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Off to the Hippo Races

IMGP9886 The plan was simple enough, or so we thought. We would rendezvous at the beach house a friend had managed to finagle for one night, free, and then unload the gear, kayaks and all sundry paraphernalia before Mike and I took the vehicles into Tofino where we would secure parking for the duration of the paddle trip. Then we would hire a cab to take us back to the beach in time to pack up our kayaks and hit the Pacific Ocean for a ten-day paddling vacation in Clayoquot Sound. How hard could that be?

In the early twilight of morning I woke in the living room of th beach house. All was quiet except for the rumble of surf rocking the southern end of Chesterman Beach, a noted high quality surfers beach. It was a lovely backyard that we entertained ourselves with on after dinner strolls and smoking out Hobbit pipes on logs while the sun went down. It was a so far so good condition to be in. As the light of day began to highlight the sands others rose and the pre-paddle excitement manifested itself. Time was no going to be our friend as the tide was going out and none of us wanted to play the chase the water game later that morning with fully loaded boats.

We had done some preparations during the party the night before, packing up perishables and enjoying left over beer and wine from the family friends that had rented the house before we arrived. The house itself contributed to the festivities as it was our good luck to have it and not start this trip like so many before it, tired from the long drive only to have to paddle for hours to a suitable camping spot, sometimes racing the dark to do so.

Rolling carefully off the chaise lounge that had been my bed for the night and feeling the effects of dehydration, or was it wine hydration of the previous evening I nursed myself up and caught sight of a wave blowing up explosively on the sand then in a death, rushed up the beach. Out on the beach, early birds were already taking morning walks. Who could get up that early? I young guy with surf board under his arm walked out into the water as thumps came from the bedrooms above me. Though my head was rather foggy and full of flies I still watched the ocean with the fascination of a child. I envisioned our departure through throngs of surfers confused and scattering to make way for four lunatics in sea kayaks attempting to leave the beach like hung over sea turtles.

Our happy tribe has the unfortunate habit of slow starts. This results in us meeting up with troubles, long days, or losing sight of where to camp. And it always opens up the doors and windows that allow Mother Nature, cruel parent that she is to beat the crap out of us. This happens when we are leaving the sometimes uncomfortable camps so you can imagine the underlying reluctance to rush of and away from a luxury waterfront home. Knowing this and how our group dynamic works gave Mike and I plenty of time to relocate the cars and get back again.

Taking coffee orders before we left Mike and I headed into town. Parking in Tofino was easy and we found a lot that where we could abandon our vehicles for days near the RCMP Detachment office. We felt confident about security when we locked up the cars and walked up the road to a well-known local establishment, The Common Loaf. On the way the background of Tofino Harbour could not be ignored. It is a frenetic place even in late September. A mosaic of marine signals, buoys and speeding water taxis and noisy float planes. The boats and planes taking tourists to the Hot Springs a few hours away up the sound so they can dip their toes in the hot sulphuric waters pouring out of the ground. We think of these folk as taking the easy way out. The last time we set foot in the springs we had already paddled for a few days and earned the reward, we were also the only ones to get there by kayak.

The harbour was warming its engines for another busy day as we rounded the corner and up a hill from the Government dock to the cathedral of coffee and sticky buns, The Common Loaf. Our timing was just off, the last drops of the last pot of coffee ended up in the cup of the person ahead of me. No doubt he was killing time before his plane to the springs was set to take off. These people had it way too easy, but we could remain smug knowing that we had the advantage of spending less to see more. That is what always amazed me about these trips. The low-cost other than the ferry, gas, food and well, the kayak, the gear, and the new gear I just had to have for this trip. Once you get beyond the initial investment a trip to the sound was on the cheap so a cup at the Loaf was certainly in the budget while we waited for our ride.

We had to wait while the overworked girl behind the counter finished preparing several special coffee drinks before she could brew a fresh pot of the ordinary stuff. I waited with cups in hand for the miracle of coffee to come and Mike found the payphone to call us a cab. The coffee brewed and in hand Mike and I sat outside at a concrete table sipping and watching the routines of the locals. discerning who was home and who was tourist was not difficult. Tourists spoke with heavy German accents.

