To Paddle or not to Paddle?
“Hey Dave-When do you normally give up paddling for the season?”
This was the question I put to David Johnson, one of the organizers of the Georgian Bay Stormgathering.
“Well we go through to the end of January but by February it’s a bit too cold so we call it quits for February.”
We were paddling in Georgian Bay in mid-October and that was enough for me. I didn’t think of the conversation again until I got a call from John Wolfenberg telling me about an enthusiastic paddler who had just joined the club and was looking for some year round paddling company. Dave Stumbo and I met at the Paddler’s annual meeting and I passed on the trip log and information I still had from a paddle around Manitoulin Island, since Dave was thinking of a solo circumnavigation. That of course led to “We should get out some time” and that in turn led to us carrying our boats down to Lake Ontario though the snow covered park at the end of Teal Avenue in Stoney Creek on a Sunday morning in February.
The roadside flags on the QEW showed a stiff breeze out of the south-west. At the put in it was quite calm with the off-shore breeze. By the time we were all geared up, the breeze had shifted a little more to the west but still seemed benign. We decided to paddle east along the shore. Although the warm winter we had been experiencing meant that there was no ice-pack, ice still coated some of the breakwalls and rocks along the shore. All the while I was thinking: “This seems pretty enthusiastic for a guy who moved up here from southern Florida.”
We had a pretty easy paddle with the breeze at our back as far east as Fruitland Road. We shared the partially frozen waterway with about 200 squawking Canada Geese who obviously would have preferred it if we weren’t there. The chill we were starting to feel meant it was time to be moving again so we headed due west out of the marina. As soon as we cleared the point, it became clear that we had underestimated the westerly breeze that had been at our backs, and secondly that it was continuing to steadily build. Our leisurely paddle quickly turned into a serious workout. Waves were now routinely coming in over the bows providing bracing showers of frigid spray. It became discouraging to fix your marker on the shore only to realize several minutes later that you were paddling hard and standing still. The shore was very inhospitable with large limestone blocks forming extended breakwalls with lots of refracted waves and no safe place to get out. A decision was made to edge closer to shore for safety. Moving toward shore also seemed to give us a slight bit of shelter and we began to slowly make progress back toward the launch beach. As I adjusted my paddle grip to make the turning strokes a little more effective, my gloves slid down the shaft. I hadn’t noticed until then that the paddle shafts were coating with ice from the spray. Having a slippery paddle in your hands in these conditions, was an invitation to disaster.
We were fortunate that condo buildings near Fruitland Road provided some partial protection from the force of the winds. Another quick discussion led to a decision to beach here and walk back to Dave’s house rather than poke out from behind the shelter of the condos. We both ended up in the water unceremoniously in the course of getting ashore in the waves. We were less concerned with getting wet, but instead just getting our feet onto solid ground. Only when standing on the shore did I notice that my arms and chest and PFD were all covered in layers of ice so thick that the zippers couldn’t be worked.
An older gentleman out for a walk with his dog looked a bit surprised to see two men in spray skirts carrying paddles approaching him from the snowy field, but we assured him that it had been a fine day for a paddle. A short walk, some dry clothes, a Tim’s and you’re good as new.
By Graham Repei