The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Winter is my favorite time to paddle the Puget Sound. I’ve rarely experienced anything as peaceful as a glass-calm day on Commencement Bay in the middle of January. I know for many people, kayaking in the winter isn’t possible. It’s difficult to paddle through solid ice. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are fortunate to have mild winters and an abundance of water that stays liquid year-round. One of the things I truly enjoy is the ability to dress comfortably for the weather. Since the Puget Sound stays about 45°-55° pretty much year-round*, dressing for the water temperature can be uncomfortably warm in the summer months. I wear a dry suit, so adjusting my clothing in the kayak isn’t going to happen. As such, I dress for immersion. And then I usually go for a swim when we stop for a break during summer paddles.
*On occasional summer weeks, the water temperatures in the Puget Sound increase to 55°-60°… still not warm enough to ignore your cold water safety. In the winter, we see water temperatures in the 45°-50° range.
Temperature aside, the other things I love about winter paddling are… the lack of other boaters… the change of wildlife… and the spectacular snow-covered mountains. Almost all of the Puget Sound is between the 47th and 48th parallels. This means in the middle of winter, the sun stays fairly low on the horizon. While sometimes this means you need to bring welding goggles if you are paddling directly towards the sun, it also makes for stunningly beautiful scenery. The distant mountains glitter and cast deep, long shadows. On particularly cold and calm days, there is sometimes a thin veil of mist over the water. Only a few inches thick, this mist can make paddling seem other-worldly as it swirls around your kayak and paddle.
My uncle was a fisherman in Alaska. He was the first person to teach me about cold water safety. The water and air temperatures here in Washington are not anything as extreme as those you would see in the Bearing Sea, and I think because of that, people sometimes overlook the dangers. A competitive swimming pool must be between 77 degrees and 82 degrees or the swimmers won’t be allowed in the pool. At the time of this writing, the water temperature for the Puget Sound is reported at 47.3° and is expected to drop to 45.5° in the next 10 days. The National Center for Cold Water Safety says you should treat any water temperature below 70° with caution. At the height of summer, the Puget Sound is still around 10-15 degrees shy of that.
What You Don’t Know… Might Kill You
When most people think about paddling in cold water, they think about hypothermia. But they think that packing a change of clothes and a towel in a dry bag is good enough. They say they’ll stay close to shore, and they won’t get hypothermia in the short time it will take to get to shore. Unfortunately, there is more to cold water survival than hypothermia. Coldwater shock and the gasp reflex mean you may not even get the chance to swim to shore.
Additionally, weather can change quickly – especially in winter, on the water. A brisk wind blowing from the shore may change your route (whether you intend it to or not). A storm can blow in and change your conditions in a matter of mere minutes. While you may be certain that you can recover and get to shore quickly on a sunny, calm day… can you say the same in 2-foot seas with an 11-knot wind and pelting rain? I’ve seen conditions change just like that over the course of fewer than 15 minutes.
If you aren’t sure what you need, there are ACA classes and instructors who can help. We’re happy to share info on the gear we use. And we highly recommend that you check with your local paddling outfitter. They can help you find nearby resources to improve your rough water skills, practice self-rescue techniques, and ensure you have proper cold-water-immersion gear.
…and Have Fun
I know the realities of cold-water kayaking can be frightening. But safely paddling in the winter is one of the deepest joys I have experienced. The lack of other boaters provides a serenity that is difficult to find in warmer months. Wildlife somehow seems friendlier when kayakers are the only boaters in the area. Seals investigate our presence on the water. The only time I’ve been surrounded by a pod of Orca in the South Sound was one January a few years ago. I kayaked with a humpback in late October one year (technically not winter, but it was certainly cold that day). The fewer engines on the water, the more harbor porpoises I tend to see.