“Big Muddy” Mike Clark is a living legend. If you read our November/December 2019 issue, you already know that.
With over 20,000 miles logged plying the great rivers of the US, Clark is a waterborne encyclopedia when it comes to big river paddling — he has seen and done it all. I quickly realize this when he and I head out on the Mississippi River to talk about winter paddling.
Quick backstory here: While researching the Paddling column in our last issue on how to winterize a watercraft, I repeatedly ran into an interesting response from local paddlers: “I don’t winterize my boat, because you never know when we’ll get that 60-degree day in January.”<
True. Being a St. Louis native, I know how unpredictable our winter weather can be, and having your canoe or kayak at the ready for that window of opportunity makes sense. But, being on the water during the winter months also brings a host of factors for which one has to be prepared: colder water temperatures, less shore access points, and the potential for ice floes and the damage they can do to a boat, among other things.
I asked Clark about his winter paddling experience — what he enjoys about it, what gear he uses — as we floated away from shore on a crisp late-October day.
“Winter paddling forces you to be acutely aware of what’s going on around you at all times, and thus forces you to be acutely alive,” said Clark. “Your senses are heightened because there’s more at stake. Capsizing in 40-degree water is a lot different than capsizing in 70- or 80-degree water.”<
In addition to this heightened awareness comes an ability to see more while paddling. “Winter paddling is an entirely different experience than any other season in that you can actually see into the habitats along the shore,” Clark said. “The leaves have fallen, and the ground foliage has withered, allowing better sightlines into the nooks and crannies along the river. You see more wildlife and are able to explore areas that go unnoticed during the warmer months.”
I asked one of the more obvious questions: “What about gear?” Clark had donned a bright green waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, and thick neoprene boots for our outing. <
“The key is staying dry,” he said. “Getting wet means getting cold. Once you’re cold, it’s time to get off the water.”
Layering beneath a waterproof exterior is the ideal method of staying warm, whether you use a full dry suit or piece together a waterproof outfit. Think base layers, thick socks, an insulating jacket or vest, and so on. Depending on temperature and conditions, waterproof gloves are also essential — something that will block the wind and keep your hands dry yet thin enough to still provide dexterity to your fingers and grip.
He tossed a sealed dry bag my way. “Submersion kit. A 20-degree synthetically insulated sleeping bag, dry layers, hand and foot warmers,” Clark explained. “If you fall in, you’ve only got a few minutes before hypothermia starts to set in. Getting dry and getting warm is life or death.”
When paddling in the winter, Clark advises to avoid using fiberglass boats, as they can get dinged up and damaged by ice. Royalex, polyethylene, or aluminum boats are better, though aluminum will quickly get as cold as the water. “You just want something durable that can get banged around,” he said.
What’s the most important factor when looking at places to go winter paddling? “Moving water, that’s the key to winter paddling,” Clark said. “Moving water typically means less ice, and less ice is a good thing when paddling on a big river.”
“Moving water” brings up to two other key factors to consider: ice coverage and shore access. Frozen surfaces are dangerous for multiple reasons. If a body of water is mostly or completely iced over, it’s never a good idea to try out your ice-breaking skills. Along the same lines, even on bodies of water that aren’t frozen, eddies along the shore can freeze, eliminating shore access points, which is also unsafe.
“Bottom line: have fun, but be safe,” said Clark. “It’s easy for things to go wrong on the river. Paying attention, being prepared, and having a plan will go a long way in keeping you alive when they do.”
Spoken like a man with 20,000+ miles of big river paddling experience.
“Big Muddy” Mike Clark rattled off a few of his favorite spots for winter paddling during our interview. These include the Current River, the Jacks Fork River, and stretches of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. He also noted that whitewater enthusiasts rave about the Saint Francis River after a good snowfall.
Author: Nick Tilley is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Lead image: Mike Clark and Dolly on an icy Mississippi River.