The brightly colored kayaks strapped to roof racks contrasted with the snow as a small party gathered a couple of weeks ago at the Gunpowder Falls State Park parking lot on Jones Road. Kayakers clad in rubber dry suits, liners and winter coats clambered onto the slush to get ready for the day's boating trip. They would paddle the 3.5 miles of the Gunpowder River, a stretch in northeast Baltimore County that includes Class II and III rapids. But the weather made it difficult just getting cars out of the rendezvous lot to run a shuttle to the put-in spot.
"Let's get that figured out while we're warm and dry," Eric Ruhl said as wheels spun on the ice.
Ruhl, 34, a Glen Arm resident, organized this Baltimore Canoe and Kayak Club outing for fellow winter kayaking enthusiasts. The air temperature hovered in the mid-30s and a few inches of the previous week's snow still blanketed the woods, but these boaters were eager to get out on — and, for some, in — the water.
Also helping with logistics was club president Nick Bowley, 32, a mechanical designer from Severn who has been in the club for five or six years. Bowley was on the Gunpowder with a group on New Year's Day and kayaks about twice a month in the winter.
"It's not quite as fun as in the summer, but it's possible," he said.
The most important distinction is in the equipment. The kayakers' one- and two-piece dry suits had tight gaskets at the wrists and neck to keep water out. That protection can cost twice as much as a lighter-duty wet suit, Bowley said — often about a thousand dollars — but nothing else can keep the cold out like a dry suit.
"It keeps you quite comfortable down to ridiculously low temperatures," Bowley said. "Last month I was walking down the river back to my kayak after helping somebody else, and I decided jumping into the water was the fastest way to get to my boat, so I just jumped in the water. It's not a problem with a dry suit."
The kayakers finished loading their boats for the shuttle, and with some pushing the cars made it back onto the road. Twenty minutes later, the convoy was parked in the crowded but snow-free parking lot of the Gunpowder Lodge restaurant, overlooking the river by the U.S. 1 bridge. The kayakers pulled on their spray skirts, which stretch over the boat's opening to keep water out, and donned their personal flotation device vests and helmets. Some boaters had rubber liners to keep the helmets from freezing to their heads, as sometimes happens on cold days.
Some of the kayakers rubbed a stick of crumbly white wax on their paddle handles to help gloved hands grip tightly. Ray Gilbert, 26, of Columbia brought pogies, synthetic mittens that attach to the paddle. He'd left his small play boat, the type favored for flips and other tricks, at home — it didn't have enough space in the bow for the creek shoes he wore over his dry-suit booties. Instead he'd brought a larger river-runner kayak.
"It's a little more stable and definitely has more room inside," he said. "In the summer I will play around a lot more 'cause I don't really care if I flip over, but I'm a little more cautious in the winter."
The river presents several challenges summer paddlers won't see. When the ground is frozen, rain and snow cause rivers to swell more than in the summer, hiding some obstacles underwater while creating new ones. There's also the risk of ice.
"Recently ice was a problem," Bowley said. "Everywhere from the Potomac to the Gunpowder, there was ice blocking the rivers. Which creates kind of a safety issue as well, 'cause you don't want to come up on an ice dam and then, y'know, go under it by accident or something like that. So a lot of people just stay off the rivers when there's ice covering it."
With no way to tell what they'd encounter downriver, they'd need to keep a lookout.
"Yell out 'Ice,' whoever's in front, please," Ruhl told the group. "Say, 'Ice!' and you point at the ice."
Now they had gathered their boats to the side of a trail by the bridge. The path ran downhill to an easy put-in spot, but the snow had created a steep chute 20 feet straight down to the water. Bowley led the way with a splash, and Ruhl gave a push to the other boaters who wanted to try before following in his black-and-purple play boat. The flotilla formed and headed to the first rapids to practice some technique, then turned downstream and set off through the quiet, snowy woods.
Three hours later, the sun had disappeared and snow was falling. The kayakers navigated their way under a rail bridge and pulled over to the takeout, climbing ashore and pulling the boats up onto the muddy snow. There were a few dripping faces, all with smiles.
"Couple swims, but everybody had fun," Bowley said.
The Gunpowder had proved ice-free but icy cold.
Matt Schaeffer, 30, of Baltimore, who was trying out his new blue-and-red Pyranha boat for the first time, had gotten stuck upside-down in a rapid and had to make a wet exit — pulling the spray skirt off and launching free of the kayak. But in his dry suit he was none the worse for it.
"Refreshing — I mean, it cleared my nostrils out, but it was cold," he said as he carried the boat up the hill to the parking lot. "It hits you like a rock in the face."
"Good time, whether you swam or not. ... It feels like you did something."