Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Webb Cove, Whitmore Neck

We had a day off. The first part was spent catching-up on details that had been eluding us: emails, menu planning for trips, paying bills. We managed to get into town for the bank and the Post Office to pick-up a week's accumulation of mail. We could hear the usual activity downstairs in Old Quarry's office- the ringing phone, the occasional rising hum of customers crowding the front desk. Cars, many of them carrying kayaks, came and went from the parking lot. When we crept down our stairs and through the back of the office, we tried not to look at anyone or make eye contact. "Just keep moving," Bill told us. "Don't get sucked into the vortex."

But then, late in the afternoon, we managed to get down to the waterfront to go out for a paddle. We might have considered poling a canoe or padding a standup paddleboard, but it was windy, gusting in the high teens. Not too many others had gone out that day. But a pair of visitors were getting ready to launch a pair of open rec boats with wide cockpits and minimal flotation. I really just wanted to ignore them, but I had to ask "where you headed?"

What ensued was the usual such conversation that makes me not want to ask. "Just out to that point," the guy said, gesturing vaguely toward Buckmaster Point... and perhaps the islands that it leads toward. "We won't tip over, but if we do we'll just swim to shore." At least they weren't headed for Isle au Haut. In fact, with no charts, they probably didn't know what that high island out there was. Nor did they know where Webb Cove was, but I convinced them that it would be less windy there, and in fact we were going into Webb Cove to paddle in a calmer spot.

A short time later as we paddled into Webb Cove they passed us, headed back to the launch; they appeared to be having an ordeal. "It's windy as hell over there," the guy said.

It's so difficult sometimes to understand the perspective of others. We were soon out of the wind, following calm water at high tide. We carried over Oceanville Road and followed the winding path of water out into Inner Harbor.

We found some calm water.

I even took a swim. It was high tide, and the water had been warmed by the sun-heated mud. It felt great to jump in the water. We had been working a lot.

The cool thing is that part of my job is talking to people about kayaking, helping them plan their trips, answering whatever questions they might have. This used to happen to me a lot in the gallery, and there it only took me away from the real work at hand. Of course, now it's easy to get a bit burnt-out on it, especially when people are obviously not prepared and you try to drop a hint or two. We try to file float plans and get people to provide basic information- where they're going, where they'll camp. Some float plans might suggest that they're camping on Vinalhaven one night and Isle au Haut the next - no sense that land is private or that there are designated campsites. We might ask if they have wag bags, since so many people still don't seem to understand that they're expected to pack-out human waste. There is a lot to know and learn about getting into a kayak and going out for a camping trip, especially if you don't do much of either.

But we try to be patient with people, and when those "experienced" paddlers rent a boat, we might gently suggest that they use their paddle right-side-up. Or we might just let them go. Everyone is the hero of their own epic journey, whether they're going out for an impromptu night on Little Sheep Island or a well-planned two week paddling adventure. Or just a trip into Webb Cove.

We paddled around Whitmore Neck and took a break on Whaleback Ledge. We hit some wind as we came around the point, but it all felt good.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Herding Bunnies

While I try to keep what I share here positive, and I never want to share things about clients that they wouldn’t want shared, I also want to present a balanced and honest perspective. I don’t think most readers think all guiding or teaching kayaking is fun or easy, but I tend to write more about those better days. This is about a less-better day.

I’ve heard people refer to kayak guiding as “herding cats.” The thing about cats though, is that they are difficult to manage because they are independent and curious with a strong will of their own. I met a guide a few years ago who told me that you need to recognize who the “bunnies” are. She meant the passive clients who are along for the ride, and seem to forget that they need to paddle their boat to go forward, and that they need to make it turn, or perhaps stop before their momentum propels them up onto a ledge. They will just sit there in their boat, like a bunny about to be devoured by a predator, and watch it unfold, rather than do anything about it. I thought she was being a little cynical, but she was right. If your clients are in tandems, you don’t want a really passive person steering, nor do you want to put two passive paddlers into the same tandem (who’s going to make this thing go?).

Here’s how I spent two hours of my life.

Six clients, most of them children would occupy three tandems while a crowd of  adults, bristling with cameras watched them paddle away. With some of them, there was a language barrier, and this may account for our lack of understanding that the adults intended to send the kids off on their own (not gonna happen). Suddenly I was on guide duty. The weather was cloudy and breezy, a bit cool, with occasional rain spitting down. The forecast called for mid-teen winds with gusts, which hadn’t materialized - yet.

