People & Culture

Coppermine 2012: Expecting the best; preparing for the worst: Spray decks

  • Jun 04, 2012
  • 482 words
  • 2 minutes
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It’s like the opening scene of a monster movie: You’re paddling along serenely, all alone in the middle of a giant lake. Make it Great Slave Lake, North America’s deepest and the world’s ninth largest. The waves aren’t too bad; the wind conditions are relatively favourable.

Feeling adventurous, you proceed along a cliff-walled shoreline. You’re feeling in control of things until suddenly, the wind picks up right when you’re at your most vulnerable. There’s no safe landing for a long distance in either direction.

You clench your teeth and paddle for your life. Meanwhile, the waves grow taller and steeper, threatening to capsize your canoe. Plunging into these icy cold waters would lead to hypothermia at best. As your canoe starts filling up like a bathtub, you wonder: Will you have to start bailing between paddling strokes? Is your canoe going to capsize?

I’ve actually lived through this. During my solo three-year cross-Canada journey from 2006 to 2008, I faced the waves of the Great Lakes, Lake of the Woods, Lake Winnipeg, Lake Athabasca and Great Slave Lake. I also paddled my fair share of big water in rapids on a long list of rivers. I avoided many a cold splash thanks to my faithful spray deck.

A spray deck is a waterproof cover secured over the top of an open canoe, and it’s an essential piece of equipment for long-distance expeditions that traverse large lakes or fast flowing rivers with rapids. There is a skirt portion, similar to the skirt of a kayak, that is secured around the paddler’s torso.

A spray deck is also a windbreaker. The inside of an open boat can catch the wind like a sail, blowing it off course. When a spray deck is tied over a canoe, the wind flows over top of the boat, like it does in a kayak. With a spray deck on, wind drift is much less significant, making travel more efficient whenever there is a headwind or crosswind. For this reason, I wear it whenever I do not expect to be portaging all day, and I tell everyone that it is worth more than the hindrance of its added weight. It’s also handy on cold, rainy days.

Since none of us are particularly interested in getting soaked, we’ve invested in a couple of extra North Water spray decks and customizing them to accommodate our wannigans. We will be paddling on some other large lakes beyond the tree line, like Clinton-Colden and Aylmer, where there are no trees on shore to break the wind. The Coppermine River has some large sets of rapids with big standing waves that weave their way through cliffs towering on either side. This is all serious business. I have personally witnessed the wrath of Great Slave Lake. I would not want to be out there again without my spray deck.

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