In the words of Frosty Hesson, "We all come from the sea, but we are not all of the sea. Those of us who are, we children of the tides, must return to it again and again, until the day we don't come back leaving behind only which was touched along the way."
Winter is a time for most paddlers to clean their gear and stow boats. It is a time to put away paddles and get the odour of neoprene booties out of the back seats and trunks of cars. It is a time to trade the PFDs for skis, snowshoes and hockey gear. Winter, with its temperatures well below freezing, is not often a time associated with kayaking. This season, we decided: not us, not this time. We were going to make the most of the hurricane season and the warmer water that gets drawn into the normally frigid Bay of Fundy. We decided not to be part of the crowd that awaits the warmer temperatures and longs for the intoxicating spray of the ocean; the crowd that watches with a tear in their eye as their favourite pastime freezes over.
Instead, we decided to take advantage of the body of water that never freezes, and never takes a winter break. The decision was easy to make, considering some of the most consistent, challenging and enjoyable play times are just moving into the region. For our small group of sea kayakers from around Saint John, NB (The Saint John without the "s" on the end), the winter months of 2017 into 2018 have been very favourable for play sessions and coastal exploration. Surf forecasts along this little piece of coastline have seen regular days of swell and surf in the 3-8 foot range. By taking advice from local surfers, we have found a number of sea kayak friendly play spots offering both point and shore breaks. Rides are often smooth and predictable, with (relatively) safe bailouts for longboats.
It is sometimes a hard decision to choose the love of waves and rolling ocean over the feeling in your toes, but it's a decision we wouldn't change, not even for a second. There is a cost, however, as even the most simple tasks become challenging in the winter. From stripping to your skivvies in blowing snow, to changing into paddling gear between parked cars full of spectators watching the incoming waves smashing the beach. Perhaps the spectacle of watching a six foot two guy changing into his neoprene "yoga" pants or, better yet, taking the soaked gear off is more entertaining?
We figure people get more then what they bargained for when we're there. Like the other day, as Adam danced around like an uncoordinated river dancer, unable to get his shirt on, while standing in his boxers with numb hands, as a lady walked by dressed for a full Arctic Expedition. All you could see were the whites of her eyes as Adam flailed about. He still got a wink and a laugh out of her. We're guessing she had snow in her eye and was laughing as he wrestled his shirt into submission, or maybe the shirt got the best of him.
The challenge often comes from the amazing tidal range the Bay of Fundy is so famous for, where timing is everything. With the ebb and flood of the tide, the conditions are constantly changing. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Timing plays a major role in other ways during this time of year. The shorter days mean the window for play is much more limited. Daylight is at a premium. It is not uncommon to be catching your last rides with the sun starting to set before supper.
Timing is also relevant as it relates to the amount of time one can reasonably enjoy the sessions before cold takes its toll on the body. In this environment, becoming cold is a given, but the ranges of cold vary. Even with the warmer hurricane waters in the Bay, it is still cold, so paddling with trustworthy and capable friends is crucial. It can be a matter of life and death if things turn ugly. Hypothermia is real and you need someone watching out for you if you're starting to talk like you've downed a 2-4 after going for a swim.
This is where proper gear separates the kayak sessions into two categories: painfully dangerous, and manageably enjoyable. Proper layering is key, as too much layering is cumbersome and restrictive. The Level Six Hot Fuzz Unisuit keeps us warm, while still nimble. With insulation covered, staying dry comes next. Adam wears the Level Six two-piece Reign drytop/drypant combination, while Pete goes with the Level Six Emperor Drysuit. Designed with creekers and expedition white-water paddling in mind, this gear has proven itself to be perfectly suited for these sub-freezing days, where the frigid water is unforgiving and is tough enough for the surf and rock gardening sessions too.
In order to make the most of our time on the water, Pete has adopted the rituals of his childhood. Instead of getting dressed for days at the rink, he gears up for the beach at home. Sitting in traffic wearing a drysuit might raise some eyebrows, but the other drivers see the colourful kayaks on the roof racks and have already questioned our sanity. But, by taking a second to consider this, there isn't really anything "insane" or "hardcore" about this. It's just what you do to do what you love.
Proper choices, from choosing the right gear to deciding when it's not the right day to go out, matter and aren't taken lightly. All the extra effort for shorter, colder play sessions is quickly forgotten once on the water. The feeling you get when you launch off the shoreline, making your way through the barrage of waves in the break zone. The crashing of waves as your bow punches through is addictive and satisfying. Looking up at the sky on larger waves and planting your paddle blade on the opposite side is the coolest feeling in the world! "Literally!” as Adam would say, and finally when you grab that perfect wave and ride it out with a huge smile. You soon realize this is the best addiction in the world.
Each time we set out, we are aware of the real time conditions. With a twenty to sixty foot tidal range, playing in the Bay requires vigilance, preplanning and knowledge of your areas of play. Knowing what lies beneath the water is important. You need to know if there are day-ending rocks just beneath you. Being upside down in the wrong area might leave you with some rearranged teeth as rocks don't care about how you look the next day or if you prefer to chew your food instead of sip it through a straw!
Being sea kayakers through and through, we use our long boats pretty hard and don't do them any favours. You have to push hard at times, because being timid can often times be worse than being aggressive. Still, as Adam would say, "You have to tell the Ocean the truth about your abilities. She can tell when you're lying." Always be an honest paddler and a humble one too. If anyone reaches our shores, we always love to meet new friends and show off our little piece of coastal heaven.
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