Winter Float Trips Offer Solace, But Also Risk
Empty rivers and freezing temps make for adventure, but take these precautions (plus a note for IN readers)
Winter is a wonderful time for a float trip. With trees bare of leaves, you’ll be able to see features hidden away by summer’s foliage. Certain animals are more abundant, like the bald eagles who find their way south to open water.
You’ll likely have any water you choose to paddle all to yourself, providing peace and solitude not found amongst the crowds in warmer months.
Dress for the water temperature, not the air, and expect to go into the water.
But with solitude also comes danger. If you were to experience trouble along your float, there may not be another person along to help for some time. You need to be prepared for the weather and any accident that may occur.
Todd Robertson, Iowa DNR River Programs Water Trails Coordinator, said, “Many paddlers, especially those just starting out, don’t realize that although temperatures may be above average during some of the winter, the water is still dangerously cold and cold-water shock and hypothermia can set in quickly. Dress for the water temperature, not the air, and expect to go into the water,” Robertson said. “A wet or dry suit and a life jacket are crucial to remain safe.”
There are many other tips to consider when heading out for a cold weather float trip, but the most important is not to paddle alone. I understand the appeal of taking off on a solo adventure.
I too appreciate time alone in the wilderness, but if you were to find yourself in a dangerous situation without another person, there's no one to administer aid or seek assistance – and in cold weather, time is of the essence.
You may think it’s just a leisurely float on a calm river, but things can change quickly. You should always wear a life jacket. I know it may not be as comfortable to paddle wearing a life jacket, but if you are swept into a root wad or branches they could flip you over or knock you out of the boat very quickly.
Related: Butler’s Driftwood Outdoors Podcast, Rivers and Streams - Public or Private?, Are You Trespassing? Know the Rules of Indiana's Waterways, Top Five Indiana Canoe Trips, Canoeing 101
You could also hit your head and need a life jacket just to keep you upright in the water. For your own sake, and for those who love you, just wear a life jacket.
Hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst. Pack a dry bag with an extra set of clothes. Also bring a first-aid kit and a fire starter. If your bag is big enough, stuff a compressible sleeping bag or blanket into it.
Floating rivers in the winter is a special experience. There is an incredible calm in the cold-weather setting.
Make sure you keep your cell phone protected in a water proof container. This could be a small dry box where you also store your keys and wallet, or something as simple as putting it in a quality sandwich bag.
Many of us who spend a lot of time outdoors invest in a quality waterproof case for our phones. The ability to keep your phone out and not need to worry about the weather (or an unfortunate dunk) destroying it is worth the money.
Never just take off without letting someone know where you’re going and when you are expected to return. If something were to happen, and you don’t return by the expected date and time, it is much more likely rescue personnel will find you quickly.
If the person you are telling is not familiar with the water you’re going to float, show them on a map. Make sure they understand the route you plan to take.
Floating rivers in the winter is a special experience. There is an incredible calm in the cold-weather setting. You see animals that would likely be hiding from the crowds in the summer, and although fish may be more lethargic in winter, you should bring a fishing rod along, because smallmouth still need to eat.
See you down the trail…
Editor’s Note: For our Indiana readers, depending on where you live, access to rivers and streams may be your main impediment to a winter float trip. A few of the state’s larger rivers have decent public access, but numerous medium-sized waterways worthy of a float may not. Keep in mind you need two access points a reasonable distance apart.
An inelegant solution is to float “bridge to bridge,” using county or state right-of-ways at bridges to access navigable water without trespassing. But this is at best a workaround. In this scenario parking is often a problem, adjacent landowners may not respect the public right-of-way, and getting boats in and out can be interesting.
Related Resources & Articles: IN NRC Navigable Waterways Roster, IN DNR Law Enforcement Contact Information
The safe, and smart, bet is to contact the local conservation officer before going. He or she will most likely know the area you’re trying to float and can advise on the best way, if possible, to gain access. In our experience, if there’s a problem, you’re going to have a conversation with that same CO, so you might as well go ahead talk beforehand.
For more Driftwood Outdoors, check out the podcast on www.driftwoodoutdoors.com or anywhere podcasts are streamed.
Brandon Butler is a syndicated outdoor newspaper columnist and freelance magazine writer. His column, Driftwood Outdoors, has appeared in over 50 different newspapers and magazines, and currently runs in over 30 publications. He has won many awards for his outdoor communication work.
Butler has established himself as a conservation and outdoor media leader of his generation. He is currently Director of Communications for Roeslein Alternative Energy, a renewable natural gas company dedicated to conservation. He spent five years as the executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri. He created and taught Conservation Communications at the University of Missouri.
Butler is actively involved in conservation organizations. He is a life member of CFM, NRA, Boone & Crockett Club, Trout Unlimited, Fly Fishers International and Missouri Hunting Heritage Federation. He holds a B.S. in Organizational Leadership from Purdue University, a M.A. in Organizational Leadership from Gonzaga University and is currently completing an Executive M.B.A. at the University of Missouri.