The following post was written by Woodlore Aspirant Instructor Sarah Day:
A Canoe Trip in the Snow – Approx. 27 km – River Stour, Suffolk
“When there’s ice on the river, a wise man sleeps with his canoe boots.”
(Mine froze solid during the night – most unpleasant, though a dip in the water made them flexible enough to put on, they were still very, very cold.)
A night-time walk in the snow along my nearest river was enough to convince me that I needed to get the canoe out and paddle my favourite river; the Stour in Suffolk. Having just outfitted my canoe with airbags and skid plates, it seemed like a perfect excuse to get back out on the water.
It’s a beautiful river and though it used to be navigable by huge barges up as far as Sudbury, in places it is now so gravelled up and twisty that it’s barely passable by canoe! It’s a river I’m very fond of and one I’ve paddled alone many times, even at night. However in winter, with crusts of ice along the banks I took some extra precautions. Since the most dangerous bit would be getting out and portaging weirs (9 of them on the stretch I paddled, all with steep, possibly icy steps) I made arrangements to ‘call in’ before attempting to get out of the canoe and once I was safely back in, as well as at significant way-points and on encountering any other hazards.
In the summer the river is monitored and kept clear by the Environment Agency; any fallen trees are quickly cleared – not so in the winter. Several times I found the river blocked by tangles of limbs. However, with the river barely above summer levels and the current very sluggish (heavily controlled by weirs) I was able to either pole through the thick surface detritus held up by the twiggy end of the tree, or beach the canoe well before the obstruction and portage around (not as onerous as it sounds – my canoe would make a mean sledge!) In any case, the river allowed time to evaluate the problem and avoid it if necessary. Had the river been flowing any faster (as it might well be now with the melting of the snow) I probably wouldn’t have paddled it – certainly not alone! Having experienced being pinned against a simulated ‘strainer’ on our recent water safety training, I have no desire to do it for real (especially with water temp near zero!).
The paddling was no more difficult than in the summer months, but in the stillness and silence I felt compelled to paddle as quietly as possible. Most of the time I used the ‘J stroke’ and ‘Knifed J’ but I also practiced Indian stroke in an effort to get closer to the wildlife and because it seemed fitting. My favourite wildlife moment was when I climbed out at a weir portage having ‘Indianed’ the last stretch, and found myself about 30 ft from three roe deer!
The river was breathtakingly beautiful and paddling alone I could act on a whim and spend half an hour trying to get close to flocks of ducks, or examining animal tracks at portages. I regret not taking my binoculars, but I feel sure that if I had, I’d still be trying to finish the trip!
I also saw evidence of otters on several sections of bank, lapwings, two little egrets (beautiful white heron-like birds that were wiped out here in the name of hat plumes!). Wintering ducks were out in force too, I saw greenwing teal, tufted duck, pochard and mergansers as well as numerous herons, five kingfishers blue, great, long-tailed and willow tits, a buzzard, a hare, endless rabbits and pheasants and for some reason, lots and lots of wrens.
I travelled fairly light, though I had a full spare set of clothing, my 4-season down sleeping bag and several different pairs of gloves and other kit which I was keen to try in the challenging conditions. Incidentally, stuffing over-mitts with cattail fuzz made a big difference, especially noticeable when I used my metal and plastic paddle, and I was impressed with my SealSkinz socks and gloves – though I did wear hiking socks and silk liner gloves under them my feet stayed dry even when padding about in the snow in highly porous canoe boots. Though I didn’t take any fishing gear, I returned with enough to make several hobo lines, having thoroughly harvested the trees opposite my favourite angling spots – good stuff too and not at all rusty!
My Kelly kettle proved its worth, providing me with hot water for brews and cous cous, and sterile water for drinking. I took a tarp to sleep under but only used it one of the nights with the canoe as a windbreak. The old karri-mats I keep in the canoe formed a base, with the usual setup of a Therm-A-Rest sleeping mat inside a bivi bag on top, since I would be camping on the cold, low lying land near the river.
It was a wonderful experience; paddling in those conditions brought a new dimension to a river I know well. Even a calm ‘civilised’ river can be unpredictable and potentially lethal, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.
– Sarah Day