A joyful winter tradition for Heather Warman is to be on water on Christmas Day — either paddle boarding or kayaking.
And why would anyone want to be on Elkhorn Creek in Franklin County on Dec. 25?
“Because it was beautiful outside, almost 50 degrees, and the creek was running,” Warman said, smiling. “Generally as a kayaker or standup paddle boarder, whenever the water is there, you go. You watch the gauges. The temperature doesn’t usually matter that much.
“Of course you have to have proper gear. We have dry suits. If you’re wearing a dry suit, you don’t get wet, even if you fall in. The dry suit gets wet. You would feel a little cold, but only while you’re in the water. When you get out, it doesn’t feel cold anymore. But if you don’t have the proper equipment, you definitely shouldn’t go when it’s cold.”
A dry suit can be expensive, ranging from $600 to more than $1,000, she said.
“Mine retailed for $1,200 but I think I got it for about $700. Skullcap liners and gloves will be about $50. Then you want fleece undergarments but any long underwear will work, so you can get inexpensive ones.
“You can wear a wet suit too. The wet suits are pretty warm because of good insulation. However, in a wet suit, you get wet if you fall in. But the air pocket between the neoprene and your body is what keeps you warm. The biggest difference is when you go to change. If you change out of a wet suit, you’re freezing because you’re wet and if it’s really cold you can start getting hypothermia.
“If you have a dry suit on as soon as you take it off and you get in dry clothes, you’re good to go.”
Warman and her husband, Aaron Koch, have residences in Lexington and Frankfort and own SUP Kentucky, an eco-friendly tour provider for standup paddle boarding. In 2018, Koch also was captain of Kentucky State University’s environmental science and tour boat.
Each winter Koch — a 1992 graduate of Western Hills High School and a U.S. Army veteran — spends several months in Mexico, enjoying the water and warm weather. He speaks Spanish fluently and drove and worked on boats in the Panama Canal during most of his three years in the military.
Elkhorn Creek in the backyard
While Koch was in Mexico at Christmas in 2018, Warman was on the Elkhorn with Kara Harkins and Katie Perry, both of Lexington, and Tim Miller, who lives by the creek at Forks of Elkhorn.
Miller — a plumber with Frei Mechanical based in Somerset — said he’s been boating on and off with Warman for at least 20 years, but 2018 was the first time he had been on the water on Christmas Day. He SUPs (Stand Up Paddle Boards) throughout the winter “as often as I can. It’s nothing to go two or three times on a weekend.”
Many years ago on the first day he bought a dry suit, Miller remembers it was 28 degrees.
“I went out on the Elkhorn and swam just to see how it felt and I was perfectly warm. I kayaked too and it was a blast. But you have to have the proper training and the proper equipment, including clothing. Two years ago, I went out with a friend at dawn when it was 3 degrees and I wasn’t cold. It was gorgeous.”
He recalls a splendid moonlight float on the Elkhorn in the winter at least 15 years ago. “When I got out I had a lot of ice all over me but was warm.”
Although he loves canoeing and kayaking, Miller says standup paddle boarding is his favorite right now. “It’s so much more of a challenge because you’re using a totally different set of muscles. It’s new and it’s a hoot and it’s challenged me in my own backyard.
“I love the canoe. My first date with my wife, Ann, was in a canoe. But if I canoe two days in a row my knees hurt. And I’m by no means an expert in kayaking but I’m proficient enough to not die doing it. I’m 54 and the older I get, the less intrigued I am by pushing it that much (in dangerous whitewater).”
On Christmas Day, Warman said she put Kara Harkins in a wet suit “because I only have two dry suits and I wanted Katie in a dry suit because she was new at SUPing.”
It was 49 degrees and partly cloudy when they glided off at 1 p.m. from Miller’s house.
Elkhorn Creek was running about 1,500 cubic feet per second (cfs) on Christmas Day.
“We paddle Elkhorn anywhere between 600 and 3,500 cfs, that’s the average range,” Warman said. “You can paddle it over that, but it generally gets washed out, and over that, the dam gets a little tricky to portage. You want to stay away from the dam by Jim Beam when it’s above 3,500. A really nice beginner level is 1,500. It’s not too challenging for kayaking or paddle boarding. It’s not too shallow and it’s fairly manageable.
