A Winter’s Paddle
By Timothy Corcoran Bauer
Kayak Junkie + Paddling Matador
Last year I had the great fortune of perfect timing to paddle a river in mid-December in central Wisconsin, when the water itself was still open, flowing nicely and it began to snow. “Perfect timing” might be relative, as I recognize that I am one of few who would even think about sitting in a kayak on nearly freezing water in the wintertime, much less actively aspire to it – and enjoy it.
Should it begin to snow while you’re still sitting in a boat, then what else is there to do but let it and get snowed on? I found the timing perfect because there was already some snow on the ground and tree branches covered overhead. The new amount of snow only augmented this. It made the setting and scenery that much more picturesque.
The river itself was a gorgeous dark black, not muddy brown, not crystal clear and not that occasional root beer hue some rivers take when seeped with tannins but an almost mystical, seemingly unfathomable black, something elemental and impenetrable. And something exquisite in contrast to the soft delicate white of fresh snow imbuing everything that was not river: the banks, the hills, the trees, the proverbial broadside of a barn. The only sound was whistling wind and riffly water, solitude surrounding. It was a Zen scene, pure and simple, a Franz Kline canvas of black and white. Like an incredible sunset or glimpse of northern lights, I knew I was bearing witness to something phenomenal and ephemeral.
If it’s cold enough to snow and the ground’s already frozen to the point that what snow has already fallen sticks, then it’s cold enough for water to freeze, too. Come January in Wisconsin, it’s hard to find an open body of water, unless there’s a power plant nearby that discharges its heated water or a spring-fed stream spouting like a break in a water main. This is especially the case for smaller, narrower creeks. Should there be a nearby dam, which stems the flow of the river current and creates a backwater impoundment resembling a lake, this water, which is essentially quiescent, is the first to freeze. But usually the freeze comes before the true snowfall, at least in my experience. So it was a unique rarity that I was able still to paddle an intimate river that began on the downstream side of a dam in mid-December, with an air temperature of 20 degrees, during a small snowstorm. Conditions like that just don’t line up so opportunely.
Even though last year’s paddle roughed me up pretty good, (twice I capsized trying to run a very difficult rapid) it isn’t the memory of berserk shock that taking a swim in such cold water or the helplessness of tumbling down a small waterfall that haunts me still. It’s the pristine impression of that black water and white snowfall in a forested setting that I remember most. And I have sought to re-experience that a couple times now, always failing to capture it right. To be sure, any wintertime paddle is a unique experience, as the landscape looks and feels so different from the other seasons. But perhaps like one’s first kiss, one yearns for a recapitulation: to feel anew what one felt that first time. It’s a fool’s errand, of course, because such cannot and can never be repeated. It’s like the lobster scene in Annie Hall. You end up pantomiming, which will always be unsatisfying and probably disappointing, too. But what matters of the heart aren’t at least a little foolish?
All through this past autumn I had taken on a revived interest in the lower southwestern part of the state, the Platte and the Pecatonica rivers in particular. There was a segment of the latter that I had not yet paddled, a segment about which I could not find even a whisper of information on the web or in books. Hence the inspiration to explore it. I had been in the area only a week before and while signs of late autumn were abound with hoarfrost, tiny icicles and frozen foam, the river itself was wholly open and flowing nicely. But in the days between, the temperature had plummeted to single digits and that was the high. The forecast was for one of those typical pre-Thanksgiving snowfalls; what it lacks in actual accumulation it makes up for in being a rude awakening and harbinger of much worse to come. At best three inches of snow had fallen and I thought it would be perfect timing to paddle a segment of undiscovered water captured in fresh snow. Call me Ishmael.
