Paddling (safely) in a Winter Wonderland

February 16, 2016

Our new column: GET WET!

By Heather Nelson

Photo at right: Heather Nelson carries her boat out to Lake Padden to enjoy the first winter kayaking of the season. Photo by Brandon Nelson


Editor’s Note: We caught up with accomplished surf ski racer and ultra-marathon kayaker Heather Nelson from Bellingham, Washington and asked her to write the debut of the OutdoorsNW “Get Wet“ paddling column.

Nelson enjoys paddling and racing sea kayaks, surf skis and stand-up paddleboards and the moderate climate that defines the Puget Sound area lends itself perfectly to one of her favorite philosophies: there is no off-season.

Nelson writes about her love of winter kayaking and how to safely enjoy some of the most beautiful experiences on water this winter.

A mid-winter lake paddle when temperatures have dipped below freezing and a fresh blanket of snow covers the landscape is one of my favorite ways to see how the Pacific Northwest becomes a winter wonderland.

It is on many of these magical days that I carry my surf ski to the edge of the shallow and still water along the shore. Thin ice crackles away as I wade knee-deep into the cold water, lay my boat on the surface, and gently push with my paddle blades to break a path to open water through the ice.

As I stroke along in the perfect stillness of the morning water droplets sparkle like diamonds as they instantly freeze where they land. It is on these surreal days where the world seems to slow down and I paddle for my soul.

For the prepared paddler, mid-winter outings can offer some of the most beautiful, memorable, and rewarding time on the water. With that said, being out on the water in freezing temperatures is not for the unprepared!

Stay safe by following these four basic tips:

Hypothermia will incapacitate a body in mere minutes in freezing temperatures. Layering for warmth and total immersion, right down to the finger tips and toes is an absolute must.

Paddle with a friend or group. If you do go out alone, be sure someone knows your float plan and schedule.

Bring all your safety gear including a loud whistle, flares, paddle float, bilge pump, spare paddle, extra layers and cellphone or radio.

Check the weather and marine forecast for predicted wind speed and direction, and if necessary, be patient and wait for those clear days with still air.

Heather is a full-time adventure mom. She lives with her husband, Brandon, and 7- and 4-year-old children, Hayden and Jazzy, in Bellingham.