Ontario Paddling: The Water's Cold January 15 2018

Guest Commentary
By Dave Johnstone

Dave Johnstone, The Canoe Collector

Canoeing in Ontario is not an issue as far as the availability of water goes as we enjoy over 250,000 lakes and in excess of 100,000 kilometres (62,000 miles) of rivers. These numbers don’t include the seasonal streams, creeks, and ponds depending on the time of year. I can actually pack and put in from nearby my home and paddle into Georgian Bay then across to North Bay over to Mattawa, down to Ottawa where I’d make a right turn and come home. That would take about a month to six weeks, however, the waterways are there.

The critical point here is the weather. We normally have four months of the year, being June, July, August, and September, to enjoy jeans or shorts and T-shirts. That being said, we enjoy flood sometimes in late March or early April and this is extremely cold water. Cold water play dictates the need for a drysuit as a safety must. Sure, we’ve all done it as kids because we didn’t know any better or we didn’t have the technology available to us.

When spring paddling it’s not only the increase flow of the river: it also comes with the inherent problems with downed trees from ice or wind or from bank erosion. Split second reactions mean the difference from avoiding, or God forbid, being caught in a sweeper or log jam that covers the river from bank to bank.

As a licensed scuba diver, some have said that a wetsuit may be the way to go. It’s funny how many minds i’ve changed with a quick trickle of water down the neck seal of a wetsuit jacket. Consider being in the water and turning your head to see where the canoe is or where the throw bag line is and that 33’ F water floods your suit. They aren’t called wetsuits for any other reason than the fact you get wet! No thanks, I’ll layer for warmth under my drysuit and regulate my body heat with my activity. Another massive advantage to the drysuit over the wetsuit is in the gaskets. The drysuit allows you to trim to fit on your neck seal and the wrists. This is impossible to do with a wetsuit.

I realized the importance of a drysuit last year and in 2017 my season started with white water river running April 1st. In May I attended a white water training and of the 200+ attendees, there may have been 5 without a drysuit. These people clearly understand the safety of wearing one in these waters.   My final canoe trip was completed on December 9th in a snow storm and was complete with breaking through some ice fields as we went.

So, how does one double the length of the paddling season in Ontario ? Quite simply by switching to a drysuit. These allow you far more movement and flexibility than a wetsuit and as a result you can focus on the water and where you’re going to plant that paddle. As far as the old days in jeans and work boots and parkas, well I have been heard to offer the more than occasional prayer of thanks. 

Soon to be 65 years of age, I intend for the coming year to have many more miles covered by river and this comes from the comfort of having the correct gear to do the job. When I leave for a shoulder season trip, either early or late in the year, my wife always asks, “You’re taking your suit with you, right?” Evidently I’m not the only one in the family to feel the comfort of wearing a drysuit! 

About the Author: 
Dave Johnstone is a recreational paddler who has paddled many Canadian heritage rivers in Ontario. He blogs as
The Canoe Collector.