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.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Maine Canoe Symposium

Sunday morning, 6:30: the lake is still. The beach, enclosed by a pair of long wooden docks and overlooked by a semi-circle of canvas platform tents, is littered with canoes. A small group of us, bleary-eyed, stands in a circle and we each introduce ourselves- where we’re from, what we hope to learn. Caleb Davis, who lives in the Adirondacks, has been a canoe instructor since the 1970s. I usually dislike introducing myself in such circumstances, the nugget of biography that probably says more about how modest or full of yourself you are. But this time I take a kind of joy in telling the group I’m a beginner. Sure, I canoed when I was younger, and I do a bit of sea kayaking, but this weekend is the first time I’ve been in a canoe in a good while. I’m a beginner and loving it.

The Maine Canoe Symposium is a good place to be a beginner. Over the weekend, the symposium, now in its thirtieth year, offers a buffet of paddling opportunities, with instructors touting a range of canoeing styles- different ways to paddle, and even different ways to propel the boat, like poling or sailing. There are classes in safety, obstacle courses and on-land demonstrations about trip planning for specific areas and even tomahawk throwing. The evening entertainment includes presentations on canoeing expeditions and a campfire where the kids roast marshmallows and sing the same songs that kids have been singing at campfires for a long time.

This all takes place at Winona Camps, on the shores of Moose Pond, in Bridgton, Maine. The camp is the perfect place for such an event. Founded in 1908, the summer camp for boys has a long stretch of waterfront overlooked by Pleasant Mountain, including several beach and dock areas. Campers live in canvas platform tents and congregate in rustic, bark-sided buildings. We arrived Friday afternoon after driving from Georgia and pitched our tent in the baseball field, where all manner of other tents were also sprouting. We didn’t spend much time hanging-out at the tent though; starting at 6:30 each morning we went from one class to another, punctuated by meals in the mess hall, complete with bug juice. We opted for all on-water instruction, which could be a bit tiring when you do it all day. 

Although this was Rebecca’s fourth symposium, she joined me in several of my intro classes, partially so we could work together in tandem canoes. This morning though, we were gathered by the water for Caleb Davis’ class in traditional solo canoeing. We’d taken a tandem class with him on Saturday, and I felt like something clicked; I liked his peaceful manner and the way he talked about timing your breathing with paddle strokes. Plus he was able to manage the range of beginning to more experienced paddlers, with plenty of concise individual feedback.

For this style of solo canoeing, you kneel with one knee in the chine so the canoe is heeled onto one side- much more stable than it looks and it reduces the wetted surface to enable quick turning. With Davis standing knee-deep near the beach, we all get some feedback as we make circles between the docks. Then we head-out for a leap-frog style obstacle course between canoes. I return to shore with a hankering to refine this new skill, but also glad to get off my knees.

Inevitably, a sea kayaker or a canoeist will compare the two craft or sports, but for the weekend I just focused on having fun in canoes. It is a different craft, but still a paddlesport, and skills certainly transfer from one to the other: blade awareness, the sense of how a boat moves and how to move it. Also, beneath it all is the desire to get a boat to perform as an extension of yourself, and the joy of moving over the water like you belong there. 

The canoeing and kayaking scenes are another matter. I was asked a couple of questions and heard a few comments that seemed to reveal a lack of understanding about sea kayaking- there were a couple of short rec boats there, and I was asked “but you don’t go offshore, do you?” But my goal was to understand canoeing better, and I learned that there is a huge range of paddlers with a huge range of approaches- from neoprene to animal skins and hand-built wooden craft to high-tech racing boats. Some tool about on ponds, while others follow treacherous northern rivers through the tundra. And after a weekend of canoe-immersion at a century-old camp, I also felt unequivocally arrived back in New England.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Lunch on Cumberland Island

I met John at the ramp. The previous evening, he'd bought a new-to-him Cetus and I'd suggested we try it out on a trip to Cumberland Island. With spring tides approaching, the max ebb out of the St Marys River was predicted to reach over three knots, so we had a bit of a push as we headed out the river.

We had a bit of wind opposing that current as well. Here's John, grateful to be on land once again. No, actually this is John extricating himself from some Cumberland Island mud. We made our way around the south end of the island and while the tide turned, ate our lunch on the beach overlooking the entrance to Cumberland Sound. As always, there were a few boats to watch- a Coast Guard patrol boat, the usual excursion boats from Fernandina Beach, and a few recreational fishermen. We watched a guy anchored just off shore take about ten minutes to land a small shark.

 We paddled around to the jetty and had a look. Here you get a good sense of how much the jetty shelters the entrance to the sound.

The air was warm. The water was also warm. A good beach day. 

We headed back around the south end and crossed back over to the river entrance. Instead of the usual trip back up the St Marys, we thought we'd check-out the Jolly River instead, mostly confident that I could find the cut through the marsh across from St Marys.

We had plenty of help from the current, and the wind in the mid-teens with gusts was mostly at our back, but getting back was still a bit of work.

After one wrong attempt, I found the path through the marsh and we made our way back into St Marys Harbor.

I've started a few blog posts that got into how things are going for us here in Georgia, but I'd rather just write about trips like this. We've had plenty of good paddling, including surf sessions at least once a week. It's been good.