Rebecca got the crowd outfitted while I changed into my gear. As we went through the footpeg-adjusting process, it became clear that this was a challenging group- in their ability to pay attention and focus and perhaps even to understand English. And probably, there were some attitudes as well- after all, they came here to rent their own boats. The crowd of parents didn’t help with their distractions. Usually, I’m just relieved to get on the water. My job becomes more focused; get everyone headed in the same direction.

This was tough. One boat, a yellow one steered by a four and a half-foot-tall blond kid, did just fine. The others started going in circles and paddling into the shore rocks. I repeatedly demonstrated paddling backwards and returning rudder controls to neutral to straighten the boat. In this fashion, we proceeded along the shore, toward Buckmaster Neck. Before we got to the point though, as the wind and waves increased, and I towed a boat off of the rocks, I turned us around and we went in to Webb Cove. As we passed the ramp, I got Rebecca to come down and switch the paddlers in one boat, since one stern paddler just didn’t seem to get it, and kept slouching way down, slapping the water surface with his paddle instead of actually paddling.

We proceeded into Webb Cove. They’d wanted a two-hour trip and I still had an hour and a half to burn. I figured it would get better in calm water- maybe we’d see some wildlife. The wind was really picking-up by now.

But I could hardly get them to paddle. They were on a carnival ride, especially the boys in the red boat, and it sounded like it from the way they shouted at each other. In the calm water, I suggested to the two boys who were doing well that they switch with the others, so we might actually get somewhere. They looked at each other and said no, they didn’t want to be in a boat with the others. We proceeded very slowly into the cove- I’d take a few strokes and wait, watching the red tandem teeter precariously back and forth as the two teens exaggerated their stroke... and yet propulsion still seemed to elude them. The other boat would see us stop, and would follow suit- fifty yards behind us. When we were all together again, I pointed-out an eagle, but no one seemed to care since it was a juvenile and didn’t have a white head.

They all wanted to stop on an island, so we did. It was wooded though, with no obvious trails, and at high tide the shore was a bit sea-weedy. Yuck. I demonstrated that we could walk out to a ledge and have a look around, but they seemed content to stand beside their boats, as though uncertain hazards lay waiting on this island. Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned that the former inhabitants were buried there.

By now the parents were in the office, seeing how the conditions had changed, asking if they should be worried. It took a lot to get us all pointed up the cove (into the wind) and I ended up towing the red boat and waiting for the other one, while reigning-in the boat that was doing well. I had to keep yelling “put your paddle in the water!” By now, a small crowd had assembled on shore, watching our glacial progress and documenting it with cameras with big zoom lenses. I wanted the boys in the red boat to save face and paddle-in on their own steam, so I gave them a quick pep talk on getting their paddles into the water and steering and released them from my tow. But they didn’t paddle and didn’t steer and I had to chase them down and re-connect before they were washed into shore.

We all landed, everyone survived. I overheard a mother in the office as she was told the new price that included the guide and she wasn’t pleased by the amount. Her son told her that the guide told him that he’d done really well. One boy said thanks and shook my hand. Other than that, they all went away without a word of thanks or an appreciative gesture. Imagine if they’d sent these kids out without a guide. I can’t imagine what they were thinking. But I was thinking that if guiding were like this very often, I wouldn’t be doing it. It’s part of the reason that we like to teach people and do longer and more challenging trips... since it tends to weed-out the bunnies. I changed my clothes and went back to work in the office.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Three Days Around Isle au Haut

Being up early doesn’t feel so early when the sun has already risen well above the islands to the east, and lobster boats have been grumbling around for awhile, but I’m up doing my stretching routine on the raised ledge that juts out from the east end of Wheat Island. It’s only early because my guests are still in their tents, and I have some precious time to myself. The early sun turns the granite boulders reddish-orange; the water is calm. I do my stretches slowly and sit for awhile, gazing out at the low smudge of Marshall and Swans Islands, and beyond them, the hills of Mount Desert Island rising through the haze.

We spent the previous day paddling around Isle au Haut. One of my guests had just finished her first day in a sea kayak. For most paddlers, an Isle au Haut circumnavigation is a trip you work up to slowly. The day trip from Wheat Island spans at least 15 nautical miles, and the seas around the southern end of the island tend to be lively.

We had no particular goal for the three day trip, but on her first day, my guest had taken instruction well, and she was strong and in excellent shape. My other guest was also fit and had been on some challenging kayaking trips. Aside from that, they had great, easygoing attitudes and I could tell they wouldn’t mind a long day that would kick all of our butts a bit. The weather and tide was perfect for the circumnavigation, so we decided to go for it.

I can imagine making such a choice and soon regretting it, but as we paddled along the east shore of Isle au Haut... past York Island and Turner Cove, forgoing a break on Battery Island for the easier landing on Horseman Point, we moved along easily. We chatted about previous paddling experiences and admired the scenery. Occasionally I gave some feedback to improve forward stroke efficiency. Without an efficient stroke, a longer paddle excursion could be a bit of an ordeal- and I see very few paddlers with anything close to an efficient stroke. It’s easier to teach this to someone on their first day of paddling than to someone who has years of an arm-cranking stroke committed to muscle memory.

Farther south, the swell increased gradually, and I tried to shepherd the group into some close-up exploration of shoreside rocks and chasms. She decided that, for her second day of paddling, getting around the island would be enough. He occasionally went in for a closer look. By the time we reached Eastern Head, the swells were just big enough to keep us a little farther from shore. We made our way along the southern end and ate lunch on a cobble beach, just a short walk to the Cliff Trail.

This was about half-way, and from then-on, our goal was to make our way along the west side and get back to camp without overly-exerting ourselves. We had a nice push from the current through the Isle au Haut Thorofare.

Back on Wheat Island,  we all felt pleasantly tired;  a pot of curry restored some of our spent energy. My guests sat back with glasses of wine and watched the sun set over Penobscot Bay.

In the morning, I’m feeling about as beat-up as I usually feel first thing every day. Doing my stretches out on the rock ledge helps. Today will be warm- even with the sun low on the horizon I can feel it. Today we’ll meander back through the archipelago- a grand tour of some favorite spots.

I feel good about the trip. My guests, an experienced paddler and a novice, have each been challenged and received some coaching and guidance to accomplish a trip that most paddlers would work up to slowly, if at all. Not only that, but the food was pretty good.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Paddlers in Residence

 It felt good to paddling away from Webb Cove, to be able to focus on a good, efficient stroke and not look back- to have no concerns for anyone else. With no real destination in mind, I pointed the bow somewhere around Grog Island; I had almost three hours.

We had been at Old Quarry Ocean Adventures for a week, living in the apartment above the office. The days started early, when we could hear guests trickle-into the office downstairs and chat with whoever was working - usually Bill. And though we’d like to spend our days guiding and teaching kayaking, we’ve also been learning the ropes in the office and on the waterfront, getting a feel for all the various jobs here that need to be done. If we walk downstairs, we get pulled-into whatever is going-on. Very little has been routine.

But in-between tasks we manage to get out on the water on our own time- sometimes poling a canoe or on a standup paddleboard. One day I paddled out to Wreck Island and did some volunteer brush clearing with the MITA crew. Another day I taught a Fundamentals class in Bar Harbor for Pinniped.

With no particular destination in mind, my route took shape as I paddled: past Grog and over to Millet. There wasn’t much wind and the sun shone brightly- the sort of brilliant stillness that descends over the archipelago on summer Sunday mornings when no one is hauling or setting traps. The only lobster boats I saw were carrying a few passengers on post-fourth of July excursions.

I stopped at Shivers Island and had a look around. After only a few years as a MITA island, the impact of visitors is obvious. Originally there had barely been room for one tent beside the boulder overlooking rock ledge sloping down to the water. Gradually, as campers came, presumably in bigger tents and in greater numbers than the recommended two people, a niche was carved from the forest, with limbs cut from the trees to make room. At one point, right after the island’s MITA designation, I pulled apart a fire ring that a camper had built directly on the ledge, scarring the rocks black. Perhaps, aside from the fire, the impact is acceptable- people can enjoy the island by walking around the interior- a choice, like the choice to keep the meadow on Wreck Island open instead of overgrown. Not my place to judge, but it can be a little distressing to see a place go from untouched to heavily-trod.

Everyone seems to think that their impact is less significant than that of others. I recently spoke to a youth group leader who wanted to camp on Steves Island with fourteen teenage boys, and he assumed that the MITA rules were for people with greater impact than themselves. I reminded him that their presence would likely be tough on anyone else who might be camped on Steves- a very popular island, and that there were several islands more appropriate for a group.

