Monday, December 31, 2007

Best Paddle of '07

The end of the year seems to awaken the need to reflect back on the year as a whole. (Personally, I think reflection should be an everyday event, but I have a job that requires a lot of sitting around thinking...)
This has been one hell of a year for me. I purchased a house and got married in the middle of the year. I picked up the responsibility for my local kayaking club's Web presence, managed to keep up a blog, grew aquatinted with a new stick, ND discovered (and lost for now) a forward finishing roll. At work, I spearheaded a pilot to rethink the way my team produces content, wrapped my head around the realities of documenting open source software, and trained a new writer.
I also managed to do an awful lot of excellent kayaking. If I hadn't managed to kayak as much as I did I likely would have gone totally bonkers. Kayaking is my coping mechanism, my way of processing life.
There were many lessons learned over the course of the year, but most were of the personal kind that don't translate well into words. Nor do they make for very interesting blog reading.
So to reflect back on '07, I'll do something that will be more fun to read about than my reflections on what I think I know about what I learned about myself while paddling my kayak. I decided I'd actually try to choose a best paddle from 2007. I figured it would be tough to narrow it down to even a few paddles. They were all excellent in their own ways.
To my relief two paddles glowed brighter in my mind than the others:
* Paddling in Glacier Bay, AK for several days as part of my honeymoon (see here)
* Playing in the full moon currents at the mouth of the Westport River (see here)
The two paddles were as different as could be. In Alaska the water was calm and the paddling was mellow. We only had one day where we pushed for distance. On the Westport the water was rough and the paddling adrenaline fueled. We only took brief breaks from the action.
Yet they both represented a step out of my comfort box.
The Glacier Bay trip took was my first real back country excursion. I've done kayak camping before, but Alaska was on a different level. Once we left the ranger station we were alone in bear country. There was very little boat traffic and very few people. Our radios were only marginally helpful since we could not directly radio to the ranger station. It was spectacular, regenerative, and scary. I left that trip with a greater respect for nature and more confidence in our ability to survive.
The Alaska trip also represented the first leg of an even more exciting journey: marriage. After surviving the hazing ritual that is wedding planning (not to mention buying a house at the same time), I was pretty sure a few days in the woods wouldn't be much of a problem for H & I. We'd also done some camping and traveling together before Alaska, but Alaska was more intense. We also had relied on our traveling companions to do most of the planning, so we felt a little out of sorts from the get go.
The Westport River trip was the first time I really pushed things in racing currents. We had done some current practice the day before and the currents were arguably more turbulent. However, the space at Stone Bridge makes rescues easier. A paddler being washed out of the race at Stone Bridge will hit calm water in short order and beaches are easily accessible for resting. A paddler in trouble at the mouth of the Westport River is going to get washed into Buzzards Bay before the current lets them go and getting to a beach is either a long paddle or a fight against tough currents. The mouth of the Westport River also had more boat traffic than Stone Bridge. Taking a chance there was much more nerve wracking.
Part of what made the Westport River trip more exciting/fulfilling than the previous outing at Stone Bridge was also the group of paddlers with whom I was paddling. The group at Stone Bridge was excellent. They provided a lot of safety, good company, and opportunities to practice rough water rescues. However, the group on the Westport River was one that makes it easier for me to push my limits. We paddle together all of the time and that familiarity breeds an extra level of comfort. We all know how the others in the group paddle and approach risk.
If I had to choose just one paddle as the best, I'd pick Alaska. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I'll get other shots at big currents at the mouth of the Westport River.
Enough looking back - on to some great living in 2008!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Lovely Ending

