MID-MARCH in southern Manitoba usually doesn’t mean sun and forecast highs of 12 C. But that’s what we have this week, meaning winter has come to an early and unceremonious end. While cold weather may return, conditions conducive to winter sports probably won’t. The only positive aspect of this early snowmelt means rivers and creeks that usually aren’t runnable until April and May ought to be navigable a month ahead of schedule. What this means is even before winter officially ends, it’s time to think about paddling. Assuming cold water doesn’t frighten you, here’s how to get out there early: 1. Identify a prospect The first rivers to open up in the spring are often small waterways that aren’t navigable later in the season. This means the only time to experience them is in the midst of the snowmelt, when water flows are sufficient to support canoes and kayaks. There are some well-established early-season paddling routes in Manitoba. Friends of mine rave about the whitewater on the Black River, a pool-anddrop Canadian Shield waterway that flows out of Nopiming Provincial Park on its way to Lake Winnipeg. Experienced paddlers can tackle the 103-kilometre stretch from Provincial Road 314 to Little Black River First Nation in three days. If you’re not into cold-weather camping, the Gardenton Floodway and Roseau River can be combined into a whitewater daytrip of 40 to 54 kilometres, as described by John Buchanan in his lamentably out-ofprint Canoeing Manitoba Rivers Vol. 1 South. This very accessible route begins south of Vita, only an hour southeast of Winnipeg. You can take out at Highway 59 or continue to Provincial Road 218. You won’t be alone. If you have superior movingwater skills, the fast-flowing Ochre River, which flows off Riding Mountain’s relatively steep northeastern shoulder, offers a few hours of tight turns and boulder-dodging. Full disclosure: the only people I know who’ve done the Ochre underestimated its difficulty and had to perform a dodgy self-rescue in a tight spot. If serious adrenaline is not your thing, there are scenic stretches of the more placid Souris and Pembina rivers that are only navigable right after the snowmelt. At some point in Manitoba’s not-too-distant geological past, the Souris River emptied into the course now occupied by Pelican Lake and the lower Pembina River. Now, the Souris bends away from the Pembina before it drains into the Assiniboine River. Buchanan identifies the 37-kilometre stretch of the Souris from Provincial Road 348 to Highway 2 as the most fun stretch, with high banks and a few Class I rapids; the lower 21 kilometres are placid. He also recommends a 34-kilometre section of the Pembina from Smith’s Bridge at Road 5 North to Provincial Road 201. Of course, you don’t need to paddle an established route during the snowmelt. Just find an open creek or river and proceed to step No 2. 2. Gather some intel OK, so you know where you’d like to paddle early in the spring. But there’s no way to determine whether it’s actually doable without finding out whether the water is actually moving and there are no dangerous obstacles in the way. First, check the Water Survey of Canada’s website at wateroffice.ec.gc. ca, where the feds chart water levels and discharge volumes for many (but not all) Manitoba rivers and streams. Fiddle with the site, and you’ll figure out how to set time parameters to create a seasonal flow chart. This will give you a good (but not foolproof) indication of whether today’s water level and discharge volume are in line with the seasonal peaks associated with good spring paddling conditions. If the conditions appear promising, go scout the river in question. Are there ice-covered sections? Don’t go. Tons of deadfall? Also bad news, because sweepers can be deadly in fast-moving water. Playboaters and kayakers already having fun? Join them! Obviously, you can’t scout a wilderness waterway like the Black River ahead of time, so be very conservative about your decision. Err on the side of low water, if you must, because scraping against a few rocks is preferable to spending your last minutes on earth trapped below a sheet of ice. 3. Be very, very careful At the height of the summer, dumping your boat in the river is no big deal. You get rescued by your buddies, you dry off and you warm up. In the spring, that’s not the case, even on a gloriously sunny day. Cold water can immobilize you and induce hypothermia in amazingly little time, so you need to dress as if you intend to wind up in the frigid river. If you own a drysuit, wear it. Wetsuits intended for summer use ought to be augmented in the spring with a neoprene skull cap, paddling gloves and booties, plus some sort of drytop or other insulative layer. Pack additional clothes into a drybag to wear in the event you dump. And most importantly, don’t go alone. Paddle with at least one other boat to ensure any rescue will be swift and relatively painless. Remember, the official line on early-session paddling is don’t do it. While that’s just alarmist propaganda aimed at preventing idiots from trying to run the Floodway Control Structure, remember a little bit of caution will make any paddle a lot more fun.
An April paddle along the Seine River in Winnipeg. Don’t worry, Kives has a life-jacket with him.