Saturday, July 7, 2012

Encounters in Rossport

Several of us had planned a trip out of Rossport, Ontario during the July 4 week, 2012.  The focus and shape and participants morphed a bit as the departure date approached, and in the end, it turned into three of us – Tony, Sam, and me.  As our departure approached, we got together to discuss what we wanted to make of this trip.  First on the list was lots of poking around.  Second, we had tracked down the contact for Nirivia and planned to stay there for a couple of nights.  Third … well, I'm not sure there was a third goal.

Our main piece of organization was that each of us would take two of the days and be the leader.  We were all peers and competent paddlers, so we simply wanted to make sure that at least one person was thinking for the group at all times.

We drove up to Rossport on a Saturday, and stayed at the Serendipity Gardens guest house.   It's a custom designed building with 4 rooms, and it was delightful.  Equally delightful was their Cafe, and both are highly recommended.

On our first day we headed off towards Nirivia.  When we reached the "long day/short day" decision point, we decided to go for short day and stop for the night at Woodbine Harbor.  As we were making camp, a couple in a power boat stopped at the beach to stretch their legs and let their dog run a bit.  We chatted, and heard their story of the kayakers they'd had to rescue (it seems that every power boater has one of these stories) and how they would never go out in one of those boats.  The woman mentioned that she worked for Canada Post and had a resupply package waiting for a kayaker who was paddling around the lake, and that he was overdue.  She said it had coffee in it, because she could smell it.  We asked about the name.  Sadly, we discovered that the package had been sent ahead by the kayaker who had died near Pigeon Point a few weeks ago.  We gave the woman enough information to try to contact his survivors, not knowing if there was anything personal in the box that they would want.

We paddled on to Nirivia the next day.  Nirivia is the name given to land on St. Ignace Island that a group of folks from the area had claimed as an independent country. They had built some geodesic-inspired wooden buildings (a bunkroom/kitchen, a second bunkroom, and a sauna) and at one point appeared to have marketed it as a tourist destination.  Rumor and even published guides claimed that the enterprise was defunct, but our friend Bernie had found Nirivia on a trip through the area earlier in the spring and had seen signs of activity.  He had a contact, and we eventually managed to track down the Nirivians and made and paid for a reservation to stay there for a couple nights.

On Monday, we found the land of Nirivia tucked into a bay behind Armour Island.  We landed and walked up a bit of a hill to discover first the sauna, then the bunkhouses and kitchen.  It was a bit dilapidated, but nonetheless charming and wonderful.

We walked back down to the dock to start hauling our gear up to the bunkhouses and saw a powerboat motoring towards us.  It turned out to be Russ and his wife checking in to make sure that we were the people who had made reservations.  We were, and we talked for a while.  Russ said he was the one who started Nirivia. He'd researched the historical treaties and determined that this island had not been included in any treaty or land claim.  We discussed fishing (no, we hadn't brought any fishing gear) and paddling destinations for the next day, and then he put the boat in reverse, backed off, and powered away. 
We settled in after desginating a boys bunkhouse and a girls bunkhouse, and had a splendid afternoon.  Sam hung his hammock.  Some reading and walking and exploring occurred.  In the evening Tony fired up the sauna for a couple rounds of steam and lake dips.  On only the first of our two nights at Nirivia, it was clear that Tony might never be the same again.  His post is here.

There was a thunderstorm that night, and I awoke to the sound of dripping water in my room.  I found a pot and put it under the drip.  I'm not sure how long these lovely structures will survive without some repairs.

The next morning we listened to the forecast.  Later in the week the winds were expected to build to 25 knots.  We decided not to move to a more distant campsite, but rather do an out and back paddle and spend another night at Nirivia.   With no pressure to get to any particular destination, we poked around rock formations and into bays.  We noticed the difference between the lake facing sides of the islands (weathered, eroded, eaten into by lake storms) and the land side (steep rock walls.)  We listened to loon calls.  We paddled by the arch on Hope Island.  We visited the falling down boathouse and fishing boat on Bowman Island and paid our respect at Thomas Lamphier's grave.  We paddled by the terraces on Paradise Island, which mark the increasing heights of the land as it rebounds from the glaciers of the last ice age.  We paddled by a lovely small islet with stunted trees. 

Back at Nirivia that afternoon, the cabins were hot -- the skylight in my bunkhouse let in warming sun as well as light.  It was another delightful afternoon to spend outdoors, and included a bit of an argument about personal property rights with a pushy raven.   In the evening we had another sauna.

We had an encounter with some other non-humans that night.  The guys had gone to bed in the boys bunkhouse and I hadn't fully settled in yet.  I heard some very loud splashing down by the boats.  I was a bit puzzled – if someone was messing with our boats, they were making a heck of a lot of noise.  So I went out and walked down to the water and stopped when I saw a mother moose and two calves wading along the shore.  I watched for a couple minutes and went back to get the guys. They came out in their jammies and bare feet, and we watched at a respectful distance and not terribly far from the bunkhouses.  It got darker and darker, and finally the family headed off into the woods, we got cold, the bugs started biting, and we headed back to our beds.

The next morning I was down by the water and heard a splash, then a distance away another one.  It was an otter.  Who knew an otter was as splashy in its own way as a moose?

On Wednesday we tidied up the cabins and headed back towards Rossport. We found a rocky island that had a channel between it.  We had some fun taking turns taking photos of our intrepid paddles through the opening.  The photos didn't look nearly as impressive as we imagined they would, but the island and rock formation were still wonderful. As I paddled around the outside of the island to circle back to paddle through again, I spotted some fluffy young birds on the rock who hid from me by turning their backs and facing into the rock wall.

Paddling on, we came across two women breaking camp.  They were paddling a canoe from the Sibley Penninsula to Neys Provincial Park.  We compared notes on thejr route so far.  Their experience at CPR Slip was the same as we and others had experienced on previous trips – despite word that the slip was advertised as open to all, the power boaters who were there told them that they weren't welcome.

We headed up Moffat Strait, just because we'd never been there before.  We were using a map from Superior Outfitters website that suggested some campsites, and there were two along this stretch.   It took a while to find  the site on Sabena Island.  It was a great location for a small group, perched on a rocky outcrop.  Masses of mayflies swirled overhead, but didn't bother us as we relaxed before dinner.

Tony was going to take over as leader the next day, and announced that we would be getting up at 6 AM for early morning calisthenics, followed by self criticism, Tai Chi, and meditation at 8. Somehow I missed all that activity.

During the night I woke up when it started raining lightly, and listened to the pitter patter of raindrops on my tent.  Just as the rain started easing off I heard the sound of hard, driving rain moving across the lake towards us, and then drumming on the tents.  A nice sound when you're warm and dry in your tent, and fortunately the weather passed over us by morning.

On Thursday we continued north up the Moffat Channel, then paddled east over the top of Simpson Island.  As was consistent with what we'd seen earlier, there weren't many campsites along that stretch.  There were a few places farther east where you could squeeze in a tent or two if you had to, but they were marginal.

Eventually Simpson Channel opened up to the lake to the south and we saw the lighthouse on Battle Island.   We headed across to Vein Island.  It was a 4 mile crossing with a 10 knot headwind.  In terms of shortest distance, our route was the best option and it was well within our skills.  But psychologically, it was a slog.   Thinking of leading a group across in a similar paddle, it would be good to give the time it would take, because there was a long stretch when we saw no progress.

Reaching Vein, we landed on yet another lovely rocky beach for lunch, then headed on to Minnie and the campsite where we would stay for the next two nights.

After setting up his tent, Tony waded into the lake for an afternoon dip (the water temp was bracing, but warm for Lake Superior -- in the mid 60s).  Tony looked down as he was walking into the water and wonder of wonders -- he saw a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon peeking out from under a rock.  Someone had carefully buried it to chill and had forgotten about it or lost track of it.  In  utter joy of an unexpected gift from the lake, we gleefully split the can 3 ways.   After that bit of giddy excitment, we once again had some afternoon left to read, nap, and prepare dinner.  A person could get used to that kind of schedule.

