Friday, October 9, 2015

The Shubie

We gathered near the shore, floating in our kayaks, waiting: nine of us- coaches who'd got together after the symposium to share a shuttle and a ride on the Shubecanadie's famous tidal bore. We'd met in a dark parking lot at five am and drove for four hours, a caravan of car-topped kayaks winding along a quiet Nova Scotia highway. We didn't even know who were in all the other cars until we pulled-off for a coffee and stood in line, a group of tired, but charged-up ruffians in stinky clothes. Finally, the caravan snaked along a smaller network of roads and arrived at the put-in in Maitland, near the head of the Minas Basin. Just after the full moon, or the Supermoon as everyone was calling it, the tidal range was anticipated to be around 54 feet- the largest in eighteen years.

Some had paddled the Shubie before- Rebecca had ridden the chocolate-brown waves the previous year- but for some of us it was hard to imagine the tidal bore- a wave that would, according to prediction, come surging toward us and rapidly fill the basin of the tidal river. "There it is," someone shouted, and it took me a moment to see how the distant water surface had turned bumpy.

We weren't really sure where to position ourselves. A group of Zodiac tour boats also waited nearby and a guided group, led by symposium organizers Committed 2 The Core coaches occupied a stretch in the middle of the river. We didn't want to get in their way, so we held position near the edge, not really comprehending what would happen when the bore reached us. But then the wave came. It seemed to descend almost in slow motion at first, lifting the guided group and propelling them down the middle of the river. Some of us managed to surf the wave as it caught us, but others were piled-up along the edge, pushed higher along the bank by the tide like so much driftwood, unable to maneuver in the shallows, subject to the whims of the current.

I managed to avoid the knot of boats, but still wound-up stranded in shallow water, watching a couple of boats surf away ahead of me. There were a few capsizes in this stretch, and after I got loose, I watched as a standing wave ahead of me rapidly increased in size, roaring as I bounced through it. We all finally gathered on the opposite side of the river and caught our breath. Rebecca's boat had a crack in it- presumably from the weight of the other boats that had ridden over her in the pile-up. I quickly patched the gash and inflated a flotation bag in the front hatch. The water level rose very quickly.

But the tidal bore is just the first of many features. For the rest, we paced ourselves, letting the water fill-in, developing stretches of standing waves that we drifted down into and surfed. I only took pictures in the quieter moments between features, but it's a gorgeous area: tall red cliffs, eroded like the sandstone I usually associate with the southwest US deserts. A rainstorm came and went.

One stretch, known as "The Killer K" (K=Kilometer) produced massive haystacks of red standing waves. Balanced on the crest of a tall mound of ochre, foamy mayhem, I had a moment to think about all the things that might happen next before I was propelled down a steep wave face. I really just had one thought, and I heard it come out of someone else's mouth: "holy shit!" I'm glad someone else said it.

We took some long rides, some through stretches where you could feel the enormous volume of water surging overwhelmingly around you. At times I couldn't tell if I were flying forward over the waves or if they were rushing backwards beneath me: usually a bit of both.

We took short time-outs in the eddies to make sure everyone was accounted for, and kept moving with the amplified current up the river. The sun came out.

We went around the last corner, a reddish bluff protruding into the river, and gathered in the eddy. On one hand I felt like I wanted more- it had been just a few hours of focused paddling. On the other hand, I felt exhausted. The others seemed a bit spent as well; we drifted around the last turns with a dream-like slowness,  paddling up a tributary creek, savoring those last moments on the water before we had to pack our cars and go our separate ways.

Here's another Shubie video from the Committed 2 The Core crew.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Bay of Fundy Sea Kayak Symposium

After we closed the gallery last winter, with an uncertain future and no real commitments, I applied for and was accepted as an assistant coach for Bay of Fundy Sea Kayak Symposium. As it turned out, the timing was perfect to end our busy season here at Old Quarry. We continued to work 70-80-hour weeks until we packed up the car last week and drove up to Canada to catch Bay Ferries Limited St. John to Digby Ferry-- which we boarded with about 8 minutes to spare after we provided entertainment for customs officials for well over an hour ("why do you need three kayaks for two people?").

But the ferry was well worth catching. The crossing-- under three hours-- cut-off the better part of a day's drive around the top of the bay. Not only that, but we started running into paddlers en-route to the symposium who were charged-up and excited- a contagious enthusiasm that made it feel we were part of a pilgrimage of paddlers headed for the southern tip of Nova Scotia.

We camped that first night near Yarmouth, arriving in Argyle early enough on Friday for a paddle. And we ran into our friend Andrea Knepper from Chicago, who joined us for some playtime down at Cape Sable Island.

The symposium brings coaches from around the world to teach in the varied environments near Yarmouth, where the tides rush in and out of the Bay of Fundy and the open ocean rolls-in from the south. There's sandy beaches down at Cape Sable Island, sheltered, island-studded harbors off of Argyle and the glacial till islands of the Tuskets, where the tidal flow squeezes through. In addition to plenty of classes for beginners, the symposium offers opportunities for paddlers to improve their skills in tide races, rocks and ledges, safety and leadership. For me, it was an opportunity to learn from other coaches.

