Train high, assess low was the theme of the Level 4 – Open Water Sea Kayak Training weekend with Geneva Kayak Center last weekend. The plan was to spend one day on the Menominee River working on skills in moving water (crossing eddy lines, etc.), and two days on Lake Superior working on open water coastal kayaking and leadership skills. Conditions in both venues "over delivered".
Jeff and I traveled together. We showed up bright and early on Friday morning at Piers Gorge on the Menominee River. Ryan and Paul were the instructors; Sarah and Mary were our fellow students, with Aaron joining us on Saturday
The water had been around 1000 CFS when I'd been there in early June; now it was around 3000 CFS (based on USGS info). As Ryan said, it was "kind of pushy." According to the Wisconsin Paddle Guide, Piers Gorge "is a high adrenaline action run that features Missicot Falls in Piers Gorge, a class 4+ drop that should only be attempted by advanced and expert kayakers, or on a guided rafting trip. The run through Piers Gorge is comparable to many of the big action rivers out west, though it may not have the huge drops, the sheer volume and velocity of the water flow raises the hazard level considerably." It goes on to say "Kayakers should not attempt at high water levels. When river levels rise above 3000 cfs, some of the holes below Missicot Falls become quite powerful and have been known to "de-boat" paddlers into an unpleasant half mile swim." More on that later.
On Friday, we spent the day at "Terminal Surfer", if I got the name right. We were at the bottom end of the rapids and worked on the eddy lines. In June we had few or no capsizes; this time they were pretty regular. We learned to be much more aggressive at getting to capsized boats for rescues, and how to roll in the bumpy water (interesting to find your set up position when the surface is uneven and constantly moving.) Having the swimmer flip their boat and move to the bow was a big help in getting our rescue times down.
While we were on our lunch break, Jeff and I both had our keys and key fobs sitting in the car while we were getting our stuff out, and one of the "lock car" buttons must have gotten accidentally pushed, because when we closed the doors, the car locked itself. Our great trip mates had an AAA card (I'm a member, but didn't have my card with me), a cell phone (Jeff's and mine were in the car) and a GPS unit, and AAA came through with a free unlock service. Wish I could go back to a regular, non-chipset key!
At the end of the day on Friday we drove up to Marquette, MI. The forecast for Saturday was "North winds to 25 knots, waves 7 – 11 feet." That would exceed Level 4 conditions, which are 3 – 5 foot seas, 15 – 20 knots of wind. Clearly we had no worries about lack of conditions.
Dinner was at L'Attitude, which we closed down about 8:30.
Saturday morning it was clear that the forecast was spot on. Our planned launch site had steady lines of surf across the entire beach. We headed over to a marina and a protected boat launch. As we paddled out towards the breakwater, we could see the spray from the waves on the far side flying up 20 feet and more. Ryan and Paul paddled around the breakwater to check things out, but decided the winds were pretty high for making any progress, so we proceeded to paddle for about a mile down wind/down wave towards the beach. Jeff and Aaron were our trip leaders (since this was a leadership class). The waves were definitely bigger than anything I'd been on before, but it was all doable. Ryan went in first to land folks with paddle signals. I followed him in, and surfed in to a gentle landing. Learnings on that beach: let the big sets go by, and surf in on a small wave. The big waves were about 6 feet on a fairly steep beach and not really surfable.
When everyone had landed, we were supposed to work on surf launches and landings. Most of us did not do well on that exercise. I never got off the beach. Need to be more aggressive.
Next up was paddling over to a group of islands that would provide some protection from the open waves and give us a place to work. Sarah and I were trip leaders for this stretch. We carried the boats down the beach to where the surf was a bit less exciting. The plan was to have people wait out in "the gathering zone" after they launched until the entire group was on the water, but it quickly became apparent that this provided its own set of challenges in big conditions, as the paddlers who launched first had to hold position in the high wind and big waves. Once you start launching your group, the faster you can get everyone launched, the better.
Once on the water, we headed for the islands and Sarah and I scouted for the best place to land. Did I mention that there was no beach on the islands? We ended up paddling to the lee side of one of the islands, getting out in the water, and hauling the boats up onto the rocks. Then we happily settled down for lunch.
After 10 minutes or so, Jeff said "I hear a fire engine." Soon it came into sight, and pulled into the park on the shore about 300 yards across from the island. We wondered what was going on. Then another engine showed up, then one or two more emergency vehicles and even a TV truck. We were beginning to wonder if we could possibly be the objects of all this attention, and when the Coast Guard boat came around the point from Marquette, we realized we must be. Ryan launched to have a chat with them. The Coast Guard must have called the fire folks on their radio after that, because the fire and TV trucks left moments later.
After lunch, we did some rescues on the far side of the island (out of sight of shore!), where there was an area partially surrounded by other islands. It was protected from the full open water, but still pretty bouncy as the water surged about. One of the big learnings was situational awareness for a leader … keeping your group away from hazards and tucked into calm areas whenever possible.
Our final exercise was for Sarah, Mary and me to tow "injured" Jeff and Aaron (rafted up) through the surf and land them. I'd never done such a thing, but our initial attempt was to have Sarah and Mary in an in line tandem tow and me as the drogue paddler. Mary's rope (borrowed) turned out to be too short to be safe, so we tried to reconfigure … I moved up to the lead position. But by then we had drifted too far and were in conditions and we called off the exercise and debriefed on shore. The consensus was that a) two inline paddlers and a drogue paddler were too big a connected system in this situation and b) a single tow-er would have been plenty given the short distance and gentle surf on this beach and c) coming in at an angle to the surf would have eliminated the need for a drogue paddler.
Tonight dinner was at Coco's, with live music from a couple of singers/guitar players. It dates both the performers and me to say that I knew all the songs.
On Sunday, Lake Superior had done a presto chango, and there were no conditions to play in. We decided to head back to the Menominee River. We launched from the top of the gorge this time. We paddled down to the island and picked our way down the first set of rough water into an eddy, then down about half a mile where we landed for lunch. Ryan took one of the boats and ran the drop, then walked back up to join us. After lunch, those who wanted to had a chance to run the drop. Mary, Jeff and I carried our boats down and settled in to watch and video. Soon Aaron appeared, and was over and out of his boat before the drop. Paul did the same thing. Then Ryan and Sarah appeared. Sarah also capsized before the drop and Ryan tried to rescue her, but she too came out of her boat. They both went over the edge; Sarah went into the hole but came out quickly (holding onto your boat is a good thing!) Ryan capsized as he went over the drop, but rolled.
Net score: 4 paddlers capsized, 3 came out their boats, 2 paddles lost.
Jeff, Mary and I paddled down to join the others. We played a bit at Terminal Surfer, but all were ready to call it a day before long.
All in all, a great weekend with good folks and another step in the kayaking journey.