On Friday we headed out to Battle Island, where the lighthouse stands tall and proud atop a cliff.  We all started the day feeling a bit loggy, and the dark clouds developing in the east didn't inspire confidence.  But Tony was still leading, and the self professed lazy man took us on the longest paddle of the trip.  We continued past the lighthouse along the south side of Wilson Island, then headed north through Copper Island channel.

We wanted to visit the sandstone cliffs that Tony and Michelle had seen on a prior trip, but weren’t sure where they were.  We checked the topo map and guessed, and bingo – we found them.  Layers of sandstone.   Ledges that extended underwater.  Fallen rock, sized from rubble to huge slabs.  A few sea caves.  We may have left a bit of gel coat here and there.

We paddled into a bay to check out another campsite marked on the Superior Outfitters map at Little Lake Harbor as a possible future destination.  As we were walking up a grassy lawn we heard the buzz of a few mosquitoes (scouts, no doubt), then suddenly we were attacked by the main force.   We broke and ran for boats.  The mosquitoes followed us out into the lake and we barely escaped with our lives.

We kept an eye out for Tim and Dan that day.  They were paddling from Silver Islet to Rossport, but they apparently passed our campsite while we were out of sight on our day paddle.

Back at camp, we took a quick swim.  It started to sprinkle.  We debated about putting a tarp up and  finally decided yes.  Typical day on a camping trip.  The tarp was a good move, as it ended up raining for an hour or so. 

That night in my tent I listened to the water slap gently quietly along the shores of the surrounding islands, in contrast to the previous night's sounds of waves from the open lake crashing on the rocky shores of the islands to our south.  In the morning we heard the sound of a large bird's wings, and looked to see an eagle launching out of a tree overhead and flying off.

On Saturday we headed back to Rossport.  We unloaded our boats and packed up our cars. We stopped in at Superior Outfitters before we hit the road, and I mentioned to Dave Tamblyn that I was torn about whether to tell people about this wonderful paddling destination or keep it a secret.  He said he felt the same way.  Good to know that I'm not the only one who is so conflicted.

Photos are here.

Friday, June 8, 2012

CT Power Paddle Camp - Brilliant!

Well, maybe not the weather.  At least not all the time.  But definitely the concept. 

Ben Lawry, Ginni Callahan, and Peter Casson partnered with local coaches Ron, Gerry, and Carolyn to create an opportunity for 24 paddlers to play and learn for 4 days. Our playground was the northern part of Long Island Sound, from near Mystic Harbor up to Narragansett, with our home base a camp near Stonington, CT.

The first day we paddled on the lake on the camp property, splitting into three random groups to make Team 1, Team A, and Team Alpha.  Each group spent an hour and a half with each coach.  Ginni worked on rudders, Ben on sweep and forward strokes, and Peter on rescues.  It was a good level setting session for all, and there were definitely some aha moments for me.  The effect of posture on rudders (being a sack of potatoes is not helpful), keeping the top wrist aligned, the power linkage from boat to blade on forward and reverse strokes. 

At the end of the day we had a team competition that involved forward and reverse strokes, maneuvers, rescues, towing, and a wee bit of following directions (no, you were not required to paddle around that island).  The first group to return to the beach was declared the winner, and the prize was being first in line at dinner.  (I would humbly mention that Team Alpha won this competition.)

One might think that the sole purpose of the event was to entertain the coaches based on the amount of laughter that ensued, but I suspect they also used it as part of the day's sorting exercises.  The last activity of the day was splitting everyone up into one of 3 groups of 8.  Each group would spend one day with Ben, one with Ginni and one with Peter, while one of  the three local coaches stayed with each group to provide some continuity.

My group headed off to Stonington the second day.  Forecast was for intermittent thunder storms and 15 - 20 knots of wind with gusts to 25 plus.  We had planned to head out to Fisher's Island, possibly playing in the race between Fishers and Wicopesset Island.  With the possibility of lightning, we decided to stay in areas where we could get off the water relatively quickly, paddling along a breakwater and eventually ending up on Napatree Point. It was helpful to be part of discussions of options in bigger conditions, and we found games to play along the way as we paddled into the headwinds.  I was thoroughly entertained by the sound of the horn on the breakwater.  Don't have one of those on Lake Calhoun. 

After lunch on Napatree, we were past the lightning risk, and headed off to Fishers.  First we paddled by the Molars (no, they didn't look any more appealing than the name sounds), then crossed to Fishers with the wind off our port side.  The ebb current from our starboard side and the wind nearly cancelled each other out.  The waves were probably 2 - 3 feet, with fairly frequent waves well above the horizon line (4?), so it was a fun place to be.

The ebbing current created a race between Fishers and Wicopesset, opposed by a stiff wind.  The plan was to paddle through it in pairs, with David and me in the lead and Peter with us, then the rest of the group following behind.  There was a needle to be threaded between ugliness on the right and ugliness on the left.  In theory, if anything happened and someone came out of their boat, we would get flushed through the race and come out on the other side.

Dave and I paddled up a couple of pretty big waves (5 footers?  I don't trust my memory)  with bigger ahead when Peter said "Turn and run."  Excellent example of a clear and unambiguous command!  We "made it so"!  Regrouped, ducked around the corner, and stopped for a break and a debrief on Fishers.  Bottom line was that nobody wanted to be doing rescues where we were in the race, and if we had gotten through we still would have had to return.

We paddled back to Stonington after that.  Lots of marine features to soak in.  Big reminder about the need to orient to your chart before you start out and keep oriented -- e.g., we're going to paddle by these three buoys and here are their numbers, then we'll paddle east of the breakwater and there's a light on the end.  We paddled by more fog horns and/or light signals.  It was cool to have one horn to the left and another to the right and hear the sounds change as you moved between them.

We stopped for coffee/beer at Noah's in Stonington, then headed back to camp to hear about the other groups' days.  One group had stayed on the camp lake while the other had headed up to Rhode Island.  Happy energy filled the room as we ate dinner.

On day 3, my group went to the Narrows in Rhode Island with Ben.  The third day of a camp or trip is always the one I feel tired on, and I was pretty much done after one of Ben's high energy warm ups.  But wait -- there was more!  Next we worked on exercises we would use in the surf.  The goal when we catch the wave is to stay on top of it, not bury our bow in the trough and our stern on the wave.  So we worked on a pivot and acceleration to catch the wave, braking to get into position, on stern rudders to steer, and getting off of a bongo slide.   And then off to the waves.  Nice green ones until later in the day, when they started to dump a bit.  Good place to play and learn.

At the end of the day, a stop for beer or coffee was by now a hallowed tradition (must follow tradition!), and doubly so when the storm that had been threatening finally arrived and the skies opened up.  We enjoyed a lovely round of Guinness as the rain pelted down, then drove through another cell on our way back to camp.

One of the other groups had been less lucky and had been in the direct path of the storms.  They holed up a couple times while paddling, then dodged lightning while tying on boats.

That evening, Sergio showed slides from Nova Scotia.  Definitely a paddling destination for the wish list.

Day 4 was another forecast of gray and windy weather, and the groups did a bit of re-sorting and winnowing as people made plans on when to head for home, and then came together to discuss what we wanted to do on our last day.  Our group was down to 5 as we headed with Ginni to Esker Point, west of Mystic Harbor.  We did some navigation planning, picking some rocks to go find a la scavenger hunt.

We started with a paddle along a measured mile to get a sense of our pace.  After that, each of us led or swept a leg of the trip.  It was fun to be paddling on another windy day as a tight group, just a few feet from each other.

We had paused in the lee of Ram Island and heard thunder, and decided to land and have lunch despite this being a private island.  The dogs, horses, and sheep were good with that, and we didn't see any people.

Ginni did a nice job of leading a discussion on paddling as a group and how it's everyone's responsibility to keep the group tight.  Opportunities for missed communication had been plentiful on a fairly short paddle, and we found many of them.