The morning sky remained overcast and grey though the forecast had called for full and glorious sunshine that was someplace else. Welcome to the west coast. We were on the outside and outed as tourists even though we spoke accent-free. Was it our manner, was it the way we leaned on the rock wall impatiently now, tired of waiting for the taxi to arrive that gave us away. This is what visitors to my island home on Salt Spring must endure as they sit outside our coffee shops and listen in on conversations that border precariously on the edges of eccentric.

Mike had this experience first hand on an inaugural day as an islander, over-hearing a discussion between a pair of new-age hippies on the subject of a worm. The question at hand was what happened to the worm if someone accidentally chops a poor worm in two? Which half of the worm does the soul belong too? Mike, then a chain-smoking coffee slurping hard ass of a guy from the big city ended up on the island to the events after a bad car accident. A refugee of the high stakes commuter traffic wars, still years away from being a kayaking yoga guy of today, he sat there hearing this with disbelieving ears. Life on the island changes you or you just have to leave. Ironically later on, a ban on Mike’s insistence of yogic chanting while paddling was enforced by the rest of the group.

The cab still had not arrived and we were becoming antsy. However, what had arrived on time were the local coffee gangs who show up limping, groggy, red-eyed and tired in search of a hit. A local youth still working on the results of the previous night’s escapades was clutching a half-finished worse for wear can of Lucky beer. The kid having a bit of the hair of the dog was told by the server and later on by a much larger male staff member to, “Lose the beer, or else!” The lad was fairly and near completely tattooed, straddled his chopper-styled bicycle and rode it back and forth stopping at each pass to chat up his apparently EX-girlfriend sitting with her apparently NEW boyfriend. As small town romances might go these two seemed to have an understanding between them and acted as cautious old friends who let a girl step between them.  Although, I doubted for a moment that this bunch spent lots of time worrying about the souls of worms.

Twenty minutes later and a dozen beer guzzling bike passes later the ex-boyfriend was no closer to winning back his sweetheart and we were no closer to sitting in a taxi cab. My coffee gone and the coffees we bought for the others icy cold I went inside to use the phone to contact the cab dispatcher.

“Hi, I am at the Common Loaf and I called about a half hour ago, we are still waiting, what’s up?” I asked, giving the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he was stuck in the mud?

“Where are you?” asked the woman at the other end of the line.

“The Common Loaf, you know the coffee place here in town.” I replied, suddenly feeling a blush of stupidity flooding over me. But then again, maybe they didn’t know where it was after all and that is why we were still sitting out in the cold.

“Yes, yes. The driver went there but didn’t see you. He left, he couldn’t find you.” the voice said in an accent mixed from eastern European and liar. I paused. He came, he looked around, and he left. Did he happen to call out “anyone call a cab?”, nope!

“Let me get this straight,” I started and already regretting where this would go.

“Uh huh…”muttered the voice.

“Your driver came to the coffee shop, The Common Loaf, right?”

“Yes, and you were not there.” accused the voice.

“We were there the entire time!” I said, feeling smug. “Did your driver ask anyone here if someone called a cab?”

There was another long uncomfortable pause, long. Wind blew in the distance, leaves rustled and tumbleweeds did that tumbleweed thing, and all to the sounds of eastern European breathing. The thought then occurred to the voice. Maybe they had a very shy cabbie on their hands?

“Um, hello?” I asked.

“Yes…” said the voice.

“We are still here, sitting outside the coffee shop and would still appreciate a ride. Any idea when or if that will happen?
“He has left on another call to the airport right now, twenty minutes.” said the voice in a way that I felt as though suddenly it was I that was inconveniencing them.

“Terrific then. We will meet him outside by the rock wall.”


I stood watching the scrolling digital instructions on the payphone and replaced the receiver. Mike’s reaction was about what I had expected but we had little choice but to sit back and wait. Twenty minutes grew, by no surprise into yet another twenty and another coffee and the coldness of the morning was now eating away at our patience. It was Mike’s turn to call the cab, but as he got up to do so a mini-van rounded the corner, Tofino Taxi at your service! He silently spun the van around once we were inside and silently, so odd to have a mute cabbie. He must have been conserving his voice and he took us back to the beach house in a mere five minutes.

