That is what I love most about paddling: the combination of mindless repetition and mindful navigation.
People are often surprised to hear I paddle in January. All the lakes around are frozen, and yesterday's high temperature was 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Some faster flowing rivers stay open however, and I've been doing this for long enough now I've learned to mitigate the dangers. It's not just the clothes, but a certain amount balance, caution, and peace of mind that keep me from hypothermia. If competitive paddlers in other parts of the country are training in January, it just doesn't make sense to stay off the water here.
2017 has been uncharacteristically warm so far in Saranac Lake; an ADK winter without at least two -35F mornings is considered a dull affair. My first paddle of the year happened on January 3rd. Launching from the Pine Street Bridge I paddled roughly six miles downstream and turned around. With air temperatures in the 30s, the paddle was generally easy going.
The Saranac River is an often overlooked gem in the tri-lakes area. A swift current keeps the section northeast of Saranac Lake open through all but the coldest winters. During the first ten miles downstream, paddlers are presented with unobstructed views of Whiteface & McKenzie Mt., 90 degree rock faces forming the shoreline, as well as otters, beavers and eagles, all nesting along the river bank. The river is sinuous enough to offer a technical challenge, yet open enough for the wind to toss you about. It's the perfect training ground for those of us preparing for the upcoming canoe racing season.
Of course, winter paddling is not without its risks. In mid-March 2013, Ed Wagner and I were out in his JD Pro racing canoe, paddling past large chunks of ice. As we came to a sharp corner, I planted my paddle to bring the bow around. The boat jostled and we went in.
I gasped. It was my first time in freezing water. I was afraid, but not at all surprised. Both Ed and I had a hand on the boat and we swam it to shore. The paddle from this point back to the car wasn't very long, but within seconds of getting back in the boat I could feel all the blood in my arms and legs being drawn into my torso.
Several years later, Patrick Madden and I flipped in early April on the Susquehanna. The current pushed Pat into a tree, the boat into Pat, and I was pushed into both of them. The water was marginally warmer than the above experience, but the current was much stronger and we had another 45 minutes to the exit point. I still don't know how we both came out of that river unharmed. These experiences, coupled with a handful of February flips, are in the back of my mind during every winter paddle.
Last summer, I began coaching the marathon canoe racing team at my alma mater, Paul Smith's College. It has been by far the most enjoyable thing I've ever been paid to do. In the fall we paddle directly from the school's docks on Lower St. Regis Lake, but in the winter it becomes necessary to ferry boats to the Saranac River. Not all of my athletes are enthusiastic enough to paddle in January – lesser men call them "crazy" – but those who do give themselves a noticeable leg up on the competition. Those of us who paddle the cold months are not only driven by a desire to win, but by a love of paddling.
The paddle stroke is a repetitive motion, and yet to the attentive paddler, that stroke is constantly being adjusted. A skilled paddler not only has the strength to fight the upstream current, a shallow corner, or a strong side wind, but also knows how to use all of these things to their advantage.
That is what I love most about paddling: the combination of mindless repetition and mindful navigation. Compared to the long, broad canals of Central New York that offer no challenge, and the constant turbulence of western rivers in which you can have no consistency, the Adirondacks are the ideal paddling destination.