Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Spring kayak tune-up tip #2: It's still winter in water

Morning water smooth as glass on North Lake Tahoe, when the weather's right
For a kayaker’s bucket list: Launch from a snow-covered beach at least once. On a recent trip to Lake Tahoe, with temperatures in the low 40s (water) to mid-50s (air), we discovered that Sierra winter can be the visual frosting on a paddler’s cake. Majestic scenery, a wondrous quietude – and yes, crisp air and chilly water can be a treat, too. 
Early warm weather in Northern California suggests that spring’s in the air, but it’s still winter in the water and will be for several months. So how to paddle without becoming a popsicle? Some spring tune-up tips for cold-start paddles follow...

Approaching Fannette Island in Emerald Bay, a four-plus-mile trip from Camp Richardson
First, don’t even go out unless your skills and gear match up with weather conditions – and that can be a tough decision when you've been anticipating a good trip. We began watching the Tahoe forecast a week ahead and monitored wind conditions right up to that morning.
It paid off. We started in water as smooth as glass, paddled about nine miles, and got off the lake about an hour before 15 mph winds kicked up. By then, we were docked at a window table in a lakeside restaurant, and the only cold thing was the beer.
“Proper risk assessment, this is pretty much where 90 percent of all serious kayaking incidents can be avoided,” “says certified kayak instructor Thomas Schuebel, who adds that preparing for the worst is always the best approach.
And this sign applies to summer months as well...
 “Do not joke around – cold water is a killer,” says Thomas, who knows whereof he speaks. Barely out of his teens in Austria, he witnessed a cold-water drowning. Another kayaker left his boat to swim some distance away. Then he was gone. “It was a very quiet affair,” Thomas recalled. “No yelling, no thrashing – because by the time people realize how much trouble they’re in, it’s too late.”
So plan ahead, Thomas advises, with these cold water paddling tune-up tips: 
“Rule number one – dress for immersion,” says Thomas. “That means a wetsuit (“farmer john” style) or dry suit. No cotton. Neoprene shoes or booties, warm hat, perhaps a skullcap, and merino wool base layers. And of course, always wear a PFD.”
Here are more notes from Thomas’ checklist:

~ Make sure your boat is seaworthy, with two bulkheads, or at least float bags a both bow and stern, plus a properly-fitted spray skirt.

~ Bring at least one spare paddle per group, plus a first aid kit – and the know-how to use it.
A “group” can be two paddlers, but at least three are better unless you are skilled and experienced in cold weather conditions.

~ Ask yourself: How long has it been since you practiced a reentry, alone or assisted?  

~ Familiarize yourself with causes and effects of hypothermia so you’ll recognize a hypothermic partner. Because often, they won't. (And if you’ve never seen this video, check it out, Thomas urges.)
Thomas dressed for cold water river-running (Photo by Donna McCready) 

~ An extra set of warm clothes in a dry bag is a MUST. Thomas likes to take a down jacket, wool cap and gloves. Rainwear doesn’t hurt, either, though heavy-duty plastic bags can double. They also keep gear dry, can help fix leaky hatches, or serve as an emergency hatch cover. Add a space blanket, fire starter and waterproof matches for extra insurance.

~ Take a thermos (with something hot and sweet, like hot chocolate), since sugar warms your body up. Thomas wraps his thermos in his neoprene cockpit cover for extra insulation. Also take plenty of energy bars.

Thomas Schuebel of Grass Valley is an ACA coastal instructor with extensive cold water paddling and international guide experience. Contact him at 530.575.1652 or email thomasschuebel@sbcglobal.net for an “e-brochure” on his classes and tours. Or check out his FaceBook page. Thomas also recently wrote a kayak review.  

Perfect look for Viking-style mansion in Emerald Bay
Personally, I prefer the “Call of the Mild” to the “Call of the Wild.” Our recent snow trip started and ended at Camp Richardson near South Lake Tahoe. Easy parking and beach launching at the marina (no parking charge in the off-season), plus it was only steps away from the Beacon Bar & Grill afterward. Roughing it? Sure, we had to wait for a table. 
© Glenn Brank 2013