The instant we caught sight of the sand and surf and lovely grey/green ocean that would be our home for the rest of the week our moods returned to the first of the morning. “So, what took so long?”

“Shut up! Here’s your coffees, they are cold, sorry!” I said and looked to the pile of debris that somehow must all be crammed into the confines of my kayak’s hatches.

“Couldn’t get a cab,” said Mike, who now gave his own pile a similar questioning look.

I have told this story many times in the years since and by the response I find that I was not the only person to see the tragic side-effects of driving a cab, that being the sudden loss of voice. Now, I do not want to play the blame game here as it is not my way and I put my intolerance for the cab company as just part of my usual paddle-day jitters and the lingering head aches of my own doing. It really was as much my fault as theirs. You see we who call small town cabs should just relax, lean back and wait our turn and roll with the local customs and eccentricities. We should have made ourselves more visible, stand out, stand on our heads or perhaps just wore signs saying, OVER HERE!

In the end, if blame must be mine and I take full responsibility for thinking that a plan was simple. A plan is never simple, not matter how simple.








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The Joy of Kayaking, and the Lack of Landmines

The Joy of Kayaking, and the lack of landmines.

How lucky are we? How fortunate our lives are that though aware of the violence taking place daily around the globe, and our unshakable need to harm each other continues, largely we remain untouched by it all in our day to day here in Canada. I can walk to town to meet with friends for coffee unencumbered by nagging thoughts of danger should step off the pavement and by chance trip a landmine. The last time a scud missle landed in my backyard was, well…never! We take this for granted and so we should. Life here in the Gulf Islands is especially calm so much so that we can go about our daily business in giggly bliss. Then came a day that I met someone who touched my life for a moment and reminded me without words what is important. She was a girl living on the island that summer, but it was not until days before her departure for her homeland of Israel that we met and I introduced her to sea kayaking. To spend a summer on my island and never sit in a kayak, or smell the salty air at sunset was a crime that I could not let go. It did not take too much coaxing to get her to give it a try, She had already tossed caution to the wind by traveling the world and woofing on a local organic farm. Tzela pronounced ‘Say-ella’ had a chance to paddle.

Cartwheels of joy on Chocolate Beach, Salt Spring Island, BCPhoto by Dave Barnes

Cartwheels of joy on Chocolate Beach, Salt Spring Island, BC
Photo by Dave Barnes

I put her in my short Current Designs Pachena and she taught me that nothing can be too hard to handle as within minutes she was cruising along beside me as though she had kayaked all her life. We left a beach at the end of the road where I had grown up after a brief glimpse of my old house and apple orchard. She was in awe of the relatively quiet life we islanders shared and of some of my stories of growing up on Salt Spring Island. The carry of the two kayaks down the short path and zig-zag hairpin corner down the concrete steps designed not with kayakers in mind, she was silent. I mistook this quiet for a sudden shyness, fear, or anxiety at kayaking for the first time in her life, and going someplace with some strange man. It was none of the above, but a silent inner reflection on how a life can be lived, in peace, without fear, without bombs and without abject hatreds.

Launching from the beach at the end of Churchill Road we set out to the chain of islets  in Ganges Harbour to a crushed shell beach known locally as, Chocolate Beach on Third Sister Island. The beach is a hangout for boaters and party-goers all summer long is also a nice evening paddling destination with views of the sunset. Our paddle began in late afternoon and she had the chance to view nesting eagles on Goat Island, so named because the natives kept herds of, yes goats on this long rock. After forty minutes of watching harbour seals observing us and explaining all the inter-tidal lifeforms our trip ended with the scrunching sounds of shell fragments meeting our hulls. We were in luck to have the beach to ourselves as we said good-bye to a tour group heading back into the harbour.