But that’s how it is in the summer here, and I’m getting a much closer look at the comings and goings of visitors. Over the weekend the campground was overflowing with campers, plenty of whom had nice kayaks and left in large flotillas. Despite my being on the water so often, I still get a little twinge of envy when I’m not, so it was good that Sunday morning I headed-out on my own. I also needed to get-in a little all-out forward stroke time: no “guide’s stroke” where you’re hardly paddling so that people can keep up with you.

I went out around Saddleback and Phoebe, took a little break on Enchanted and back around Devil: a quick, meditative jaunt around some favorite places, steering clear of other boaters so I could stay in my own mental space for awhile.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Webb Cove in the Rain

Here we are again, finally, in Stonington. It’s a grey, rainy day, temperature in the mid-fifties, wind picking-up: a day much like some we had in Georgia in January. It’s not an inviting day to get out paddling, but my eyes keep wandering out over Webb Cove and I know how invigorating it would feel: the chilly water and wind, the waves bashing against granite. My mind wants to go, but my body says otherwise.

We arrived here at Old Quarry last night and moved the contents of our car into the apartment above the office. We’ve been making coffee and figuring out where stuff goes, looking outside thinking “should we paddle?” But I’m feeling worn-out, my limbs heavy and sore, a blister on my big toe still subsiding. It’s from the last week of play, and perhaps the last month of travel catching-up. We’ve been on a lake in New Hampshire, a family place where I haven’t spent much warm-weather time over the last dozen years. I was glad to be at the lake, and though it’s a nice place to paddle a kayak (and we did most days) I felt more inclined to hike in the mountains or try my newly-learned canoe-poling skills.

Actually, I spent more time there gardening, trimming brush on the point where, 25 years ago this August, Rebecca and I were married. I spent hours with loppers and shears, sometimes while standing in the water, trimming the undergrowth that was crowding-out the twisting mountain laurel with its snowy bunches of flowers. I’d tell myself I’d just cut away a few branches, and my focus would narrow into a meditative state: clip, clip clip, and onto the next. Hours would pass and I’d look out at the lake and the mountains and think “gee, I should go paddling.” Then I’d start trimming again. I guess, deep down, I’ve got some need to take care of a piece of ground. We felt it in Georgia, where I mowed the first lawn we’d had in 17 years, but resisted most urges to get into long-term landscaping. Rebecca and I have moved around a lot, but the point is the one piece of ground that we keep returning to.

But on Thursday I went hiking. I chose the Skookumchuck Trail trail because it ascends the 3000-plus feet to Mt Lafayette’s summit in 4.7 miles, rather than the more popular, but steeper trails that make the climb in a shorter distance. I wasn’t on top of my walking routine, and I’d hardly even walked up any hills since last fall. I imagined an easier walk, but in the first ten minutes of my hike, I knew that the summit, should I get there, would be hard-won. So I tried to slow down, pausing by the brook to take pictures of flowers. There was no one else on the trail.

I have hiked up Mt Lafayette many times since I was ten or eleven years old. The sixth-highest of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, Lafayette is the high point of the Franconia Ridge, a spectacular stretch of alpine tundra that drops steeply away to valleys on either side. Aside from the more gradual grade, the Skookumchuck Trail offers a less populated walk; only one other car was parked at the trailhead. After about three hours of quiet, solitary walking, I encountered the other hiker- a man a bit older than me who’d paused at timberline. We chatted for awhile and then I continued onto the ridge.

Lafayette’s summit was crowded. I ate my lunch, watching hikers arrive and pose for photos. I obliged a French-speaking couple who wanted pictures of themselves, but didn’t ask for the favor in return, thinking I didn’t need another shot of me on a mountaintop. Then I thought better of it and felt strangely self-indulgent and vain when I snapped a couple of selfies. After all, who knows when I might get there again?

The part I’m leaving out- and my excuse for including this story in the blog, is the pain. Going up that hill was hard work, and several painful spots had developed well before I reached the top. For the trip down, I used my trekking poles to reduce the impact on my knees, but a hot spot on my big toe officially turned to a blister that I felt with every step. It felt great to jump in the lake when I returned, but I knew I’d be feeling the hike for several days.

