What do I need to know about winter paddling in the PNW?

I’m visiting Seattle and Portland in January and would like to go sea kayaking while I’m there.


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Come winter, most kayakers in the northern hemisphere trade their boats for more seasonally appropriate toys. But a few tough souls brave the water year-round, and for their troubles (chiefly, risking hypothermia) they’re rewarded with sights unique to the cold.

Winter kayakers on Lake Superior admire great ice sheets that cover the shore in swirling formations. Alpine paddlers wait for the occasional winter rain to turn frozen creeks into temporary whitewater highways. 

For Alex Okerman and other Pacific Northwest sea kayakers, chilly weather brings the rodeo to the big water.   

Okerman lives in Seattle, where he helps run a housing placement program for homeless young adults. Early in his career in the non-profit world, he led kayaking trips with at-risk youth in the San Juan Islands. He’s also taught sailing and kayaking at the Mount Baker Rowing and Sailing Center in Seattle and sharpened his paddling skills at the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Patagonia semester. He and his 16.5-foot Nigel Dennis have seen plenty of rough water in winter and spring, including a particularly harry stretch during his 2011 solo circumnavigation of the San Juans.

For sea kayaking beginners in the Northwest, Okerman recommends lessons at Alder Creek Kayak in Portland or Body Boat Blade in Orcas Island, Washington. Both outfits are highly respected and offer year-round instruction at all skill levels. Experienced paddlers new to cooler conditions should come prepared with the right gear, says Okerman. On winter paddles in the Puget Sound, he dresses for immersion, layering a fleece onesie with a full-body dry suit (both from Kokatat). He also wears neoprene gloves and packs a poncho and a thermos filled with a hot drink for when he stops paddling and starts getting really, really cold.

“The Puget Sound is the same temperature year round,” says Okerman, “But the conditions out there in the winter are rougher, wetter and windier, so it’s important to layer accordingly.” Beyond wearing the right gear, Okerman stresses the importance of packing rescue flares and a VHF radio as well as paddling with someone who knows the area—whether it’s Lake Washington in Seattle or off the Oregon coast.   

“Winter kayaking can be a lot of fun,” says Okerman. “But you need to do your research, be prepared and paddle at your skill level.”