With a few hours of sunshine as a gift we settled in with snacks I had packed away in my front hatch, including the rewards of cold beer. A trail leads up the hillside away from the beach passed a funky outhouse and onwards to the opposite end of the islet to a ledge over a cliff where we were greeted with views of the channel. On our wandering back Tzela fell into a lengthy silence and only back at our camp on the beach while sitting on a log sipping the warm ends of her can of beer was the quiet that I had no heart to stop, broken. She laughed and stood up brushing bits of shell from her behind and set about a long series of cart-wheeling flips down the slope to the water’s edge were I thought she might keep going, flipping hand over feet into the sea and become a mermaid. Smiling in a broad beam she jumped straight up in the air and returned up the beach skipping, arriving breathless and dow-eyed at the partly submerged log that had become our dinner table. It was a pure, unmarked expression of joyous abandon that had been stored up in her cells since birth. “No landmines, Dave!”

A warm afternoon on Chocolate Beach with someone who felt free for the first time. Photo by Dave Barnes

A warm afternoon on Chocolate Beach with someone who felt free for the first time.
Photo by Dave Barnes

She asked if we were allowed to go to the adjacent island, and I nodded. We packed up and in minutes arrived at the dock leading ashore to the old footings of an abandoned attempt at homesteading. We snuggled into a cleft of the rocks and I brewed tea. Tzela sat arms wrapped around her knees, and instead of watching the sun setting she watched the gathering darkness in the East. To this day, I wonder if this was a look homewards? Our return paddle was not a quiet affair. Tzela returned to singing as she had done at points on our way out. This time the song lasted the entire trip to the launch site. I was treated to a cold beer at the pub for my efforts, but was rewarded far beyond that with a memory of kayaking joy.

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Fearless, by Joe Glickman…a book review

Fearless, by Joe Glickman(This is an older post from my older and now extinct kayaking blog, but one that I kept in the folder as it is a great read, an awesome book, and worth repeating here on the new-improved kayaking blog)

Living on a small island has its ups and downs. It has its problems and its perks. One of the perks is a friendly association with your local rural mail man, or in this case mail courier woman, person, um…she delivers my mail. I know her well because a few years back I was working for her, delivering that very same mail. And she is a kayaker as well and we have exchanged various books over the years via my mailbox.

I bumped into her at the box the other day and kayaking is the usual topic at hand. I told her about the amazing 2.5 hour paddlers video diary of a solo kayaker paddling from Vancouver to Alaska with little experience, or gear I had just posted on the Kayak Rogue and as it happens I think I was the last to find out about it. Check it out at your convenience.

After a brief discussion about that, she mentioned that she had just finished the book about Freya Hoffmeister, titled Fearless. I wanted a go at it and this morning low and behold Fearless arrived in my mailbox.

It is the story about a 46-year old former sky diver, gymnast, marksman and even a Miss Germany contestant who left her 12-year old son behind to paddler alone around Australia. It was a daunting task that drew criticism from expert paddlers as foolish and possibly deadly journey.

Determined to paddle faster than the only other paddler to complete the route 27 years before she set out to kayak the 9,420 miles of shark infested waters.

Acclaimed outdoor journalist Joe Glickman follows Freya’s year-long journey around Australia, and writes an account based on conversations with Hoffmeister and what he can discover from her daily blog posts as she paddles. While reading this book I could only imagine the frustrations from a writer’s stand-point. Hoffmeister is a truly annoying subject who reveals little about her exposure to the element, the difficulties faced each day or shows much interest in the colour and culture of where she is paddling, other than repeated notes about her birthday suit. Glickman fills in the blanks as best he can and it is his writing about the incredible backdrop of her kayaking adventure that creates a sense of the enormity of what she is doing. Only a few of us has ever known the pain of what sitting in a kayak for 12-14 hours feels like, and what it does to a body. Freya will not divulge such information and you can comb through her blog posts and find no complaints at all. A piece of piss, this kayaking around Australia. However, as a kayaker who has done some considerable miserable hours in a kayak I smirked at Glickman’s example on page 47.

– Three hours in a kayak is uncomfortable; double that and it’s like flying coach in the middle seat with linebackers on either side and a nose guard in front of you with his seat all the way back; double that time, and you had better be a former gymnast with an ass of a draft horse and a lower back like Gumby’s- Joe Glickman.

As a marathon kayaker, Glickman knows of what he speaks and I agree with his assessment, and with no offense directed at a writer I have followed over the years, it is just a shame that it is not her words about the journey that count in this book.

By the time I had read through a third of Fearless I was struck by how boring this paddler actually was. I cannot say I agree with how she approaches life, or kayaking. To paddle around that little island to me would be epic, not just physically and mentally but emotionally as well. I am not Freya Hoffmeister, I can’t say I even like her much from the impression I get from the book. How wonderful to read a book about a kayaker attempting something that could at any moment bring her to her demise, yet who does not arouse a sense of sympathy at all. However you view this person, remember she is athlete first and she was not there to take in the scenery or to soak up the experience in its fullest. Freya Hoffmeister’s goal was the key to why she was put there cruising the shoreline of pristine untouched wilderness around an island so big it classifies as a Continent. Hoffmeister has little or no interest in the history, the culture, the place. Australia is just something to paddle all the way around and in a pigheaded, rather vain manner. She is a single-minded paddling machine with one purpose, to be faster than the last guy.

Freya Hoffmeister overcomes what had to be real, if unspoken fears. She masters the art of endurance paddling, and accomplished this in record time. No matter what you may think of her as a person, that feat alone is enormous, and awe inspiring.

Fearless is a great read about a hero that you may or may not like that much. Alike the controversy about Canadian runner Steve Fonyo, sometimes you are placed in a position to admire someone for what they accomplish, and not for who they are. This is the case with Freya Hoffmeister, sky-diver, gymnast, mother, and endurance kayaker. For those who want to paddle vicariously in a tiny kayak on the edges of the unknown southern land, Fearless in the book for you. Though you don’t get to choose your paddling partner.

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Kayaking All the Way Around Salt Spring Island, part 1

My foot is wet and I knew that would happen…

Sorting out my gear for the marathon day around Salt Spring Island.

Sorting out my gear for the marathon day around Salt Spring Island.

I have lived on Salt Spring Island most of my life with emphasis on ‘lived on’. Though aware of the ocean and that awareness only heightened from my kidhood days walking to or from school to our waterfront home via a crushed shell beachfront, it, the water was only a fact of life. My off the island life has been in the seat of a sea kayak and to my regret only began in my mid-thirties. Until then, land-lubber that I was I had no idea what a spectacular bubble I had chosen as a home. My water-side perspective has altered my perception and only increased my love of place, this oddity always in social flux, tourist-centric in summer months and left to sleep in the autumn and winter weeks, but yet remains my community, my Salt Spring.
From the vantage point of my wooden kayak I see the island for what it is, what it will always be long after I, and all I know are mere dust in the wind. A lovely lump of rock thrust up on the ragged coast of BC. Not covered with a sprinkling of salt as my childhood imagination saw things before moving to the island in the 70’s. Instead Salt Spring is coated deer, forests, sheep, vineyards, retirees and youthful exuberance. A small town surrounded by water with all the love, joys and local gossip of any small village, and all of the above very transitory in the big scheme of things.
It is this that I ponder along with my sanity as I wake long before sunrise and am paddling away from a beach north of Fernwood dock aiming for Southey Point where I will meet the start of the ebbing tide that will help me down and eventually shoot me wildly through Sansum Narrows. My mission on this tender morning, to start a circumnavigation of the island in one shot, all 72 kilometres of it. It was quiet and quite dark when I staggered back and forth to the car by the headlamp light with the required gear for a marathon. Tent, sleeping bag, (just in case) stove, fuel, emergency food and water, clothing life jacket, paddles etc. It never fails to amaze me that whether on a day paddle or a two-week excursion the amount of bits and pieces needed is about the same.
A mild light begins to rise around me as the air chills my face and I switch off and then remove my headlamp (I hope not to be needing it by evening). A sun waking and yawning from its southern travels is about to greet me, but I am cold and wearing my paddle jacket and toque knowing in a couple of hours I will have to stop to strip down for the warm spring day ahead. My foot is wet, and I knew that would happen. One Wet Foot should be my native moniker. I am blissfully aware that my day has begun uncivilized in the dark, and decaffeinated. Somehow to me a big drink of water, an Ibuprofen and a few sips of Gator-Aid are no match for a good cup of coffee. Coffee is forbidden on a marathon day.

