Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Breakfast on Mistake Island

Eleven of us paddled along the narrow ribbon of dark, calm water near the shore of Knight Island, shepherded by a young woman who, mindful of the seals hauled-out on a ledge a quarter-mile distant, was trying to keep us quiet. As we pulled into the cove where a sandbar bridged the gap between Knight and Mistake Islands, I saw what I thought would be the best landing spot, a small crescent of gravel untouched by the southeast wind funneling between the two islands and over the bar. We were looking for a place to cook breakfast. I hoped that our leader, who’d been taking her turn for the last mile or so, would also recognize the calm spot. The air felt cool and damp, and the breeze added a rawness that might easily induce a hypothermic chill. It was our last day on the water together though, and I felt determined to take a back seat and see what unfolded. 

The leader seemed to mull it over and then called to the guy who happened to be in front of the pack. She told him to go ahead and pick a place to land… delegating, but also leaving it to chance. He paddled ahead, and just when I thought he’d land in the windiest spot, paused and headed-in for the calm spot. I doubt that anyone but my co-instructor noticed this tiny victory, but I felt immensely relieved- not just that we would land our kayaks in the lee, but that the group seemed to be learning something, improving. In general, they learned quickly and I often felt impressed when we saw a dramatic increase in abilities or judgment. Recognizing both the existence and the importance of finding a spot out of the wind on a raw, cool day may not sound like a big deal, but the more I teach paddling, the more I realize that I take some of these more subtle skills for granted. And these subtle skills, which are often just the myriad tiny choices we make again and again, all day long, can add-up, not to overdramatize – to life or death.

We were on the third morning of a camping trip in the Jonesport – Great Wass archipelago. We’d been camping on private islands that the company had permission to use, but for our last morning, the group had decided to start the day with hot drinks and save breakfast for a more picturesque spot. This seemed a good idea to me. So much of what we did out there felt like work – training for a job these new guides would soon be doing. I hoped they would experience some of the joy of discovery that many of us feel while paddling, that thrill of finding our way among new shores to find places with an otherworldly feel. It’s that joy, I think, that fuels our desire to take it seriously, to invest in learning and improving.

Moose Peak Lighthouse, our goal for the morning, and what would undoubtedly be the visual highlight of the trip, beckoned, down at the south end of the island, a reward of sorts.

After we get accustomed to our own paddling process, it’s easy to take for granted all the things we learn to do in a particular way. Like whether or not we fling our paddle up on the beach like we’re ridding ourselves of something we’ll no longer need, now that we’re on land. Or whether we drag boats over the rocks and barnacles or if we carry them. Do we take our paddle apart and tuck it inside the cockpit where it won’t float or blow away or get stepped-on? Do we set-up the cook stove at the top of a sandbar where it is subject to the wind we were trying to avoid, or do we find a spot lower down? Do we dress for the water temperature or do we paddle in shorts and a t-shirt? Do we stroll bare-footed on a remote shore that bristles with sharp-edged shells, broken glass, urchin spines and barnacles? Do we put-on a warm hat and an extra layer when we stop for a break on a cool, blustery day?

These things are akin to hearing someone call a chart a map, or suggest that we’ll be paddling at ‘knots per hour’ rather than knots – it hurts our ears, but after pointing it out once, maybe twice, you just figure that people will need to learn on their own. Maybe it’s not that big of a deal. Or maybe they’ll find their own way of doing things that will work just fine. Or maybe they’ll just get lucky and never find themselves in cold water in inadequate gear, unable to get back in their boat or to reach the radio they’ve stowed inside a drybag in a hatch. Which is what happened just about a year ago now when a guide and client died off of Corea. 

After that happened, despite the Maine Association of Sea Kayak Guide’s and Instructors’ press release that essentially stated that the ocean is a dangerous place and bad stuff happens, a lot of noise was made about improving standards. But as the summer wore-on and the temperature went up, everyone got so busy that they seemed to forget about it. Over the winter we practiced most weekends at the Bar Harbor pool, but you don’t see too many other paddlers there, let alone guides, practicing any rescues. Lately, Nate has had a few takers for his Risk Management classes, but they tend to be the usual suspects, the paddlers and guides who already take it pretty seriously and train for the inevitable mishaps- and like me, probably find that kind of stuff fun. The Coast Guard and Marine Patrol have been checking for guide licenses, PFDs, whistles and the ubiquitous orange ‘If Found Contact’ stickers inside of kayaks, but I don’t know if they have much to say about people wearing inadequate gear in sub-50-degree water.

I can’t always tell exactly how chilled people might be, but by the time we wolfed-down our oatmeal, a few people had lost interest in seeing the lighthouse and wanted to get back on the water, I suspect, so they could start moving again and get warmer. But they waited while the others hiked out to the lighthouse, and seemed relieved to get moving again when we returned.

At some point during our ten-day class, I was asked if most guides, after getting their licenses, kept learning and practicing to improve their skills. I would have liked to have given a more positive answer, but I told them that the usual pattern seemed to be that getting their license was usually the beginning of a long, downward slide into complacency, that they begin to assume that since they’ve been lucky so far, they’re doing something right. And I suspected that this pattern helped account for two deaths a year ago. I admitted that this was not an opinion that would win me any friends, especially in the guiding community.

While many paddlers with far more paddling miles behind them, and perhaps less training may lack confidence, that guide’s license seems to instill some with a confidence that can quickly turn dangerous. I was hoping that my candid answer might have a sobering effect, that it might urge my students to treat the license as the beginning of a long path toward learning more and becoming safer. And I hoped, if my students became chilled because they were underdressed and had to wait while the rest of us walked to the lighthouse, that it would be a learning experience. Only time will tell. 

I haven’t found how Mistake Island got it’s name, but one might easily assume that someone made a mistake there once, and odds are, something bad happened as a result. But for us, it was an idyllic spot for breakfast, and perhaps the climax of the trip, before we made our way back out to the take-out.

For more information about this area, check-out Route #6: The Great Wass Archipelago in my guidebook, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in NewEngland.

We're now in the process of preparing for our summer trip, and we'll be leaving... pretty soon. The 'to do' list is two pages long.


John Foster said...

Ah, keeping people abreast of the latest techniques and methods. Always key.

Will Jennings said...

Nicely written 'cautionary tale' from the teacher/trainer's perspective. You're right about how a teacher's long-view can also 'grow' into complacence if we are not curious and observant enough, as well as willing to work down the vein of self-revelation. In other words,
the Licensed Guide who goes out and ends up in a dire situation through complacency or hubris ends up just as dead as the paddler who either naive, utterly uninformed, or unable to check the vision of what they imagine themselves doing versus the fact that nature is indifferent...neither a benevolent nor a malevolent force. I loved the section about people warehousing repeated positive experiences as stock evidence of their doing things well and proper, forgetting that learning curves are never smooth arc but, rather, a (hopefully) rising series of ups and downs tracking upward...that our successes and our failures measure our regression to the mean.

Really admire your narrative voice and how your personal integrity emerges in all of these stories. Thanks for writing this blog!