I like kelp. I have fond beachy childhood memories of family trips spent car-camping on the beaches that are now, but not back then in the 70’s a National Park. Running and riding my bike on hard damp sand after the tide receded leaving our beleaguered Volkswagon campervan tired from the struggles of too many mountains on the potholed and washboard textured roads to the Pacific coast was now half sunk in the sand as my dad did not read the tide table correctly. In those days, one could park on the3 beach and camp and oddly enough the very spot we preferred to park is now a paved parking lot.
Herds of beach folk, squatters mainly who inhabited the alder and scrub lined barrier between highway and surf came to attempt the excavation and pushing of the van before the next high tide. Great fun for a 10-year-old getting his first hints of the sea air that would draw me back and back so many more times to paddle these same shores. Making ramps with beach wood to leap my bike over tangled gnarls of these twisted sea weed cords as the crowd gathered and a party began, and warm beers were drunk as now it was a clear job for the only tow truck in town. Some of the bundles of kelp spread out with loose tendrils reaching towards the sea. All manner of debris collected in the tangles as the tide rose and fell, tumbling them like unraveling logs on the sand. Some heavy and immovable stayed on the beach while other smaller rafts were pulled back to the ocean.
For me, these bundles were natures puzzles. To pull a single length successfully from the mesh was nearly impossible. I would then turn to a lone length washed up. The starter of a kelp bundle waiting patiently for others to curl and hug and cuddle with it. These slender kelp tails worked well as bull whips, and I would be found swatting anything that moved. Lines of cans on a log, imaginary enemies and I am sure my baby sister has tales to tell about me chasing her around with the stuff.
A walk on just about any beach will result in a kelp find. I have photographed the best of these messy tangles and am enthralled by them. On the water, these great rafts can be a tremendous obstacle. I have paddled, poked and prodded my kayak through large rafts of kelp. Oft times my kayak resting up on them as I struggled to pike pole my way across and seeking out any gaps big enough to get at least one good swish with the blade.
Coastal kelp is far larger than the puny gardens or lone stragglers bobbing about in my home waters of the Gulf Islands. Out there on the wild coast it thrives, and as much as it can be problematic for kayak navigation, this is a good thing. Kelp gardens breed life. There is a fine balance between us and nature and occasional tipping of the scales by interfering with the natural balance such as the decimation of the sea otter population on the coast of Vancouver Island driving them close to extinction. This caused the environment to drastically change. Without the sea otter diving to the sea bottom and snatching up tasty urchins, the urchins took over, as did namy other species of shellfish. The shellfish over population aided to the removal of the kelp. They destroyed it and in doing so removed the homes of many other species. The scales so tipped so far that a new industry formed all along the coast and into Washington State. Shellfish became the latest harvest replacing the otters and claimed itself a tradition.
In 1969, a mere 89 otters were relocated from waters in Alaska to Kyoquot and the Bunsby Islands just south of the Brooks Peninsula on Vancouver Island. They have been moving southwards and colonizing. I had the lovely opportunity to glide my kayak quietly into one such colony near Nootka Island. Since 1969, that small group has grown to over 3,000 individuals. Astonishingly good results. However this has caused a problem. Sea otters eat shellfish. Good for the health of the kelp forests and all that live in them, as well as good for the otter as in his absence the growth of urchins has made a smorgesbord for them. The problem has come from some grumbing from the shellfish industry people who claim the reintroduction of the urchin-eaters is causing a downfall in their catch. The cute little otters are going to destroy them! I seriously doubt this. For some years this industry has grown only due to the fact it had no competition for the resource. But I hardly think 3,000 otters could result in the ending of an industry.
As an ending note, I at the tender age of 48 picked up a long healthy length of kelp on McKenzie Beach near Tofino last year and in an attempt to use it as a whip, I most efficiently swatted myself in the face with its tip. Thanks sea otters!
A friend today reminded me that change, or the prospect of change either on our life course, or more internally can be scary. This fear of changing ourselves through a chosen experience is one we all face on some level. Her imminent departure on a trek so many before her have done and word that it had changed them drove that fear home. She claimed that she was comfortable in who she is, and not wanting anything to alter that state of mind and being. Understandable to any of us who have faced the prospect of a life-changing experience. In this case, a pre-planned version of those unlike the ones thrust upon us as the sudden death of a loved one, or the loss of a job you have held for years. New paths are what we live for, and to grow is our truest greatest inner need. Change is not always easy, or good, or even bad. It just is. It is easy to look at what we fear the most in the eye, that being the unknown or the unseen future and flinch for a moment of extreme hesitation. But to not go forward, to not put boot to trail head or paddle to water, to avoid life for fear an event may change who we are is to stagnate and do our soul the unfortunate disservice of experiential neglect.
To that, I put some thought to all of the above and looking back upon my own experiences, relationships and journeys and realized that they all came with that hesitation. Where any of them life-changing? Path altering perhaps, and one or two might have left a mark and lessons to be examined. Did any of them change who I am as a person? Maybe, but only in the subtlest of manner. We are who we are, and I look at them carefully and try to cherry pick the positives and seeing clearly that at no time has stepping outside of myself ever really been a negative.
