Paddling a canoe in unexpected high wind and waves can be a terrifying experience. One minute you’re drifting along, making good progress, and the next you’re being bashed around in heavy swells. The swells turn to waves, and things start to get crazy!

A wave is far more dangerous than a swell. The difference is that swells are usually formed far away, don’t break very often and your vessel can ride along with it. A windswept wave less than two feet high can easily swamp your canoe or kayak.

Most paddlers know to avoid directly crossing the expanse of a lake. It might look like a shortcut, but can turn dangerous.

Joined by one of my regular canoe partners, I once succumbed to the temptation of paddling straight across a gigantic lake in northern Ontario. It was one of the stupidest decisions we’ve ever made.photoKevin Callan

We had managed to get on the lake early. We were even lucky enough to have only a slight breeze coming out of the north at the time. We made a quick decision to head straight across rather than play it safe and follow close to the western shoreline. It’s not that we didn’t have a strong reverence for such a large lake, especially one that only has an average depth of four metres and is well known for brewing up in high winds. But we knew that bad weather would soon be on us and there was absolutely no place to camp on the south end of the lake.

photoKevin Callan

It was the wrong decision, of course. There were no islands or small bays to act as windbreaks. We didn’t bother to shift our load further back to lighten our bow and minimize shipping water. We weren’t even equipped with a spray skirt.

At first, though, everything seemed to be going well. I used the J-stroke in the stern. My partner in the bow used a combination of a strong forward stroke and a corrective sweep stroke. Things changed, however, when we reached the halfway point. Suddenly, the wind altered its direction and hit us broadside. Before long, the waves had doubled in size and we grew increasingly vulnerable. At least with a head wind you can tack the canoe like a sailboat.

Even with a heavy tailwind, you usually have time to bail the excess water while surfing the crests of the waves. With the wind hitting us directly broadside, however, it became impossible to have any great amount of control and we could only push on and hope to reach the opposite shore before the waves tripled in size. We also knew that the moment we stopped paddling, our paddles would no longer work as outriggers and the boat would immediately start to wallow and take on water.

Arms aching with the strain of each paddle stroke, we eventually beached the canoe on the opposite shore just in time to witness whitecaps form out in the centre of the lake. In retrospect, taking the short-cut was definitely not worth it.

photoKevin Callan

Being able to predict an upcoming windstorm can be an asset. Wind is produced by air moving from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure. The greater the difference in pressure, the more powerful the wind will be.

A quick change in wind direction means a rapid rise in air temperature, which is a good indicator of a long period of warm weather accompanied by lots of rain. The amount of wet weather depends on how quickly the wind brings the front in. A fast-approaching cold front will push the warm air up quickly, bringing on violent but short showers or squalls. A slowly approaching cold front will not cause the warm air to rise as fast and the result is less severe but will last much longer.

For some solid tips on how to paddle into the wind, check out my new video: