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  • Writer's pictureJustin Pahnturat

Why do I kayak in the winter?

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

Seems impossible and sounds ridiculous

I grew up on the shores of the Great Lakes, along Lake Michigan, and have seen many seasons come and go since then. As a boy I was warned of the dangers of this body of water known for rapidly shifting conditions, powerful riptides, undertow and icy cold temperatures so when winter came around every year I did not dare even to go near the water. Makes sense, right?

Fast forward four decades and I now find my 45 year old self looking forward to, even pining for, winter kayaking. While the idea of a human strapping themselves to an 18 foot long boat and paddling in water that is 40 degrees or colder with wind, waves and ice floes seems impossible you have to remember that sea kayaking is an ancient artform created by some of the first humans on this Earth with archeological evidence indicating that kayaks are 4000 years old! Possibly even older. Native Americans known as the Inuit in Alaksa, Canada and Greenland created a fast and agile seacraft so they could hunt seals and walrus. And so yes, sea kayaking was born in icy cold water.

Why do I go sea kayaking in the winter?

Luckily for me I do not have to depend on hunting or fishing from my kayak during the winter nor do I lead kayak tours so you could definitely say that winter kayaking is something that I do for myself. One reason for all this cold water nonsense is that I just want to keep kayaking as much as I can all year long. I love the water. Sea kayaking adds so much health and happiness to my life that I look for ways to do it as much as possible. Another bonus: I do not get the winter blues or fall out of shape by staying dedicated to my craft.

But the main reason I paddle throughout the winter season: it's so, so beautiful. Like, seriously, bucket list type beauty that once you experience it just gleams in your mind like a jewel. I remember the first time I paddled through an icicle covered sea cave it was like cutting through the center of a geode and I had the most beautiful dreams for weeks after the experience. The aesthetic beauty of winter is epic, even supreme over the warmer months in my opinion. The cold conditions keeps the 'fairweather' paddlers on shore and without horrible motorboats filling the water with noise and exhaust the experience of kayaking in Door County is peaceful again. It's so tranquil that even the birds come back and so I adore the stillness of winter kayaking. During the winter, it's just me and the diving ducks.

Another reason I kayak in the cold: I like to challenge myself. Just like anything, the goal is survival so I need to clearly state that winter kayaking on the Great Lakes is extremely dangerous and that this sport is not suitable for everyone. Honestly, if I had not been able to have decades upon decades of observation and experience I would never attempt such a feat. I prepare, study and exercise before winter kayaking. Only because I'm a kayak guide and a local resident that see this stretch of water 365 days a year do I know what to expect here at my location. I would not try to paddle just anywhere during the winter time and heavily scrutinize wind and conditions before hitting the water. Put it this way, I'm a professional kayak guide with ACA Level 3 certification of skills with a high level of fitness, I'm trained in wilderness rescue and first aid, I have a bomb-proof kayak rolling skill to get me back upright if I capsize and I lift weights regularly at the gym and wear a drysuit with 2 layers underneath... even with all that preparation I am still taking a chance.

The water is to be respected

The Great Lakes will always win. And during the winter the stakes are even higher when it comes to staying alive. I've rescued people on and off my tours, seen dead bodies pulled from the water, read the headlines and talk with other experienced sea kayakers, instructors and professional guides and it always the same story... bad judgement. I try to learn from the mistakes of others. During the winter I make more conservative judgements and take fewers risks such as long open water crossings to islands or wave action. During the summer I'm on the water 6-10 hours a day but during the winter it's more like 2-3 hours of paddling.

The soulful side of sea kayaking

I guess we all have our reasons for taking the risks that we choose throughout our lives. Ultimate beauty for the ultimate price. I think about that when I'm out there on the water. Sometimes I feel like there is more risk than reward but then I get back to shore and understand that will happen everyday in many areas of my life. And so knowing this contunuity of all things helps me to become instantly present on the water and immediately in the moment before me. I am no place else but here, now, and from that wisdom comes a peace and connection I've never felt before. And just like that, this icy sea cave of certain death somehow becomes the jewel I've always been seeking.


Daniel Russert
Daniel Russert
Mar 24

Justin, My wife found your site while doing a search about Door COunty sea kayaks. We need to connect! We are very interested in learning about Door COunty Sea Kayaking. We need all the gear and training. We are a close to retiring couple (62 and 65). We live in Libertyville, IL and are building our dream home in Fish Creek. Would you be interested in becoming a friend and mentor?

Branka and Daniel

Justin Pahnturat
Justin Pahnturat
Mar 24
Replying to

Yes, of course! Just wrote you back via text. Look forward to meeting you!

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