That needing to turn back, to avoid, to not go, to find numerous excuses why I should stay dwelling in my fortress of comforts have all slapped me in the face at one time or another. To stay means only after the event had come and gone without me in it that I would have learned nothing from staying comfortably me. I let those life experiences, adventures in the outdoors being the pinnacle of those unknown fearful mornings at the beginnings of a treks, trips or paddles pass under my feet. They happened and the courage I needed to face the unknowns I found flowing freely within my spirit, but only in the time after the experience had passed. Then, and only then did they form from the future of wondering and anxiety to the recent past and become fond memory.
As a kayaker, I have faced many scary moments. I seem to add continually to my list of knees-shaking against the inside of my kayak experiences. Each one finding me without compromise, and forcing me to ask if the fond memory will be worth it. To that nameless fear, and to that hesitation at something possibly changing me forever I hope the answer will always be a soundly loud, yes.
I had not realized to what extent that sound meant to me, what depth and part of my being it reflected, and how familiar the sensation even after a long absence from floating in my kayak. That first full paddle stroke to the chilly March waters. That splosh, and that spatter of sea water droplets falling from the blade’s edge as the opposite blade bathes as well for the first time in over six months.
Life and other things managed to divide me from the seat of my kayak for months now but that thread is broken, and the return to my prior self is in progress. I had big plans for this coming year. I was going to challenge myself, my body, my mind and my imagination in such ways by attempting things in my kayak that are far bigger than myself. Scary, but wonderful things such as entering the Yukon River Quest. Maybe next year…yes!
With such distances to travel to get ready for that race of over 700 kilometers from Whitehorse to the gold mining town of old, Dawson City attempting this feat this year would be foolish. I am turning 50, a flabby mess with a head full of flooble from a rather stressful year before. Time to get fit, time to remember who I am, and get my head back into the game of paddling.
Sitting in my kayak waiting for some friends to catch up on this lovely late winter, or early spring day, feeling her drift with the sun warming my left cheek and springtime brought to the island by a small almost warm breeze at my back I felt it all coming back to me. Out of the long sleep, and awakened to the idea of doing something new. One paddle stroke at a time…
It is the 15th of January, 2015 and sitting at my laptop in my cabin on Salt Spring Island listening to a light rain tapping on my roof. I look at my blog dashboard and see that the last post was back in September of last year. Nearly five months and not one single word typed on the blank screen. What could have happened in those long months of the fall. A time when kayaking in the Gulf Islands where I make my home is so lovely, and plentiful once the motor boat traffic of the summer tourist season abates and the local camping spots empty out. My backyard paradise once again becomes a tranquil home to this humble paddler. But, this past fall found me in a different mindset away from my beloved kayak, and a new Greenland paddle I was beginning to make friends with.
Much has changed since the 15th of January 2014 and the biggest of those events was suddenly finding myself paddling solo once more. The turmoil of all of that and the ongoing aftermath of picking up the pieces and restarting took me away from my love of writing, and paddling and most everything else. A complete shut down seemed to occur and maybe that was what was needed to find new energy and a fresh perspective, lessons learned and heart slowly mending (with the help of a new and wonderful soul injecting some love back into my life). I begin this year with that old cliché adage, “a new year and a new me!” Never! No silly New Years Resolutions for this paddlingboy. What you see is what you get, kids. Perhaps somewhat rattled, shaken but not stirred, albeit disappointed in many ways, and dented, but virtually the same guy as this time last year.
A fresh start. Yes, that is the ticket but first keeping my head down through the fragile winter months until the first warm rays of Springtime reach my face out on the water. I turn 50 this year. A fact that with all else that has landed on me lately had been pushed to the back of the bus but now it walking forward clasping the top of each seat carefully awaiting that sudden jerk when the bus stops at that milestone. A fact that is reminding me that I begin a fresh start at a time of my life when, yikes I am turning 50. I had better get going on this new project.
Plans for big paddles shelved for the time being. Other things, many other things must happen first. But they will happen in their time. Yukon River Quests under the midnight sun for my 50th, the original plan for 2015, now seem to be a good idea for my 51st year. Just let me get this first year under my belt and then it will be all downhill smooth sailing.
So to all of you reading this first tender offering of a fresh new, and rather wet coasty evening at the start of 2015, good luck out there. Keep your special people close. Offer kindness to those who stepped over the line with you in the past. Put your paddle to the water, or whatever metaphor to a tranquil meditative way of being you choose. Go forth and be you, as you are.
