PADDLING WITH SEALS – Winter Paddling and the Ever Changing Scenery

A Friend Shows Up On My Dock

Getting ready for a morning paddle last week, I was welcomed to my dock by this cute visitor.

By Cecil Hoge

I paddle pretty much all year round. Since I live on the water this is not very difficult to do; I just have to walk about 100 feet to the water. The other day this feller (he or she, I am not sure which) greeted me on my dock. I am fairly used to seeing seals out in one of the bays in the middle of winter, but I must admit that I was quite surprised to find this feller taking a break on my dock.

Aside from the relatively short period when the bay is frozen solid, I go paddling every day I can and that includes paddling on winter days when the tide is in, when the weather is passable. I do not like to paddle in driving snowstorms or in winds over 25 mph or in temperatures below 25 degrees Fahrenheit.

When paddling in winter, I do have one rule and that is not to paddle when there is ice. That usually occurs in January and February. Last year was a particularly cold winter and my local bays were frozen from the end of December to early March. This year has been a particularly warm winter with the bays freezing over only two or three times for no more than 3 or 4 days.

Now you might think it is kind of crazy to go paddling in the winter because even if the water is not frozen, the air temperature is often 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. I am in total agreement that is a terrible thing to be cold when you paddle, but I believe that it is very easy to be warm. I always wear a warm windproof/waterproof jacket, warm gloves and warm, lined pants. I also wear a life jacket in winter – that not only adds warmth, but it also helps prevent drowning in 40 degree water. I consider falling in not an option since exposure to 30-40 degree water for more than 10 or 20 minutes can quickly lead to death. Not a good way to start the day.

That said, I believe by dressing warmly in appropriate clothes you can be both warm and safe. Here I have to put in a plug for our Sea Eagle® boats. They are very stable, more so than most rigid kayaks, and they have their own built-in flotation, which is something most kayaks and rowing shells do not have.


This is a tree I pass on my way from Little Bay to Setauket Bay

You might ask doesn’t paddling get boring? Yes, it could if you are bored by endlessly changing scenery. The fact is that when you paddle the same conditions are never repeated even if you paddle along the same general course, day after day. This is because the tide is always different, going or coming at one level or another, the weather is always different and what you see paddling is always different.


One of the pleasures of paddling in winter are the many different birds you might see along the way.

It is quite easy to take pictures of nearby birds, especially if you have a camera with a good zoom lens. I did not go out of my way in taking these pictures. In winter my little bay, cleverly called Little Bay, is often filled with swans. Swans pay kayakers little mind – I probably should say kayaker since I am the only kayaker they ever see.  This makes them very easy to photograph. I pass literally hundreds of birds every day I paddle. Here are some more.


In the picture above, I am guessing one duck is a Mallard male and the other is his wife. You may have to look carefully to recognize the wife – she is very modest.


Crossing paths with a heron and some geese.

Herons do not like humans. I think they remember when they were giant flying dinosaurs and humans were little snacks to be picked off on a slow day of hunting. They are harder to get close to and when you do get close, first they give you the evil eye, then they squawk their ancient dinosaur squawk and fly off thoroughly disgusted.

I think winter paddling is very healthy. I think breathing the air when paddling on salt water clears out your lungs and helps ward off colds. It’s just a theory – I cannot promise that it will work for everyone, but it seems to work for me.

If you ask a serious kayaker why they like to paddle they may not be sure just what to answer. Yes, they like the exercise…yes, they like seeing different kinds of birds…yes, they like the fact that something is always different. The sun, the clouds, the tide, the wind, the weather, the time of season, the time of day…every time you go paddling the surrounding elements are different and in flux – this is both soothing and exhilarating.

But I think it is not just the changing scenery that makes paddling interesting, exhilarating and just plain fun. There is another notion I would like to suggest. It is the horizon that is visible when you are paddling – the sheer open spaces that come into view without the obstructions that are so normal to everyday views. Think of it, when you go out of your front door, there are a lot of things immediately in view…a car, a driveway, a hedge, a road, a telephone pole. But when you are paddling, often you come to places where your view is not obstructed by objects. Literally, the horizon in front of you expands and seems limitless.


Paddling out to Port Jefferson Harbor.

This may not seem exciting as a description, but I think if feeds an inner calm that most of us seek and long for. Even when you go for a jog, there is not much of a horizon visible. Usually, you are on a road with no great expanse of horizon in view…with houses and telephone poles and mail boxes. This is the great difference with paddling for there is a true horizon and it seems limitless. There is no path, there is no road, there is no set course, you may paddle where you will and along the way you come across unobstructed views. Of course, many will say it is a stupid and crazy idea to paddle in winter when your fingers might get chilled, but I will tell you, “Oh no, your fingers will be as warm as toast if your paddling in winter, because your hands are moving and exercising all the time so cold is simply not a factor.”

Now, I would like to get back to paddling with seals. It is usually out here in Port Jefferson Harbor (see the picture above) that I see seals. I guess that is appropriate because they are harbor seals. Port Jefferson Harbor is 2 bays away from my house and I usually paddle out to there on a kind of route. It is about 2 miles from my house to get to the harbor itself.

Usually, I do not see many seals and when I do, it’s generally not their whole body. What I do see is their head protruding out of the water. Sometimes, I mistake them for a small buoy or duck or a loon. It is only when I see the head disappear and then reappear that I realize what I am looking at. Generally, they keep their distance. I am told that the first thing that they do when seeing a large object on the water is try to determine if it is a predator and I suppose me in my kayak could be considered a predator.

Occasionally, seals swim within 50 or 100 feet of me and I can get an idea of their size. They can be quite large and, I suppose very heavy. They seem to be 6 to 8 feet in length when I see them out in the harbor. That was one of the reasons I was surprised to see the little feller on my dock. He or she was only about 3 feet long and had this very sweet adorable look. I wanted to go down the dock stairway and see if I could pet this cute creature, but the seal slouched off of my dock before I could get close. This was probably fortunate for both of us, he or she got to slide off into the water, its true medium, and I got to keep all the fingers on my hand. I am told that seals are quite fond of fingers.


This is currently my favorite Sea Eagle® – The RazorLite™ 393rl – I may be prejudiced, though, because I designed it. And no, I do not always paddle on cold winter days!

As you can see from the picture above, I do also paddle on warm sunny summer days. There is, however, a beauty to paddling in winter. Generally you are out there by yourself – in my case, in winter I only see an occasional clam digger. There are no mighty Mastercrafts charging back and forth with skiers in tow, there are no large yachts or small boats cruising back and forth, the waterways are pristine and empty. You feel alone, at peace, remote and all to yourself and the birds and the seals. Winter is in fact a nice time to paddle.


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