After lunch, Dave suggested that we head out into a race we could see off the south end of the island.   An ebb current was flowing over Ram Island Reef, with the wind opposed.  I was up for the paddle, but was having a hard time visualizing what to expect.  Turned out to be hugely fun, and the ferry angle was almost straight across, as the opposing wind and current again balanced each other out.  The waves weren't very high, but we did a bit of surfing on the way back.

On to Gate, then the north end of Ram, then by Mouse, keeping an eye on intertwined channels marked by red and green buoys.  Much easier to pick out the channels looking at a chart than on the water.

Coming back through a sailboat buoy field there was a chance to do some slalom turns (funny thing ... same feedback as Day 1 on the rudders -- posture!)  My roll had temporarily gone AWOL and we got that sorted out before we called it a day (funny thing ... lifting with the lower knee works better than lifting with the the top knee).

It was an excellent 4 days.  Good learning from terrific coaches, as well as from the other students and the marine environment itself.   Splitting into 3 groups of similar skills made the camp accessible to a big group of people, but provided learning tailored to where we were.  The accommodations were not luxurious, but we were comfortable, and having hot breakfasts and dinners and showers was a treat.  All were tired at the end of the camp, but I think everyone went away a better paddler with bunch of new friends.  Doesn't get much better than that.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

BBB Coastal Leadership Class

In September I went out to the five day Body Boat Blade Coastal Leadership Training class in the San Juans.  Leon and Shawna offer their BCU 4 star training in two flavors.  The 5 day version is in the inner islands of the San Juans in the fall, with the focus on leadership skills and navigation.  The 3 day version is on the open coast in the spring, with more of an emphasis on surf and rough water. 

As I've gone through my notes from the course, I'm amazed at how much we packed into 5 days.  

The emphasis on leadership started from the beginning as we discussed the higher standard of care and responsibility entailed by the 4 star award.  The focus of the course was learning and practicing being an effective leader.  Which not only includes bringing everyone back (hopefully in one piece), but also creating a positive experience such that everyone wants to come and do it again.

CLAP was the core of what we practiced.  Communication (if you can't converse, you're not in communication), Line of sight (if you can't see someone, assume something horrible has happened), Avoidance over cure, Position of maximum usefulness (either keep them away from the danger, or be where you can pick up the pieces.)  

All of those things take paying attention.  And they take a group.  Another focus of discussion was what a competent member of a group is.  A 3 star paddler is supposed to be just that -- a competent member of the group.  The "simple" act of being part of a group also requires paying attention.  Staying in close so you can hear. Making it easy for the leader to see you.  Supporting the leader.  Making it easier for other mariners to see us and know what we we're doing.  Practicing paddling as a tight group in no conditions so we can do it in conditions.

There were 5 students in the class, and each of us would lead one of the days.  The leader was given the day's destination and some basic parameters (e.g., get us to point A at high tide, taking maximum advantage of the current).  We had to figure out when we needed to start in the morning and how to get the group there as efficiently and safely as possible, based on tides, current and weather.

Levi was our leader on the first day.  We started by doing a risk assessment as a group, which we did every day.  Great tool.  Not only does it ensure that the risk assessment is performed, but it ensures that the entire group participates and understands.  If a decision has to be made to change the day's plans, everyone is in from the beginning. If there's a concern about something like worsening weather, or a headland that has to be rounded, the entire group understands the risks and concerns. 

It was my turn to lead the second day, with Levi as my co-leader.  We took the group down between Lopez and San Juan Islands to Cattle Point.  When we got down to Cattle Point, we stopped for lunch, then paddled on and around a couple of points. The first one we rounded as a group.  The second was closer to an eddy line and opposing current, and before we rounded, Leon asked "what would happen if you had multiple capsizes here?"  Hmmm. That wouldn't be so good.  So Levi rounded first and we sent the group around one at a time while I stayed down current to pick up anyone if needed.

When it came time to return,  I foolishly let myself drift across the eddy line while I was maneuvering around another paddler.  I got caught in the current and pulled away from the group.  I knew right away that Leon or Shawna would seize the opportunity and sure enough – as soon as I looked back I saw Leon telling Dick to capsize.   There was a sea lion hanging about, and he barked at us as soon as Dick went into the water. 

I was getting my boat turned around, but the current was rapidly carrying me away from my swimmer.  Fortunately, Levi was there and got Dick back into his boat.  Unfortunately, he decided that Dick could paddle with a boat full of water (which he could), and chose not to empty the boat until back across the eddy line.  Not the answer Leon was looking for.  "If you can't get the water out and the swimmer back in their boat, you're probably out of your remit."    Poor Dick was asked to capsize again.  By then I was back from my little side trip and was able to get his boat emptied and Dick back into it.   Good lesson on keeping self and group safely tucked in out of the way of wind, waves, and current.

We spent a while working on the eddy line, doing rescues, towing, rolling, contact tows, tossing our paddles away and pulling out our spares.  (The sea lion continued to provide intermittent commentary when people were in the water or making too much noise.)   We crossed over to Lopez while the current was flooding north between San Juan Island and Lopez Island, doing a mass breakout across the eddy line so we stayed close together, picking a course that allowed for the current, and trying to stay together through the boils and turbulent water.  We crossed back again to find our campsite on San Juan Island. 

By the end of Day 2 we had settled into a routine.  We debriefed in the evenings.  Mornings we covered weather, navigation, towing, and other topics.  Subject areas I'd been introduced to before (or even taught before) became clearer.   

On the longer stretches of paddling, we played games that tested our skills, or worked on linking strokes, or towing, or paddling backwards.  Stern tapping.  Rescues.  A demonstration of how quickly a boat blows away from a swimmer.  Constantly checking our position, against the chart and against ranges ahead and to the side.   Rocky landings.

Each day had different challenges for the leader.  On Day 3, Dick had the biggest weather challenge, and wisely came up with a plan A (the assignment he'd been given) as well as a plan B (a safer plan).   I was Dick's assistant leader, bringing up the rear.  At one point I heard Shawna ask another student to capsize if Dick lost sight of him, but Dick never let that happen. 

On Day 4 we did a planned exercise of parking behind a buoy with a knot or two of current flowing by.  It got a lot more exciting than planned when a ferry that we weren't expecting appeared and we didn't know what its course would be.   

Night 4 was on Jones Island. Fabulous campsite looking out over the water.  The island has a bumper crop of raccoons, though.  After dinner, we put our food in our boats and secured the hatches.  As we were sitting around and talking after dark, we heard something and went and checked the boats.  One of the little bandits had found a forgotten bag of food and was running off with it.  We shined a light up into a tree and saw at least a dozen pairs of glowing raccoon eyes staring down at us. 

As we headed for home on Day 5 we did a towing exercise that involved 4 towers, capsizes, and rescues.  And Leon helpfully adding stress, just in case it was needed.  If there was any remaining doubt, it brought home the fact that towing and loose ropes are dangerous.  

It truly was an outstanding course.  The San Juans themselves become one of the participants, with the dynamic water, the ferries and other boat traffic, the marine life, the wind and sun and currents.  Having the group together all day provided ample time to talk and learn and ask questions and reflect.   Each of the participants had different experience and leadership styles and we could all learn from each other.  Plenty of unscripted events provided teachable/learnable moments.  Generous and inventive and fiercely committed teachers provided a safety net but let us push our limits.  Oh, and did I mention fun? 

Looking forward to the 3 day version of this class!

Photos are here (mine and Steve's).

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Alaska: Whittier to Seward

I'd had my eye on GKC's Alaska trip all winter, but I kept being sensible – it was too much on top of all of the other things I was doing this year. But sometime in April I just had to ask Ryan "Are there any spaces left?" The answer was yes, there was a space left.

It also turned out that the trip had changed. Instead of staying in the relatively protected Prince William Sound, the group would paddle south as fast as possible to get to the Gulf of Alaska. If the weather window permitted, we would turn the corner at Cape Puget and paddle west along the Gulf of Alaska to Resurrection Bay. If the weather was not favorable, we'd spend a little time playing in the bigger water, then head back towards Whittier and probably take a water taxi back at some point.

