Swimming in February - Mountain Buzz

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Old 02-13-2012   #1
Paddling Since: 96
Join Date: Feb 2009
Posts: 1,453
Swimming in February

OK, I'll do my best not to be a scold...

I've been posting on this forum about ELFing and winter boating on the Ark for 3 winters now. I love it. I've met some great folks who share my passion enough to boat in conditions that most would reject. My first year it was very hard to find anyone to boat with. Slowly more folks have discovered it and this winter I've been lucky enough to put on with 6 and 7 people a couple times.


But, in winter you have a whole different set of conditions. Ice doesn't fuck around. It changes the river. It changes the lines. Rocks get skirts, often on the upstream side, that can knock you over in seemingly easy spots. Ice shelves are undercuts that can and will kill you. Exposure can kill, very quickly in 34 degree water. That's why winter is a bad time to paddle near the upper edge of your skill set.

This weekend there were 4 swims on the Ark. That is 4 too many. I'm not naming names, I'm not even pointing a finger at anyone. These folks are my friends. But when you have that many swims in February it tells me that the Rio isn't getting enough respect. I'm an old guy. I've lost too many friends to the river. (One is too many!) Young and newer paddlers need to understand that winter boating has a different set of consequences and our choices need to reflect that.

I hesitate to post this but a couple of friend's deaths this year require that I speak.

Have fun. Do not die!

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Old 02-13-2012   #2
lmyers's Avatar
Buena Vista, Colorado
Paddling Since: 2005
Join Date: Jun 2008
Posts: 4,780
Yep. That's why I will run Numbers in Spring, Summer and Fall, but prefer to boat a little easier water when Elfing in the middle of Winter. My dumbass was boating with Jackson back at the end of January and didn't get my skirt on all the way. I was playboating and messing around and got flipped over. As soon as I flipped my boat was full of water and I was swimming....the air temp was only in the low 40's....luckily I was dressed appropriately and got warmed back up quick. It was scary though, middle of winter is not a time to be swimming.

Everyone please be careful.

Good post Phil.
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Old 02-13-2012   #3
Cphilli's Avatar
Copper Mountain, Colorado
Paddling Since: 2005
Join Date: Jun 2010
Posts: 289
Thanks for the reminder on being safe out on the water Phil. Just as a small addition I would say don't be out in 37 degree water/45 degree air temps without the proper gear. I did pine/#'s 2 weeks ago, it was cold. I had fleece pants, 2 long sleeves, gmer, skull cap, and toaster mitts on. Luckily that kept me warm all the way to the takeout, but any slight mishap on the river can turn your warm gear into survival gear.
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Old 02-13-2012   #4
Denver, Colorado
Paddling Since: 2002
Join Date: Nov 2003
Posts: 586
This is a valid - and complicated - post, Phil.
I have often found myself saying and thinking some of the same things at various points in my career; why do some people take these risks that I wouldn't or do some of these things that I think are crazy? Or, does that person have any idea how dangerous that was, or how lucky he just got?
But I think the hang-up is that, sometimes people just view consequences differently.
I think some people look at possible negative consequences and are just more comfortable with them than others. Some people decide something is an unacceptable or unworthy level of risk, and others merely make a different choice.
I know that, for me personally, I witnessed two swims on Sunday and boated with one of those who swam on Saturday. And I truly believe that all three of those people looked seriously and soberly at the situation before deciding to boat, and considered the consequences, and were okay with it. And I think all the people that boated with them knew the score and were willing to boat with all these people, and okay with the idea of having to do a rescue in those conditions.
I think all three of the swimmers are people who have a lot of respect for the river - but maybe they just approach life in a different way than some of us more conservative boaters.
Ignorance is the enemy; If people are not aware of the risks they are taking and not respecting the river, that is no bueno. But if somebody says, "It's snowing, and the water is icy, and this rapid is at the upper end of my ability level, and I could swim, and swimming would be dangerous - and I am okay with that. And my crew is okay with that. And I am going to do it."
Well, that might not be a choice every boater would make. But it's also not a choice I will judge negatively.
We had seven beautiful people (well, six plus me) enjoying something truly extraordinary yesterday - experiencing something that so few people ever will. To be paddling a great stretch of whitewater in a pounding snow storm... was so extraordinary. And there was great joy; so much happiness and beauty.
And there also was a lot of experience and skill, and poise, demonstrated across the breadth of the team.
The people who swam, did not get hypothermia or frostbite, nor were they even miserably cold. They could have hiked quickly out to a road, but felt no desire to do so and continued their day and paddled well.
Things could have gone worse - things could have gone ultimately bad. But that is always the case in our sport.
I love my winter crew; yesterday was unforgettable.
And I love you, too, Phil. It has been great boating with you, every time, and I look forward to the next time.
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Old 02-13-2012   #5
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
Paddling Since: 2004
Join Date: Mar 2006
Posts: 311
I was there for the two swims saturday. 3 more Sunday eh? Crazy. Ice definitely played a role in one on Sat, but the other was just a dude having an off day and to his credit he completely self rescued and was really safe about it. Both we super solid about it.