I assisted in several classes, each with different coaches in diverse locales. The steep rocks at Cape Forchu was a good spot for Incident Management & Tricky Landings, led by Jeff Laxier.

The dynamics of assisting also varies greatly - some classes have more coaches than others. Being less experienced than most, I tended to wait for a cue from the lead coach before stepping-in, but the high coach to student ratio makes it easy to paddle aside for a moment with a student to offer individual feedback, which is often the most valuable form of help.

 Multiple coaches also makes it easier to get-in a little of our own playtime.

 We assembled at Ye Olde Argyler Lodge each morning for announcements and class rosters. My classes were always going off to more challenging venues, so we assembled caravans of vehicles car-topping kayaks that snaked down the highways, sometimes about an hour away. At the end of the day we returned for dinner and evening presentations. Gordon Brown led us us in a Greenlandic game that tested our coordination, then, around the campfire, he told us the story of how he'd discovered sea kayaking.

Another evening, James Manke gave a presentation on his trip to the Greenland Kayak Championship. Chris Lockyer & Peter Bojanic told stories about a Newfoundland trip. I was really too tired to do much socializing in the evenings, but in a way, much of the reason we're there is to meet other paddlers.

With coaches visiting from the UK and Germany, as well as all across North America, the symposium has a way of making the global paddling community feel a bit cozier. Despite different languages and accents, we recognize that the ocean - and our chosen mode of discovering it- beckons us like nothing else. The nearly full moon rose over the campfire, reflecting in the calm waters of Lobster Bay. A guitar went from hand to hand and we sang a few songs. (Thanks to Barbara Bellows for these shots- she's Rebecca's Mom, making the trek from Newfoundland to attend the symposium for the second year).

On the charts around Yarmouth there are a number of locations labeled "The Sluice." At one of them, I assisted Santiago Berrueta in an Intro to Currents class, which felt particularly successful, since most of the students had little or no experience in tidal currents, and by the end of the class they'd all learned the basics of boat handling in current. We also had plenty of rescue practice, but the venue is perhaps a bit less intimidating than Sullivan Falls, so it was really perfect for beginners.

Ryan Rushton led a class in Tide Race Play & Safety that took us out into the Tusket Islands in search of a tide race that previous classes had found lacking in lumpiness. But the perigean full moon and strong southwest winds against the ebb did their magic, and we found a proper tide race that challenged everyone.

I'm lacking in photos of people in conditions since I felt preoccupied with my roles of coach and safety boater- and Rebecca had the camera. At the end of each day we all shared our stories about where we'd gone and what we'd learned. With 30+ coaches and 70+ students there's enough variables that the symposium is really a conglomeration of hundreds of stories: trips taken, lessons learned, people met. We return with skills to improve, new friends on Facebook and some new approaches to coaching. But maybe the most significant thing is to connect with all of these people, many of whom, like us, probably go back to their communities where they're seen as a bit oddball because of their obsession.

Of course, we still had the trip home, including a post-symposium run on the Shubenacadie River, a story that will wait until next time. The next Bay of Fundy Sea Kayak Symposium will take place in September, 2017; I hope to see you there.

Thanks to the organizers of the event: Christopher Lockyer, Jarrod Gunn McQuillian, Trevor Killam, Trudy Killam, Kirk Dauphinee & Peter Bojanic.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Perfect Way to Start Sea Kayaking

I paddled away from the island, pointed out into Southeast Harbor, against the wind. It was the first time I had paddled alone in awhile and it felt good to really let go and move quickly through the water, concerned only for myself. A breeze mildly corrugated the surface, but the whole Inner Harbor-Southeast Harbor area was relatively calm... amazingly so, considering the bumpy conditions at the mouth of Webb Cove that had driven us in this direction. My clients had hoped to spend the first night of their multi-day trip out in the archipelago, but this was just their second day of sea kayaking, and the lure of quieter water beckoned. Fortunately, it was as placid as I had predicted.

My clients were a couple who wanted some instruction and guidance to get started sea kayaking. For our first day we'd scheduled a full-day Fundamentals class, followed by a Journeying focus on the second day. I would help them get to their first destination. After that they would continue their trip on their own.

It's good to have such a specific goal: try to get them paddling safely and efficiently enough to continue on their own. A full-day Fundamentals class is a good start. We cover strokes and maneuvers as well as safety and navigation, all in the context of a journey. We may cover some of the same material in a shorter class, but in a full day, students have the chance to really try out these skills and get coached on them.We finished the first day with rescues in the pond.

After their first day of paddling, the couple had the chance to go back to the campground and recuperate- get a meal in town and a good night's sleep before the next morning, when they packed their boats and we headed out- me just for the day, while they were packed for four nights. The focus of our second day was more on the big picture: navigation, seamanship, making choices along the way.

