Monday, January 20, 2014

Winter Day on the Water

The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or perchance a palace or temple on the earth, and at length the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.   
Journal  July 14, 1852  H.D.Thoreau

Assonet Bay is just a widening of the Assonet River, tributary to the Taunton River (left edge of image).
Our route took us under the highway, and west to the entrance to the river proper.

January is the only month I had never been on the water.  When I saw the MLK Day weekend coming up, I got a minor case of adventure itch, and determined, if possible, to introduce my 13-year-old son Stephen to winter boating.  My original idea had been an overnight trip in our little enclosed sailboat, Surprise--probably in the relatively quiet waters of upper Narragansett Bay.  Then I began to wonder if a kayak camping trip might be possible--if my two-man kayak, Serendipity, would hold enough gear.  A test fit of all our bulkiest gear proved it would.  A night out on the shore of shallow little Assonet Bay would test our gear and mettle with a minimum of risk.  Now I had to watch weather and opportunity. 

Nope, not Surprise.

Nope, not Serendipity.

Musketaquid--a skin-on-frame kayak--with, and without, her skin.

The weekend arrived, but circumstances made the trip impossible.  I didn't regret it too much: it was raining steadily anyway.  With only Monday remaining of the weekend, I decided to at least put the kayaks in and try to check out camping sites for a future trip.

After a very lazy holiday morning, we finally set out in the afternoon with two kayaks atop the minivan for the half-hour ride to Assonet Bay.  The big kayak, Serendipity, stayed behind; for this day trip, Stephen would paddle Speedbump, and i would have Musketaquid.

Winter boating takes fussy preparation to be safe.  On the one hand, the air temperature was in the forties, and we would generate a fair amount of body heat as we paddled.  (It's harder to keep warm sailing, since there is less effort involved.)  On the other hand, even a little wind would make the air seem colder--especially if we got a little wet; and the water was a chilly 38oF.  Stephen and I were in ski pants and fleece jackets and hats, with neoprene gloves that would protect hands from wind and wet.  I wore tall rubber boots to keep my feet dry getting in and out of the kayak. 

Of course we wore life jackets, and each of us had his cell phone in a waterproof box clipped to it.  --falling overboard in deep water this cold without flotation is nearly a death sentence, since even a strong swimmer would find his muscles cramping up in just minutes, and drown long before hypothermia became an issue.  

A few years back, Stephen and I and his older brother had capsized our new two-man kayak on a November paddle in wind and waves; this had already impressed on Stephen the importance of getting out of cold water immediately.  Although wet clothes don't insulate very well, actual submersion in water draws heat out of the body at a tremendous rate.  Here in southern New England, it is perfectly possible to get hypothermia if you're in the water long enough even in the middle of summer.  To be wet is automatically to be cold, so I carried a change of clothes in a little dry bag in case one of us upset and took an unexpected dip.  As a final precaution, we would be in the shallows hugging the shore most of the way. 

With a gentle headwind, modest waves, and Stephen's cold hands, we only got about two miles out.  It was fortunate we turned around at that point, since my patching of my own boat, the skin-on-frame Musketaquid, had somehow failed to stop the leaks,  and I had taken on a good deal of water. 

Bufflehead (The Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

As I approached them, first one then another of two small flocks of small birds took off from the water.  One of these birds quacked as it took to the air, while a second, already left behind, dove beneath the water to escape.  On the theory that, if it swims like a duck, quacks like a duck, and dives like a duck, it is likely, in fact, to be a duck, I consulted my Sibley Field Guide after we returned.  Among the diving ducks, only one has the observed white cheeks and prominent white markings visible in flight: the bufflehead.  I figure I can pretty safely add this new bird to my experiences, and put a notch in my binoculars.  (Unfortunately, I was too busy paddling to keep my camera at the ready.)

With the tide near low as we returned, the muddy shallows left us and the boats black, but we finally piled back into the car, pleasantly tired, after two hours on the water.

I was reminded of a few things along the way.  Boots and neoprene gloves will keep you dry, but not necessarily warm.  A dripping paddle is very annoying, and something is needed to keep sleeves dry as well as one's lap.

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