Paddling for Turns: Backcountry Skiing by Canoe

February 13, 2015
Paddling for Turns
Brian Mohr/EmberPhoto.Paddling provides access to unexplored terrain.

While strapping our skis to the thwarts of our adventure-worn 16-foot canoe, we notice a raft of small ice chunks floating downstream—remnants of a recent thaw. The ice catches a gentle eddy in the river and gathers into a broad swirl that fills the entire river channel. The call of chickadees, the rustle of beech leaves still clinging to tree branches, and the steady roar of the water fill the air. We shove off, in pursuit of our first backcountry ski run of the day.

Canoe-skiing is nothing new, but it’s not something you see people doing every day. With an abundance of skiable terrain flanking many Vermont rivers, and given the relatively easy riverside access to many hard-to-reach spots, my wife, Emily Johnson, and I have discovered that canoes offer a fun twist on the common backcountry ski tour. Since our first canoe-supported skiing adventure within our local Mad River Valley nearly a decade ago, this has become a rite of spring for us.

A few years back, Old Man Winter wasn’t especially generous. While we logged several backcountry adventures around the Northeast that season, we focused primarily on exploring close to home—whether right out the back door, across our neighbor’s sloped pastures, or under the light of the rising moon. When a stellar stretch of March weather arrived, our canoe-skiing tradition took shape as a local overnight adventure.

We set our sights on a stretch of Vermont’s White River, 30 miles south of where we live. We had paddled this scenic stretch of swift water many times—just never with our skis in tow. A simple vision evolved: paddle to and then ski unexplored lines above the river, settle into a nice camp for the night, build a fire, enjoy a few meals, and set off again the next day.

Our friend Justin Beckwith, a local Nordic skiing coach and seasoned paddler, has joined us on this cool, sunny March morning. We push off into the current and enjoy our first moments in the canoe with skis, food, and camping gear loaded. It’s still at least a week before the rains and raging snowmelt of early spring, and we find the White with just enough water to make for an easy Class II float. We have nearly 15 miles of river ahead, and the very heart of Vermont’s Green Mountains promising beautiful scenery and various options for ski descents spilling to the snow-covered riverbanks.

About a mile downstream from our icy put-in below Hancock, Vt., a natural crease in the mountainside lures us to a northeast-facing slope above the river. We land our boats within a gentle eddy and tie our lines to the exposed roots of a giant hemlock. Following our best backcountry skiing instincts, we ascend surprisingly open terrain relying on free-heel bindings and climbing skins for uphill traction. In less than an hour, we climb nearly 1,000 vertical feet, to a sun-soaked meadow on a prominent ridge above the valley.

Upon topping out, views downriver have us scheming about our next possible descents, but gravity doesn’t keep us lingering for long. We peel our skins, sip some water, don hats and extra layers, and slide away. The surprisingly flowy descent spills us into a forest of relatively mature maple, beech, and yellow birch trees, following a southeast-facing ridge, before turning and funneling us into a grove of steep, north-facing hemlocks just above our boats. Recent snowfall has left a shallow coat of powder on north-facing slopes while the longer days and strong sunshine have treated us to a more spring-like “corn snow” surface. If there was ever a fine line between winter and spring, we have found it here on this run.

Back on the river, we admire 10-foot walls of ice lining its shores, the result of a midwinter thaw earlier in the month. It’s as if we’re drifting along the terminus of an ancient Green Mountain glacier. Occasional breaks and low spots in the ice provide the only manageable access to land.

Paddling by the village of Rochester, Vt., and several farms downstream, we enter a more isolated stretch of the White River Valley. Several ski lines tempt us, and we sample one of them, before beginning to think about setting up camp. Drifting quietly under a late-afternoon sky, we spot a distant unnamed mountain that has piqued my curiosity since childhood. Just a few miles downstream, but already dominating the horizon, the mountain spills directly to the river and features a steep and prominent northeast-facing drainage. Justin points out the obvious ski line—the hemlock canopy giving it away. Emily concurs, and we paddle on, approaching the mountain.

Scouting for camp with the suspense of another unexplored mountain in our sights, an aura of adventure hangs in the air. Familiar mountains and hillsides, which we now view from the comfort of our gear-filled canoes, are like prized peaks, begging to be skied. While home is less than an hour’s drive north, we feel like snowy pioneers in some far-off place or time—in the Andes, or the Arctic, or the untamed wilds of pre-colonial Vermont—far beyond our own backyards.

Just as we’re running out of options on the snow and ice-choked riverbanks, and as darkness begins to fall, we magically drift upon a perfect island campsite. Easy access to the mountain of our afternoon dreams looms only a few hundred yards downstream. We can see the lower reaches of the hemlock grove from our camp. We spark a small driftwood fire upon the gravel bar, enjoy rounds of hot soup, and crawl into our tents for a restful night beneath the stars. We wish we had days to spend on the river, maybe paddling all the way down to the White’s confluence with the Connecticut. Maybe next time.

LEARN MORE: CANOE-SKIING OPTIONS IN NEW HAMPSHIRE
While options for a similar canoe-skiing adventure are rather limited in New Hampshire, due to denser forest cover there, and generally more rugged rivers in areas with suitable ski terrain, a few are options worthy of exploration. A fairly straightforward, but relatively remote, canoe-skiing destination is the Upper Ammonoosuc River, between York Pond Road in Berlin, N.H., and Route 110 downstream. It’s generally a swift Class II run, like Vermont’s White River, with one easily portaged Class II+ rapid, and abundant ski terrain worth exploring above the west side of the river. Starting a mile downstream from York Pond Road, the terrain to the west of the river is public land managed by the White Mountain National Forest.

Coincidentally, New Hampshire has its own Mad River, with some decent, albeit challenging, canoe-skiing potential. The 8-mile stretch below Waterville Valley offers a good combination of promising ski terrain (also on White Mountain National Forest land) and canoe-friendly river conditions (for the seasoned whitewater paddler). When the river is up, the Mad is a solid Class III run, with a few Class IV drops, so we’d recommend packing away your ski boots between runs, and being prepared to swim. When the river is low, be prepared to scrape bottom and line several rapids.

LEARN MORE: TRIP PLANNING AND SAFETY
Any canoe-skiing adventure demands a solid set of river navigation and canoe-handling skills, thorough preparations of all gear, and sufficient scouting of the route in advance to help assure the safety and success of the adventure.

Gear-wise, there’s nothing too complicated about backcountry skiing by canoe. With respect to skiing, we pack just as we do for daily backcountry skiing adventures in the Northeast, by utilizing a 30- to 35-liter day pack in which we carry a few extra layers, goggles, some food and water, a basic first aid and repair kit, climbing skins, and little else. With our river travel in mind, we rely on several other items for comfortably and safely navigating the low-volume whitewater river conditions we expect to encounter, including personal flotation devices, paddles, dry bags for storing our ski packs, extra food, and camping gear. We also pack an emergency dry bag containing a dry change of clothes and a stash of dry paper, kindling, and firewood—just in case we plunge into the river and need to warm up and dry off.

While on the river, we paddle in our basic skiing gear—soft shell pants, a wool shirt, perhaps a soft shell jacket and hat, as well as neoprene gloves. Having extensive experience paddling whitewater up to Class III level, we are more than comfortable paddling in our ski boots without any significant concern about tipping or swamping our canoes while navigating the Class I and II conditions we encounter on these trips. With this approach, our gear logistics are a breeze, and we are ready for skiing action as soon as we can get to shore, grab our packs, and step into our skis.

Finally, while on the river, each pair of our skis and poles is strapped with a pair of 12- to 16-inch rubber ski straps. We always strap one extra paddle in each canoe too, in case we break or lose one. We equip our canoes with 3- to 4-meter long bow and stern lines, and pack an extra rope in case we need to line the boats through an unexpectedly rough rapid that we are not willing to run in our ski boots.

Vermonters Brian Mohr and Emily Johnson have shaped their lives around human-powered forays to regions as far-off as the Arctic and the Andes. They share their photography and stories through publications and outdoor brands worldwide, and on their skiing website, Adventure Skier.

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Brian Mohr/EmberPhoto

Brian Mohr lives in Vermont’s Mad River Valley with his wife and two daughters. Together, they have logged more than 1,000 nights in tents and backcountry cabins. View his photography at emberphoto.com.