Sea kayaking along the exposed coast of the Gulf of Alaska is riskier than staying in the sound. Once we started across Puget Bay, it would be 22 nautical miles to the next reliable place to land if the conditions were unfavorable. Winds of more than 30 knots can blow for days, and even the big boats don't venture out. There are no roads into the coast, so if you're out there in your kayak, you wait it out.

Which is a bit of a concern when you have a flight reservation, a job you hope to return to, and only the food you're carrying.

We were renting our boats from Tom Pogson of Alaska Kayak School, and he had been reluctant to let us make the attempt to go to Seward. Rumor had it that of the last 4 groups that had tried it, two had ended up calling in the Coast Guard. One was apparently due to a damaged boat and one was due to a need to get out according to a pre-determined schedule. So one of our group's ground rules for making the attempt for Seward was that Tom had to approve it. (We carried a satellite phone for that reason as well as for emergencies.) Another was that if we went, we wouldn't take unsafe chances just to make it back in time to catch a flight.

In May, we had a training weekend on the Menominee River. I missed the first day due a far more important event (my wonderful niece's wedding to a wonderful man), but I joined in on the second day.  The expectations were a lot higher with the Alaska trip as our goal, and the training turned into more of a mental challenge for me than a physical one, as I started the day off badly and was feeling a day late and a dollar short all day.  It was a perfect opportunity to put some of the mental game aspects that had come up in the San Juan Currents course into play. Ryan had some good coaching as well, and I managed to turn the day around eventually, but it was hard work.

After that, it was less than a month before we would meet in Alaska, and the time went too fast. We were all responsible for our own charts and current information and planning and research. We also watched the weather to get a sense of what the patterns were and what the range of conditions might be.

Training/paddling was also essential, as we would be paddling up to 30 nautical miles a day. I ended up testing the theory that paddling 8 – 10 miles 3 – 4 days a week would be enough; it was the best I could do.

On June 18, Tony and I flew out together, and Ryan met us at the airport in Anchorage. The rest of the group had arrived the night before and were picking up last minute items from REI. Our group of seven finally met at Humpy's restaurant in Anchorage for lunch. We all knew most of the group. I'd met Tony in our first sea kayaking class in 2008, and we've been paddling buddies ever since. I'd taken other GKC classes with Ryan, Mark, Sarah and Paul. I hadn't met Rich before, but he knew all the other folks. This was Mark's fifth Alaska trip, Paul had led the prior year's trip, and Ryan had paddled extensively in Alaska, so we had a lot of experience amongst us.

At lunch, Tony told the group about a couple calls he had made to get some local knowledge before the trip. One charter boat captain had been very helpful with information about currents in the channels we would be paddling through and where the whales were hanging out. 

The sticking point, though, was clearly the part of the trip along the Gulf of Alaska.  Another charter captain had left Tony a voice mail saying "You don't know how dangerous what you're talking about doing is. Please call me back so that I can talk to you about this. You really don't want to do it."  (Tony hadn't called back.)  Rich said that his Dad was familiar with the Gulf of Alaska and had said "Don't go."

(It did cross my mind that it was technically still possible to hop on a plane and head home at that point...)

After lunch, we headed to Whittier. We packed the group gear that afternoon, then went to the Swiftwater Seafood Café for the best fish and chips we'd ever had.

Day 1: (Days are hyperlinked to the GPS track/map for that day.)  Next morning we were off. It was overcast, with the clouds settling lower down the mountains as the day went on. Whittier sits on the southern shore of the western end of Passage Canal, and we were headed east. We crossed over to the north side to see the kittiwake colony and thoroughly enjoyed watching them wheel and swirl overhead, then continued paddling east. We got the first of several interesting responses to our proposed destination when Ryan chatted briefly with a guide who was taking some folks out on a day trip. When he heard we were going to Seward, he said "Wow!"

We stopped at Decision Point for lunch. There was a splendid kitchen made of downed trees for Ryan to make lunch on, but the group proved to be quite slow at finding the lunch fixings in the group gear bags that had been hurriedly stashed and stuffed away into whatever nooks and crannies were available.  You'd think nobody was hungry.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that Ryan was getting a little testy about the lack of effort and progress, but he certainly appeared to be moving in that direction. The feta cheese didn't turn up for several days, but we eventually found the critical ingredients for the meal.

After lunch fog was lurking about, so instead of a direct crossing towards Culross Passage, we headed towards Blackstone Point, then over to Culross.

Culross Passage is about 10 miles long, and we wanted to reach it at the beginning of the ebb tide to get whatever assist was available heading south. There wasn't a lot of tidal current, but as Ryan pointed out, after a long day, even half a knot was welcome. We definitely wanted to get to the end before the flood tide.

Towards the end of the passage we started looking for a campsite, and we spent more time looking that night than any other. It had been a long day (about 25 nautical miles), and we explored several locations before we found a viable site. We also searched unsuccessfully for a cabin that was marked on the Trials Illustrated map. (A later search of the park websites didn't turn up any cabins at that location.) Our eventual campsite was the northernmost of the two kayak landing beaches marked on the Trails Illustrated map on the west side of the south end of Cullross Passage. Phantom cabins notwithstanding, the kayak landing beaches marked on the map seemed to be reliable kayak campsites.  And throughout the trip, the long days of the Alaskan summer were handy when it came to late arrivals.  There was at least one night when we didn't finish dinner and cleanup until after midnight. 

On Day 2, we paddled past several fishing fleets. Mark explained how they worked and how to stay out of their way, and what to do if they offered us a fish (don't drop it!).

One of the captains who was working alone yelled at us for paddling over his net ("If you'd asked I would have said yes, but you can't paddle over someone's nets without asking!") A bit later, a friendlier fisherman called us over and offered us a fish. Sarah paddled up and took it and put it in her cockpit. Fish was not dropped. Way to go, Sarah.

We stopped for lunch at Eshamy Bay. Lovely bay, hordes of mosquitoes. Our lunch spot was chosen based on the need to find fresh water (we were looking for streams on the map and charts), so we filtered water while fending off the mosquitoes. (Note to self: bug shirts don't work at lunch stops while wearing a dry suit. Get a bug hat and keep in day hatch.). Our splendid fish was placed in an Ikea bag and weighted down in the water to chill while we lunched by the pretty waterfall and fed the bugs.

As we paddled away after lunch, we chatted with some fishermen who encouraged us to stop and check out the nearby Eshamy Bay Lodge. We didn't take the time to do that, but it seemed like a good destination if you ever wanted to visit Prince William Sound but not camp, or to break up a camping trip.

As we headed out of the bay, we had one of our many lessons on reading tides and currents. We paddled by an area where an island was blocking the current and Ryan played twenty questions as he tried to draw out how to read the current by the differences in wind against waves as opposed to wind with waves. When paddling on inland lakes, if one sees a patch of water where the waves look different, it's probably due to the wind being different. On the ocean, it's likely due to the interaction of wind and current -- wind with current smoothing the waves out and wind against current standing the waves up. Wouldn't it be clever to learn to read the water to paddle where the current is most in your favor? While one is working on that, turns out that it's helpful to pay attention if Ryan is paddling a very different route than everyone else.

Our second night's destination was Ewan Bay, where some of our group had camped before, though they didn't remember exactly where. The previous night we had more or less bonked when it came time to find a campsite, and Ryan ended up doing the scouting while we drifted rather aimlessly. Tonight we tried a different tactic ... everyone scattered in different directions looking for a campsite. Good idea to share the scouting, but a wee bit of planning about how to communicate might have been in order. We all eventually converged and found a nice site about halfway up the cove on the west side.

I took our water filter and walked the shore looking for a stream, but didn't find one. Paul ended up finding water farther into the woods. Another lesson learned … the wet spots by the shore may be tidal, or they may be fresh water streams that petered out before reaching the shore, with viable water sources a bit inland.