I have spent the previous day loading my body with the nuts and bolts and fuel to at least make this long 12 plus hours of non-stop paddling less painful. I am hydrated to the point my ears are leaking, I have carbs burning and a box of goodies to keep me fueled all day long. Peeking tentatively over the wall of silhouetted treetops of Wallace Island to my right is the sun at long last.  I paddle by sleeping seals floating blissfully unaware of my presence and the cacophony made by the geese nesting on every rock in the channel.My nerves were up in the dark, wondering what the day would have in store. Would the forecasted light winds be mythical, or would I round Ruckle Park facing northward to home in blissful calm waters? Would I fatigue part way and have to call for a ride? Would the playlist in my head keep me occupied paddle stroke after paddle stroke. Now that the day has officially broken and I am well on my journey it is time to turn the corner on the day, around the northern tip of Salt Spring Island and begin my southern run.

The easy part.

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Tent Time is the Best Time

Snoozing in my tent with a faithful friend at my feet. Photo by Dave Barnes

Snoozing in my tent with a faithful friend at my feet.
Photo by Dave Barnes

Tent Time!

A friend of mine once coined the phrase, “bedtime is the best time.”

I would go one further and say that bedtime is the best time if it is tent time too. I love my tent. I love camping out in it, zipper sounds make me happy. I have had a few in past years and one by one they failed due to the rigours of outdoor life on the wild wet/sandy/gritty/moldy coast. I needed something built for damaging winds, sand mixed with salt and of course the torrential rainfalls I would face kayaking around here.

One day a Snowfield tent made for MEC and the Canadian Everest team came my way. Okay, this one might actually handle what I will toss it into. I mean, if it can face-off with Mt. Everest then what will a little beach sand do to it? Not much as it turned out. The Snowfield can take it. Though it was not construction, or materials that have me wondering if it is time to upgrade once more, it is age. It was a decade-old when I bought it from a buddy. I have added a few more years to it since then and lots of regular usage. One by one, the poles are giving out. Creaking in the winds and the occasional geriatric carbon fibre snapping occurs. Duct Tape always at the ready these days in my kit bag.

Something else has changed in my paddling/outdoorsy life and that is Jen, my partner and now lovely wife. Squirming in and out of the end-to-end vestibules on my own was one thing, sharing the tent space is another and this brings new challenges. Not so much to our relationship as we are definitely campers through and through, no it is the mid-night need to pee that is the new issue. Inevitably one will inadvertently wake up the other while extricating from sleeping bags and zipper doors. My good old friend has one wonky door so really, there is only one way in and one way out again. The solution was to invest in a new tent for married couples with side entrance vestibules and no climbing over each other to get in and out. It is pretty swank and I am getting used to it. Change, like all things is the one and only constant of the universe. However images such as the photo of the day today brings back another constant of the universe.

Here I was camping on Vargas Island and my friend for the week, Lolita kept me company while gale force winds had me camp-bound. Her  owner lives in a cottage up the beach (a well-known kayaking personality in his own right) Lolita never left my side, except for the occasional race up the beach to chase that pesky flock of birds.

Tent time is indeed the best time, no matter which tent you are in…and it never hurts to have good company.

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Happy Kayakers in the Gulf Islands

An odd day in May, on Salt Spring Island, BC Photo by Dave Barnes

An odd day in May, on Salt Spring Island, BC
Photo by Dave Barnes

Kayaking is a year-round passion for those happy paddlers in the Gulf Islands.

It is a clear day in January, a Saturday and it is a day filled with things to do that will keep me off the water. Fingers are crossed that my Sunday will be without pesky chores and just as clear, windless, and chilled for a much-needed mid-winter outing in my kayak. The holidays interrupted my paddling but the weather was indeed frightfull. It has been, I must confess to be over a month since I sat in the cockpit and doodled around the backyard of my home in the Gulf Islands. It has been a mild winter thus far with the exception of some stormy December days and nights, and I fear that just by typing those words I may have jinxed myself and all those on the ‘wet coast’ to a sudden switch to real winter.

Picking my paddling days this time of year is the norm, but another thing altogether when we arrive in the welcoming arms of the warmer months. This photo to the right is a day in May. Though, bundled up for the chilly winds, and sideways rain that dogged us for the day paddle to Portland Island it may as well been November, December or even January.