December has been a tough month for me in terms of getting on the water. The Q-Boat was in the shop for a few minor repairs (new deck lines, repairing a section of shoddy seam tapping, and one more attempt to fix the leaky back hatch). It being the holiday season, H and I had a number of visiting commitments that fell on weekends.
Today was the only day that looked clear. I needed to take a number of vacation days from work (use them or loose them policy) and one of H's friends was up visiting. I was clear and desperate to get on the water. I sent out e-mails trying to gauge interest and got a few responses. When I tried to firm up plans, I got silence. I was not surprised since it was Christmas Eve. I kept checking to see if anyone was going to join me.
As the hours passed, I started to get desperate and started thinking about doing a solo trip. I generally avoid solo trips for safety reasons - even in the warm weather - but I wanted to paddle. I could have taken the kayak up to Walden Pond (if it wasn't iced over and the parking lot was plowed), I could have found a local river to paddle, or I could plot out a very conservative paddle in upper Narragansett Bay. Or I would most likely listen to my sensible self and stay safely on dry land.
Christmas morning I saw CR and her husband's post that they would be paddling out of West Island in Fairhaven, MA on the 26th. I would be able to paddle!! Then I got an e-mail from PB asking if we should join CR. Melancholy turned to joy. I couldn't remember paddling in the area, but any time on the water was going to be great.
I got directions and set out early in the morning. As I neared the put-in the roads looked familiar, but a lot of back roads near water look familiar after awhile. PB was convinced that I had paddled here last year, but I was still drawing a blank.
The forecast was for a partly cloudy day with temps in the low 40s. It was a perfect day for winter paddling. PB, CR, and I set out into flat conditions with minimal winds. There was a bit of current, but it was not enough to be a factor. It was perfect for waking up my dormant paddle mind.
Slowly I began finding the rhythm of the blades in the water. I found the right angle of the stick and the right places to apply the power. My balance settled into place. The behavior of the Q-Boat started to feel familiar. After about a half-hour I was the groove. My muscles were achy from disuse, but they were happy.
The original plan was to circumnavigate West Island, but PB wanted to check out Ram Island. CR, who had the chart, altered our course accordingly.
The water was spotted with buoys and birds. There were pods of ducks that CR thought were eiders floating on the water.

Within a mile we were spotting seals. Then we paddled into the aquaculture pens and we were surrounded by seals. The seals kept a distance, but did not look shy. They would follow behind our kayaks. We paddled backwards for a bit to try and catch glimpses of them. CR sang to the seals which they seemed to like.
We lunched on Mattapoisett Neck. It was a feast of PB&J, chicken soup, tea, Christmas treats, and H's corn bread. The sun kept us from getting too chilled, so we didn't rush.
From the beach we could see Seal Island. It is a bunch of rocks covered with seals.
After lunch we plotted our return trip so that we would not retrace our steps and keep a safe distance from Seal Island. The course took us about a 1/4 mile north of Seal island. As we passed by, the seals came along and checked us out. This batch of seals got even closer than the seals in the morning.
As we approached West Island we spotted more eiders. There was also a couple of buffel heads. The buffel heads were easy to spot because they stayed clear of the main group and because of the large white spot on the back of the male's head.
As we rounded the eastern point of West Island we spotted a seal hauled out on the rocks. We changed course to give it a wide berth and not disturb it. A little latter we were surprised by another seal that was hauled out on a random rock. We did our best to give it plenty of room. Fortunately, the seal didn't appeared to be bothered by our presence.
Back at the put-in, I tried a few rolls. I don't enjoy dunking myself in 40 degree water, but I feel like I must. A roll is a delicate thing and I think it is important to practice it at least once a paddle - especially in the winter.
The paddle was just what the doctor ordered. We had a beautiful winter day in MA. The distance was enough to make me feel it, but not enough to make me sore for days. The conditions were boring, but that is fine for a winter paddle. The seals made for interesting viewing. And the company was - as always - excellent.
Upon returning home, I got an e-mail from PB with a link to my blog entry about paddling West Island last year....
Here's looking forward to some great paddling in '08.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Chasing Stars

