Ice, snow, whitewater: Winter kayaking in the northern U.S.

Two whitewater kayaks strapped to the top of a Ford Taurus gets a lot of strange looks no matter where you are. When you take this contraption to the northern reaches of the U.S. in December, even those who could normally relate to wanting to go on a kayaking road trip are confused. Sometimes, when I’m staring at a river and there is more ice than water moving by, even I’m confused. Why was it that we we took the hit to our gas milage and the burden of extra wind resistance upon us for a road trip in which temperatures would rarely be above freezing?

When I’m paddling down a beautiful new river in a state I’ve never been to before, that’s when I remember — even if I’m navigating my way through ice shelves and trying to avoid being splashed in the face because I know the water will freeze to my skin — I’m still kayaking. And that is worth any extra burden the kayaks might cause.DSC_0480

Our first chance to put our boats on the water was a play wave on the Spokane River right near the border of Washington and Idaho in a little town called Post Falls.

We were forced to miss another prime surf spot in Missoula because of a time constraint. But, we had Bozeman to look forward to — where not only was there multiple rivers to choose from, we also had friends crazy enough to trade in their season appropriate cross-country skies and pull out their kayaks for the day. Our group chose the Gallatin River.
When we arrived we sledded on our kayaks from the road to the river and ice shelves along the rivers edge were our launching pad. Every eddy along the shore or behind a rock was taken up by ice that had formed in the still water, making the section continuous. When we stopped to surf small waves chunks of ice that we had dislodged up stream floated down on us.

We had scouted the biggest rapid of the run from the road, and from there I thought the right line looked clean. Our friend, a local and class V boater, was leading the way and took the left line, but thinking the right line looked easier I skirted in that direction. 12295415_10204985722707710_3127239729716218123_nThere was only one portion that hadn’t been visible from the road because of a massive rock. By the time I realized the hidden portion was not clear it was too late. I boofed the final drop straight into an ice blockade. Between the boulder on one side and the ice shelf in front of me I was completely blocked from rejoining the river and my friends back in the current.
With no other option, I pulled myself out of my kayak onto the ice. I dragged my kayak out of the cavern, across the ice and back to the current. The biggest challenge of the event was trying to get my spray skirt back on the deck of the boat with completely numb hands.

On our own again, Nick and I found our way to the quaint town of Spearfish, SD. While the upper section of Spearfish Creek (a class 3) was too low to run with many un-passable areas visible from a road scout, running through the center of town was a fairytale section cutting its way through snow cloaked banks. This section was low too but deeper because of the narrow channel. Riddled with low head dams and bridges, we scouted the section thoroughly before making our plan. There was a nice walking path the wound along side the two mile section. We would boat down it and drag our kayaks back up along the snowy trail like sleds. And that’s just what we did. Frozen helmet strap, numb toes and all.

And if I thought we got strange looks driving around with kayaks on top of our car, those were nothing compared to the confused glances directed our way as we pulled our kayaks through the snowy streets of Spearfish.

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Photos credit: Juniper Rose, Nick Prete

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One thought on “Ice, snow, whitewater: Winter kayaking in the northern U.S.

  1. Y’all are great. I like the pimp my ride of the sedan! Let me know if you’re continuing east. Whitewater in western NC and east TN is pretty stellar, and I’ll get you connected with some info and some folks there!

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