Before you think my judgment had really flown off the rails, I will point out that A) even I thought it would be prudent to paddle a short segment (five miles instead of my desired nine-mile daytrip) and B) I did scout the bridges at the put-in and take-out for ice, low water, downed trees, etc. All looked pretty clear. Sometimes you just have to find things out the hard way, that is, after you have already launched and committed yourself. So let me provide this cautionary note: just because there is no ice where you begin or intend on ending does not mean you won’t encounter it somewhere in between those two points! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The put-in was pretty easy (not always a guarantee in snow) and I was smiling ear to ear after a hundred yards. The landscape was stunningly pretty. All was silent but for the breeze, all was still but for the peppy stream. A large ridge came immediately in direct view, picturesque with its evergreen trees laced in white. Below and also embedded amongst the trees were huge beautiful slabs of exposed limestone, variegated in color and texture, weathered in that wonderfully handsome way of slow erosion. Tufts of snow-fluff lined the fringes of branches dipping down to the river or ensconced improbably small rocky nooks. I sipped cocoa and lit a cigarette as I let the current take me along.
I won’t say that I hadn’t noticed the river becoming skinnier, that the banks had iced over; the effect simply enhanced the intimacy and novelty of the paddle! Neither did it escape my attention that chunks of ice were flowing around me or that the river was notably shallower than I had anticipated or that I hadn’t begun calculating in the way back of my brain that such shallow water likely freezes before deeper pools. But is that not the nagging voice of worry that too quickly infiltrates one’s here and now by sowing seeds of anxiety and distraction? Can I ever just be in the moment without that admonishing din in the background?
Truth be told, it was hard enough to banish the voices from earlier in the day telling me not to go out in the first place, that it was too cold or unsafe. The roads would be bad, in the countryside especially. Hypothermia might set in, frostbite. Worse. Is there anything that so poisons courage than self-doubt, cripples and paralyzes will? How does one balance the inner voice that drives you along to seek spectacular things and the chorus of well-intentioned loved ones who see only peril? How does one properly compartmentalize inestimable reward with calculated risk?
For some, the world is aglow with green-light go, for so many others, it’s all red and yellow. Some risk-takers (for lack of a better term) probably lack whatever biochemistry produces inhibition. The guys in shark tanks or teenagers jumping from one high-rise rooftop to another, mountain climbers and deep-sea divers, NASCAR drivers and coalminers, skateboarders and snowboarders, trapeze artists and speleologists, firefighters and pilots, fishermen and yes, kayakers. Those on the sideline shake their collective head but can’t look away. When it’s a success, they shout out bravo! and deify the person’s courage and conviction. When it’s a catastrophe, they say “told you so” and rationalize their inaction. Those are the stakes for risk-takers. And let’s face it, we are a nation of risk-takers, whether it was crossing the ocean in the first place or, later, crossing the continent.
But let’s get back to the river.
I’ve paddled through, on and over ice before. One January some years back, the Baraboo River had solidified in one 20-yard spot. The banks were too high to portage, so there was nothing to do but hit the ice as hard and fast as you can (the incline of the bow will easily slip over the icy lip) and then nudge your way, butt-scooting, inch by modest inch. Since all the ice is essentially solid, there is no hold the edge of your paddle get sink into, thus no “pole-vaulting” possibilities. You just have to be like a gorilla and do your silly best to propel yourself forward with your hands in concert with your torso. Earlier this year, back in February, I found myself in a similar predicament on the Koshkonong Creek, where one 15’ section had frozen over. This time, however, after charging the ice like a bull, the weight of my boat broke the ice below me. I backed up, charged it again, rested on top, and waited (or weighted) for the ice below me to implode. Like a little ice-breaking barge, I managed to carve an inelegant channel through the ice, leaving a slurried mash in my wake.
Before one runs into any ice directly, in the main flow of the river, it lurks on the banks. In crystalline fractals spreading themselves out like filigree wings, that’s where it begins. Like a Midas gold of cold, whatever it touches, it freezes. But before all that, as one paddles in the vulnerable still-liquid main flow of the river, the waves one’s forward motion makes, glide into the sides, where, with such effortless will, they are softly absorbed by the maw of thirsty ice as an egg swaddled in a feathery nest of warm plumage. Yet the sound the wake makes is staccato, crackly, like ice breaking, not absorbing. This and the surround sound of sifting wind through snowy pine, is all the murmured hum one hears. And the river, in its final hours before giving up and letting go, is itself silent and practically motionless.
