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Paddling in the Wind

The BWCA is no stranger to windy conditions, but every season there are some days that are windy enough to force paddlers off the water. Last Thursday was marked by high winds across the Boundary Waters with gusts reaching up to 30mph near Clearwater Lake and gusts on Sawbill clocking in at 17.2 mph. Wind is perhaps one of the more challenging weather events to navigate because there is no one answer on how to paddle in it. One’s response to paddling in the wind depends heavily on personal comfort, experience, wind speed, gear, and a myriad of other factors. Below are some items to consider when paddling on a windy day along with some tips on how to paddle in it.

First and foremost, before I dive into the nuances of paddling in windy conditions, I cannot stress enough that personal comfort is a key factor in the decision making process when paddling in suboptimal conditions. If you or your partner are not comfortable with the conditions at hand, do not paddle. Gut instincts and personal comfort are an important and valid consideration in the decision making process.  

Tips for paddling in the wind-

An empty canoe can be less stable than one loaded with gear. Those who are going on day trips usually don’t have 70lbs of gear with them. There are a few things that I like to recommend for folks going out for day trips on windy days:

  1. Bring a backpack with extra water bottles or heavier weighted items. A day pack loaded with heavier items might add to what you have to carry on portages, but the extra weight is appreciated on windier days. Set your pack on the floor of the canoe and stack it in such a way that the weight of your pack is centered and your canoe is well balanced.
  2. Consider carrying extra dry bags with you. When I’m solo paddling I always bring at least one empty dry bag just in case I run into choppy conditions. If the wind picks up and the canoe feels unstable, simply fill up the dry bag with water from the lake and close it properly. This instantly gives you extra weight and you don’t have to carry it with you on portages. Simply return it to the lake from which you got it once you make it to your portage/exit and are done with it. Rocks can also work in the same way, but there are a few additional things to think about. Consider the impacts of relocating rocks (think if everyone did this) and also think about whether it will cause damage to your canoe. This method requires extra caution when placing them in the bottom of the boat. Kevlar canoes especially are at risk for getting scratched up.
  3. Lowering the weight in the canoe can also help to stabilize it. Place packs flat against the bottom of the canoe. Additionally, you can lower your legs or kneel if the conditions get choppy. If you typically sit with your knees bent while paddling, you can straighten them out, thus lowering their position in the canoe. In especially windy scenarios, you can kneel on the floor of the canoe as well. This method gets more of your body below the gunwales (providing increased stability) and still allows you to have a wide range of mobility for paddling. 
  4. Paddle with the direction of the wind if possible. In some instances this may change, for example if the waves run the risk of going over the bow or the stern (a scenario in which I would advise newer paddlers to get off the water), but in most applications paddling with the wind will help to keep you and the canoe feeling stable. Depending on your destination, paddling in either of these directions might not be reasonable. In this case, you can cut across the waves at a 45 degree angle. You may have to zigzag across the lake to get to your destination, but it is much safer and much more stable than paddling perpendicular to the wind and waves where things can go wrong quickly.
  5. Choose where in the lake you want to paddle. Oftentimes, close to the shoreline is best. If things get worse you can make it to shore quickly and get off the water. Additionally, in the event that you capsize, it’ll be easier to find your bags and gear. Another thing to consider is the direction of the wind. If wind is coming straight from the west, then the western part of the lake will likely be the calmest portion for paddling. It will be the most sheltered from the wind and it won’t have the accumulation of waves and chop that the eastern side will. Additionally, landmarks such as islands or peninsulas can offer respite from rough conditions.
  6. Solo paddlers- consider bringing a kayak paddle with you. Ultimately, this comes down to personal preference, but I like using a kayak paddle in windy conditions for a number of reasons. With a kayak paddle I find that I have a faster reaction time to gusty winds and rough waves. I am able to quickly switch paddling from one side to another without having to take the extra second to adjust as it would with a normal canoe paddle. Additionally, I feel I can paddle faster and have a higher turnover rate, thus decreasing the amount of time I spend out in windy conditions. 

What to do if conditions get worse-

If conditions get worse while you’re on the water, consider your options. A lot of times the best thing to do is to get off of the water and wait for the conditions to improve. There is nothing wrong with waiting it out on shore. It’s much better to wait on land until you feel comfortable with the conditions, than risking your safety and gear by paddling in adverse conditions. Whether that’s a campsite, a portage trail, or the closest point you can get to, feel free to wait it out. Others may continue to paddle if they’re comfortable and experienced, but just because others are doesn’t mean your group should. Use your judgment, express your comfort levels with your group, and consider everyone in your party when making decisions. The wind won’t last forever and taking a break can serve as a good opportunity to rehydrate and refuel.


The wind starting to die down on Pine Lake after a windy day of paddling. Taken on 6/16/2022.