Exercise caution in spring paddling

By Dave Lind

Three kayaks hanging on the garage wall and two canoes hanging from the ceiling of the garage catch my eye every day and it seems they are crying out "pick me, pick me."

I’ve been ignoring their cries all through the winter months, but now it’s spring and I think they know I’ll be selecting one of them for the first paddle of the season.

I’m usually cautious about paddling in early spring since I like both the air and water temperatures to warm up a little. In years past I would break through ice to get on the river, but not now.

Spring is the most dangerous time to paddle because water temperature lags air warm up by four to six weeks in southeastern Minnesota. People are lured out in early spring when the air temperature is in the 60s but the water temperature can be only in the low 40s.


If you are an experienced paddler and have a dry suit or wetsuit, you can paddle in cold weather. I learned the hard way years ago the effect of cold water when you capsize.

My brother-in-law and I were running a whitewater river in Wisconsin in late fall with both air and water temperature in the mid 50s. We were wearing lifejackets and windbreakers. We successfully ran several Class II and III drops on the route but on the last one we were off the run line a bit and the canoe filled with water as we punched through tall standing waves.

We stayed upright for a while but then swamped. Wow, was the water cold! We hung onto the canoe through the rest of the rapids and made it to shore. We had early effects of hypothermia and could hardly walk on shore as our bodies had rapidly lost warmth.

Luckily we had dry clothes and our paddling partners, who wisely chose to portage, had a fire going.

The next spring we ran the same stretch of river the first week in May. There was one inch of fresh snow the morning of the launch so it was cold. But we were all outfitted with wetsuits for the trip. Again we all flipped into the cold water but with the wetsuits we stayed warm. Lesson learned!

Be aware the high water from heavy rains last year eroded river banks, causing hazards such as tree strainers and trees leaning precipitously from the banks. Most of the DNR maintained routes on the Zumbro, Root and Cannon rivers should be OK, but the less traveled streams and creeks may have trees blocking the channel.

Last October I paddled the south branch of the Zumbro from Mantorville to Oxbow Park, which is not a DNR-maintained route. About 2 miles downstream from the put-in at the bridge at Mantorville, there was a large cottonwood tree that completely blocked the river. The only choice was to claw our way up 8-foot-high banks with the kayaks and portage downstream and find a place to put-in. That tree will be a hazard for some time.

Enough of the glumness.


Now is a good time to check over the boats you have, whether canoes or kayaks, and make any needed repairs. Make sure your paddles, PFDs, and other paddling equipment you have are adequate for another year on the water. In other words – be ready for that first outing.

Southeastern Minnesota, often referred to as the bluff lands or the "driftless" area, is a paddling paradise consisting of the Root, Zumbro, Whitewater, and Cannon river watersheds that can be paddled with canoes and kayaks. Most of the paddling routes are less than an hour drive from Rochester. This makes it easy to plan either day trips or overnight camping outings.

Dave Lind is a Rochester freelance writer and paddling expert who has written books on the subject. He can be contacted via

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