A guide for the persistent paddler
By Charles Chandler
Don’t put your paddles up when the temps are trending down and the snow is falling. Paddling Newaygo County’s rivers in winter can be a sublime experience. Some sections of the big Muskegon or the White, a smaller free-flowing spring river, are usually open all winter.
My favorite is the White because you will have this small classic Newaygo County river all to yourself. When kayaking this beautiful river, you will notice that the water in winter has a different quality. It appears to thicken, slow down and develop a soft silken appearance, perhaps the effect of a winter sun residing low in the southwestern sky.
Then there is the snow on the cedars. Nothing can create that winter wonderland experience like new snow on riverside cedars. Sometimes when you glide past a grove of snow-covered cedars they appear dark and mysterious. Sometimes when alone I get that ominous feeling as if there might be something really scary hiding in those shadows, a thought quite possibly influenced by a lifetime of scary movies, I would guess. Yet on another day when the air is crisp and the sun is high in a perfect blue sky, you will see those same cedars sparkling with snow and give thanks for the gift.
Often there is not something scary in those shadows but a small band of deer who have chosen those very sheltering cedars for their winter bedding. Seeing these woodsy residents with those big eyes, dressed in their thick winter coats trimmed with white is a special moment for the folks who cherish wildlife watching. It is my strongly held opinion that deer do indeed know when hunting season is over. On sunny winter days, they will often come and bed with their backs to the river. I have had more than one doe stand up, stamp her dainty hoof and gave me an irritated snort as I passed close by.
I imagined her thinking, “really, a lady finally gets an opportunity to do a little sunbathing, and then you have to disturb me floating around on that stupid looking red plastic log thing.” A thought quite possibly influenced by a lifetime of Disney movies, I guess. Sometimes, though, you can glide quietly by and they won’t even get up.
If you are a birdwatcher it is amazing at how active the woodlands can be in the winter. Sounds are sharper and seem to travel farther during this season. The birds appear to have some kind of winter schedule and often you won’t hear a peep and then if on cue the orchestra tunes up. The crows and blue jays always seem to have some squabble going or a bit of news to deliver. The woodpeckers and kingfishers and a few ducks are always around. The red tail hawks start their courting rituals in January and can be seen circling overhead. I always listen and watch for our little resident Brown Creepers. They look like tiny brown mice as they zigzag around and up the bigger trees always searching in the bark for sluggish insects. If you are lucky sometimes you will see a shadow float by and lookup and a majestic bald eagle will be passing overhead. To see the white feathers of that awesome bird framed against the deep blue sky always give me a chill.
For your first winter paddle on the White River, I suggest the three-mile section from White Cloud Rotary Park down to Flowing Wells Park. For a longer paddle try the five-mile section from N. Baldwin Ave down to N. Luce Ave. Both of these stretches have adequate places to put in and take out.
Make no mistake you will need to gear up for winter paddling because getting wet in our Michigan Winter weather can quickly lead to hyperthermia and put your life at risk. To be perfectly safe during winter paddling you will need a dry suit. A wet suit or a pair of fishing waders with an adequate base layer of wool or polyester fleece could be a marginal substitute provided that in case of a tip over you could remove your wet clothes and get into dry ones quickly. Some type of warm hat that covers your ears and waterproof gloves are essential. Always take a waterproof dry bag and pack some hand and toe warmers, a change of dry clothes, energy bars, waterproof matches or fire starter kit. A thermos of your favorite hot beverage and a camera, binoculars and mobile phone should round out your gear. It is further suggested that you paddle with a partner and be sure to have someone spot your car at your takeout location. If you need to do a little gear shopping check in with Greg Slominski at 37 North located at 8129, 27 State Rd, Newaygo, MI 49337. Greg will give you good advice and has a great line of Jackson kayaks and paddling gear.
If it has been exceedingly cold and shelf ice is forming along the banks or over the river, make good safety decisions and don’t go. Stay home, make some hot chocolate, locate that book you have been planning to read and curl up with your spoiled pets. Cruise the internet and spend those Christmas gift cards on some new sporting gear. Or dig out those snow shoes or cross country skies and get ready to hit the trail.
However, if the weather has been mild and you want to extend your paddling year in Newaygo County then put that kayak in the water and glide silently through our beautiful river corridors. On one of your trips you may get that perfect snowfall that defuses the light and quiets the woodlands and when that happens you will experience a feeling of serenity like no other.
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