The last paddle of the year is a vigil.
As with everything in life, it’s a cycle that comes full circle. The final paddle of the season bears much resemblance to the first. It’s cold, the river is icy and snow warns of hypothermia. The clothing one must wear is the same. Toddler and geriatric alike. The austerity of the scenery reminds me of the first paddle earlier this year, in late February or early March, which lent itself to April, then May and the myriad paddles since. And I will recall this final paddle of 2013, in freezing December, on the first paddle of 2014, in thawing March, already on my way to predicating what then will be the new season. It’s not called a stream of consciousness for nothing.
Back on the Pecatonica, I came upon the first formidable ice sheet after at best a mile of paddling. The river here meanders quite a bit, so you never really know what lies around the next bend. Besides hope at any rate. No problem, I thought. I’ve dealt with ice before. Alas, this ice probably had formed a day or two earlier and was too thick for me to break by plowing through or by basic gravity. So I butt-scooted and gorilla-walked. Not a bad exercise, using all those core muscles. Plus, this is part of the, um, “fun,” if not, at least the experience. Who else is doing something crazy like this? Nobody but you, that’s who. It’s one of the things people love and marvel about you, you adorable whacko! Also, it’s worth noting that the annual statewide Deer Gun Hunt rite of passage was going on and there were lots of whackos like me out in the cold, purposefully out in the cold, up to and including Governor Scott Walker himself. Granted, hunters enjoy the comfort and safety of terra firma but at least I get to move my body around and keep warm!
To each his and her own.
No such opening around the next bend, alas. But I hear water ahead of me, so my resolve perseveres. Just a little bit more and then you’ll be in the clear, I tell myself. I pause to catch my breath and wish I hadn’t smoked that cigarette. The cocoa has gone cold.
Around the second bend, the look ahead is much the same with no open flow anywhere in sight. The water I’d heard before was a small trickle teeming beneath a fallen tree, a classic strainer in paddling terminology, a hazard to which one always gives a wide berth, in this case a quite literal idiom. I had grown tired of scooting my butt and mimicking a gorilla (who’s simian ancestor likely would’ve had more common sense than I not to be doing this in the first place). Instead, I managed to maneuver as close to the left bank as possible, grabbing tufts of tallgrass with one hand, sort-of/kind-of digging a toe-hold with the shaft of one-half of my paddle (that I had taken apart) in the other, and awkwardly thrust myself forward. A bit ridiculous but this actually worked better than I’d anticipated. I was now making scraping lunges maybe two-feet forward at a time, oh baby. Also, I was getting filthy with snow, mud, broken-straw dust particles. All of it, of course, clung to me because I was wet with snow, water, ice and sweat.
And this was only mile one. I still had four more to go.
It was around this time that I started to wonder what time it was. I really, really did not want to be on the river at dark, which at this time of the year happens at 4:30 pm. I’ve had a few run-ins with darkness while unsure of my surroundings, both on water and dry land and I’d like to think I’d have eventually caught on and learned my lesson. I looked at my watch. I had two more hours. Plenty of time!
Finally, after 20 minutes of grabbing tallgrass tufts (most of which I ended up pulling out of the ground, covering me in more earthen debris) I finally found open water at last. Hurray! The swift freedom of floating was sensational! Sweet liquid water! The current and my kayak working together again at last. In the matter of maybe ten paddle strokes and sixty seconds I had gone as far as I had clambered across the ice the last half-hour. It was luxurious. It was exquisite. It was… not to last, for only a moment or two later I came upon another ice blockage, this one as long and wide as any I had encountered before. Aw, shit! Is there anything more hopeless than having your fears momentarily allayed, only to be squashed right after? The wolf’s howl had died down and I thought I was literally in the clear, only to feel its bristly whiskers scratching the back of my neck.
