Sunday, April 4, 2010

Don Morris: Paddling Spring Snowmelt is ‘Snow Big Deal’

It’s springtime! While it’s still a bit early to be paddling lakes, the rivers have opened up and have been ready to paddle for a few weeks now. Let’s discuss the extent to which snowmelt contributes to being able to paddle rivers in the spring.

Every year friends and co-workers who know that I’m a paddler ask if I’m excited about this year’s snowmelt and I always give the same answer – Yes, but for the most part it’s not the snowmelt as much as it is the saturated ground and the rainfall.

In my years of springtime paddling, it seems to me that most of our snowpack has come and gone before the rivers get high enough to paddle. This is almost certainly the case for the lower elevation rivers and those that have large expanses of wetlands and lakes (think the St. Regis and Saranac). My experience is that snowmelt does relatively little to bring these rivers up. Most of my runs on these rivers occur after decent rainfalls. The snowmelt saturates the lands around the rivers and the trees do not yet have their leaves. This results in a lot more of the rain winding up in the river itself. It’s not uncommon for a relatively small amount of rain (say a half-inch) to bring up a river in April. However, if you’re paddling the same river in mid-May, after the ground has dried and the leaves are out, it may take double or triple the amount of rain to result in a paddleable level.

The exceptions to this rule of thumb are the rivers that drain high, steep mountainsides—think the Ausable. For one, the high mountain snowpack is more substantial than that at lower elevations, so it extends later into the season. Also, there is more of a tendency for the meltwater to course down over rocky shelves, which don’t soak up water. Streams draining the higher mountains are sometimes not paddleable early in the morning but can become so later in the day, especially when it’s warm and sunny. You can often see this on graphs of gauge readings.

I planned on writing on this topic a while ago. However, I’ve noticed that this spring I’m paddling more on snowmelt than in most other years — that’s the problem with generalizations. I guess the river gods just wanted to make their point.

Photo: Wadhams Falls on the Bouquet River on March 31, 2010 Courtesy of Kathryn Cramer

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