Red salmon for dinner. Yum!

On Day 3 we paddled to the head of the bay looking for an overfall where a lagoon separated from the bay continued to pour out long after low tide. No overfall, but there was a waterfall and an eddy line, and we spent half an hour or so playing in the current, which reminded us of the Menominee River.

After our play time, we split into two groups. Mark had picked up a bug that left him feeling pretty lousy the first half of the trip, and he and Ryan headed off to find a campsite at our evening's destination at Dual Head. 

Paul led Sarah, Rich, Tony and me to Nassau Glacier and then to Dual Head. We had lunch on Jackpot Island, in the mouth of Jackpot Bay The island had lovely sheltered landing sites on either side, so it would be a good place to stop in more than one wind direction.

As we approached Icy Bay, we started to see bits of brash ice. (Brash ice is less than 6 feet across). We were paddling into a decent headwind, so it was slower going. As we got closer, we could hear the ice tinkling as bits bumped into each other, and occasionally the scary sound made when a boat crunches against a bit of ice -- sounds much worse than it is. The water was noticeably colder as we approached the glacier.

Finally we turned the corner to see Nassau Glacier, a tidewater glacier that comes all the way down to the water. Well worth the paddle.

It would have been a long paddle to get appreciably closer to the glacier, so we turned around and headed back to Dual Head, a headland south of Icy Bay and north of Whale Bay. We were now paddling with the wind, which speeded up our progress. We passed a campsite or two before we found Ryan and Mark. Another group was in the process of landing on one of the sites. They asked where we were headed and again we got that pause/double take when we told them Seward.

Eventually we reached Dual Head. Nice site, though no water source. We ended up putting our kitchen sink bucket in a cave to catch drips over night, and had enough water in the morning to start out.

That evening, on our kitchen/dining room rock, Tony and I were talking when I heard something that sounded like a whale's spout that seemed very close by. We finally spotted the whales a mile or so away … it was such a quiet evening that the sound carried clearly across the water. We could see the spouts and sometimes the flukes as the whales dove.

Day 4: Next morning as we headed for Bainbridge Passage, we could still see the whales. As Tony said, "Whales for dinner and whales for breakfast!"

We pushed on to get through Bainbridge Passage before losing the ebb tide, then across Port Bainbridge. We paddled into and through a fog bank, and another bit of fog came down from our right before we stopped for lunch in a shallow bay just north of Auk Bay . We were pretty low on water at that point, and the chart showed a lake inland of us. Tony and I headed off up a dry creek bed (with lots of "hey bears" along the way) to look for it, but the creek bed was soon blocked by fallen trees, and bushwhacking soon proved untenable as we reached a ravine. We could hear water in the distance; we just couldn't see a way to get to it.

Back at camp, Rich and Paul tried another route and were again the heroes, bringing back fresh water.  We all dozed after lunch as the water filtered.

Then we paddled around Cape Puget to camp on the gravel beach by East Lagoon, south of Goat Harbor in Puget Bay. The next day would be decision day on whether to head for Seward or not. 

Paddling into Puget Bay was a great idea for a couple of reasons. First, it got us closer to our destination. Second, rounding Cape Puget gave us a feel for what paddling along the headlands would be like. With all the comments and reactions and everything we had read about how dangerous this stretch could be, it was easy to build it up as bigger than it really was when the weather was as calm as it was.

Dinner was grilled pizza. Good paddling food.

Day 5: Next morning the weather window continued to look good, so we were off to Seward. Not without a little drama, though. There were a couple of stuck skegs, and Tony pulled out his knife to clear them. In the process, he got a bad cut. Rich the surgeon saved the day with super glue.

We started the journey we had been anticipating for so long in fog. It was frustrating to be on a stretch of dramatic coastline that very few people ever get a chance to paddle and not be able to see it, but the weather slowly cleared.

We passed a couple of rock gardens, and at first we all circled wide around them. Midwestern flat water paddlers, rented boats, a long way from help if we damaged anything – playing it safe made sense. But Ryan said "get in there!" Cape Resolution would be bigger than these headlands, and we needed to be comfortable in them. And ... we really were comfortable in them once we got in.

We also saw seals and sea otters. Also whales -- first in the distance, then a pair of humpbacks came along and swam near us.

I glanced to the right as we approached one of the headlands and was surprised to see two sea lions swimming along less than a boat length away from me. They seemed just as surprised to see me, and quickly dove. Soon we came to the headland and as we paddled by a rock, saw at least a dozen sea lions on the far side.

With the favorable conditions, we were able to land for lunch in Johnstone Bay. We checked the mileage to our destination and realized it was farther than we had been thinking, and considered our options. Paddling all the way to Day Harbor was more than we wanted to do, given that the weather forecast was stable and we weren't running out of time. We came up with a couple options for places to camp for the night and headed on.

With one last headland to round before our night's destination in Horsehead Bay, we found ourselves paddling hard but making no progress against the current. This was another point Ryan kept driving home: constantly using the shore to gauge your progress. Our options now were 1) paddle harder (could we? for long enough?), 2) turn around and backtrack, 3) keep doing what we were doing and hope something changed for the better, 4) look for an eddy. 

Tony and I tried for the eddy line. It was there, and once we tucked in it became an easy paddle, but it took everything we had to get past the worst of the current into the eddy.  Ryan and Sarah kept paddling the original course, and the current eased off.

The campsite at Horsehead Bay was delightful, and even had a lake to bathe near – coldish water, but being clean was a treat. And the mosquitoes had disappeared when we reached the open coast.

Day 6: We paddled across Day Harbor to Driftwood Bay, which set us up to round Cape Resurrection. We stopped for lunch and a break. Our plan was to round the cape at the slack water before the flood, so we had a chance to relax for a bit while we waited. Tony had heard that if one got trapped in Day Harbor in weather too bad to round the Cape, there was a portage across. We saw no sign of any portage; just high, steep cliffs, and there was no appetite for portaging once we saw them.

As we paddled south to the cape, we paddled by another kittiwake colony, even bigger than the one near Whittier, and we sat in our boats with silly grins on our faces as they flew about overhead.

Ryan and Mark saw a large, high ceilinged cave and backed in, and we all followed. A swell started to fill the cave, lifting our boats towards ceiling. Someone behind me said "Out!" and we were out of there.

Cape Resurrection itself was beautiful, though a little anticlimactic. We'd been prepared to battle our way around white knuckled through fierce winds and pounding, surging waves, but it was an easy rounding. And then we turned the corner and Resolution Bay opened up in front of us. We finally saw puffins, and more sea lions. 

We paddled past Rugged and Hive Islands. Rich, Sarah and I stopped for water at a waterfall, then we camped on the sandspit on Fox.

Tony's phone worked from the campsite, and we made a couple of quick phone calls to the few who knew what we were actually doing (we're around the Cape!).

We took a rest day on Day 7, with nothing more adventurous than making a water run to Kayakers Cove, which would be another possible base camp.

Had we started our journey in Resurrection Bay, it would have felt delightfully remote. Coming from the open coast, though, it felt practically urban. As soon as we rounded the cape, we started running into a parade of sightseeing boats, fishing boats, and sailboats. In the quiet of the night, we could hear thundering booms that came from deep within Bear Glacier, one bay over and around Callisto Point.

Day 8 we headed on to Bear Glacier with Paul. Ryan wasn't coming. We had been a bit surprised – not see Bear Glacier? But he said "My work is done." Puzzlingly, he asked for the potatoes before we split up. The plan was that he would claim a campsite by Caines Head, and would pitch his tent to mark the camp if he wasn't there when we arrived.

The rest of us paddled around Callisto Point. There was another rock garden, though this one was not so friendly as some of the others. Paul taught us to avoid the spots where the white water was moving sideways, vs. the places where the water was moving up and down.

After lunch, we returned around the point and back into Resurrection Bay. We were once again in need of water, and stopped by another waterfall where Mark and Rich landed to fill up our dromedaries.