For the last year, TM and I have discussed the value of working up through the BCU star system. TM was uncertain at first. Then he figured if he could pass the 3 star evaluation and the 4 star evaluation in one year, it would be OK. Then he'd be in great position to go through the 5 star training the following year. At the very least the training would be a worthwhile experience.
I, on the other hand, dismissed the whole thing. The value of the training is limited by the fact that I wouldn't be allowed to use my paddle of choice. I'd heard the BCU training is exclusively for Euro blades and I'm a stick monkey. I was not about to give up my stick for a patch and a pat on the back.
So, TM took the 3 star training and evaluation. TM has 10-plus years experience in a kayak and is as strong a paddler as any of the 4 star paddlers I see on a regular basis. He failed the evaluation because he didn't look perfect performing maneuvers in flat water. He also reported that the skills taught at the course were pretty basic. It was a pretty disheartening experience.
TM's experience only reinforced my feelings that chasing stars is a fool's errand.
I enjoy and value getting instruction from people who are more skilled and experienced than I. I soak up their advice, their instruction, their hints, and their adjustments. Then I go off and make the technique fit my personal conditions - the reality of my kayak, my paddle, my body.
I also value simply paddling a lot: in big groups, in small groups, in all sorts of conditions. One of the joys of kayaking is that every paddle is a learning experience. Each time out I refine my boat control skills a little more. I learn something new about functioning in a group. I learn a little more about reading conditions. I learn a little bit more about managing risk. I learn a little bit more about how mistaken paddlers who believe in a "bomb-proof" roll and being completely self-sufficient are about reality.
I wonder how much I'd learn from the classes that prep for an evaluation. My SAT and GRE test courses taught me little more than how to take the test. I also wonder what passing the evaluation really signifies. I got great SAT and GRE scores, but was a lousy college student. I got great test scores in most of my engineering classes, but was a lousy engineer. It took a lot of time, effort, and experience before the skills I demonstrated with high test scores became useful in the real world.
I guess for me it is not worth the time or money to work at passing a couple of tests. I'd rather spend my time and effort paddling, learning, and growing. I'd rather spend my money getting instruction geared towards building skills and not towards passing a test.
I also cannot see myself caring too much about the number of stars on a paddler's PFD. Good paddlers are easy to spot with or without stars.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Group Management

It's the time of year when instead of paddling constantly, I think about paddling constantly. The topic on my mind lately is group management. There are a few reasons for this. One is that winter paddling always makes me more cautious about paddling conditions. The group I'm paddling with are part of the conditions. One other is that there have been a few incidents recently where paddlers got into trouble.
One is documented here and here. We didn't make good decisions about conditions and the ability of the people in our group. Our communication broke down at critical points. A paddler was also left to return to the put-in by himself because the members of his group did not stick together. We ended up with a paddler in the water and performing a long distance tow in windy conditions. Once the incident happened and the group slipped into crisis management mode things went smoothly and it ended up fine.
Another incident happened a week later (I was not a participant and only report based on what people who did participate reported.) A group of paddlers paddled into an exposed part of the Bay on a windy and cold day. One of the paddlers decided to paddle knowing that he was pushing the limits of his skills. He believed that two experienced members of the group, who had paddled with him previously, were familiar with his skills. As the group progressed into more exposed conditions, the new paddler grew increasingly uneasy, but did not speak up. The group decided to make an exposed crossing in an area that is known to get rough and the group drifted apart. At one point the the newer paddler ceased being able to control his kayak and eventually ended up in the water.
In both cases the management of the group fell short. Experienced paddlers made decisions based on their own skill levels and desires. Less skilled paddlers didn't judge their skills appropriately. The participants didn't consider the group as a whole.
Paddling is a recreational activity for most of us and we'd rather not have to herd cats. RIC/KA, as a matter of policy, eschews placing a trip coordinator in a position of responsibility. How can a group be managed if nobody is in charge?
One thing that makes managing a group easier is paddlers making sound judgements about what paddles are appropriate for them. Paul has a great post about self assessment here.
Another thing that makes managing a group easier is all members of the group being considerate of the other members of the group. They show up on time. They stay with the group. They don't take undue risks. They speak up when they are uncomfortable. They help out if another paddler seems distressed. They don't push the group into conditions that are beyond the weakest member of the group. They accept group decisions. etc.
However, there are times in almost every paddle where someone needs to be in charge and make decisions. Sometimes the decision may be unpopular, but needs to be made. Someone needs to reign in the experienced paddlers if they are pushing the group beyond its level. Someone needs to alter the paddle plan if it becomes clear that conditions are changing or a paddler is beginning to be distressed. Someone may even have to tell a paddler that they should stay on the beach.
Groups are tricky things and I know that I'm not a great group manager. I'm much more comfortable lending a trip coordinator a hand in keeping a trip running smoothly. I suppose that is why when thinking about paddling in tough conditions, I don't think about open trips. I think of paddling with a close knit group of people I know and trust. I think of paddling with a self-herding group of cats.
Managing a group may be tough work, but if you choose to paddle in a group it must be done - particularly in rough conditions. Doing a rescue puts everyone at risk and can ruin an otherwise great day on the water. Hurt feelings are easy to repair - bodies are much harder.