Paddlers have been navigating icy waters since Inuit hunters created the sea kayak thousands of years ago. Paddling from ice shelves presents an interesting set of hazards and challenges for kayakers. These can range from slippery surfaces, negotiating ice walls and paddler safety. Once these unique hazards are understood and safety measures are in place, paddling from and around ice can be fun and safe. Assessing ice conditions takes a great deal of knowledge and experience. To manage these conditions Arctic guides require specialized gear.
Here is what’s in Steve’s Arctic paddling kit.
1. BLACK DIAMOND 22-CENTIMETER ICE SCREW
These are the fastest and most effective way to build a secure anchor point on a frozen ice surface. Ice screws come in a variety of lengths depending on what kind of ice you anticipate. Sea ice is more porous and less dense than freshwater ice requiring longer screws. Ice anchors can be used for ice rescue, hauling boats out of the water and moving ice floes that are in your launch zone.
2. PETZL GLACIER MOUNTAINEERING AXE
Ice axes are not essential for all excursions but can be used for testing ice strength and thickness and breaking overhanging or undercut edges. An axe will also work as a hasty anchor in a pinch.
3. OMEGA CARABINERS
Wire gate carabiners are the best in cold-water situations because the gates are less likely to freeze. Carabiners are easy to store, access and utilize for a variety of activities.
4. OMEGA PACIFICS PULLEY
These small, lightweight pulleys fit easily into the gear pocket of a Kokatat Poseidon PFD (see pg. 70.) Three pulleys will be sufficient for a variety of rigging including mechanical advantage systems for personal belay, self-rescue, companion rescue or to raise kayaks over a difficult ice mantle.
5. STERLING PRE-TIED WEBBING
In this application, pre-tied webbing can be used as an anchor, a rescue harness or to rescue a cold swimmer. A pre-tied webbing loop can be worn around your waist as a belt so it is always there when you need it most.
6. ICE AWLS
These hand-held ice picks are designed to assist a swimmer self-rescue from the water. If the possibility of a slip and fall into water from the ice edge is present, consider ice awls that can be worn around your neck for easy access. Should you find yourself in the water and need to climb back onto an icy surface, ice awls are your best chance at getting out.
7. BLACK DIAMOND DEPLOY SHOVEL
On extended Arctic trips where the shoreline is anticipated to be ice laden or snow-covered, a shovel can be a useful tool. I prefer Black Diamond models with metal blades. These are great for scraping away soft ice or slush in order to insert an ice screw correctly.
8. EXTRA MITTS
Exposed hands submerged in icy water will stop working after 10 minutes. Keep extra warm and dry mitts ready to change into them. If you can’t use your hands you will not be able to paddle, or help anyone else. My go-to paddling gloves? Kokatat’s Inferno Mitts.
9. NORTH WATER RAVEN THROW BAG
Toss a line to a cold swimmer. Build a raise-or-lower system for your boat and meet coast guard requirements all at the same time. The Raven design has a larger opening and holds 20 meters of 9 millimeter floating line.
10. GOOD FOOTWEAR
Operating on slippery and variable surfaces requires solid grip. A sturdy shoe provides better traction than a floppy neoprene paddling booty. My personal preference is the Astral Rassler’s for their sticky soles and overall comfort. For extreme ice conditions, consider a set of Yak Trax or mini crampons.
Steve Ruskay is a Kokatat Paddling Ambassador and the lead guide for Black Feather – The Wilderness Adventure Company. He spends summers guiding the icy waters of North Baffin Island and the eastern coast of Greenland. Steve is also an ice rescue instructor for Raven Rescue. Follow Steve’s adventures @ruskayvision.