The Caledonia yawl in my back yard was covered with a heavy frost this morning and all of the varnished ash had been turned from amber to silvery white. In the afternoon, when the I draped a tarp over the boat to protect it, I was daydreaming about waking up to a heavy frost after spending the night at anchor.
It has taken me a while to appreciate the cold. Before I took to adventures in small boats, my focus was on backpacking. It started as a summer activity with my father and older sister when I was about 10 and became a solo pursuit when I was 18. I kept increasing the challenge of wilderness travel, first by stretching the distances and later by shifting, by degrees, from summer to winter. In 1997, my friend Mark and I snowshoed across the Cascade mountain range. I have a vivid, lasting memory of getting up in the middle of the night for a pee break and seeing the light from my headlamp being reflected as thousands of flickers of light, brighter than anything I’d seen reflected by snow. During the night ice crystals had grown up from the surface of the snow, each like a hexagonal golf tee of crystal, some over 2” tall, and their cupped tops reflected the light back to me. The crystalline pillars would fall over with the slightest touch—even a breath could send them knocking others over like dominoes.
I ultimately graduated to winter solo hikes and carried a heavy pack to a frozen alpine lake where I spent the first night in my tent, and the rest of the time in an igloo I made the following day. My boating took a similar trajectory, starting with summer cruises and drifting toward winter.
Paddling the East Coast from north to south, starting in September 1983, was intended to stay in autumn and keep pace with the migration of the cold weather that would clear alligators, snakes, and biting insects from our path. That strategy worked well until we reached Florida, when a cold front caught up with us. The St. Marys River was fringed with ice and parts of the Okefenokee swamp were frozen over. My paddling partner’s kayak had a long, overhanging bow, so she got the icebreaking duties. She’d sprint at the ice and ride up over it until the ice collapsed under the weight. We were free of the ice by the time we reached the Suwannee River, but it was still bitterly cold. We’d learned about “fat lighter” wood from the locals, so we’d camp where there were pine logs and stumps that had rotted away, leaving the resin-saturated heartwood. Even sticks that I pulled out of the river water would light and burn. The wood bubbled black resin as it burned and made hot, long-lasting fires that would hold the cold back until we were in our sleeping bags.
Two years later, when I started a solo rowing trip on the Ohio river in November, the idea was to travel with the leading edge of winter. I had a few cold nights. I stopped at a small marina on the Ohio shore, asking permission to sleep on the dock, and the owner’s son brought me an electric blanket and an extension cord. On my last night on the Ohio River, I dragged my sneakbox into a flooded field and woke the next morning with the boat locked in ice.
The cold caught up with me in earnest on the Mississippi River south of Memphis, Tennessee. A moonless night fell across the river before I was able to find a place to pull ashore. In the dark, carried fast by the current, it was even harder to spot a place to stop. A wind blowing upriver created a chop that splashed over the bow, coating the deck, the dodger, and my jacket with ice. I was aware of the numbness creeping from my hands and feet up my arms and legs. I’d had a run-in with hypothermia once before, and knew I’d be in trouble when the cold hit my core.
The beam of my flashlight picked up a bright patch of sand flanked by stands of dead reeds. I rowed for the sand but the reeds, frozen and coated with ice brought me up short. I had to back up and ram the reeds again to break through. I was racing against time to get a fire started. As I gathered dead wood the cold seeped into my core and I was doubled over and wracked by spasms. It took intense concentration to get the fire lit.
I got through the night, warmed by the fire, hot food, tent and sleeping bag. In the morning I woke up just as the sunlight set my tent aglow. Outside there was a single leafless tree surrounded by fist-sized cobbles. Its shadow, as intricate as a cathedral’s rose window, was white with frost, luminous against the wet black rock.
That night on the Mississippi taught me to better respect and prepare for cold, and the morning showed me another beautiful creation of winter, one that can easily go unnoticed.
I am much better equipped now to go boating in winter and can be quite comfortable when the weather turns cold. The frost on the boat in my backyard this morning doesn’t make me happy to be home. It makes me wonder what I’m missing by not being out on the water.