Winter Paddling -- ICE ADVICE

I have been surveying some of the creeks around here. There are open spots and spots that are still iced over bank to bank. The open spots seem to occur where the water is flowing more swiftly through open channels. The closed places are at pools of more slowly flowing water. This all seems logical.

This raises the question of whether anyone has had any experience paddling when you started out where you thought the water was open all the way to your take out, but you found out that you hit solid ice sections that you had to portage over or around.

One possible problem I foresee if this situation arises is whether there is any solid ground where you can step out of your canoe or whether you have to step out onto the ice. I say this because just about everplace I looked there was ice along the banks. Not much of a problem if it is shallow enough to break through the ice and step on a solid bottom, but this could be a problem in deeper water. Is it possible to claw oneself out onto the ice while staying in the boat?

Just thinking through some possible scenarios before venturing into the unknown.

I think if you are by yourself…
you are making a mistake.

Two weeks ago one of my daughters was on a small lake and just playing around she decided to see if she could break a small channel through some of the “thin” ice.

You can probably guess what happened; the ice did not give way and as the bow of her yak started to go up on it, naturally the yak started to tip.

She said that only a quick back paddle type brace is what kept her from going over.

A valuable lesson was learned which will go into her experience book I am sure.



Had just that experience a few years ago. River was clean except for a mile before take out. The only area I couldn’t scout from the road.

Just after sunset I approached solid ice across the river, what was insidious was that the ice formed a V where the center section kept narrowing, forming a trap like situation. I figured the ice would be thin enough to break with the paddle but it wasn’t. Suddenly there were big hunks of ice floes now bumping into the canoe. Don’t know where they came from as the river was ice free except for the skim ice along the banks. The force of the light current and ice chunks converging at the point of the V against the canoe was disconcerting. I put it in reverse, spun around and paddled upstream about 300 yards to a bridge. Plan then was to do a 2 mile portage home.

Stopped at the first house about a 1/4 mile away and asked to use the phone to call wifey. I ended up in the middle of a tupperware party, helping to carry boxes in the house. I wasn’t a pretty sight with ice in my beard and bulky pfd, wet suit, balaclava. As it was now dark I carried the canoe as close as I could to the front door to sort of validate my presence and appearance. They opened the door, didn’t shoot and even gave me a ride home. Had no money to buy any tupperware.

Lesson learned:

No long trips downstream if possible danger of river being blocked.

If ice present, I carry a 4’ ice hook as described in ‘Beyond the Paddle’. Can be used to pull paddler and boat up onto solid ice or break ice for clear passage.

Never paddle down river into a narrowing channel of ice.

If you know the territory, you can always pull out and carry past the ice clog if the clog is localized. They can run for some distance.

Stay off iced river at night.

Any ice travel take along some type of hand held spike device attached to your wrists by lanyard for instant use if you break through.

Small river ice is unpredictable for foot travel and changes can occur rather quickly due to current and floating ice.

of course do not be swept under
I had the horror years ago of knowing a person who was swept under ice. He by sheer dumb luck came out 30 yards down stream. He has not made that mistake again.

I go out all winter but stick to outflows of a lake where the current keeps the ice clear all winter.


Post this at CPA Forums
Last winter, similar discourse brought forth some interesting replies on Chesapeake Paddling Association’s email list. If only they’d put it on their forum, you could go search for it, but they are wed to their email. I suggest you post over on their forum and maybe some of those folks will repost. You can link to it at

Started out with tale of a canoer using an ice ax to pull himself to a take out. Then somebody from Alaska started talking about carrying a garden rake. Concluded with reports by members who made different kind of clawing gadgets and went out and used them to traverse ice shelfs. At least in sea kayaks, they indicated it was very feasible to navigate up onto and across ice.

One of the guys was “Woody” who has an elaborate trip report page, something like “woody’s kayak trip or paddling page.” You can probably google it and look at his reports from last winter.

Sorry, but its all second hand, hearsay from me on this subject. Fun stuff, though. If I have some time I’ll try to dig up links and post a follow up.


Here’s What We Did…
and sometimes still do when we hit ice. Not recommended for the sane!

been paddling
on icy rivers before. depending on conditions it is possible. If short streches are blocked we use a small anchor and pull over the ice. Larger spots you would need to portage. Be extremely careful if you do try ice paddling.

Second That Emotion
"Be EXTREMELY careful if you do try ice paddling."

Here is what we do…

Paddle easy,


Would Kinda…
suck to get suck under ice, if you fall over…


Nice pictures

Link to Woody’s TR
Here is the link to Woody’s account. He’s got some video clips on there. Also a link to info from Gail Ferris, the Alaskan, who used a hoe, not a rake as I posted above.


swept under
The beginning of Ken Whitings film “Play Daze” pays respects to an expert paddler and videographer (I apologize, her name escapes me at the moment) who was swept under the ice on the Ottawa during filming of the video.

It definitely adds a whole 'nother variable to the equation. May your best judgement prevail.

A Macleod would be ideal
It is a two-sided tool, with a hoe blade on one side and a narrow, thick-pronged rake type of blade on the flip side. I’ve used it in trailbuilding. A Pulaski would also be a good tool for ice-hauling.

I am thinking of going out in the Twister this week, as the local ponds have been thawing in the recent warm spell but are still mainly ice. Park mgmt does not allow boating under such conditions, except for a strange exemption for “whitewater canoe and kayaks.”

I was wondering the same thing as the person who started this thread. Has anybody used a hammer’s pulling side for clawing along ice? I was eyeing one in the garage; looks like the nail-pullers might be a bit too curved for ice work.

ice tool
I picked up an old ice pick as decribed in “Beyond The Paddle”. It was used to move ice blocks around in the old days. I made a thick four foot ash handle and attached the 2 piece head. The spike is 5.5" angled down at about a 60 degrees and the other part is a 3.5" spike that extends upward at about a 45 degrees.

I paddle either a MR Indy or MR Traveller when paddling on icy rivers, both of these are solo boats. The long handle allows good leverage to pull up onto ice shelves or across ice to open water while seated. A short handled tool would require more effort and may take several tries to reach good ice perhaps at a critical time. You’d have to get out of balance to reach out far enough to be effective with a short handle. The longer handle also serves to bridge a breakthrough if walking over ice.

Field & Stream had an article on ice travel years back and described making an ice spike to be carried on your wrists in case of falling thru the ice. It was simply a 2x4 block sized to fit in your hand with a large spike sticking out and a lanyard to wrap around your wrists.

cheap “ice tool”

– Last Updated: Dec-29-05 12:31 AM EST –

if you insist on going have you though about...driving a coupla long nails into two 2x4 square blocks of wood...screw an eyebolt on side...length of line can now pull yourself along with a handy ice tool on either side of the boat and not have to get out. or toss a coupla ice axes in your boat...the hiking ones, not the climbing ones...they're longer and have a point not only on the head opposite the shovel side but on the can buy em pretty cheap at ems/rei and even cheaper at one of their yardsale events...if you're in a canoe, you have plenty of room.

beware too that where you find no ice in the morning may be packed with ice in the afternoon as currents shift.

don't go alone. make sure someone knows where you are and when you should be back. dress for immersion. have a radio or a cell phone...and then the 240 other safety tips....