I don't know about you, but for me when the calendar gets into March it means its the start of paddling season. The reason for this is that the ice should be breaking around this time and daylight savings time is right around the corner to give us 1 more glorious hour of paddling time after the normal 9-5 work schedule. With March only days away I thought this would be a good time to give us all a refresher on how to keep our early "spring" paddling sessions safe and enjoyable. I will lay out some considerations and precautions that will help decrease the risks and increase the comfort of the sure to be chilly paddles to come.
Make a Plan, and Stick to it
The first thing that you should be doing is making a plan for your paddle. By this I mean have the rough time and distance of the paddle planned out ahead of time. This is important because you can let someone that will not be with you know and if they do not hear from you in an appropriate amount of time, that should signal for them to come look for you or alert emergency services.
Paddle in a Group
During this part of the season, it is definitely a good idea to paddle in groups if at all possible. There is definitely some added safety in numbers, especially when there is still ice floating in the river. If you have the misfortune of falling in your friends can help grab a paddle or your boat, so you can worry about getting to shore safely. This happened to me a couple of years ago, I tipped over under a bridge abutment and it was a bit of a swim to shore. After a couple of seconds trying to drag my boat, I saw that it would take too much energy out of me to get to shore. I left my canoe and swam safely to shore while my friends dragged my canoe to shore. This is also usually the time of the year that we have yet to get into a ton of hardcore training so should be easier to stay together in groups and build that base of fitness together.
Stay Close to shore
During the thaw period is not going to be the best time to attempt a course PR so stay close to shore. Typically, you will want to stay close to shore on the upstream no matter what but especially in this first month or so there is no reason to go to the middle of a wide river while going downstream just to get some more help from the current. Again, if something happens and you tip, this will make for a much longer and more dangerous swim to shore. I personally go one step further and tend to just pick a shore side for the entire paddle. This might be the longer course for the day, but this is training not a race. Making it to the race should be the priority over hitting course PR's in the early spring.
PFD's and whistles
In New York, the law requires you to wear a PFD at all times on the water from November until May and for good reason. The water temperature during these months is cold enough to cause "cold shock" in the event of immersion. Ever get into a cold shower and have a big gasp for air? That is what I am referring to with "cold shock". This is an involuntary gasp for air when immersed into cold water. If you are not wearing a PFD and take in water instead of air into your lungs due to this involuntary reflex, you will be in some serious danger. Also, in cold water you will lose energy very quickly so a PFD will help keep you afloat as you swim back to shore. Another item that is in this category that you will need is a pea-less whistle. This is a signaling device that if you do get into trouble, you will be able to use to alert people in nearby areas so that they may be able to come and help you. I personally affix my whistle to my PFD so that I don't have to think much about it and every time I put my PFD on, I also have my whistle right where I need it. For PFD's and whistles, reach out to Jeff at Southern Tier Canoe @ firstname.lastname@example.org
One thing that I do not see on enough boats is a tow/throw line. These can be used to help pull your boat to shore or to throw to someone that is in the water to help bring them to shore. If you have ever tried swimming a swamped boat over to shore without a tow line you already know this can be a difficult task. When you have a tow line it helps by allowing you to swim regularly and the boat will drag behind you as opposed to swimming sideways like a lifeguard saving someone from drowning or the old push and swim method that I have personally done a time or two in the past. This does not have to be complicated but something that is nice and bright can help with visibility. You do want one that is long enough that you can swim normally without kicking your boat.
You can find one on Amazon HERE
Dry Bags and Extra Clothes
We are not always near our car when something happens and you end up getting wet. If you are not well prepared it could be a dangerous return home due to potential hypothermia. This is why having some extra clothes stored in a dry bag is a must. I typically like to keep at least a warm hat, socks and a shirt. If you happen to go in or you just realize your an hour away from the car but really cold, these dry items will go a long way. If you do not put them in a dry bag they will not be of help if you do tip over. It is good practice to have a couple of dry bags of different sizes on hand and this will provide you options of gear to bring along on your trip. A 1 hour paddle will not require the same amount of gear that a 4-5hr paddle. You can find some on Amazon HERE
Although you might have known all of this information before, it is always good to have a refresher and hopefully you were able to take something away to help you stay a little bit safer this spring out on the water.
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