OK, it wasn’t that bad. But I was losing my patience. The thrill of this experience had begun to expire and my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. If you have paddled for any length of time, this eventually happens. It’s usually accompanied by deadfall and the need to get out of your boat, trample through mud over the obstruction and back into the boat. Your heart sinks as soon as you see another such obstruction downstream. Come the third, you start becoming cranky. Or it happens when it’s starting to get dark and/or you sense you’re lost. All love of being on the water dries up and you find yourself resentful. Or you lose your cool or presence of mind and you make a clumsy mistake and capsize. Then you’re really resentful and really cranky! But you can’t just quit right there and go back the other way. You must finish this trip, not out of pride but pragmatism. Paddling upstream just isn’t a viable option, especially as it would require doubling the mileage you had already accomplished, to say nothing of the amount of time it would take. There’s a vehicle waiting for you at the takeout and no matter how much you may be mentally done, you must pull it all together and keep on, albeit bitterly.
I began to wonder whether I should just quit. No, I wasn’t about to paddle upstream back to the put-in, especially as that meant going back over all the ice I had just finally vanquished, thank you very much. But I noticed that the road was quite close. Really, all I had to do was get out, make a difficult portage (but how much more difficult than what I had been doing?!?) and just walk back to the put-in, where my bicycle was (incase you’re wondering, of course I was riding my bike in the country road snow, as that was my only shuttle option, my actual car was waiting at the takeout.) But I didn’t want to give up. Quitting is not part of the adventure. I didn’t come out this way just to paddle one crappy mile!
Alright, I told myself. Slog through one more ice-sheet-butt-scoot-grass-grab and then make a decision. Give it one more shot. C’mon coach, put me back in the game! Haven’t neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists come to the conclusion that optimism is delusional?
Back at it full throttle, I was imperturbable. This area of the Pecatonica had become not just a pastime for me but a passion too. I wanted to uncover every nook and cranny. I wanted to discover all it had to offer. Only a 45-min drive from my home in Madison, this river has so much paddling potential, much of it quite spectacular. Only ten or so miles from Blue Mound, the highest point in southern Wisconsin and marking the entrance into the Driftless Area – the southwestern part of the state that escaped the last glacial movement, leaving it intact, craggy, and unique – there’s a lot to love about the Pecatonica River, the East Branch in particular. So I scraped and I scooted. I numbed my knuckles good and blue. I had enough earthen debris from torn-out roots and tallgrass tuft to resemble a wildebeest. I was sweaty and tired but determined.
And I did find an open channel of water, by God! Again, that smooth and seamless elegance of floatation and going with the flow, body in kayak, kayak on water. After such struggle you truly appreciate the small wonder of floating at all. Until, of course, the ice shores up again around the next bend and there’s no open water anywhere in sight. Crash and careen again? Curse aloud for nowhere to hear or care if they could? No, I was done. Actually, I had been done, back before when I actually did get out and climbed onto the bank to survey the scene. That’s how I knew how close I was to the road. It’s also how I knew how little I’d really traveled. I was just being stubborn and I knew it. This paddle was not meant to be and there was nothing to do about that but concede.
So I backtracked, got out, climbed over a fence and then up out of a ditch, walked back to my bike and biked back to the car. In the end, I paddled 1.5 miles but pedaled ten. Not at all what I had had in mind but it was fine all the same. You see the world differently from a bicycle than a car, which is one of the reasons why I love the paddle-and-pedal combo. The pace is so much slower and you can let your eye wander. You notice little details better and you have the time to think about them. If you want to stop and check something out, you can on a whim, in a way you just can’t (or shouldn’t) in a car.
By the time I got back to the car, drove to the kayak and latched it atop the roof, I took one last look at the landscape and intermittently open-frozen-open river and was greeted with one of those stunning winter sunsets, rose and gold light dying the snow and rolling hills. Far from feeling resentful about my paddle debacle, I felt all the more inspired to explore this same stretch next year, after the ice has melted. I know it will be gorgeous, because I’ve already captured a glimpse of it. I know I will laugh at my present folly, recalling it fondly in the hatched warmth of spring. Plus I got a good story out of it.