But we'll be heading back to Maine in a couple of weeks. We have a busy schedule in June that includes The Maine Canoe Symposium, followed by an L5 Instructor Development Workshop. We'll be living and working at Old Quarry Ocean Adventures, as well as guiding & teaching a few trips and classes for Pinniped Kayak. My guidebook, AMC's Best Sea Kayaking in New England (see ordering info in sidebar) is still in the editing process, but it's getting close- it should be out in July. Through Sea, Surf & SUP I'm scheduled to assistant-coach an Ocean Camp at Knubble Bay with John Carmody, followed by a week-long Downeast Training Journey (Frenchman Bay to West Quoddy Head) with Nate Hanson.  After assistant-coaching at the Bay of Fundy Sea Kayak Symposium in Nova Scotia, our plan is to return to St. Marys to guide trips in October & November.

We're getting some dates arranged for a few more summer trips and classes, which I'll post here and send in a newsletter soon. Maybe I'll see you on the water soon!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Horsin' Around on Cumberland Island

Nate arrived mid-day Thursday, fresh from an Instructor Development Workshop in Charleston. We were already packed for an overnight trip out to Cumberland Island, but a quick look at the weather radar changed our minds.

Instead, we drove to Fernandina Beach and spent the late afternoon hours getting a few nice rides and plenty of thrashing in the steep, close-spaced surf, stopping only when the clouds darkened and lightning forked across the sky.

But we still wanted to get out to Cumberland Island, so on Friday morning we rode the tide out the St Marys River and went to the southern end.

Our scheduled trips to the island focus on visiting historic sites, but this trip evolved casually: a break on a beach, and a slow meander along the shore until we saw horses and let the current take us up a creek, beneath the noses of a small herd. They were muddy, some with legs coated like thigh-high boots, and regarded us with mild curiosity. We sat and watched for awhile. Of course, most of us have seen plenty of horses, but we tell ourselves these are wild horses, and it does feel different somehow- some element of unpredictability that makes it feel somehow special. And there's something about paddling past a group of wild horses that makes it feel that you're having a quintessential Cumberland Island experience.

We continued around the south end of the island and ate lunch beside the jetty. The waves on the outside were fairly small. We investigated a some turbulent water over a sandbar and crossed over the sound to Fort Clinch.

We'd had a good bit of wind at our back as we'd gone down the river with the last of the ebbing current. Now we were heading back against a stronger wind with the last of the flooding current. But we had taken our time, and during that last stretch- the long, wide mouth of the St Marys River, the wind and current turned against us. And it began to rain. Hard.

But we made it to a creek shortcut, and finished the trip on a high note, winding through the tall grass, soaked with warm, fresh rainwater, a bit worn-out.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sea Camp, Cumberland Island

We sat in the sand at the top of the beach, staring out toward the sea, where crests of breaking waves formed white horizontal bands blending into the fog above. Behind us, dunes heaped inland, while to the north and south, the beach stretched for a hundred yards or so before disappearing into the fog. We each had our books, but sometimes just looked up and stared, not expecting anything really, but savoring the isolation.

We’d watched a group hike past, carrying backpacks, and a few beachcombers following the wrack line, heads bowed, but it felt like we were on our own island of sand and that just about anything might emerge from the fog. And then a dark shape appeared down at the water’s edge, finally morphing into three horses. As they neared, we could see that one was smaller: a foal on tall, spindly legs, accompanied by a pair of larger horses. They paused near us, gazing for what seemed a long moment, and continued walking down the beach.

We were at Sea Camp Beach on Cumberland Island, near the campground where we’d camped the previous night. As the crow flies, we were only about five miles from our home in St Marys, but it took a lot to get here.

We were fortunate to have a campground reservation, and managed to get away from work for a couple of days- which seemed in doubt when a large group expressed interest in a trip and then finally changed their mind.

We’d launched in St Marys and caught the outgoing current for the first three miles, arriving at Sea Camp dock in a little over two hours. We unpacked our boats and stashed them behind the ranger station before carting our gear the half-mile to our site.

The campsites at Sea Camp are cleared from an understory of palmettoes beneath a canopy of massive live oak branches, twisting circuitous routes toward the sunlight. Ours was backed against the dunes, beyond which rose the constant white roar of the sea- probably another quarter-mile distant. 

With a limit of 60 campers there at any time, and frequent groups, some campsites remain empty, and the dense palmettoes separate the sites enough that you’re in your own world. The feeling is quiet, subdued like the light that filters down through the canopy.

You get some picnic tables, a food storage cage atop a raccoon-resistant post, and not far away are bathrooms with cold showers, electricity and a compost bin. It isn’t easy kayak camping, with the long haul from the water, but once there, the campsite feels like a deluxe suite.

If it weren’t for the tide, I probably would have opted to head back earlier, taking the questionable stress-abatement approach of trying to get to more work done. Instead, we were on the tide’s schedule and it made more sense to spend a few hours sitting on the beach in the fog.

After the horses disappeared, we kept watching, as though waiting for the next surprise, but nothing came. Finally, we picked-up the shells we’d found, packed-up our books and snacks, and walked back across the island to our kayaks.

thanks to Rebecca Daugherty for most of these photos