Ice Breaking on the Wye River: Early season paddles and the nature of change

Spring is all about fresh starts. It is the seasonal equivalent to confession, where the sins of winter are forgiven (or just forgotten) and you allow yourself to envision your slate wiped clean. It is the season of anticipation that invariably sets the stage for summer, reminding us that being Canadian is all about living through and experiencing all four seasons. But where does one season really start and another begin? Of course, there are calendar dates attributed to the equinoxes and solstices but that’s not quite enough. Seasonal shifts (maybe all meaningful shifts for that matter) are never quite that simple. Seasons travel gradually into one another – there is an ebb and flow of temperature that blurs each day into the next until we suddenly find ourselves, without a doubt, in the next season. So, with that arbitrary idea in mind, we never really have our first paddle in spring – it always seems to happen somewhere beforehand, where winter still has a frosty hold on things but there are signs that spring is just beyond the horizon. Our early season paddles always bridge these two seasons and they provide a great opportunity for appreciating the true nature of change.

I’ve been breaking the ice on the Wye River for about five seasons now. It is such a beautiful time of year in this area. There is movement again, amplified by the lingering winter stillness. Swans and ducks stare with a wtf are you doing expression and a busy beaver ignores us as it cruises along the outer edge of the ice. The air is calm and crisp but has been warm enough that the accumulated snow is melting and and flowing back into Midland Bay. There is even a noticeable current in some places. I can hear cars and trucks motoring along on the highway overpass above. The Martyr Shine rises in the near distance, reminding me that this place is full of history. I ponder the many others who have used this waterway for different purposes during days that have long drifted past. Today, however, the river simply marks the official beginning of our paddle season.

This year is the earliest we have ever been able to paddle on the Wye River. It is still February and mild winter temperatures have allowed for the River to open up earlier than usual. Even with the early thaw, however, the shoreline is still iced in and we have to find an alternative spot to access the water. We quickly find that the ice is gone under the highway overpass – this is largely because the urban features have narrowed the river here, funneling the melt and causing a bit of a current. We decide to launch our boards from there. I hurriedly put on my leash and move towards the water’s edge. I propel myself out onto the water like a kid being allowed to swim after having waited the parental hour after eating but I soon realize that the current is moving faster than I thought. I suddenly find myself cross rapid, with the water running at my right side rail. I am suddenly shifted off balanced and jolted into focusing on remembering my stance after the winter months off board (I also have no intention of falling in the icy water and abruptly ending my paddle). Luckily my muscle memory kicks in and I manage to turn my board up river and paddle out from under the overpass. I set my stroke and adjust my stance. Everything comes rushing back.

The rest of our paddle is filled will laughter, moments of silence and goofy revelry. Most of the laughs result from arriving at points along the river where we have to crack large pieces of ice that have clogged narrow segments of the river as they meander out into Midland Bay. The satisfaction of cracking up these slabs of ice is akin to being a little kid breaking up ice in mud puddles as you walk to school. In contrast, we also enjoy moments of silence as we drift out into the Bay, lost in our own thoughts. As I watch the shoreline pass, I notice the bare patches in the cover of snow where spring will eventually take hold – change is coming.

The snow will come again and blanket this area in a cold, snowy whiteness. It will no longer feel at all like spring but we will be weathered back into the winter. It happens every year. Seasonal change is a blurry business. It is a gradual process that takes steps forwards and backwards until it somehow, undoubtedly moves us into the next. This arbitrariness is a key element to the nature of change and as I paddle down an icy Wye River in February, I am reminded that change, even our own, is rarely a calendar date. Most people don’t get to record exactly when their change occurs. Instead, our change comes about more subtly, moving along in increments, sometimes unacknowledged, until we suddenly find ourselves changed. I ponder this as I paddle along and I take a moment to reflect on where I am in my own change. Although I want it to happen quickly and poignantly, I know it will happen gradually and without much fanfare. I will fall back into old habits as I make progress towards better ones. This is the true nature of change. I breathe in my surroundings and trust that all I need to do is to just keep paddling until I suddenly realize I have arrived.