Posts Tagged endurance kayaking
No one was happier to see the blinking red beacon than I was, it signified the end of the mind numbing long journey along the shores of Lake Lebarge through waves and high winds. I was well behind my self-imposed schedule and turned into the checkpoint at Lower Lebarge around midnight, twelve full hours of sitting in my kayak without a breather or a chance to stand up erect. The mood at the rest stop was quiet, almost somber as those paddlers gathered there either sitting on the worn rounded stones or staggering about the beach carried the same exhausted expression. It was not over yet. Not by a long shot. I saw my new friend Glen sitting after standing for the same amount of time and distance on his paddle board as I had in my wooden kayak. We smiled at each other in that knowing way. We had braved the storms and the seemingly endless unchanging vista of the lake view together, though he had dashed ahead of me in the final kilometers.
I changed into my overnight paddling clothing. It was no easy feat to get undressed and redressed on that sloping shore with its cold round stones to add to my unsteady atrophied legs. I resorted to sit and wiggle my legs into my tights and waterproof pants. Nothing, and any long time paddler will tell you the same that there is nothing better after a long paddle than changing into fresh dry warm clothing. Usually, it is when the tent is up, the kayaks are put away for the night and dinner is simmering on the camp stove. Changing this time was in preparation of the next section of the over 300 kms to the first lengthy sleep break at a campground at a place between here and there called Carmacks named for the famous prospector who found gold sparking the gold rush.
I left before Glen and some of the others that had arrived before me. Call it a second wind, or just the stoic realization that the only way to get home was to just keep paddling. If I had any notion to pack it in, feeling the sharp twinges in my shoulder and under the weight of knowledge that I was venturing on in the way back of the race pack it would have been then and there. I got back in my seat, tugged my spray skirt back on around the cockpit, swung my paddle blade into the water and got a good push backwards off the stones by a very cheerful volunteer.
I set my GPS for the next waypoint, always this unit was my carrot on a stick. Planning my waypoints to set nice small bites of the river at a time because the mental drain of thinking about the daunting distances would have done me in. Instead it was smaller 20 – 50 km chunks that allowed my to not think about the next stop or checkpoint for hours. Just paddle. I did that, into the dusky overnight hours and in the winding faster moving narrow slot of the 30 Mile River section as the width of the lake closes into at times barely 50 feet from shore to shore. I could tell what was ahead and make out features along the shoreline as it was light enough even at 1:30 in the morning to paddle comfortably. My mandatory headlamp shining but was more an indicator to on lookers that I was there than means to illuminate any hazards. I was starting to be gifted with the midnight sun.
This part of the river was like a gift as well after the slog on the lake. The flow was swift and at times curled into riffles and small rapids. Gravel bars were something to be watchful for as was the pinpoints of other headlamps coming from behind me. I felt comforted to see them and as the wee hours of dusky night grew into early morning I could make out the spires of tree tops and aimed for those places far ahead now and then glowing brighter than the surroundings. That sun glimpse would be short lived as rain would greet me by mid-morning, but for now it was a pleasant paddle with the current on my side. I glided with my paddle up to have a snack after about an hour from Lower Lebarge of gummy bears and a full can of Red Bull that I slugged back rapidly. I looked around. I was very much the only one in sight as the bends in the river blocked my views forward and back. It was a strange mingle of daylight and dark that played tricks on the eyes. Small whirl pools spun at my bow and swirled as I paddled by them. Things on shore were not what they seemed. I was on the constant look out for wildlife, bears, wolves, moose and the beavers that frequently came to swim with me.
I had heard rumours of the racers in the past who in fits of tired paddle-weary moments fell into various stages of hallucinating. I pushed those thoughts aside when preparing for the Quest. Stories of paddlers seeing burning trees, wildlife that was more tree stump than bear and one story of seeing a Voyageur in full vintage regalia standing on the shore holding his canoe paddle. Nonsense! And with my last fistful of gummy bears I saw a white deer walking on the steep sandy river bank. I slowed my paddling to watch it and cursed the low light from letting me get a photo. A white deer! It pranced at my approach and scrambled up the bank kicking a spray of dark sand from its hooves. Then, it disappeared. I thought my eyes were playing tricks in the dusk then it reappeared but then with one more leap it evaporated completely. I looked at the time, it was only 14 hours into the race and I was already seeing things? It must have been the combination of gelatinous bruins and whatever evil resides in a tall can of Red Bull.
Of the two major cruxes of the Yukon River Quest, omitting the obvious physical and mental endurance aspects of course, I asked myself for years which would be worse, the lake or the rapids? I would have said the rapids if those worried thoughts during sleepless moments at 4am in the week leading up to the race were any indication. I have never shot a set of waves bounding over submerged boulders let alone paddled in moving water so I was anticipating a knee-shaking-adrenaline-pumping-capsizing-red-hot-mess of floating debris and my lost wits by the ending of my attempt at the rapids. But, it was the lake that should have garnered more of my fear and anticipatory loathing. Rapids are somewhat predictable depending on the year and volume of water flowing through them. A lake is an animal, wild, at times ill-tempered and prone to fits of trickery lulling the weary paddler into a false sense of tranquil security. This is where the Yukon showed me hers and I did my best to show her mine. This is where I began coining the phrase ‘I Got Yukoned’ to my fellow paddlers. I really should have spent that time laying awake in bed dreading the unknowns of Lake Laberge not the ‘over in a second’ Five Finger Rapids.
