Even in warm weather, cold water is a kayaking peril

On the Water

March 26, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY

Even as spring begins, and would-be paddlers look longingly at the water, the kayaking community urges most of them to stay at home.

"We try to pull in the reins a bit," said Dave Young, a manager at Spring River Corp., a paddling store in Eastport. "The water temperature is still pretty low."

The problem, Young said, is that less-experienced kayakers are more likely to tip and therefore take a frigid - and possibly deadly - bath in the Chesapeake Bay. He says that beginners should really start in May when the temperature of the water catches up to that of the air.

Winter kayakers wear dry suits, which are essentially reinforced, well-tailored plastic bags. The dry suits have rubber seals at the hands and neck and it is a joyful experience to jump in (warm) water with one on, because you really don't get wet and you bob like a buoy.

But experience and equipment don't necessarily insulate the experts from the risks associated with winter paddling.

Last month Mitchell Madruga, 46, of Derwood died while paddling on the Potomac. The cause of death is not known.

Madruga is survived by his wife, Arleen, 40, and two daughters. "He would talk about taking picks out and picking through the ice" during the winter months, Arleen said.

"I beat myself up," she said. "I've said a couple times it's too windy. You shouldn't go. I didn't say it that day. I felt like I nag. You don't want to be a nag."

But expert winter paddlers tend to know the risks they face, said Don Baugh of Lindamoor, who regularly kayaks to work in Annapolis. Baugh prefers to paddle in the winter.

When he heard the news of Madruga's death, Baugh wrote "Sounds like us" in an e-mail to a kayaking buddy.

"I know what I'm doing is dangerous at times," Baugh said in a phone interview. "I just hope that these words don't come back to haunt me. You have to accept the risk."

Baugh keeps a set of flippers in the kayak, just in case he tips over, can't get back into the kayak, and needs to swim to land. "If you paddle by yourself, you should have a bomb-proof self-rescue plan. ... This guy who died, he probably tried to self-rescue. But you don't get a lot of chances," Baugh said.

"Self-rescue" refers to righting the kayak and getting back to land unharmed.

What worries Baugh and others are the casual kayakers who don't understand the risks of going in cold water - even on warm days.

"A pretty day comes in and people are like, `Sweet, let's grab a kayak and go,' and it is really deadly," Baugh said.

So why do the winter kayakers risk it?

"It is a great time of year to be out there," Baugh said. "It becomes your river and your bay. There is a really magic to being out there."

"I paddled this morning and I saw ospreys on nests. It could be some primordial instinct we have to get away from or get to something," he said.

Ray D. Mosko, a psychologist from Severna Park, also kayaks in the winter: "When I get into a groove and I'm inhaling the relatively fresh air and I'm seeing the seagulls and the water is slapping against the boat, there is an extraordinary feeling."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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