Winter paddlers make year-round use of Saskatoon river valley

For most Saskatoon residents winter is a time to avoid the river and the chilly breeze coming off the water.

But, for a small group of outdoor enthusiasts, nothing can keep them off the water.

With warmer temperatures on their minds, Edith MacHattie and Trevor Robinson have dipped their canoe into the water for the first time this year. They’re getting a head start on training for summer competitions.

“Today is the first paddle of the season,” said MacHattie, marathon director for the Saskatoon Canoe Club. “Because we are both competitive marathon paddlers, we try to get as many hours of training in per year. I know I have some races this summer, I’m sure Trevor does too. And besides that, it’s fun.”

While some people are shocked to learn that the South Saskatchewan River doesn’t completely freeze over, Robinson says he gets a lot of confused looks from people when he tells them about his winter hobby.

“Everybody thinks you’re absolutely crazy,” said Robinson. “As soon as they hear you’re paddling on the river, first off, they don’t realize that it’s open year-round, so it’s always a surprise for them.”

There are no specific rules for using the water in wintertime, but MacHattie says it takes extra precautions to ensure a safe trip.

“It’s nice to see people out using the river in wintertime, but definitely be safe about it,” she said.

“We always tell people when and where we’re going. We also bring phones if we need to make an emergency call. We bring extra dry clothes, so we’re not just jumping in the boat and going for a joyride.”

Robinson says the most important safety precaution for winter paddling is experience.

“There’s a lot of risks on the river in summer, and there’s lots of people that get into trouble every year when the weather is warm. So it’s not a good idea unless you’re very experienced.”

With the risks come benefits, says MacHattie.

“In the winter, it can be a totally different landscape,” she said. “You can get beautiful ice developing on the bushes on the shore. You can see tracks and there’s wildlife sometimes, it’s much quieter.”

Sometimes she finds the summer paddles less tranquil.

“In the summer, sometimes you can find naked people swimming in the river that you surprised, because they’re not expecting you to come from that direction.”

But the athletes say when you’re preparing for races that span nearly 200 kilometres, paddling for 16 hours straight, every hour of training you can get helps.

And while there’s a fun element involved, it’s also about serious training for Robinson.

“We want to keep our skills sharp, and it’s hard to get your technical skills back to the top form, so that’s a big reason why we’re out.”

MacHattie’s always ready for outdoor adventures, no matter the season.

“Oh ya, I’ve got a ski box and a boat on my car, so ready for anything,” she said. “Getting a ski and a paddle in the same day, that’s fun.” 

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