Whitewater Kayaking: A Four-Season Sport
by Tom Potter

When I started kayaking in 2009, the thought of traveling down a river strapped into a kayak was terrifying. However, like anything in life, after committing countless hours of practice I slowly became comfortable in my little plastic boat. The more time I spent kayaking, the more I realized that this sport had endless potential for progression.

One could say that whitewater kayaking has been my main outlet for adventure, athleticism, and community for the past seven years. I have traveled all over the Pacific Northwest exploring cracks in the earth with water running through them. Each year brings new goals and challenges. The personal growth and life experience that I gained from paddling whitewater is unrivaled by any other activity that I have participated in.

Spring and summer are considered “paddling season”. The sun is out, the air temp is above 80 degrees, the rivers are ripping with fresh, clear melted snow, and the days are long. These are the days we spend hours upon hours in our boats on the water. It is common that on a warm summer day, when the Wenatchee River and all of its tributaries are flowing, we might kayak down four or five rivers in a single day. This is where true experience is gained. Eventually, the kayak and paddle become an extension of your body. The thought process of navigating rivers becomes clear and reactionary. The people you paddle with become your family as you only have each other to count on while on the water. The flow state and community of whitewater kayaking is why I paddle as often as possible, all year long.

As fall shows its face toward the end of September, we have exhausted our snow pack and the rivers in the Wenatchee Valley are reduced to a trickle. There are still a few whitewater treats to be had thanks to scheduled dam releases on the Tieton River in Yakima and the Chelan Gorge in Chelan. As we enter October and November, kayakers completely rely on rainfall to give the rivers a spontaneous bump in their flow. A big rain event to a whitewater kayaker is like a powder day to an avid snow skier.

Tom showing us how it is done during Winter kayaking.

Eventually, the snow starts to fall and winter in the Wenatchee Valley is in full effect. The chair lifts at Steven’s Pass and Mission Ridge start spinning and our surrounding mountains are blanketed in white, fluffy snow. One thing that is overlooked by most is that the rivers are still flowing. Tumwater Canyon of the Wenatchee River in particular is a beautiful section of whitewater that is accessible 12 months of the year. Running along Highway 2, the challenging canyon offers world-class creek style kayaking during the low flows of fall and winter. When the temperature drops, the rocks near the river are covered in glazed ice and snow. Accessing the river usually involves cautiously navigating down steep, snowy embankments of icy marshmallows. Once you are in the water, you are immersed in a winter wonderland that rarely receives human interaction. There are no ski tracks, no other people, and very few signs of animals. It’s just you and the river. I have yet to find a more peaceful place than an eddy in the middle of a big rapid surrounded by snow and ice.

Proper equipment for winter paddling is mandatory as it can be the difference in a comfortable, enjoyable experience or a close call with hypothermia. One thing to consider is that the rivers in the Wenatchee Valley are cold 10 months of the year. The heat of July and August tend to warm things up a bit, but the rest of the year, its cold. A full body dry suit is mandatory kayaking equipment in this part of the world. Of course, it’s more comfortable when one is dry and warm. Being dry and warm is essential in the winter when you are posed with the challenge of successfully navigating a river with class III-V whitewater. By layering with fleece base layers under my dry suit, an insulated helmet, and pogies on my paddle for my hands, I am able to stay surprisingly warm while paddling in temperatures that may be below freezing.

Whitewater kayaking through the winter is not only a great way to stay in paddling shape for when spring arrives, but it also allows us to appreciate the liquid environment that is so readily available in our valley, all year long.

If whitewater kayaking is of interest to you, be sure to seek professional instruction before entering a moving water environment. Please feel free to contact me with any questions, comments, or concerns. Follow me on Instagram for fun adventure content in our area. Have a great winter and happy paddling!

Author: Tom Potter
Email: tom.k.potter@gmail.com
Instagram: @ogtpot
Corresponding video link: https://youtu.be/lqhqS3_Sxs4

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