Paddling is about expanding your horizons. Standing on the beach, looking out to sea, the horizon is just over 3 miles away. Once on the water, the horizon begins moving. With every paddle stroke, the old horizon is replaced by a new, more distant one. From Beverly, Halfway Rock is a small, granite island that lies about five miles off shore. At sixty feet tall, I can see the island from shore, though in a shrunken state as its base is obscured by the curve of the earth. As I paddle toward it, it appears to grow out of the ocean. First its base emerges, then a backdrop of water surrounding it.
Horizons represent limits. If paddling is about literally expanding your horizons, then paddling in winter is about expanding your mental horizons. In college, I went on my first white water rafting trip. It was April, it was Maine, and the lower part of the river was frozen. It snowed as we loaded into the bus for the trip to the put-in, and I had a very real sense that my too thin wetsuit was inadequate for what we'd be doing. We survived the trip, cold but undamaged, and I was left with the understanding that water sports were not off limit just because it was cold.
When I first started training as a paddle guide, the training course took place in late April, a necessity to ensure we were trained by the time tours started booking, but also out of a necessity for guides to experience more rugged conditions, increasing our comfort zone and skill level. My comfort zone was expanded almost immediately: Finding myself upside down in the kayak with my head pointing toward the muddy river bottom was shocking enough. The cold ocean water pouring into my ruptured neck gasket and flooding my (still) too thin wetsuit added a surprising new twist on suffering.
Going through this several times during the 40-hour course changes your perception. Cold water is no longer a deadly foe waiting for one wrong move, an errant glance or misplaced paddle stroke to hurdle you headlong into your waiting doom. It is instead a risk to learn about, plan for, and manage. Once this is done, new rewards await. Just as new adventures are found upon leaving the safety of shore, new adventures are also found when leaving the safety of warm weather paddling.
The ocean takes on a different quality in the winter. The water, even when not choked with ice, seems thicker somehow, more syrupy. At times, the ice is frozen into a slushy, briny mixture so thick we pull ourselves through with our hands. Tidal rivers inland freeze into thick layers. As the tide moves in and out, it breaks the ice into chunks. Wind and tide serve as conveyor belts to drag these toward open ocean. On occasion, we find chunks big enough that we can run our kayaks right on top of them, or dock our paddleboards next to them, and climb onto these temporary islands.
Many people, upon first learning that people take to the water in cold months, exclaim, "You must be crazy!" Yet as they hear more and more about the adventures, their attitude shifts from astonishment to curiosity to desire to join.
And so it is that I was able to persuade about a dozen people to join a winter paddling group, gear up, and paddle throughout the winter. Some of the paddlers had experienced the ocean in winter before, whether through paddling, surfing, or some other means. For these paddlers, like myself, it wasn't the excitement of paddling in winter for the first time, it was the excitement of having a larger group to paddle with. For others, it would be their first time venturing into waters cold enough to put them at severe risk if not properly equipped. They responded to the invite with a small amount of hesitation, and large amount of courage.
My love for paddling in the winter is paralleled by my love of introducing others to it, seeing their reactions the first time as they venture out into conditions that at one point seemed inconceivable. As we paddle, we obey an ancient instinct. Our ancestors first expanded out of Africa, whether forced by a changing climate or out of a desire to see more of their world. They were able to do this because of a growing intelligence, which led to improved tools and a better understanding of their environment. However, it was imagination that allowed them to envision a world outside of their current existence, one teeming with possibilities, some danger, and much adventure. It is this imagination, this explosion of creativity and curiosity, that still drives us, in whatever small or large ways, to expand our own horizons, and to imagine experiences outside of our current state.
Paddling in the winter plays another small, but crucial role. While interning on board the Cape Ann Whale Watch, my mentor frequently reminded us that “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught." I believe that much of this understanding comes through self-taught experiences as we move through the world. We are fortunate to live so near such a vast resource as the ocean; yet it is over utilized for environmentally destructive purposes, and under utilized for recreational purposes. The more we encourage people to get on the water, in whatever wide range of capacity they can, the more people will learn from it, understand it, love it, and conserve it.
*On a side note, winter is a great time to surf in New England. Powerful storms pump waves toward shore, and beaches are largely empty save for the dog walkers and treasure hunters with metal detectors. A recent surf at Nahant was one of the most memorable in a long time.