Add poling a canoe to the list, and it helps me, as I sit here looking out at the rain on Webb Cove, to inventory the various aches and pains. And it also helps me appreciate the efficiency of sea kayaking, perhaps explaining why it is a popular sport for so many of us who are realizing, bit by bit, that we’re not getting any younger.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Easing Into Maine

Sunday morning, Old Quarry Ocean Adventures, Stonington. We unload our boats and get our gear together, and the people start to arrive. We’re here for the third annual Wreck and Round Islands cleanup trip. When we lived full-time in Stonington, I was the steward for these Island Heritage Trust islands, and since I also worked at Old Quarry, it seemed like an obvious connection- provide a free guided trip to get a bunch of volunteers out to clean up the islands. After we left, we were pleased to learn that Island Heritage Trust planned to continue the tradition - Anne Douglas had agreed to lead the trip in our absence. But we were even happier when we realized we would be able to join the trip personally.

It takes awhile, as people trickle-in, to get us all ready and on the water, but eventually we’re all pointed toward Indian Point- a very familiar route. The day is warm and calm, and since it’s a Sunday, largely free of lobster boats. In the group we have three tandems and nine singles, three of whom are guides. Our group includes a couple of pre-school girls who ride with their parents in tandems, as well as a few people trying sea kayaking for the first time. We head across the Thorofare to Russ Island and I glimpse Stonington- my first view of it since that frigid morning in January when we left.

The path to Wreck Island is very familiar, and on this calm day, an easy, hour and a half trip. We land and have lunch before splitting into smaller groups to clean-up stretches of shoreline. I paddle over to pick-up the shores of Round Island with two friends. A couple of hours later, we’ve assembled large caches of garbage above the beaches- mostly fishing-related. A skipper from the Maine Island Trail Association arrives in one of their distinctive red Lund skiffs to haul the garbage back for us. Marissa, the organizer from Island Heritage Trust, passes around a tin of home-made cookies and we get ready for the trip back.

It’s one of those rare days when it seems we have wind and current behind us the whole way. We hardly need the break on Little Camp Island, but I figure it’s worth it for anyone who hasn’t experienced the sweeping views from the top.

As much as the trip’s purpose is to clean-up a couple of islands, it may be more important to get a few people out there enjoying them who might not otherwise have the chance. And even though we guide and teach to make a living, a trip like this seems to embody the real reasons we do it.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Always More to Learn

The learning never stops. A few years ago, when I worked toward earning my ACA Level 3 instructor certification, I claimed to have no interest in progressing to the highest level. The prospect of coaching people in the bigger, more potentially hazardous conditions just didn’t have its appeal. But as I progressed into those environments, it helped to have the occasional guidance from upper-level coaches. As I became more comfortable getting out in rougher spots and moved-on to L4 certification, I naturally started finding myself in those spots with less-experienced paddlers, attempting to pass-on the same kind of coaching that had helped me.

This week I went to an L5 instructor development workshop (IDW) to get pointed in the right direction. We met at AMC’s Knubble Bay cabin, which became our base, and spent the next three days paddling in the area: Five Islands, Reid State Park and the mouth of the Kennebec River. These locations translate to distinctly different environments: rocks & ledges, surf and tidal currents. Each day we had conditions at or beyond the level 5 remit: 3-5-foot seas, 15-25 knots of wind, 3-4-foot surf break and 4-5 knots of current. Beyond that, the water felt cold- still in the high 40s.

But it’s not all about conditions. A big part of L5 has more to do with being able to simultaneously accommodate students at different levels, with different needs. First you need to be able to assess a paddler- see what is working well for them and what isn’t. Then you need to be able to guide them through different activities to help them learn and discover. There’s no set way of doing things. The process will change according to the student and the environment, so the coach needs to be able to put things together on the fly.

Often, in instructor development sessions, we might need to pretend that we’re at a lower level to be students for our peers, but at L5, we just coach each other. It’s tougher, since we’re often looking at skills we’re trying to improve for ourselves, but for that reason it’s also very valuable. And you never get it all. You may focus on improving one aspect of your performance, but then you need to return to some other habit or skill that falls to the wayside.

I don’t take action photos at these events anymore, especially when I’m an instructor candidate, so the photos I have are off-water snapshots, but I like the way these photos, over time, have the feel of a family album, bringing together people we run into at these events and paddle with from time to time. I left with an action plan, the crux of which involves spending more time in these L5 environments with students and peers, working on observational skills and translating that to activities.

Despite the bracingly chilly water, it felt great to be paddling in Maine again. I was glad I’d spent plenty of time in the Florida surf this spring, where the water is now about thirty degrees warmer, but aside from awesome paddling, the Maine coast provides us with far more challenging environments than we’ll find most other places, and you need to keep paddling in challenging places if you want to keep your skills sharp.

We’ll be transient for a couple more weeks before we settle-in at Old Quarry for the summer.