For some reason, gearing up that day was not a hardship. I don’t mind a bit of cold wet roughness on the water. Been there, done that and know setting out into wind waves and face-numbing gusts will be more experience than recreation.

I admit, I do enjoy rough paddling more in warmer months. Something about how the tricks of the mind play out when you are paddling hard through some head winds and bouncy conditions when the sun is out as opposed to those days it is grey. Am I turning into a wimpy fair-weather paddler? Heavens forbid that from ever happening! I think I am just a wintertime comfort whore who  plays winter paddling by ear.

The question remains, is there a difference between a November day in May, and a May day in November. Why be inspired to go paddling in May and not in November? No reason at all. This is the Southern Gulf Islands and it is  a paddling day any day here. It is just a matter of comfort. Today, if I could get out it would be fine. Even tomorrow if the winds rise I am bundled up and happy all but a raw nose and cheeks by the time I get back.

Kayaking is my passion and that passion keeps me warm on the chilly days of January. I did manage November and December so far  with the weather gods being kindly I should escape the living room for a couple of hours on a clear crisp Sunday afternoon, just me, my wooden kayak and paddle, a few seals, eagles and otters watching me pass.

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Spirit of the North

Last but not least... Photo by Dave Barnes

Last but not least…
Photo by Dave Barnes

The Spirit of the NorthBewildered we were by the effects of living under the northern hypnosis caused by the midnight sun our team from Salt Spring Island launched their tandem kayak into the cold waters (I know because I ran in to the river while pushing the kayak) of the mighty Yukon River. The race up river beginning in the metropolis of Whitehorse, which had managed to allude the rustic romance of the north with the addition of a Walmart, and ending 740 km later in the quiet northern village of Dawson City.

However, this post is not about our team that came to an unfortunate end at the midway point of Carmacks by the river later the next day after one member of the two-man paddler crew contracted a terrible case of tendonitis in one wrist. This post is about someone who against the odds, against the language barrier and in spite of sleeplessness, a broken rudder and all that goes with participating still finished the race. Though it was dead last.

May I humbly introduce the hero of the 2011 Yukon River Quest paddling marathon under the midnight sun, Hiromune Imai. Hiro as he became known during the event is a 47-year-old solo kayaker from Tokyo representing Ecochallenge Japan. According to the racer bio on the Yukon River Quest website had the simple goal of just finishing the race.

He spoke little English and was paddling solo and unsupported, unlike so many other teams including ours, which came equipped with drivers, assistants and cooks. Hiro paddled his own race. A constant smile, good spirits in spite of the obvious exhaustion that affected everyone involved. He paddled the river slowly. Refusing assistance at every stop along the long route Hiro was becoming well-known to organizers and volunteers alike.

During a stop his boat was damaged but he still paddled on to Dawson City to an awaiting group of fans. The large stat board had lines drawn through those who had dropped out by the way side. Check marks and finishing times next to those who managed to get through the arduous days and nights to reach the goal of Dawson. The last man on the board with neither a line through his name, nor a set finishing time was Hiro. He rounded the last corner and the trick to paddle across the river to the township side was looking like something he was not going to do. For a long moment everyone gathered wondered if he even knew at this point where he was? Did he know he was at the end or would he simply paddle right by? Then with calls to him and waving arms from the shoreline the noise must have cut through the delirious fog in his head and his kayak began to move towards the right side of the river.

He paddled slowly up the stoney shoreline. I had my camera ready, my shot set and I followed Hiro through my lens as he came closer and closer to his own goal. He passed me. Just then a volunteer, teary-eyed and proud told me not to miss getting his picture as there was no one else to do it. As she walked by me I smiled and replied that I had already got the two best shots of Hiro (hero) Imai. I was moved. I felt the pride I wanted to feel, though it was now directed to someone else other than the team I had driven hundreds of kilometers to support. It was sad to not be able to put these emotions towards our own paddlers, although it was strange and uplifting with all that had in my own circle to see this small paddler reach the dock, receive his finishing time of 70:40 and being taken in hand by a volunteer to rest. At last he accepted the hand and the next morning would receive more than the bit of paper and a finishers pin. Hiromune was presented with a standing ovation, tears and admiration.

He would then receive the Spirit of the North award.

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