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Swimming In Cold Water

Swimming In Cold Water

How to find your way in the world of Northern outdoor sports–even when you're out of your depths.
By Eva Holland
Mar 01
From the March 2016 Issue

The first time I fell into the Takhini River, I felt a timer begin a countdown in my head. My canoe rolled over and dropped me unceremoniously into the water and then, suddenly, the boxy, red-glowing digital numbers that appear on clock radios, or—more pertinently—on bombs in movies, appeared in my brain, flickering their way towards zero. You have 10 minutes to get out of this water.

This was the coldest water I’d ever plunged into—I was sure of that much. The cold squeezed my chest and dulled my thoughts, numbed my arms and legs as I flailed my way to the surface and then swam, heavy and awkward, towards shore.

It was a short swim. I’d capsized on the edge of an eddy, no more than a boat’s length from the riverbank.

My paddling instructor waited and watched, emergency throw bag in hand, as I stood up and slogged the last couple steps back to dry ground.

The Takhini runs clear and cold, twisting between sheer clay cliffs towards its confluence with the Yukon River, just north of Whitehorse. It’s flat and calm where it runs by a Yukon Government campground, the typical put-in, and then builds to riffles and rocks and its eventual climax, the Class II rapid dubbed the “Jaws of Death.” It’s a popular spot for teaching. I was one of a handful of participants in a women’s whitewater weekend—a chance for women to learn how to safely and effectively paddle solo and tandem canoes in fast-moving river conditions and low-key whitewater.

My partner and I had been practising a basic maneuver, attempting to break away from the downstream current and tuck ourselves into an eddy, when we dumped. (A not-unexpected outcome during the learning process.) But as I shivered in my borrowed wetsuit, I felt like I’d learned something more than just the importance of tilting my hips correctly as I sliced across an eddy line: These weren’t the warm brown Ontario lakes I’d grown up toodling around on in an old beat-up metal canoe. These cold, fast, northern rivers could kill me if I wasn’t smart and careful. I remember wishing I’d picked a more forgiving place in which to learn.

The author, upper right, prepares to cross a river in Nahanni National Park. Photo by Gary Bremner

I’d always played team games: soccer, softball, rugby, hockey. As a kid I’d dabbled in track and field and tennis, and in grad school I’d taken up rowing. But apart from some short day hikes, and some casual Ontario cottage paddling, I’d never really ventured into the world of outdoor sports. 

That all changed when I arrived in Whitehorse. After that, it seemed like I was always learning something new. I learned how to split firewood and feed a woodstove, how to jump a car that won’t start, how to make moose stew. I tackled snowboarding and cross-country skiing, and had the same problem with both: a tendency to slide downhill on my butt or my back or my head. I faced down a newly discovered fear of heights every time I attempted to go climbing on rock or ice. I took a kayaking course, and signed up for the whitewater weekend. I went backpacking with friends, and that, at least, just required me to put one foot in front of the other for hours on end.

Everything was new and strange. Nothing came easily. The exciting, the exotic, the new and challenging—they can wear you down after awhile, make you long for the familiar confidence of muscle memory. I remember calling my mother and complaining: “I just want to be good at one thing I do here.”

Somewhere along the way, I got the idea in my head that learning these things was harder here in the Yukon than it would have been elsewhere—Oregon, say, or California, or Vancouver Island. Wouldn’t everything be easier someplace warmer, someplace busier, someplace where the rivers weren’t trying to make your heart freeze up inside your chest, and where you could pull out a cell phone and call for help if you broke your leg on a trail?

“Learning is learning,” Kalin Pallett told me when I asked what he thought of my little theory. “Learning is hard no matter what.”

Pallett’s the general manager at Up North Adventures, a Whitehorse-based outfit that offers the “Adventure School”: lessons and courses in everything from avalanche safety to wilderness first aid to kayak fishing. He doesn’t necessarily believe that I’d have an easier time down south. “I’ve taught people on the Takhini River, I’ve taught people on the Madawaska River, and if you’ve never done either, you don’t know any better.”

“If anything, I think learning here makes you more prepared, because when you go to other places you’re in the right frame of mind.”

That got me thinking back to my twin lessons in the cold water of the Takhini that day. The course had left me with more than just some new technical skills: It had given me an appropriate respect for my environment—not just what it could offer me, but also the risks it posed. I’ll never forget those red digits flashing down in my head.

And yet, respecting the river didn’t mean I’d feel comfortable paddling it without my more experienced friends on hand. Years in, I still felt like a helpless, vulnerable beginner most of the time. It was a feeling I didn’t know how to shake.

When I described that sense of vulnerability, that lack of confidence, to Charles Stuart, he wasn’t surprised. Stuart is the coordinator and instructor for Yukon College’s Northern Outdoor Pursuits and Leadership courses. He takes students out each fall and winter and introduces them to a range of activities: ice climbing, winter camping, backcountry skiing, mountain biking, snowshoeing, glacier travel, and more. 

When I asked him what his pupils found the hardest, it wasn’t acquiring a particular set of technical skills. The trickiest thing for them, he said, was “actively engaging in the responsibilities of leadership.” Making decisions. Making choices. Taking the lead.

“They’re used to ‘You listen, I teach,’” he told me. Instead, he parcels out responsibilities for the day, offering students ways to step up and learn to lead in a safe, supervised environment. At first, he said, “it’s amazing to see how few are comfortable even participating in the decision-making.”

I liked Stuart’s distinction between hard skills (sport-specific techniques) and soft skills (decision-making, risk awareness, planning). I had spent six years running around trying to acquire a whole array of hard skills, all the while feeling uncertain or intimidated or afraid. It occurred to me that mastering the soft skills might make the rest come more easily.

There would always be new outdoor sports I would want to try, new wilderness skills to learn. But if I could build a baseline comfort level with the Yukon environment—a respect based less on fear, and more on understanding—I had a suspicion that the whole process would be more fun.

Cyclists pass the St. Elias Mountains in Kluane National Park. Photo by Joel Krahn

A while back, I fell out of a canoe into the Takhini River for the second time. This time around, a friend and I were out in the middle of the river: we had successfully steered our boat into an eddy behind a large rock, and had been trying to peel out again into the main current when we dumped. My friend, more skilled and experienced, stayed with the overturned boat to attempt to corral it, and sent me off downstream with instructions to swim for shore.

It was a much longer swim this time, and I didn’t enjoy it very much. Front-crawling across a stiff current in long sleeves and pants is never fun. But I made it, and as I climbed out on the bank, wrung out my hair and got ready to change into the set of dry clothes I’d brought along for just this eventuality, I realized something: There had been no ticking, glowing timer counting down in my head as I swam. And the Takhini didn’t feel quite so cold anymore.