I go through a cycle of thought again and again when I go paddling in winter. Naturally, it's usually cold as I put my boat onto the car. I feel the sting on my hands when I touch the racks and the cam buckles on the straps. I hate cold hands. "OK, this is it," I think. "Winter paddling has been a unique experience, but it's really unpleasant. I've earned the bragging rights for having done it, but after today I'm done."
At the put-in point I wrestle into my cold weather gear. Pulling the tight-fitting dry suit over my head is extremely unpleasant; once in place the gaskets are tight around my neck and wrists. The stiff zipper across my back limits my mobility. Again, my hands are cold. I am cold. "This is ridiculous," I think. "I'm going to be uncomfortable the whole time I'm out. I really think I'm going to switch to something else in winter time. It's crazy to do water sports in freezing weather."
I set out in my kayak. The coldness of the water makes me nervous. A capsize, harmless in the fall and even enjoyable in the summer, could be fatal in near-freezing winter time water. "I am so done with this," I think.
Then I get going. Slowly, I warm up. After a while, the sting of the cold disappears even from my hands. I notice a special feeling. The water itself seems to be more viscous while the air is light and crisp. The scenery, in a winter palette of browns and grays, stands out in high relief. An eagle is easily visible in the bare branches of a tall tree. It takes flight, gliding majestically past us. The sun glints off the water and warms us a bit. There is an feeling of total quiet. There are no jet skiers and few other boaters. We see few people even on shore. It is, as is so often the case with winter paddling, magical.
My paddling companion and I arrive back at Riley's Lock all to soon. Still in our dry suits, we walk over to the C&O canal towpath and gaze out over the Potomac. A peaceful quiet pervades the scene. I linger, looking forward to my next opportunity to experience the magic of winter on the water.