I respect everyone's right to make their own decision and I am always prepared to rescue and do whatever it takes to help out someone I put on with (and anyone else I meet). I don't consider it a burden to help rescue people or property, I think its part of the fun and adventure of the sport. What I like about kayaking: everyone gets their own boat, a metaphor for personal responsibility.

Different people learn at different rates and have different tolerances for risk and swims. I've swam just twice in 4 years, (about 300 days) neither was bad, one was my first season. I do my best to enjoy easy rivers, not just IV-V. I love to playboat alot and creek alittle. My swim tolerance is very low, so I guess I tend to boat below my abilities by most peoples assessment.

Phil - All I'm gonna say is good thing it doesn't look like last year out there. Last Jan/Feb it was 20'x30'x1.5' ice shelfs encompassing most to all eddies, 10' high ice banks, and 3 of 4 routes through the rock iced over. I think if those were the conditions this weekend we all would have opted for 4 through 7 and turnout would have been a few poeple less.

For anyone considering going, right now it seems all the "important" rocks have 2-3' ice skirts on them, all eddies are ice free. Doesn't sound like much but those pillow moves you are used to turn into flailing paddle blades at the last second as you realize you are about to windowshade and pin. Getting out after a swim the shore is coated with just a 1' or so of ice but it makes coming to a stop and grabbing that rock with a bear hug pretty tough so swims are longer than you think.
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Old 02-13-2012   #6
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Bozeman, Montana
Paddling Since: 1999
Join Date: Mar 2007
Posts: 5,507
If you are swimming in the winter in the river you should do yourself a favor and find a warm pool and practice your rolls. As in both sides. Combat rolls are called that because you can roll up in whatever position you are faced with.

Somebody had a working and a swim on the quake section about a week ago. I wasn't there but didn't sound pretty at all.
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Old 02-13-2012   #7
Paddling Since: 96
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Mike (Id725),

Excellent post. Of course. Consider my post one voice hoping to add perspective to friends' decision making process. I've boated 4 through 7 solo in the conditions Erik referred to many times so I'm sure there are boaters that think I am boating over an edge. Like I said, I'm not pointing fingers. I would boat with any of the weekend's boaters again, happily. I'm saying 4 swims out of 13 boaters this weekend is a lot. Do I think anyone did not belong there? No. Am I saying don't do it? No. I'm not saying anyone made the wrong choice. I'm just reminding people that it doesn't always work out well, especially in those conditions. Far better boaters than any of us out there this weekend have died in less exposed conditions. As an old boater who has boated on aggressive personal edges and boated with many who are paddling at the bleeding edge of the sport, this weekend concerned me enough to say something.

Yeah, its complicated, and I love our community's ethic of personal responsibility. Thanks for articulating your point of view so well.

I just want to be able to say SYOTR and have it be so.

Regards, and with respect for all my paddling friends,

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Old 02-13-2012   #8
Denver, Colorado
Paddling Since: 2004
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 3,107
While everyone is entitled to their own opinions... I'll weigh in and say that the risk of swimming in the winter is greatly reduced by good gear. Many spots like the Pac NW and the southeast have major boating seasons in the winter, with lots of paddling, and of course, lots of swims.

A good dry suit, good layering, good hand protection / warmth, good head gear etc can make swimming in 32F water and 32F air temps somthing that is easily handled... you might be surprised to find out that you are warm after a swim in the winter from the exertion (if you have good gear).

When you kayak, you sometimes swim... even if you don't swim, you have to be prepared to actively participate in a rescue. If you go paddling in really cold weather/water, you should by definition be prepared to be in the water. If you paddle super low water, you will inevitably encounter minor pins, broaches etc that might require exiting a boat. The concept that you shouldn't swim on the numbers at winter seems a bit over the top. The preparedness of boaters to handle the cold or the difficulty might be a different story though.

For what its worth, I've paddled in some really cold spots in CO. Gore in march / april and Big Thompson in november (both in the snow)... One of the coldest times I have been while on the river was in June... on OBJ when it was pissing snow. Cold exposure can be any month of the year in CO, but good gear can mitigate that risk.

As food for thought... someone in shorts running a cold creek in june when a rain storm rolls through could be at a greater risk for cold exposure than someone with a dry suit and lots of layers on the ark in february.

I do understand the cold exposure isn't the only risk... ice shelves can be very dangerous, and dry suits don't prevent entrapment.

Good food for thought on winter boating.
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Old 02-13-2012   #9
Paddling Since: 96
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Good post DSP. Yeah, swims happen. Being an ELFer, I know well broaching and deboating. I'll prolly swim the next couple times out just for bringing this up. And being a former Maine creeker I've paddled with frozen undercuts many, many days. Yes, good gear is a big factor. Time to replace my pooched neck gasket. There was, what for me felt like, a lot of carnage given the conditions. I guess I choose to say something to carry the safety end of the conversation while supporting everyone making their own choices. And as Erik said, mostly the ice was in the form of skirts and not shelves.

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