Just before Caines Head, we spotted the tent Ryan had left, and landed to make camp. By this time the group was a finely tuned machine, as we got the water filtering, wood gathered, a tarp pitched, and the bear hang ready to go. Still no Ryan. Eventually we decided some sort of food was in order, and started some chili. Still no Ryan. Mark and Paul told us he that he'd planned to paddle in to Seward to bring back some sort of treat, but we were still becoming somewhat concerned as it grew later and later. Finally Ryan appeared around the corner of the bay, surfed up on to the beach, and leapt out of his kayak with great panache. He proceeded to pull one tasty item after another out his hatches: Shrimp. Salmon.  Eggs. Oranges. Beer. Ice. We were all put to work peeling shrimp and potatoes, finding skewers and making a brick oven. Dinner was late, but well worth the wait.

Day 9: Next morning was our final stretch to Seward. We met Tom Pogson by Lowell Point, emptied the boats, loaded them on his trailer, and piled into a taxi we had called. We were eager for the showers we had been anticipating in Seward, but the power was out in the entire town. We found a place with a gas grill and got lunch, then waited for our pickup to get back to Anchorage.

We dropped our luggage at the airport and a few of us took a taxi to the Alaska Club for showers. We all gathered at Humpy's in the airport for one last dinner, and then we split up for various gates and flights home.

Nine magical days, and then it was over.  How to sum it up?  I definitely had some apprehension going into the trip. Any other set of conditions would have been an entirely different trip – who's to say whether better or worse. Learned a bunch; lots more to learn.

If there was anything to change, it would have been better preparation. Start earlier, do more.

No question, though -- I'm very glad and very fortunate that I was able to do this wonderful trip.

Photos are here.

Friday, May 20, 2011

San Juan Currents

Too busy having fun;  the adventures are stacking up waiting to be put up for cold winter nights.  I don't THINK it's possible to have too many kayaking adventures, but I may have come close to that point the last month or so.

Catching up in adventure order:  in May I headed back out to Body Boat Blade for their San Juan Currents course.  The course description is ”Learn the skills and strategies for dealing with the powerful currents, tidal races, and over falls that run through the San Juan Islands. We will explore ferry gliding, how to read water, crossing strategies, and how to predict the time, speed, and direction of currents. These are the skills you need to plan an easy, fun, and safe trip. We start by refreshing your skills, and then we enter these races and build your confidence as the currents increase. This is a great class to start building your rough water skills and broaden your knowledge of the sea. Come to this class with play in mind!" Prerequisites are BCU 3 Star Skills, Ocean Currents Class, confident rescue skills and a solid roll.

Said differently, the class provided a chance to experience a wide range of the conditions found in the San Juans, with a couple of coaches/5 star paddlers guiding the way and providing a safety net.  Held on May 18 and 19th this year, this course is scheduled to coincide with the maximum tidal range and difference in speed between flood and ebb currents.  All of the varying conditions were available between the southwest corner of Lopez Island and across to San Juan Island.

The adventure began with a little logistical mess up on my part.  I thought I had scheduled a flight at 9:50 AM the day before the class, giving me ample time to get to Seattle, pick up a car, drive up to the ferry in Anacortes, get to Lopez Island, and find the little one room/off season cabin in the woods that I'd rented.  I tried to check in for the flight the night before, and was informed that it was not within 24 hours of my flight.  After a bit of concerned head scratching, I realized that I'd made my reservation for 9:50 PM.  Ooops.  It all worked out, and I got an extra day of work in, but ended up just a wee bit short of sleep.

The six students met Leon and Shawna at Holly B's bakery in Lopez village.  It only seemed polite to buy a bakery treat while we were waiting for all the students to arrive.  Said bakery treat was justified as being for lunch.  It did not survive that long.

Our classmates included 3 young men from Iceland who had met Leon and Shawna during their Iceland circumnavigation in 2003 and were visiting the west coast.

Once we were all gathered we did some on land work, including discussing tidal races, then drove around to Mackaye Harbor on the south end of the island to launch. The plan for Day 1 was to play in the tidal race and standing waves off Davis Point.  Both days of the class proved to be unexpectedly sunny and warm (contrary to the weather reports and prior days' weather).  Clouds and rain would have worked, but the bright sun and blue skies were a treat.

We paddled out to Davis Point as the flood current was building.  This Midwestern paddler was delighted with the purple sea stars clinging to the rocky shores.

The first day's focus was the standing waves.  I proved to be a slow learner.  The green waves (easy to surf) were in the front.  A wave or two back, things quickly turned into a confused mess.  I suppose I gained a certain comfort level in paddling in a confused mess, but it took me quite a while to integrate and act on the idea that instead of thrashing around in the confusion, one should try to stay in the front, and if you drifted back (where the current was taking you), simply paddle over to the eddy and get in front again.

I also worked a lot on my stern draw.  Works okay in calm water; not so reliable on a wave.   Need to get the blade in the water better.  We did some rescues in the rough water.  One person capsized unintentionally and it was impressive how quickly he was carried up the San Juan Channel.  Learned a new paddle signal on that one -- come to me (paddle up), then point to the paddler in the water (receding into the distance).

After lunch and some more play time, we headed back to Mackaye harbor, but the day wasn't done yet.  We stopped on some rocks by a low cliff and landed one at a time, leaving our boat adrift.  After climbing up the cliff, we jumped off, and climbed back in to our boats.  Most of us jumped forward from the low spot.  One of the Iceland guys climbed to the higher spot;  another one did a back flip.

We had dinner together, then off to a good night's sleep.

The next day we started at Holly B's again and discussed a range of topics.  The white board had some points from a prior class, which we discussed briefly (submerge your blade; get your skeleton behind your blade;  keep your blade away from your body;  hook your blade and move your boat past it).  We discussed catastrophe theory (roll in anger!) and the Inner Game of Tennis.  Owning your paddling.  Watch me … I'm going to be great! 

After a while we turned to the day's paddle.  How were folks doing on a scale of 1 to 10?  (If not so good, maybe we'd avoid the max current.)

Our goal for the day was to paddle over to the lighthouse on San Juan Island, doing the one mile crossing  near max flood (over 4 knots).  We had a Plan A, a Plan B, and a Plan C.  Plan A was that we would hit our ferry angle and make it directly to the lighthouse and return to Mackaye Harbor.  Plan B was that we would be carried too far north, but would be able to paddle up in the eddy and still get to the lighthouse and return to Mackaye.  Plan C involved leaving a car at a point farther north in case we couldn't get back to Mackaye Harbor due to the current carrying us north.  Good lesson on real world examples of having backups to your backups.

We played assorted balance games after we launched (jousting, paddling with feet out, turning around on the back deck, down dog yoga, standing in our boats.  (How far up does a paddler have to get to call it "standing"?)  Many swims occurred during this period.

Then we worked on a number of navigation exercises while we waited for max flood.  Set a ferry angle allowing for the current to get that island.  Calculate the course from the chart, allow for variation, and set a range to hold the course to get to that island.  We landed on a little rock while the tide was racing by (Shawna stayed in her boat to catch any stray equipment or paddlers).  Paddling figure eights between rocks in the tidal current.

Eventually it was time to head across to Cattle Point.  We followed Leon, while Shawna nipped at our heels.  There were boils (upwellings or bulges where the water pushes up from the bottom and flows away from the center) and other interesting features in the water.  We missed our Plan A target, but tucked in before Goose Island (Plan B) and paddled most of the way back to the lighthouse.  After a break, we headed back across the channel to Lopez.  Following Leon felt like we were playing crack the whip, as we wound our way across the dynamic water.   It was clear that boat control, ability to paddle in a tight group, and paddling speed/fitness expectations rise with the BCU star levels.

We had several people who had to catch the evening ferry, so we ended up going with Plan C, enhanced by having the one of the Iceland guys who wasn't paddling drive a car up to the Plan C landing site.

After we landed, fetched remaining cars and loaded the boats, my friends of the past two days headed off to catch the evening ferry.  I found a yummy dinner at the Love Dog Café, then it was off to pack and sleep before another early ferry the next morning.  The return from Lopez to Anacortes was beautiful.  It's easy to see how people fall in love with the San Juans.

