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Ice Out, Paddles In

Kunjamuk River, near Speculator, in spring. Photograph courtesy of Dean Nervik

Usually the only boaters looking for open water in March head to the Hudson River for whitewater rafting. And these are not your Sunday lily-dippers but professional guides and creek freaks. The official season for rafting starts April 1, when the town of Indian Lake begins regular dam releases of the Indian River.

But a crazy thing happened this month: thanks to temperatures in the 80s many water bodies lost their thick ice sheets surprisingly early. Schroon Lake went out on March 20, about three weeks earlier than normal, according to the local chamber of commerce. In Saranac Lake the Great Adirondack Ice Out chair plunged into Pontiac Bay on March 20 just after 12:30 p.m. Mirror Lake transformed from solid to liquid on March 23. In 1946 the ice disappeared on March 27, the previous record.

Pack canoeists were exploring Raquette Lake’s South Inlet, a slim bay just off Route 28, on March 22. In high summer, personal watercraft buzz this otherwise quiet spot while kayakers nose into boggy banks looking for wild orchids; in March the only noise besides drops falling off a feathered blade comes from a chorus of newly arrived red-winged blackbirds.

Current-driven bays of major waterways opened quickly throughout the Adirondack Park. Long Lake was blue, not white, by March 25, as were Tupper Lake and Lake Colby. According to Dean Nervik at Hamilton County’s tourism office, Piseco, Indian and Lewey Lakes are opening fast. His video shows Lake Pleasant with an icy border but plenty of open water.

With snow remaining only in the most remote reaches, and roads still awaiting sweepers to clear away winter’s sand and salt, backcountry skiers and skinny-tire bikers are between rocks and hard places. No wonder all that free-flowing fluid is inviting. On days when the air hits 55 degrees or more launching a canoe or kayak seems the most natural thing to do. The weekend forecast calls for sunny skies but cool temperatures.

A recent rescue on Lake George describes a very close call for a capsized canoeist; according to the newspaper account he was broached by a wave. Paddling while the water is barely above freezing demands attention to detail. You’ve got to be honest about your skills (wait until May if you have doubts), dress right (a wet suit or dry suit, or fleece and GoreTex for a short trip), covering your core. A warm hat, neoprene booties for your feet, plus paddling mitts like Hyper Hands round out the attire. Wearing a personal flotation device is mandatory until May 1, according to state law. A PFD will also add another layer of warmth. Molded Kevlar canoe seats don’t counteract the cold very well, so a homemade pad of Thinsulate foam helps whether you sit or kneel. (My preference in all but perfect summer conditions is to kneel in a tandem canoe, lowering the center of gravity and stabilizing the boat. The downside: being that much closer to frigid water. Splashes that refresh in August are downright shocking in April.)

Preseason paddling is not the time to test a new boat or a new bow partner. It’s the time to be sure and steady in your strokes, watching for wind and waves. Lakes like Lila and Little Tupper are notorious for wind even in warm weather, whipping up with scant warning. So save the serious wilderness waterways for a little later in spring, in that sweet spot between snowflakes and blackflies.

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