices.

The fellows determined that if we started on a high point, we could “sled” the canoes down the hill, over the ice, and into the downstream swifts. I wasn’t so sure-it seemed risky to me. What’s more, with Hugh’s cancer always in the back of my mind, I didn’t think an icy dunking would be good for his already vulnerable health. In the end, Hugh went downstream with the lifesaving throw bag to toss us if we capsized, and my husband and I geared up our “sled.” I am always in the bow, so I got in on my knees to stay low, while my husband grabbed the gunnels and did two practice push-pulls like a bobsledder. On the third push he ran alongside the canoe, then jumped in for the ride, and we were launched. No turning back now!

We hit that ice, slid straight across it, and nosed broadside into the current with an exhilarated whoop. Before I could worry about being perpendicular to the current with the opposite ice shelf looming ahead, Mark had expertly turned the canoe downstream.   Hugh soon followed.

The landscape along a river is as robustly alive in winter as other seasons, but it takes a vigilant and patient eye to parse out the subtle differences in the tinted palette of grays, blacks, and browns. The trees stand dormant, a stark relief against their snowy backdrop. The mountain ash berries pixilate the landscape with wild red abandon, and the snow is clumped in the wild river grasses like so many wads of cotton.

It is exceptionally rare to encounter other people. But the deer, mice, squirrels, snowy owl, muskrats, minks, bald eagles, hawks, titmice, and the drably draped goldfinches are all out paying no mind to the cold. Energy along the singing river lifts life up and out in a muted chorus of vigorous yet hushed harmony. People miss it entirely when they hibernate inside all winter. Being outdoors in the winter helps us become so alive, so attuned to the natural environment, so energized by spending all our energy, that the answer is, always yes, the reward is worth the risk.

Get up! Get moving! Don’t duck the winter, dive into it!

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~J.A.P. Walton

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