Photos are here.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Deception Pass with Body Boat Blade

At the end of March, I was lucky enough to be able to head out to the Seattle area to take a class with Leon and Shawna at Body Boat Blade.  I've been able to paddle in some pretty wonderful places and get some great coaching the past couple years, but that didn't stop me from being pretty excited about this trip.  The Pacific Northwest is a completely different environment than inland lakes or Lake Superior or Georgia.  Shawna and Leon have a reputation as great coaches, and this class would be in Deception Pass, a narrow strait that the tide squeezes through at 5 and 6 knots (sometimes over 8 knots), creating eddy lines and whirlpools and standing waves.  I'd seen video of kayakers in Deception Pass.  It can become a pretty wild place, although it was relatively tame when I was there.

Our class was made up of 6 students in addition to Shawna and Leon.  We gathered at noon at Bowman Bay on Thursday.  We started with some on-land discussion, including getting on the same page with rescues:  let Leon and Shawna handle the rescues, and don't try to help;  that becomes a distraction.  If you go over, flip your boat and move towards the bow but not all the way up.  Transfer to the rescuer's boat.  Don't hand them your paddle until asked.

We ran through their risk assessment method, where you plot potential risks as red, yellow, or green, and make a conscious effort to change the situation to move reds and yellows towards green.  And we were reminded that risk assessment isn't a one time task;  you're doing it all day long.

Max flood that day was about noon, with slack around 3:00 and the max ebb of 6.6 knots just before 6:00.  The day was calm when the group arrived, but by the time we were ready to launch shortly after 1:00, the wind had picked up and there were frequent whitecaps in the bay.

We had to paddle out of the bay and south around the headland to get into the pass.  The waves were decent sized and reflecting off the cliffs of the headland, and we were paddling parallel to them.  At one point I found myself on the side of a wave looking down to my left and thinking "That's a long way down to the bottom of the trough."   An instant later, I was on top of the next wave.

Some of our group were not comfortable in the conditions, so Leon and Shawna decided to forego rounding the headland.  We turned around and paddled back to the bay and portaged across to the pass, which was a short walk. 

The pass itself is a narrow channel with steep, rocky cliffs.  Pass Island conveniently splits the pass in two at the narrowest part, supporting a high bridge with two arches, one on either side the island.   Being there feels much like being on a river with a deep gorge, except that sometimes the current flows one way and sometimes it flows the other way, and sometimes there's no current at all.

We started by paddling around Pass island, after learning that the more islands you circumnavigate, the more likely you are to go to heaven.  Or was it the more islands you get to paddle around after you get to heaven?  I forget.  In any case, the north side of Pass Island was where we would do most of our work (play?) over the next two days. It has good eddy lines when a current is flowing, no matter whether ebb or flood.

I'd taken a couple classes with Geneva Kayak Center last summer on the Menominee River in sea kayaks, learning to handle eddy line crossings and dynamic water.  The eddy lines in Deception Pass seemed bigger/longer and at times were faster, but the skills carried over from the river very well, and I was glad of the prior teaching and experience with Scott and Ryan. 

DP also has whirlpools.  I'd seen them on the video and asked about them at the beginning of the class.  No, they don't suck you down.  (At least not this size.)  Good to know.  It is, however, a good idea to pick which side you paddle across them on, as they can slingshot you forward or pull you in towards the center.

Conditions changed constantly as the current moved from flood to slack to ebb over the course of the day.  We got some nice standing waves as the swells coming in from the west ran into the ebbing current heading out in the afternoon.  When we paddled back around the headland at the end of the day, there was a beautiful seascape of waves and breaking waves off in the distance.

Friday was rainy and we started much earlier (8:30) to catch beginning of the flood current.  Our first assignment was to launch some way we didn't normally launch.  Leon had showed me a speed launch the previous day (bow in the water, grab the stern toggle, run the boat into the water and launch yourself belly first onto the back deck, then cowboy up into the cockpit.).  First time I tried it I went for a swim, but by the end of the class, it was working pretty well.

After a backwards paddling warmup, we headed over to a dock that was a couple feet high.  We got out and pulled our boats up and across the dock, then shoved them over the other side and jumped in after them (holding onto them the whole time), and re-entered from the water.  (Much easier to do a cowboy re-entry if you start horizontal on the water, not vertical.  Thank you, Leon.)

After paddling around the headland, the next destination was the Room of Doom.  This is an area on the far side of the pass, just to the left of the bridge pier.  There's a back eddy there during a flood current, with a sharp eddy line and whirlpools and boils.  (Throughout the class, Leon kept wanting to lead us to the Valley of Sunshine, or so he claimed.  Shawna was more apt to take us to places like the Room of Doom.  Should we make that mean something?)

Shawna had asked me to lead the group over across the pass.  After a period of trial and error and some helpful leading questions from Shawna, I stumbled across the idea that if I was to one side of the group,  I could see everyone without craning my neck, and set a pace that was good for the group.

In an example of how our minds play tricks on us (or at least mine does), the Room of Doom had originally been described to me as "behind the bridge pier."  (Or at least that's what I heard.)  Perhaps because I knew that Shawna and Leon had once been at the University of Minnesota, the image that I created in my mind was based on the the I 94 and Franklin Avenue bridge piers on the Mississippi, and I expected the Room of Doom to be between the pier and the shore.  I kept looking for the openings on either side of the pier that would allow us to get behind it.  This was despite the fact that we had paddled by the Room on the previous day, and the fact that it was pretty obvious that the pier was solidly on land as we approached it.  Sigh.

As with the Pass itself, the Room was fairly mellow that day.  It was fun to play in, but fortunately didn't live up to its name.

Back at our now familiar playground by Pass Island, Shawna started throwing tennis balls out into the current for us to rescue. Next came rescuing each other.  The plan was for the first person to paddle out across the eddy line, and capsize as soon as we were in the green (smooth) water in the main current.  Our partner would be right behind us and come up for a T rescue. 

I jumped the gun and capsized and exited a little too close to the eddy line.  A couple seconds later I was in a whirlpool.  Boat was going one way and I was going another.  I remember ducking under it and switching sides, and then I was out and back in the main current.  Interesting experience.

We also did self rescues out in the current, and learned other assorted new tricks, including a dynamic leg drop for edging our boats. At one point I was supposed to be watching Leon show me something to try next, and a seal popped its head up right behind Leon.  I watched the seal.  Sorry, Leon.

By mid afternoon folks were running out of gas and the flood was nearly done, so we headed back around the headland.  We found a narrow V in the cliff and took turns moving up to it and paddling forward and back to hold position as we were washed up and down and in and out by the swells.  My initial concern was the image of getting my (borrowed) bow caught on the rocks at the top of a swell as the water drained away beneath me, but Leon helpfully pointed out the possibility of getting the bow stuck at the bottom as the water surged up.   Good reasons not to get stuck.

We had an early dinner at the Deception Pass Café, and called it a day.  Great two days, and a great warmup for the San Juan Currents class in May.

Photos are here.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Kayak Camp with Ben and John

When I told people I was going south at the beginning of March, there were some assumptions about what I would be doing.  Walks on the beach.  Swimming pools.  Relaxing.  Adult beverages.  Dining out.  Sleeping in.  

When I explained I was going to Ben Lawry's kayak camp, I got a range of responses.  Polite puzzlement was fairly common from my non-kayaking friends.  I think that even of a few of my kayaking friends may have thought this was a little over the top. 

But for me, it was perfect.  Four days packed full of learning and fun with two terrific coaches.  Eight similarly kayaking-obsessed participants who quickly became friends.  Water that wasn't frozen solid.  A color palette that wasn't black, gray and white.  A great start to the paddling season in terms of getting into shape and getting focused on areas to develop.  

