Spring is in the air, and boaters are starting to get enthusiastic. Keen anglers will already be getting their power boats out of winter storage, bundling up and heading out on the lake in pursuit of spring trout or pike.
Most of the rest of us wait until the air and water are a bit warmer before getting the boats on the lake. But we tend to overlook a great delight of spring: paddling.
A mild April or early May day can be a perfect opportunity to get out in your kayak, canoe or SUP for a paddle along the shoreline. You’ll almost certainly have the lake to yourself, and you’ll get to see nature as it emerges from its sleep. This is an active time in the natural world, and a great deal of the activity takes place right along the shore. This is where you’ll see birds building nests or displaying vibrant courting behaviour, bushes beginning to come into leaf, shoots emerging from the muddy banks, and maybe even water mammals like otters, muskrats and beaver bustling about and enjoying the freedom of an ice-free lake. And you can enjoy all of it free from mosquitoes and blackflies.
When you’re paddling silently along, you pose less of a threat to the wildlife, so they let you approach much closer. And the active work of propelling yourself keeps your body temperature up, so you’re much less likely to get chilled than you will in a power boat at this time of year.
It’s very important, though, to take appropriate precautions. Even on the warmest of spring days – and even well into May – the water can be icy cold. An unexpected swim can be fatal. None of us ever plans to tip our boat; when paddling in spring, the key is to behave as though a dunking will happen, and then make sure it doesn’t. Follow some basic safety tips, and you’ll be on your way to enjoying a whole new take on Muskoka’s spring.
We all know that you need to have PFDs on board any boat, but you don’t always have to wear them. Cold water boating is one of those exceptions. Putting on a PFD after you’ve fallen into the water is tricky at any time; when the water is a mere five degrees above zero, it’s almost impossible.
There are all kinds of comfortable paddling life jackets; the inflatable ones are so light that you barely even know you have one on.
Your clothing can also be considered safety gear when paddling in the cold. Layers are key – you need to be able to move, but warm enough that you don’t start to get a chill. Be sure to wear something breathable, with a top layer to stop the wind if a breeze picks up. If you want something really warm, old-fashioned wool is still hard to beat – unlike most materials, if wool gets wet it continues to keep you warm.
Serious hard-core winter paddlers will wear drysuits or thick wetsuits, neoprene booties and gloves. On a mild spring day you’re unlikely to need to go to quite that extreme, but if you’re really looking to stretch the season there is gear out there to suit.
A wool hat and a pair of moisture-resistant gloves will also make a huge difference.
Plan your route
Spring is lovely, but this isn’t the time to set out for a cross-the-lake paddle. If anything happens in the middle of the lake, you’ll likely be on your own, and getting back into a boat when you’re cold isn’t easy; nor is paddling a long way back to shore when you’re soaked.
No, the shoreline is your friend at this time of year. It’s where all the interesting things are happening, anyway. Many spring paddlers stay within a couple of canoe lengths of shore, just enjoying the quiet and peace of having the lake to themselves. It’s also a great time to do a short excursion to nearby lakes, nosing around an unfamiliar waterway without having to worry about water depths or the quality of the boat launch, the way you would if trailering a power boat. Muskoka has more than 1,300 lakes, so there’s a whole lot of water to explore.
If rivers beckon you, be aware that the current may be much, much stronger than it appears. If you are going on a there-and-back river paddle, returning to the same spot where you started, then start your journey by paddling upstream first – that way you’ll get a great feel of how strong the current is, and will have it to help you on your return trip. If you’ve coordinated vehicles to do a downstream run, be very aware of waterfalls and rapids – talk to folks in the local paddling stores if you’re unsure.
Paddling with a friend is always a good idea, but if you’re heading out solo be sure to let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. And bring a cellphone in a waterproof case, just in case.
Don’t let all these safety tips frighten you off – spring paddling is one of the great delights of cottage living. It’s an opportunity not to be missed.