Last night I had a dream inspired by the arrival of my Yukon River map book from Yukon Books in Whitehorse. It is a surprise to me that my sleep has not been invaded more frequently by river paddling themed dreams as the clock is not ticking away month by month towards a nutty adventure of paddling my wooden kayak in the Yukon River Quest. It is a constant in the back of my mind these days and an hour or so browsing the many pages of river map between Whitehorse and Dawson City, the terminus of the marathon must have implanted a nugget. The dream however, was abstract and for some reason the Yukon River was sucked nearly dry. Much of the paddling I did in the dream was replaced with dragging my kayak behind me as I waded over smooth round and rather slippery river stones. At one point, for reasons I can’t recall I was sent back to the beginning to restart as some sort of penalty.
I am no stranger to strange dreamscapes in my head as I sleep. Nor am I likely to ever escape those pesky anxiety dreams. I class last night’s river musings in that category and moved on with my day. This race is unlike anything I have paddled before. I am not a racer, nor a marathon junkie looking to suffer for the fun of it. It is a milestone adventure and one I will take on as best I can. There are bound to be dreams such as these in the coming months. And a few sleepless nights as well I am sure. You can train and get stronger for an endurance level of paddling. It is another thing all together to train a mental attitude in such a way that all that matters is the finishing.
Another likely contributor was my hour or so on the lake last evening. Only the second such outing with my latest addition to the gear closet, a hand carved western red cedar Greenland style paddle. When it arrived on my doorstep and pulling it from the bubblepack, it was love at first sight and last night on the lake things between myself and the paddle began to click. As this paddle will be, I hope my secret weapon against the fatigue and joint strain that paddling a mere 715 kms might incur. I wanted to avoid that let-down feeling if things did not click and just let it loose.
The second hour-long session was much more revealing and I am becoming accustomed to its need to dive upon each catch. A slightly disconcerting sensation at first stroke, which is something I am getting used to. My speed is better as well and can only improve with better technique. I still have time. It is exciting to me to relive the learning curve of kayaking and this paddle is teaching me a few things. I just hope that one of them is how to avoid being sent back to the start line!
Seen here on a log at my lovely beachside camp near Port Renfrew BC is my water bottle. “Life is Crap” makes me laugh as a touch of outdoorsy snark in the face that no matter where I am with my kayak, it is anything but crappy. That said, today I would like to mention something we take for granted, as the news from Detroit worsens and the memory of not having running water at home for a time still fresh as a mountain stream to my mind.
It is suddenly summer here after a noncommittal beginning and long spring. The heat and humidity of the past week has been a challenge. A morning paddle the other day began with the idea that if I got out on the water early enough I could beat the heat. How wrong I was as it met me clearly as I unloaded the kayak and gear. My only saviour was my Life is Crap buddy who along with two more one litre bottles of water rolled around between my legs as I paddled against the tide for an hour in the heat.
We tend to forget about it. I get lazy with taking in enough water while kayaking. I towed a paddle boarder home to shore once after she ran out of gas on a late summer evening that was too warm not to remember water. She had none! I gave her the last of mine, hooked her up and dragged her across to safety. I am waiting for a new drinking tube kit to attach to the dromedary bag I keep filled with fresh water behind my seat. This removed the issue of cumbersome water bottles and sipping sun-heated liquid from the bottle on the deck and I am more likely to sip on the fly instead of stopping to take in water.
My outdoorsy tip for this week which will be closing in on the 30 celsius out here in the rain belt is the bring more water than you think you will need. Likely, you will want it. Stay hydrated, stay cool. Try not to paddle during the peek heat hours of the day. Dunk your sun hat in the water to cool your head and remember to drink, sipping small amounts every half hour or so and your life will remain heat stroke and crap free.
I have a year! There is no turning back now, the team is coming together. The kayak is kited out, and fitted out, and tweaked to perfection in preparation of something I have been pondering as a kayaking trip for a few years, the Yukon River Quest. All that is left to do is get myself into racing shape. Yikes!
When did this madness begin?
In 2011, I was part of a support crew for a tandem kayaking team entered in that marathon paddle event starting in Whitehorse at the blowing of the paddlewheeler SS Klondike’s horn and ending, for most paddlers a few days later in the historical gold rush township of Dawson City some 715 km later. Our team scratched at the midway rest stop at Carmacks due to injury, but by that point I had the bug. The combined comeraderie among the teams, support crews and race volunteers created a community of like-minded nutters with a common goal, to get that boat and paddler to the finishline before the cut-off time.
By Dawson, the tremedous explosion of paddles and boats that left the riverside at Whitehorse became a trickling of pooped but elated paddlers arriving one at a time to the finishline greeted one and all by the crowds watching on shore and loved ones. How awesome it would feel to land there after kayaking both day and night virtually non-stop and earning a place in that club, the club of nutters willing to endure long hours in the seat, cold, sleep depravation induced halucinations and fatigue just to get to the gold rush after the bars close.To finish is the goal and for now I am not concerning myself about my personal best time, just to have a good time just me and my kayak and many hours to consider all those things left at home.
The consoling thought when I lay awake doubting my sanity at this decision is that while I am fighting the sleepiness and sore muscles at 3am someplace between Whitehorse and that first rest stop 300+ kms away at Carmacks is I won’t have to do the dishes!