The Raw Strength and Courage Club
Kayaking the Cascades in the cold
by John C. Heider
From the January, 2018 issue
You may have seen them some freezing afternoon: dipping in and out of the frigid waters, their exposed skin neon pinkish in its reaction to the constant chill, icicles forming on their beards or hair. It's an amazing sight--and even more amazing once you've realized that they were not suffering an accident on the Argo Cascades but rather purposefully and even joyfully plunging their boats and bodies into the arctic-like waters of the Huron River again and again in the middle of winter.
The hardy souls enjoying the waters of the seven mini-rapids of the Cascades in their short, teardrop-shaped, highly maneuverable play boats are members of the U-M Raw Strength and Courage Kayak Club. The club admits non-students but must maintain a more-than-50-percent Maize and Blue membership. Many students are away during the warmer months, and even some of those who are in town prefer to avoid the crowds from spring through fall, when tubers and less-committed kayakers clog the Cascades. That leaves the Raw Strengthers to concentrate their efforts in the winter months. When most fair-weather paddlers are safe in their warm homes, they can have the river to themselves.
Last winter, they included third-year law student Jason Pahlke. "The paddling is just so much fun," says Pahlke, trying to explain the inexplicable appeal. "If it's not frozen, we're there." And the Huron River near Argo Pond is convenient on a cold winter's day, with its nearby parking lot. "You simply dress for the weather, and the Cascades are a good spot 'cause it's so close to your car," Pahlke explains--"and if you get cold you can head back to your car or do some jumping jacks."
Even with the dedication of the kayakers, a day on the Cascades can be limited by what nature throws your way--and what the body can put up with. Sometimes the rapids freeze below the first drop, so "you just have to hang out in the first run," says Pahlke. And
then there are the mini-icebergs: "There are chunks of ice in the water as you're playing in it that break off from Argo Pond and come through the rapids," he says. In bartender-speak, it's a Cascades on the Rocks.
Pahlke graduated last spring and now lives in Tacoma. But Huckleberry Febbo, thirty, a U-M mechanical engineering PhD student, will once again be paddling the river, in winter, bare-chested. "I guess you just gotta do the best with what you've got," he says. "It can't always be perfect weather. I just never minded cold water that much, even from when I was a little kid--I jumped in the Atlantic Ocean for the Polar Bear Club in Massachusetts when it was freezing outside."
Hitting the water is a thrilling challenge for Febbo. "For me it's almost like an obligation: Who wouldn't prefer an eighty-degree water temp? But it adds an element of danger."
Logan Hansen, twenty-two, was a Raw Strengther throughout his U-M premed studies. Now in med school at Northwestern, he says winter visitors to the Cascades, seeing the cold-weather kayakers, often ask "Do you need help?"--then add, as they watch the boaters plunge into the chilly waters, "What were you thinking?"
The kayakers seem not only to relish the extreme challenge of dipping about the water when most don't even want to set foot outside but also to draw strength and encouragement from their fellow paddlers. "It's a lot of fun," says Pahlke. "You get some paddlers out there and some hot coffee in a thermos. They so much love it that they can't wait until it's nice: they just have to get out there."
Once, "it was thirty-one degrees, and we actually had to break through ice to get out to open water," Hansen recalls. "You have to flip over"--that is, deliberately submerge yourself in the icy water--to keep the boats' nylon fabric skirts from freezing and cracking. "The guys with the beards and mustaches get the gnarly icicles on them that we like to take pictures of."
As their heads dip into the water, there's always the potential for the winter kayakers to suffer from a condition well known to those who eat ice cream too fast: "There's some people that refuse to go out when you roll over and get brain freeze," Hansen admits. "But it's almost always worth it for the stories, if not for the kayaking alone."
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