We gathered in Tybee, GA on Thursday night.  The other participants were from Nova Scotia, New Jersey, Virginia, South Carolina, and New York.  The coaches were Ben Lawry and John Carmody.  Ben and John are aligned in coaching philosophy, but not identical.  They complemented each other very well, not only in terms of facial hair and height, but also in terms of communication style and approach.  If you get a chance to work with either of them, grab it.

Kayak camp has no set agenda.  On the first night, the group comes up with goals.  Over the next four days, the coaches work with the conditions and the goals to deliver the best learning opportunities possible.  Each night we had a chance to revisit our goals in light of what we had done that day.

Day One was very windy with confused seas and most of us hadn't been on the water for months, so we headed to an inland lake to work on core skills.  Lots of edging.  Paddling with eyes closed.  Theory of turning the boat in wind.  Paddling on one side.  It always amazes me how much there is to learn about basic skills.  And warm ups on all 4 days were always a treat, as we coaxed our somewhat older than 40-something bodies into motion.  (Where does Ben think these things up?  Frogs and crabs and cats and dogs and paddles and twists…?)

Day Two was windy again, and we launched on the south channel of the Savannah River and headed east, an area of Tybee I'd never visited.  Paddling with ranges, starting to work with currents, navigation, surf landings, trip leadership, rescues, a visit out to Cockspur Lighthouse.

Day Three started on the dining room table with a discussion of currents while we waited for a cold front to pass through, then we worked on taking advantage of the currents and spinning on the eddy lines of the back channels.  Hip snaps on paddle floats.  Towing.  More navigation.

Day Four was more trip leadership and piloting, as we took turns leading the group through Jack's Cut around Little Tybee.  Funny thing how when you're piloting, you need to pay attention for more than the first five minutes.

We stopped for lunch, after which Ben drew a series of diagrams in the sand and we paired up to explain them.  Then a bit of surf practice.  Use your balance, not your paddle to stay upright.  If you're going to crash, crash big.

Then it was over, and how did it end so quickly?  We had a group debrief, then met one at a time with John and Ben to get some feedback on things to keep practicing.  Then dinner, and crash, and the next morning headed for home.

What made the camp so special?  A shared philosophy that it was better to learn it right than jump ahead on shaky foundations.  (Better to learn to surf well on baby waves than to survive on 3 foot waves without knowing what you're doing.)  Being able to devote the time that each different topic needed, and keep revisiting things over the four days to take them deeper and understand them better and look at them in different contexts.  Superb coaches, and a great ratio of coaches to students, so there was regular feedback.  Everything was taught with an enormous amount of inventiveness and creativity and fun and enthusiasm.   We all had a chance to help each other.  Wonderful organization from Elizabeth (Ben's wife), as well as some great cooking that was much appreciated after long days.  Pelicans and gulls and the whole seascape that's such a treat to a Midwesterner, especially when the snow drifts at home were still over my head in places.  

Gosh darn it, we may all be suffering from a big fat mid life crisis, but who cares.  This kayaking stuff sure is fun.

Photos are here.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Clean the House or One Last Paddle?

Friends were getting together up in Grand Marais over Thanksgiving weekend and I was invited to join them. 

I'd been looking forward to spending Thanksgiving with my family, and after that had been making virtuous and productive plans for the rest of the long weekend, most of which were variations on the theme of getting caught up with just about everything after a self indulgent spring, summer and fall of paddling.   Cleaning the house was a prominent item on the to do list.  But if you dangle a chance to go kayaking in front of me, I have a hard time turning it down.  And hanging out with good friends is always a treat.  So it wasn't long before the house cleaning was blown off and the departure planning was underway.

Tony and I ended up driving up together on Friday morning, and we both felt just a wee bit silly loading up our boats with the temperature in the teens, snow on the ground, and ice on the lakes.   Just in case the weather precluded paddling, we also packed up cross country skis and snow shoes, which ended up making us feel even more foolish when we looked at the sheer volume of gear we had along.  But ... in for a penny, in for a pound, and we were soon headed north.

In Duluth, Tony introduced me to the Lake Avenue Café, a little restaurant in Canal Park with an inventive menu ranging from pulled bison to falafel to pheasant and rabbit ravioli.  It was vastly better fare than McDonalds or Subway.

We arrived in Grand Marais late Friday afternoon, just as Jeff and David were heading out for a paddle in the harbor.  Tempting though it was to join them, there just wasn't enough daylight left, so we saw them off, then unloaded our gear and settled in to our respective lodgings.  Post paddling and unpacking, all of us gathered in the townhouse and enjoyed a second round of Thanksgiving dinner with leftovers from Michelle's feast from the previous day. 

Saturday's weather forecast was looking likely for kayaking, so after dinner the discussion turned to where.  A suggestion was made that we drive up the Gunflint Trail to Lake Saganaga.   We discussed it, but with the early winter sunset limiting our daylight, an additional 120 miles of driving, and ice along the shore that would be a bit of challenge to launch on and an even greater challenge to land on, we decided that it wasn't feasible on this visit. 

This time we decided we would stay on Lake Superior and head to the Susie Islands, an archipelago a few miles from Grand Portage, just south of the Canadian border.  Susie Island is the largest of the islands and is owned by the Nature Conservancy.  The remaining dozen islands are owned by the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe.  Landing on the islands is prohibited without prior permission from the respective owners. 

The Nature Conservancy website describes the Susies as "both young and old. The bedrock is slightly metamorphosed sedimentary rock, deposited in a sea over one billion years ago. These rocks were later intruded by molten magma to form resistant dikes. Glaciers of the Great Ice Age scoured the rocks many times over the last two million years, but the Susie Islands only emerged about 5,000 years ago.

"In this isolation, a pioneering community of plants continues to thrive. Species that disappeared from the rest of Minnesota after the glaciers receded northward still survive here. Today, many of these plants are more typically found in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions."

On Saturday the weather cooperated with our plans, with sun and a temperature in the 20s.  We drove up to Grand Portage and started looking for a launch site.  Ice coated rocky shores and roads that were either closed or ice covered limited our options and reminded us that winter paddling requires more than just open water. 

We finally found a viable place to launch from, and it was about 12:30 when we got on the water.   Round trip around the outside of the Susies is a little under 15 miles, and sunset would be about 4:15.  We decided to paddle out until 2:00 and return, however far we'd gotten at that point.

We paddled northeast towards Hat Point.  I initially thought the white stuff atop the rocks was guano, but then realized it was bright white ice.  The waves from the high winds of the previous few days must have crashed on the rocky shore, creating "flung spray and blown spume" that built up and froze into a brilliant white coating on the rocks and trees and grasses.

The Susies came into view as we rounded Hat Point.  The featureless two dimensional green blobs on the map became intriguing islands of varying sizes and shapes.  A couple of rock outcroppings and small cliffs were coated in the same white ice as the mainland and were highlighted by the sun behind us.   The most distant island seemed to be floating free atop the lake surface.

But alas, as our turnaround time approached, it became clear that we weren't going to make the Susies this time.  We reluctantly turned around and headed back to pay our respects to the Witch Tree.  This iconic cyprus clinging to solid rock is sacred to the Ojibwe, who name it the Spirit Little Cedar Tree. Small and gnarled, the tree stands alone between the lake and the cliffs.  It was first mentioned in historical documents in 1731, and was a mature tree at that time, making it at least 300 years old.  Seeing it on a quiet afternoon, it was hard to imagine the violent storms and bitter cold it has seen and endured.  Respect is indeed due to this survivor, holding fast against the odds.

Then we paddled back around Hat Point, past Grand Portage Island, and back to our launch site.  We landed well before dark and loaded up the boats to return to Grand Marais. 

It was a fitting final paddle of the year.  The chill in the air, the low sun and its faded light, and the snow and ice starting to claim their sovereignty over the land were all signs that winter had arrived.  Getting to the Susies and Sag will have to wait for next year, but it was a treat to have one last chance to appreciate the lake with my friends. 

On Sunday we headed for home, with a stop for a short hike in Split Rock state park.

And the house cleaning did just fine waiting one more week.