This year, I decided I wanted to get back into paddling more regularly after spending the past several years not doing it much at all. It used to be my go-to sport before I got into running and then biking, but more recently I had become a lot more anxious about swimming (the boat going upside down and needing to wet exit in a river) than I once was. This fear, especially of being trapped upside down in a kayak, first led me to open boats (canoes), but eventually contributed to me rarely paddling whitewater at all anymore. I was also just preoccupied with other things — mainly, improving my endurance and skills on a bike.
When Evan decided to buy a new whitewater canoe last winter and get back into the activity, I at first had no interest. But gradually, I began to experience pangs of longing as I remember the fun times on the river in my past life. I casually mentioned to the folks I’d sold my canoe to several years prior that if they ever wanted to part with it, I’d buy it back. The Esquif Zephyr that I’d first bought from my friend Jeff fits me really well and I’m familiar with it, and I wasn’t sure enough about my commitment to paddling again to buy a new boat. Lucky for me, they actually did accept my offer, and I once again found the Zephyr in our boat garage. I’ve had it out a few times this fall since its return to my possession, but I still had a rule — I wouldn’t paddle in cold weather, cold being below 40 (ish) degrees. If it was cold enough for drops of water to turn to ice on my canoe bags, I’d take a hard pass.
Until yesterday. The forecast said it might hit 35 degrees, with a “real feel” in the high 20s. It was breezy, but it was also supposed to be fairly sunny. Evan and our friend Justin (aka JWag) were going to paddle the Red Mo (Moshannon Creek). Instead of taking out at the traditional spot at the Rt. 53 bridge, they wanted to continue all the way to the mouth at the West Branch of the Susquehanna. Evan said it would be a 15-mile paddle. I knew I wasn’t mentally ready for my first foray back into cold weather paddling to be something quite so long. That could take up to 5 hours, depending on how fast the river was running. But I could drop my car halfway and just do the upper portion for a 7-mile run. I thought about it for a couple hours. My instinct — or perhaps more accurately, my habit — was to not go. It would be too cold. But that’s also precisely why something in me was pushing me to do it. I am so darn sick of my comfort zone. And I haven’t paddled the Red Mo since maybe 2014 or 2015, when Evan and I participated in the downriver race in a tandem canoe. In fact, I’ve only done this stretch of river during the race, which, I’d find out, is a totally different experience than just casually paddling it.
Evan got back from picking up dinner. “Well, what did you decide?”
“I’m going to do the half and leave my car at the Rt. 53 bridge.”
It was settled. I wasn’t going to back out now.
Evan met JWag at the takeout and they scooped me up on their way back up to the put-in at Peale. On the way, they discussed the lower section. “It’s only 3 extra miles,” JWag told me. “Oh? I thought you guys were doing 15?” This changed things. I could handle a 10-mile paddle and there was enough room in JWag’s truck for me and my boat if I decided to keep going. I’d decide when I got down to my car.
The river was at a good level, moving quickly but not high enough to be intimidating. I barely remembered any of it from past runs — I’d been too focused on getting down the river as fast as possible. This time, we kept moving but at a casual pace, paddling continuously but not hard, just enough to stay warm. It struck me how wild and remote it felt. We think of the Little Juniata as a very scenic river — and it is — but you can see and hear roads and houses and train tracks from the water. Out on the Red Mo, there is nothing but trees and giant boulders and steep canyon walls.
There is, however, one reminder of human interference — the distinctive red color of the water, caused by iron and other pollutants draining from abandoned mines in the area. The Red Mo is still very much feeling the effects of heavy coal mining in the region, but the Moshannon Creek Watershed Association is a very active group doing great work to improve its water quality.
The miles went by quickly. There are very few slow-moving pools in between features, so even without putting a lot of muscle into each paddle stroke, it’s easy to keep a brisk pace. The larger rapids were just challenging enough to keep things interesting, but not enough to make me too nervous. I mostly stayed in the back and followed JWag, knowing he was better acquainted with the river than I was. There were a number of surprise rocks just below the surface, so it was necessary to give full attention to reading the water and choosing lines, which actually was perfect for a cold weather run. It kept me paddling the entire time to steer the boat and slalom through rocks and thus kept my core temperature up, and it allowed my mind to be occupied rather than focusing on my chilly hands and feet. Most of the features were more technical instead of just big holes, so we all stayed pretty dry in our boats with minimal splashes.
By the time we got to Rt. 53, I’d decided to definitely continue on to the West Branch. JWag had promised a fun, feature-filled stretch and I was already here, already on the water. I might as well take the opportunity to see some new river miles. About a mile downstream of Rt. 53, we stopped at a sunny island to stretch our legs. Sitting in a whitewater canoe is not the most comfortable thing. Typically you are seated on a saddle with your legs bent backwards beneath you, feet in plantar flexion so your toes are pointed away from your legs. You’re strapped in across your thighs, which allows you to have excellent control of the boat via your hips and core, but doesn’t allow for much room for movement and stretching while in the boat. Thus, on longer paddles, it’s helpful — and sometimes necessary — to stop every now and then to stand and flex your feet in the other direction.
“Only a couple miles to go,” said Evan as we got back into our boats. This was perfect — another half hour or so to soak up the last bit of river and sunshine and then we’d be done. My feet and ankles were really starting to hurt, partially from more than two hours of sitting in the canoe and partially from cold. My wool socks in neoprene booties had held off the chill pretty well until now, but it was starting to creep in fast.
As promised, there were lots of fun features on the lower stretch, a few that were more difficult than those on the upper but still not enough to actually be scary, except for one that was a hole with strong eddies on both sides, making the current do some unexpected things. I felt the back of my boat start to get pulled, so I just paddled hard to get out of the weird water. That was the only time I felt my heart flutter a bit with anxiety, swimming a distinct possibility in that moment. But all ended well and everyone stayed dry.
I was recording the paddle on my watch, and I felt it vibrate as we ticked past 10 miles. We should be at the takeout soon. Then we passed 11, then 12… Obviously, this was longer than 3 miles. The sun dipped low enough in the sky that it no longer shone past the walls of the gorge in most spots, and the temperature noticeably dropped. My feet were frozen blocks and the rest of me was now getting cold for the first time today. The drops of water on my canoe bags had turned to ice (remember that rule I’d mentioned at the beginning of this post?). There was a moment when I wished I’d just gotten out at my car. I started dreaming about heated seats and being able to move my feet and ankles. But that wasn’t doing me any favors. It’s not like there was anything I could change about the situation. We’d get to the car when we’d get to the car and my feet were just going to be colder than I remember them being in a long time. I started focusing on the scenery, the gorgeous light whenever we’d go around a bend in the river and the sun would peek above the canyon walls again, and of course, picking my way through the rocks. This lower section had even more small, almost-hidden obstacles, which was good for continuing to keep my mind engaged.
Finally, the landscape opened up into West Branch of the Susquehanna and I saw the little blue Frontier parked on the opposite side. We’d made it. We ferried across and pulled the boats up a short, steep bank to load onto the car. Looking back at the direction we’d come from, we could see the color separation of the reddish water from the Moshannon and dark water from the West Branch. We’d also seen this at Rt. 53 where the Black Moshannon Creek joined the Red Mo. It’s interesting how long it actually takes for the distinctly different colors of the water to mix together once then combine as one river.
It ended up being a 13-mile paddle, and had I known that going into it, I wouldn’t have continued on for the second half. But I’m really glad I did, and I’d do it again. I guess my paddling temperature threshold just dropped by about 10 degrees.