Retired Navy Capt. Dave Robey tackles the Potomac River's rapids during winter. (Courtesy of Dave Robey)
Temperatures are plunging. There's a nip in the air. Time to get out there and play in the white stuff. But I'm not talking about snow. I'm talking about that other white stuff — white water.
A growing number of freeze-dried fanatics are warming to cold-weather kayaking.
Winter kayaking isn't for everyone. It's an extreme sport. Boaters are literally chilled to death every year.
But for those who know their way around a roll and dress for the occasion, snow and ice can open up a whole new world of kayaking adventure.
In many ways, say these all-year faithful, the best summer runs can become even better in the winter. For others, it's simply a matter of feeding their unyielding propensity for paddling.
"I've got to be honest: I'm not someone who loves the cold weather," recently retired Navy Capt. Dave Robey said. But he does love kayaking. And the blustery winters of the Washington, D.C.-area, where he and his wife live, are hardly enough to keep him out of the water.
"For me, it's pure desperation to continue paddling. I'm addicted," Robey said. But it's not just a test of raw endurance so he can shoot up or down the river, either.
"There is a lot to love in the winter. The Potomac River is usually at about three feet in the summer," he says, referring to the water-level gauges used by kayakers around the country to rate the relative awesomeness of a particular patch of water at any given time. "But in the winter, the Potomac will go up to more than five feet, at times even six or seven feet up. That's a lot of water."
And more water means more challenges and more fun, especially if you're surrounded by a long piece of hardened plastic floating on top of it all.
In fact, one of his favorite runs any time of year is a little nook of the Potomac dubbed "Center Shoot" by local kayakers that's worth hitting only when winter runoff turns it into a water-churning surf zone.
"It's one of the pretty rare spots where you just feel like a kid out there. You can surf forward and backward and spin, and if you're good enough, you can do cartwheels," Robey says. "When the water level comes up in the winter, you can count on getting calls to go hit it."
Wetter winter weather can also turn otherwise trickle-dry creeks into raging runs, providing kayaking excitement where there was none in the summer, he says.
Alone with the river
Bob Alexander, a former Navy diver who now works as a molecular biologist, says it's the unique beauty of the season and the peace and quiet that he loves about winter kayaking.
"It's just a magical time to be out on the river. The water flow creates all these incredible ice formations in the water, and these ice chandeliers hang down from the trees. It's an entirely different kind of beauty," he says.
In fact, every Tuesday he takes active-duty troops and veterans — many still recovering from wounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center — out on the water to show them around. He starts them in an indoor training pool but soon has them out on the river, no matter what time of year it is.
"I got a guy in the Air Force out this past weekend with me, and that's all he can think about now. He's hooked," Alexander says.
It's not hard to see why.
"Sometimes the snow melt and rain will start running up over the top of the ice and you're looking down into the aqua-blue water and ice below you," Alexander says. "If you're warm and toasty with the right gear, it's just unbelievable."
And although favorite summer kayaking spots can swell to dozens and even hundreds of boaters on any given day, winter provides a great equalizer. "In the summer, there's usually a lot of people trying to use a few spots, and it can get pretty crowded," Alexander says. "But in the winter, all those schools are gone. While it is catching on, there's still not that many people out there."
The dearth of other boaters means more wildlife of the other kind come out to play.
"The other day, I was out and I saw an eagle, an osprey, two otters, some deer and a bear," Alexander said. "It was amazing."
Dry suit is essential
Dan Renzoni has 15 years of winter kayaking under his belt. He operates the Silent Glide Kayak Shop, a Wisconsin store that's a stone's throw from Lake Superior.
If you find yourself in his neck of the woods, he'll outfit you and a guest for free with all the cold-weather rental gear you need.
The most essential item in your kit? A full dry suit.
"You put on a number of layers underneath it," he says. "A dry suit will keep you warm for a long period of time."
Even if you take an inevitable dip.
"If you're dressed properly, it's almost a nonissue. The water's going to be above 32 degrees," he says, "so the inside of your boat doesn't get particularly cold. But when it's considerably below freezing, you get ice buildup on your boat" that will make you top-heavy.
Renzoni says that shorelines are often inaccessible during the winter because of ice, "so you need to plan ahead and you need to know your route. It makes a lot of sense to go with a friend who also has the same kind of skills as you."
• Wet suit or dry suit: If the temps are above 50 degrees, a farmer John wet suit is fine. But consider the full-body protection of a dry suit for colder weather.
• Layers: A windbreaker on top is usually plenty for wet-suit days; wear a layer of polypropylene underwear and a sweater under a dry suit for colder outings.
• Hand protection: Pogies — a neoprene bubble for paddle handles — are specifically designed to warm your digits while battling the waves. Mittens and hand warmers are good, too. One old trick: Rub Sno-Seal waterproof goo over your hands for added armor against wetness.
• Feet protection: The piggies can be especially hard to keep warm in kayaks. Neoprene socks, divers' booties or even boots will help.
• Head protection: If you're in white water, you should wear a helmet. Plug up the holes to increase insulation and/or wear a hat. Try a polypro beanie to keep the heat in and protect your ears from wind, especially if you're open-ocean cruising.
• Survival kit: Bring fire starter, flares, space blanket, meal bars and a flashlight — just in case things go bad.