Hell Hasn't Iced Over Yet 

Kayaking Idaho's dangerous waters in winter conditions

"That ice can kill you man, stay away."

Laurie Rogers

"That ice can kill you man, stay away."

The Payette River hasn't iced over all the way yet, and until it does, kayakers will keep paddling its white waters. Jeff Landers is one of them. This dedication doesn't come without an added danger, though.

The day is Dec. 15, 2013. It's overcast and snow lines the riverbanks. Landers has his Go-Pro perched atop his blue Sweet Protection helmet. He follows another kayaker on the South Fork of the Payette, to the top of a rapid called Staircase. American Whitewater rates the rapid as a Class Four, on a scale where Class One is considered flat water and Class Six undoable.

The kayakers paddle slowly toward the rapid. Ice reaches from the banks almost to the middle of the river. Landers' paddle blade accidentally brushes the ice with a chinking sound: the same sound ice makes when it falls into an empty glass.

The water starts to speed up as Landers approaches the rapid. Most of the rocks are topped with ice and snow, like a bony, disorganized skeleton.

The water, barely above 32 degrees, turns from dark in color to frothy white, from silent to roaring. Landers slides between a gap of ice narrow enough only for his boat, an orange-and-white, 100-gallon Jackson Karma--a huge kayak made for big water and big rocks.

Not far downstream, Landers runs head-on into an ice bridge--where an ice mass has frozen on top of the water--but the water flows swiftly beneath. His boat flips over and he kicks out of it before getting trapped under the ice. He's dragged downstream a few feet by the current before he can climb onto a shelf of ice. Still holding his paddle, he yells an expletive starting with "F."

His boat has pinned between two snowy rocks. The opening faces upstream, letting water fill all 100 gallons inside. Landers wades across the rushing water to get to his boat. He hops on the rock and crawls along the ice until he's close enough to tie a rope around his kayak. He tries to pull it out, with difficulty, careful not to slip on the ice. It drops into the water again and bobs farther downstream until it drifts beside an iced-over eddy.

The ordeal takes almost 15 minutes but, finally, Landers' boat is out of the water.

Landers, 46, started kayaking on July 31, 2013. He doesn't ski or snowboard anymore and he's lost his passion for rock climbing. Now kayaking consumes him, regardless of the season.

"I'm fully hooked on it," Landers said. "I have this desire to not suck at something, so the only way to get better is to keep doing it."

But even for Landers, whose whole life has been centered on extreme sports, that swim was a little much. After rescuing his boat, he called it a day.

"When we were scouting Staircase, it didn't look quite that bad," he said. "But it was one more learning experience. I think the real key to kayaking on the Payette is, when there's ice, it's really unsafe."

Landers posted the Go-Pro video to Facebook when he got home.

"That ice can kill you man, stay away," another paddler commented on the video.

Landers' experience would have been totally different without the dry top and pants he wore that day.

Whitewater kayaking in the winter isn't much different than skiing; it's all about how you dress.

Stan Kolby, owner of Idaho River Sports, said he remembers his own winter paddle trips and the days when he would slide off the snow bank and into the river, then break ice just to finish the run.

Kolby recommends fleece pants and a top, wool tights, a few synthetic or polypropylene layers and a drysuit. Drysuits run about $1,000 and Kolby estimates he sells around 10 a year. A more practical option is to buy dry pants and a dry top--like Landers--for a more comfortable and versatile set-up. Paddlers also wear "pogies," or mittens that wrap around the paddle.

Kolby said only between 5 percent-10 percent of kayakers keep paddling through the winter. It's more dangerous when ice dams and bridges are present, when hypothermia can set in within minutes, and when there's no easy place to get out of a river because of icy banks.

Kolby said winter paddling has its upsides, though.

"Being the first paddler in the winter is like being the first human out there," Kolby said. "It's like you're Lewis and Clark, pioneering a new place. ... As soon as you get out and get warmed up, you want to do it again."

There are safer and more fun places to paddle in the winter months around Boise. Most paddlers head to the Malad Gorge on the Snake River near Hagerman--only 90 miles away. The water stays around 60 degrees, which keeps ice from forming. The stretch is shallow and a technical Class Four, but Landers loves it.

"There's so much steam and mist coming up from the water," Landers said. "The river was so alive. Lime green moss on rocks, ferns growing along the bottom, fish."

Micah Kneidl has been a kayak instructor for Cascade Raft and Kayak since 1997. He discourages beginners from kayaking in the wintertime, suggesting they instead stick to flat water.

"You don't want to find yourself out of your boat because swimming in the winter is far more dangerous than swimming on a 100-degree day," Kneidl said. "Swimming in cold water without the right gear is paralyzing."

Kneidl saw his own dad take a swim in cold water without a drysuit.

"He was mostly helpless in his ability to self-rescue," he said. "Anytime it's cold or there's snow on the ground, it automatically makes a more challenging and dangerous situation."

Landers hasn't stopped kayaking after his swim in the Payette, but he's sticking to those warmer waters--he already went over his first 20-foot waterfall this January.

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