One of the joys of southern Manitoba's highly variable climate is paddlers can never quite predict when or even if they'll be able to get out on the water.
We've endured frigid Victoria Day long weekends where ice continues to hug the shore of Lake Winnipeg. We've experienced flood seasons where rivers have run high all spring and beach campsites are submerged all summer.
And this year, we're enjoying an exceptionally dry spring that opened up some rivers in the middle of March, at least to paddlers in possession of dry suits. Some seasonally navigable waterways may even be too low for canoes and kayaks -- and it isn't even May.
What this means is the time to get on the water is now. If you're feeling a little rusty when it comes to exercising your paddling muscles -- which would be your abdomen, not your arms -- here are a couple of ways to re-immerse yourself:
1. Go for a day paddle
If your canoe is covered with cobwebs and you can't remember where you left your paddle, you're probably not ready to circumnavigate the Aulneau Peninsula in Lake of the Woods. At least not this weekend.
Happily, Winnipeggers have four rivers at their disposal, all flowing rather lazily right now, especially considering the season. On Friday, the Red River in Winnipeg was is hovering around 7.1 feet James, which is half a metre below the Assiniboine Riverwalk and just above the Red's theoretical "normal summer level."
That means you won't encounter exceptional current on either the Red or Assiniboine, if you choose to tool around for a few hours on the city's larger rivers. But flows are likely too low already to paddle much of the Seine, except for the lower reaches in St. Boniface -- or if you don't mind pushing or pulling around obstacles.
For a more scenic day-paddle alternative, there's almost always enough flow in La Salle River, all summer. Make a day of it by putting in at the town of La Salle and paddle east past La Barriere Provincial Park and Trappist Monastery Provincial Heritage Park to the confluence at the Red River. You're almost certain to see owls, eagles, merlins or other birds of prey along the banks of La Salle and may encounter large schools of carp and snapping turtles in the river itself.
At the Red, you can take out at St. Norbert Provincial Heritage Park or continue north along the Red. The Pony Corral on Pembina Highway already has its docks in the water, if you don't want to paddle all the way down to The Forks.
2. Check your gear
If you're planning a longer trip this spring or summer, take the time to make a gear checklist now.
Transport Canada requires your canoe or kayak to have 15-metres of buoyant safety rope or line and one bailer or pump. For canoes, the cheapest and most effective means of fulfilling the latter requirement is to cut the bottom off any plastic detergent jug that has a handle and then use a short rope and carabiner to secure that handle to any thwart. For kayaks, you probably want to purchase a pump.
Each boat also needs at least one emergency whistle and, if you do any night paddling, a flashlight. And every paddler must also have a personal flotation device. If you paddle often, it's worth out to shell out a few extra dollars for something comfy with lots of pockets and a low profile that allows your arms to move around. Also ensure you have at least one extra paddle per canoe, as you will eventually lose or damage one during a long trip.
Once you have the basics, start going through the rest of your wilderness-camping gear checklist. Just don't spend too much time on gear websites, as you may start to covet items you do not need and begin to suffer from Unnecessary Purchase Syndrome & Equity Loss, or UPSEL.
3. Upgrade your skills
The best way to refresh your paddling skills is to get back on the water. But there is no harm -- and a lot of potential benefit -- in taking a day or two of instruction, if you have the time.
Paddle Manitoba offers flatwater and moving-water instruction at a variety of skill levels, for both solo and tandem paddlers. For a list of courses on offer this spring, visit www.paddle.mb.ca and click on the course buttons.
Given the long season we've already enjoyed this year, there's no excuse not to be ready for when the really warm weather arrives. Which at this rate may in fact be the first weekend of May.