By Tim Jones, Special to The Eagle

This has been pretty close to the best winter ever, with more than two feet of snow falling up north last week and the cold hanging on nicely. We're all going to be able to keep enjoying snowsports until at least mid-April, maybe longer. By the time we're done with fun in the snow, it'll actually be spring.

But, the other day, I walked out into my garage and got ambushed. Quite unexpectedly, the brightly colored blades of all the kayak paddles hanging on the wall suddenly snapped into focus. Funny, I hadn't noticed them all winter, but there they are, ready for open water.

It'll be awhile before the water warms enough for most people to launch their kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and windsurfers. But whitewater kayaking has already begun on and the perfect conditions for whitewater paddling.the rivers of the northeast and will hit full-swing in the next month or so as the snow-melt runoff raises the water level. Whitewater kayaking is perhaps (other than spring skiing, of course!), the best way to enjoy mud season. Makes sense when you think about it, since it's rapidly melting snow that creates both the mud and the perfect consitions fpor whitewater paddling.

Paddling on swiftly flowing, cold water, around rocks and other obstacles, is not something you just do; it's something you learn how to do in increments. You need the right gear and, more importantly, the right skills to do it safely -- and you can't really learn those skills on your own.

I have to admit, I'm purely a dabbler in whitewater paddling. I've taken a few lessons in the past, run a few easy stretches of whitewater, and have always hugely enjoyed the adrenaline rush and sensory overload you get from being in a small boat on flowing water. But I've never gotten good enough to really be comfortable with it, especially not in really turbulent water.

But, like anything else, you have to start from where you are and get better from there. I've signed up for a three-session (one pool session, two on-river) with the New Hampshire chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club this spring (details above). I'm hoping this will get me comfortable enough to practice my skills on my own in the Class II sections of the river that flows near my home and, I hope, let me progress to lessons in Class III water.

That's my goal for this mud season. What's yours? Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy.

If you are looking forward to open water and all kinds of kayaking, and especially if you are looking to buy a new kayak, these demo events will let you compare a lot of boats in one place, which is both fun and instructive.

March 28-30 -- New England Paddlesports Show, Kittery Trading Post (www.ktpevents. com) UNH Field House, Durham, N.H.

April 26-27 -- Demo/sale, Collinsville Canoe and Kayak (www.cckstore.com), Collinsville, Conn.

May 3-4 -- Demo Weekend, The Kayak Centre of Rhode Island (www.kayakcentre. com/demo-weekend.htm), North Kingstown, R.I.; Saratoga Paddlefest, Mountainman Outdoor Supply Company /www.mountainmanoutdoors.com/saratoga-paddlefest.html, at Saratoga Springs Paddlesports, 251 Staffords Bridge Rd, Saratoga, N.Y.

May 10 -- Demo/sale Kittery Trading Post (www.ktpevents.com), Spring Hill, South Berwick, Maine.

May 16-18 -- Adirondack Paddlefest, Mountainman Outdoor Supply Co. (www.mountainmanoutdoors.com/pages/adirondack-paddlefest.html), Old Forge, N.Y.

May 18 -- Demo/sale, Contoocook River Canoe Co. (www.contoocookcanoe.com), Concord, N.H.

June 6-8 -- Maine Canoe Symposium (main ecanoesymposium.org) in Bridgton, Maine

May 30-June 1 -- Paddle Fest, LL Bean (llbean.com/paddle) Freeport, Maine

June 20-22 -- Demofest, Zoar Outdoors (www.zoaroutdoor.com/demofest.htm), Charlemont, (this is the only demo I know of that focuses on whitewater boats).

All summer, EMS has a traveling kayak demo at different locations throughout New England. For the complete list go to www.ems.com and type "kayak demo" in the search box, or call your local EMS store.

Paddling film festival

April 16: Don't miss the Reel Paddling Film Festival at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. Co-sponsored by Fish and Game and the Northern Forest Canoe Trail www.northernforestcanoetrail.org. Tickets are $12 ($10 for students) at the door.

Tim Jones is the executive editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email: timjones@easternslopes.com