Our environment was a good teacher. Conditions picked-up quickly. Shortly after launching I was asked about the wave height. "Under a foot," I said, but by the time we made it to Indian Point I conceded that the waves had grown to a foot and a half, and were a solid two feet soon after that. This was more than my day-two paddlers wanted to be in, and since the forecast called for more of this the next day, we planned a route to more sheltered waters. In the meantime, they were able to experience enough bumpy water to start gaining their own perspective- to understand what they might or might not want to paddle in.

We ate lunch on a ledge and found our way in through the river-like passage of Hatch Cove. The wind faded to a distant hiss and we passed beneath the bridge, floating on the ebbing tide into the calm pocket of Inner Harbor. Ahead, our island lay waiting. We landed and had a look around. The couple sat on the edge of the tent platform, looking content. It would be their home for the next couple of nights.

A couple of mornings later I received a text from them. They'd loved staying on the island and exploring the more sheltered areas around it (the following day had turned even windier). But then the weather improved and they felt confident enough to head out into the archipelago for a couple more days. When they finally returned, they had a calm, satisfied air about them, and they were certain they would be doing more of this.

Monday, September 7, 2015

End of Summer

Isle au Haut
While gathering photos from some of the trips I've led through Pinniped and Old Quarry over the last month, it became clearer to me why I haven't written posts about individual trips- I've been busy.

Fog Island
We've spent a lot of time on the water, but the rest of the time we're doing other work around Old Quarry. It often starts at 6:30 in the morning and ends around nine in evening, shortly before we eat dinner in front of a tv show on the computer. We tend to nod-off before the show is over.

Little Sheep Island
But it's been good. You know it won't last forever. You just focus on the work. We get out on the water most days. We'd love to be on the water even more, but the big picture here is that the entire operation at Old Quarry is what enables us to get those trips.

Fog Island
And we especially appreciate it after working at a brand new company last winter- we were lucky to get any sort of trip or lesson, let alone one that ventured farther than the local salt marshes. Most of my time and effort went into trying to develop the business- an uphill battle to be sure... and we didn't have the Stonington archipelago at our doorstep. Cumberland Island is wonderful, but not everyone can get there in a kayak, and even then you need to choose your days to go with the tide.

Hells Half Acre
Most of the guided trips that leave from Old Quarry are a half-day or less, so even though we don't have "milk run" trips covering the same territory each time, we do tend to find ourselves in the same spots pretty freqently.

Isle au Haut - Western Head
When people rent boats we recommend all the same islands we visit on guided trips- places that most paddlers ought to be able to get to fairly safely. People like the swimming quarry on Green Island, or the view from the top of Little Camp. The south side beach on Hells Half Acre makes people want to hang-out for awhile, and Little Sheep Island feels like another world, despite our ability to get there and back in two hours.

Little Camp Island
You never know who you'll get on a guided trip, but we've had a lot of people who seem truly grateful for a chance to do what many of us paddlers may eventually take for granted. For some people, it's a really big deal to get into a little boat and propel oneself over the ocean. And many would never give it a try or attain the privileged view of the islands without the help of a guide.

Little Camp Island
Despite the satisfaction of helping all kinds of people get out there, I'm not sure I would guide if I didn't also get the chance to take them to the next level- teaching and taking people on longer trips and into more challenging environments.

Isle au Haut
I've had a few full-day trips and classes through Old Quarry and Pinniped, including another three-day trip around Isle au Haut. Pinniped attracts more clients who want to learn and be challenged.

Sullivan Falls
Nate Hanson at Sullivan Falls
Renting-out boats is a bit scary, and probably the least satisfying part of this business. We ask a question or two to discern a renter's preparedness, but it's a moot point if they're determined to rent a boat. Every once in awhile I launch someone who seems to understand what they're doing, but few are even vaguely prepared to be on their own. They're just determined to take the cheaper and more independent option of renting a boat and a guided trip doesn't interest them. Sometimes, as I'm launching someone, they may ask the last minute question "so what happens if I tip over?" Plenty of "experienced" paddlers need to be shown which side of their paddle is up. Sometimes we show them. Sometimes they obviously know it all.

Rebecca launches her group

Most of them return eventually..

Long Porcupine Island
The summer has flown past. It seems like a long time ago when we were taking out standup paddleboards or poling canoes in our spare moments, and yet it's been just over two months.

Isle au Haut
That's the summer here in Maine, and it pretty much ends this weekend. We'll be here at least until the end of September, when we'll head up to the Bay of Fundy Sea Kayak Symposium, where I'll be assistant coaching. I'm not sure what we'll do after that.

Gooseberry Island

In the midst of all of this, I've also needed to do some last-minute work on the guidebook, which is now due out in April of 2016- a year past the original release date.

Smith Cove, Brooksville
It feels very different today at Old Quarry than it did even a day ago. The wind picked-up this morning and a steady stream of campers checked-out and drove away, anticipating traffic jams on I-95 in southern Maine. They seem subdued, heading back to the cities and jobs. We still have a lot on our schedule, but the pace seems less frantic. 

Little Camp Island

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.