Ice Paddling

River of the month #33

author: Pat Reilly
date: January 2001

During midwinter newsletters over the past 2 years, we’ve featured a pair of antifreeze rivers: Quittapahilla and Spring. These limestone spring creeks never freeze and are sure to please those paddlers who refuse to put the boat away just because ice sickles are hanging from the rain gutters. But what if you’ve paddled these two or are looking for something closer to home? Well, you just might have to put up with the ice. Following are some tips to help you cope with H2O in it’s solid form.

I know! I know! You’re thinking, ‘I ain’t paddling in no dang ice’. But hey, for that matter, how many actually paddled Spring Creek last January or the Quitty the year before? So make no mistake, I realize few or no club members are apt to pay attention to these midwinter columns. But never the less, I’ll put the info out here in the hope that it inspires some hardy soul to break out of the steamy comfort of the Cumberland Valley High School pool and brave the elements. You just might have an uplifting experience (if you survive). And think of the wonderful solitude you’ll find.

  1. Epoxy and resin are harder than ice. This means that you can actually use your composite paddles and boats in thin sheet ice and you probably won’t harm them. This fact came to light one winter evening as I set out to get in some exercise on the Susquehanna but was confronted with a thin layer of ice moving along with the current. I really did not want to cancel my session so I reasoned that the epoxy on my carbon fiber paddle and the resin on my C-1 cruiser are harder than the ice and shouldn’t be damaged. It sounded good but I was skeptical until I launched, paddled and found no significant damage. You’ll find that the paddle makes a cool ‘cheek-plunk’ sound with each catch. (The catch being the part of the stroke where the paddle enters the water, but you knew that, right?) You can get away with paddling composite equipment in the early winter when rivers begin freezing in thin ice sheets about 3 feet in diameter. I enjoy playing icebreaker and slicing the sheets in two. But be aware, read on for the first safety tip.

  2. Take care not to catch you paddle under the ice. This is really only a problem with kayak paddles since open boat paddles come (or should come) out of the water at close to a vertical angle. When in a K-1 be careful when paddling next to thick standing ice or ice shelves. If you find yourself in a situation where the paddle catches under the ice and you can't bring it out of the water the result can easily be a flip. If your paddle meets resistance on the exit (The exit being the part … Ah, never mind) you may pull yourself over as a consequence. This gets more likely depending on how tippy your craft is and how hard you were driving with the paddle.

  3. You can ‘ape-walk’ across ice and stay in your boat. Did you ever leave your shuttle vehicle at an ice-free take-out and launch at an equally clear put-in only to encounter an iced-over river in between? The first time it happened to me was on the Juniata. Ice was just starting to break up on the Susquehanna but appeared to be already gone up on the Juniata, so I launched. If in a fairly stable kayak you can run up on the ice and drag yourself along with your hands (or your knuckles, ala ape). Using this method I was able to get down to the take-out without carrying. (Luckily I had only to cross 1 stretch of ice less than 50 yards.) Keep in mind that this was thick winter ice not yet broken up by the spring thaw. This method will usually result in broken ice if tried on new ice. But that’s okay, because then you can just plow on through. It’s kind of neat when the ice is borderline, say about 1.5 or 2 inches thick. You slide up on it and then sit there for a few seconds as it cracks and breaks and you slowly sink. They you can push the slabs out of the way with your paddle and take another run at it. I’ve used this method on the Yellow Breeches, which rarely freezes over solid but sometimes surprises you with ice bridges. Ice walking works best with whitewater kayaks but can be done with touring kayaks as well. Your success depends upon the bow shape. Obviously, you must be sure of your stability. I’ve never tried it in an open boat and don’t know if it would work. And, it would be smart to first test this method in shallow water with little or no current, which brings us to the next safety point.

  4. The deadliest strainer of all is standing ice. Think about it, if you come out of your boat in deep water with good current upstream from standing ice, you’re history. That’s it, no second chance. And being swept downstream under the ice is not my first choice of how I want to check out of this world. If you’re not absolutely sure that you can walk or swim away from the ice, stay away.

  5. Plastic boats and paddles are impervious to any ice. Even if ice won’t scratch through a good layer of resin on the bottom of your boat, it doesn’t mean that ramming a solid block can’t poke a hole in it. For the heavy broken chunks of a thawing river it’s time to break out the plastic boats and paddles. To venture out in the Susquehanna during the breakup, I like my plastic Prijon touring K-1with one of those heavy plastic Ainsworth paddles that you see liveries using for rentals. You can bang around in the ice same as you do the rocks in August (just dress a little warmer). Playing around during an ice break up brings us to the next safety point.