“Since Katie had never been SUPing before on whitewater, I added a seat to her board and gave her a double-bladed paddle. It’s very tricky to stand up if you don’t have experience on whitewater. She did fine. She didn’t even get her hair wet, sitting down and paddling through the rapids. She just followed me as we went through. It was a good day. Nobody fell in the water.”
They traveled five miles in about three hours.
On Christmas Eve, Warman went paddle boarding with friends on the Kentucky River, passing the Cummins Ferry waterfalls.
“There’s a lot of places to paddle and we try to do different things,” Warman said. “I paddle around 200 days a year, and paddle somewhere every month.”
On Christmas Day 2017, she was in Mexico with Aaron Koch, her fiancé, “and we paddled there.” They married in 2018. In other recent years on Christmas Day, they’ve paddled on the New River in West Virginia and the Nantahala River in North Carolina near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “We used to kayak in the Smokies all the time,” she said.
The switch from rafting to kayaking
Warman, 43, says she’s enjoyed water sports her whole life but she mostly rafted until 2003 when she took a kayak rolling class at a Bluegrass Wildwater Association clinic.
“That’s when I started kayaking and from 2003 until 2013 I was kayaking a lot and started doing really high-level kayaking, Class 5.”
But in 2013, her boyfriend-at-the-time died tragically in a kayaking accident in turbulent water.
“I continued to kayak after that but started doing less and didn’t do any more Class 5. I always had a standup paddle board but hadn’t used it much until then. That’s when I started using it more.”
Two years later, she met Koch and they started doing a lot of standup paddle boarding together. In 2016, they opened their SUP Kentucky business.
Although the weather was pleasant on Christmas Day 2018, Warman says she’s kayaked and done standup paddle boarding when snow was on the ground and icicles were on her helmet.
“I’ve paddled in very cold weather and have gone in the water. There have been lots of times when I was kayaking in the winter where basically you would go to a laundromat, put all your wet stuff in a dryer, heat up your clothes, and put them back on to warm up.”
She admits going in frigid weather isn’t as much fun as it once was.
“Yeah, I’ve changed in the last five years. I don’t like to go when it’s below 45. Before, I would go when it was 20, it didn’t much matter.
“If it’s raining and cold, and the rain is constantly hitting your face, I don’t like that. I’ve done that and I’m over it. But like on Christmas this past year, if it had been 35 it would have felt much warmer because the sun was out. We were pretty hot by the end of the day because it was warm and everybody had a dry suit or wet suit on and we were paddling. You get sweaty.”
Warman says every standup paddle board outing is memorable.
“It’s a different experience each time you go with different people, and it’s always fun. What I’ll remember most about Christmas week (2018) was the beautiful weather and that we cracked up laughing about the Santa and reindeer heads we put on. And, it was smooth sailing. We didn’t have any mishaps.”
Several days after Christmas, Warman and her daughter, Emma, 12, were in sunny Florida enjoying the water. And not long after the Florida vacation, Warman joined her husband for several weeks in Mexico.
Warman grew up in Lawrenceburg but went to a private Seventh Day Adventists boarding school in Virginia. After high school, she went to Newbold College of Higher Education in England, a SDA college, her freshman year and majored in pre-law. She interned for a lawyer and quickly decided “there was too much paperwork.”
Then she worked as a missionary in Guam for a year.
“When I came back to the U.S., I wanted to do something with art and teaching but I knew I wouldn’t make any money as an artist,” she said. “So I decided to do interior design.” She earned her bachelor’s in interior design from the University of Kentucky, “and I’ve made good money as an interior designer.”
She’s been a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity and was a Habitat employee for a while. She’s also worked as executive director of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation.
Today, Heather Warman’s church is the great outdoors. No Christmas present matches the gifts of nature. The most incredible art exhibits are always there, and she’s determined to enjoy and protect the water, land and air as long as she breathes.