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Braving the cold for a serene morning on the Mokelumne River

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Ian Jonsson/News-Sentinel

Steve and Debbie Ramirez practice paddling around in their tandem kayak before the group headed out on the Mokelumne River on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013.

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Floating on Lodi Lake, eight paddlers were bundled up against the chilly air. In their bright orange, yellow and white kayaks, the group looked like a collection of determined ducks ready to take off.

In the cold, many sports enthusiasts pack away their equipment to wait for the warmth of spring. But members of the Lodi Paddle Club instead dragged their boats out of garages and basements on Saturday morning and towed them to the water’s edge in 48-degree January air. They maintain that with the right gear, paddling out in the winter is just as enjoyable as a summertime cruise.

The club was readying themselves for an easy 7-mile float from the lake to Highway 99 and back again. Elsewhere, fewer than a dozen people were enjoying the misty lake morning.

What changes does the kayak need for cold temperatures?

“Nothing. We adapt to the boat with the gear we wear,” said Jim Schnieder, a co-founder of the club that meets at least once a month for paddling adventures.

For Schnieder, that means three layers of neoprene and polyprene clothing. Both are materials to keep water out, keep the wearer warm and be flexible enough to allow generous movement. The inner layer was a 1-millimeter lined wetsuit. A bright blue cap covered his head and ears, while waterproof socks covered his feet. A lifejacket completed the ensemble.

“I don’t like to get cold,” he said.

Nearby, Jim Snyder of Stockton was perched on the tailgate of his truck, pulling a $600 drysuit on over fleece sweatpants, wool socks and a warm shirt. The bright yellow suit stuck fast to his body. Once the zipper running from right shoulder to left hip was pulled closed, Snyder was completely watertight, save for his face.

“He can jump off his boat in the middle of the ocean and go for a swim and he’ll be fine,” said Schnieder. “You have to burp the air out of it once you’re in the boat, or you’ll sit there looking like the Michelin Man.”

‘This is our passion’

One couple traveled from Valley Springs to meet with the club for few chilly hours on the water.

Lynn McFarland aimed to keep her layers thin and flexible, just tough enough to block any wind chill. Saturday marked her first paddle of the year and her first time in a kayak since a recent reconstructive surgery after a battle with breast cancer. She wanted to be comfortable.

Her husband, Jimmy Dean McFarland, readied their kayaks while she snapped on her lifejacket.

“If you get too thick, you can’t paddle. Once you start paddling, the layers peel off,” she said.

“We tried to get some more friends out here with us, but not many people want to go in the winter. Just the diehards like us,” she added.

Each paddler seemed to possess an entire cold-weather kayaking wardrobe. Adding up the pricetags, that’s a hefty investment for gear they’ll only use for a few months each year. But they all have their reasons for getting outside.

The McFarlands are starting their kayaking season now to build up their paddling muscles for prime kayak weather.

“Nothing will keep us off of the water. This is our passion,” said Lynn McFarland.

Schnieder says he heads out in the cold for the quiet surroundings.

“It’s the privacy. There’s no one out there right now,” he said. Other river-goers tipped him off to deer swimming in the Mokelumne earlier in the week, and much more wildlife than usual on the banks.

Gliding on the river

Asked why he enjoys the wintry excursion, Snyder considered the question as he stood on the edge of the grass.

“It’s easy, it’s relaxing. It’s just something a little different,” he said. “And, of course, I like the water.”

Snyder stepped into the shallow water on the shoreline and towed his kayak into the lake. He stood on the left side, steadied the craft and threw his right leg over it to stand astride the kayak.

Then came the delicate dance required of sitting down on floating objects. But Snyder staked his paddle into the sandy lake bottom, managed to sit without a spill, and tucked his legs inside the cabin. The final step was to seal his neoprene kayaking skirt to the edge of the cockpit.

With slow, even strokes, Snyder powered the craft away from shore to glide smoothly down the river.

Schnieder covered his watch with waterproof gloves and followed.

The cluster of paddlers faded into spots of mobile color sailing off under oak trees.

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

6 images

Ian Jonsson/News-Sentinel

Steve and Debbie Ramirez practice paddling around in their tandem kayak before the group headed out on the Mokelumne River on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013.

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