  6. Always be wary of moving ice flows. Here we’re talking about ice jams and large sheets of standing ice that start moving above where you’re paddling. Always, always make sure you have an escape route and keep a sharp eye out upstream. If in the middle of the wide Susquehanna for example, you’ll need plenty of ice-free water downstream for a clean run to the shore and a suitable landing to get out should a flow start advancing on you. And assure yourself that you can get well above the waterline. Large sheets of ice may be a square mile in size and will transfer all the energy of a square mile of current to relatively small shoreline contact points. I’ve witnessed foot thick ice pile up 25 feet high in a matter of seconds. It’s an awesome thing to behold, with the ground shaking, trees getting crushed and mounds of earth being pushed around. But it’s no place for paddlers and their boats.

  7. Ice piles can alter water flow. Remember what they say about icebergs? 90% of them are under water. So when ice jams pile up say 2 or 3 feet high across an expanse of water, it means that there are 20 to 30 feet of ice underneath. Well, only if it’s deep enough. If not, the ice goes all the way to the river bottom creating a dam. If the dam extends halfway across a river the other half is going to be twice as high or twice as fast, or some combination thereof, as it would be without the ice. I hadn’t really thought about this until I set out one early spring on a casual run from Wormleysburg to West Fairview along the Susquehanna’s west shore. The western third of the river was ice-free but the remainder was jammed up with high piles of ice. I couldn’t believe the current. It was twice as strong as usual for the level. I was barely able to make headway. In some cases ice jams will create temporary rapids or even alter current direction. If an ice dam forms all the way across a river it can cause rises to flood levels in a matter of minutes or even seconds. Beware. And be aware of how ice will alter river gauges fooling you into thinking there’s more water than what you really have. In fact a gauge can tell you when a river has ice on it, as it will begin fluctuating irregularly.

  8. Paddling through ice is hard work. I suppose this should be obvious but I came to learn it the hard way. January 31st, ‘97 I set out for an overnighter on the Chesapeake Bay since the Susquehanna and most of its tributaries were frozen. After launching from public access near the Francis Scott Key Bridge at the mouth of Baltimore Harbor, I headed about 10 miles to an island that my maps identified as Hart Miller State Park. I arrived to find a ‘dredged materials containment facility’, the aquatic equivalent of a slag pile. But around the back of the island were a grove of trees with a beach and a string of a dozen or so primitive campsites. Good enough. In the morning it was absolutely dead calm as I launched in an eerie fog. Paddling away from the island on water as flat as a sheet of glass I started noticing small patches of wafer-thin ice that broke up as the wake of my boat rolled through them. The bare beginnings of ice formation, some patches had crystalline fingers extending in star-like patterns. Cool! The delicate tinkling of the breaking ice merging with the regular ‘splush’ of the paddle to break the silent stillness of that winter morning was making for a most memorable paddling experience. Until conditions began to change. Heading back in the patches became more numerous until they eventually formed one continuous sheet. Then it slowly thickened to about a quarter inch. Ugh! My lightweight wooden touring paddle felt vulnerable as I had to forcefully bang it through with each stroke. But, again, the ice caused it no harm thanks to a layer of epoxy. The going got tough but remained doable. However, I could see my plan to paddle into Inner Harbor slowly fade as I grew more fatigued. Finally I came upon a track where a motorboat had gone through and broken the ice. This made the paddling much easier but was a compromise as the path was about 20 degrees off my course. Then a slight wind picked up and blew the ice together shutting down the path and even overlapping the ice to double thickness. Changing course again to virgin ice and plowing on I finally arrived at Baltimore Harbor where the ice disappeared rather abruptly. I was able to complete my planned trip up to Inner Harbor after a re-fueling stop at the car for more water.

I really see no reason to stop paddling when ice starts coming down the Susquehanna. Certainly it can be very dangerous, but with 1) a little understanding of the conditions, 2) an honest evaluation of your skills and equipment and 3) some serious forethought and good planning, you can minimize your risks and sort out your choices. On average, if I would stay off the river whenever there is ice, versus merely staying off when it’s completely iced over, I’d loose a good 2 months of paddling time compared to less than a month. And we can’t afford to loose paddling time if it’s unnecessary, now can we? Life is short.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2001 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.