I came to realize the enormity of the lake shore distances during a boat ride on my first day in the Yukon. Our host and River Quest Volunteer, Ray took my team out for a short run on the lake in his jet boat and as we motored out around Richtofen Island I looked out to the opposite shore where in just a few days I would be paddling. It looked long and what was visible to the eye was only a potion of the long 50 km lake. It was pointed out to me by Ray and Gus who had paddled it many times before that the length of the lake is a, pardon my language, a mind fuck! The geography and slight bending of the lake causes this. You never see the end. We will be paddling to one point, rounding it only to see nothing but the next outcropping point of land.
As I calmed down after my bumper car beginnings of the race I rediscovered the now familiar portion of the river beyond the limits of Whitehorse. High white sandy cliffs skirted the edges of the river. The water a glacial greenish blue and the course ahead was narrow. I was not accustomed to navigating with so many other craft surrounding me and this made me hyper aware of everything around me. I watch as an eagle flies across my bow a few feet above the water and attempts to land on the sandy cliff. With no secure purchase it fumbles the landing and with wings flapping and feathers flying and dust clouds rising with each awkward motion it slides to a stop folding its wings to its body and acts natural while the small san avalanches tumble down the rivers edge.
The river widens and shrinks allowing the flotilla to squeeze through with care until the intersection with the Takhini River where I had pulled out during my training paddle two days before the race. There I heard my crew. “Good job Paddleboy, We Love You!”. I could barely make out the shapes of my friends that were making this mission possible from so far below as the current whipped me around the next bend. I love them and hearing the cheers lifted me up and added power to my paddle. A couple of hours later I would hear them again far in the distance at Policemans Point, and that would be the last time until I landed at the dock at Carmacks. I took them with me during the night and coming day.
Policeman’s Point was the last twisting section of river before this flat bug infested and shallow estuary opens up into becoming a lake. I had mixed feelings about leaving the river for several hours of lake paddling. On the one hand, getting away from the bugs would be a blessing but when I stretched out for my paddle onto the lake it was obvious that the winds were not blowing the right way.
From the mouth of the river the organizers allowed the racers to cross a long diagonal course to the opposite shore on the right side of the lake. This was a bumpy crossing but nothing I was not used too from ocean kayaking on a breezy day. A small rolling chop and a persistent slightly annoying headwind that I knew would dissipate once we all arrived in the lee created by large exposed rock faces such as Graveyard Hill. I can only imagine the reasons behind the naming origins of that mount. It did have a tombstone feel to it and I hoped that first glimpse of the topography that would be my view for the next few hours was not to be too ominous a theme. I had been paddling with or close too a big voyageur canoe paddled by breast cancer survivors named, Paddlers Abreast. We had chatted prior to entering the serpentine leading into Policeman’s but now they moved ahead of me pulling on the paddles hard against the wind. I looked around and up the long expanse of the lake to see white caps forming and far along the shore beyond the island was what I knew was calm water. Smooth and inviting and I worked hard to reach shore guided by support boats edging us along a line of buoys.
It didn’t take long to reach the calm waters that looked closer to where the lake narrows but were in fact closer and that initially had me excited as I had hopes of a windless journey on this section of the marathon, or at least a decent tail-wind. The blessing of flat water soon proved to be a sour challenge. With the calm lake came intense heat not detoured by the winds cooling. My pace slowed dramatically and I plodded on drinking often and cursing the clouds forming over the hills ahead of me. I looked behind and saw the skyscape altering as well. It was made of dirty grey clouds. I moved onwards only concerning myself on what I saw ahead of my kayak. Thunder rumbled and I had thought for a moment that it was about to get very wet but instead the angry air slammed downwards hard and created ripples on the water that in what seemed seconds not minutes aroused into wind waves.
I was paddling close to an SUP paddler. We had met at Takhini Bridge that first day and I liked Glen immediately. Now he was about fifty meters ahead of me, and on his knees paddling hard to reach shore. The dreamy conditions earlier had moved us farther away from shore than we should have been so the fight for safe shore line forced us to come inside of the buoy marking a mid-lake monitoring point. By then the winds eased slightly but the damage was done. There wasn’t much to discuss about what had just transpired but he and I were both happy to be paddling normally again. I settled in for the next leg of the lake as I finally began to gain every closer to that first outcropping. Point number one done, how many more? In the effort to keep any forward momentum in the storm I pushed too hard and had strained my shoulder badly. I knew this was a possibility that at some point during the marathon it would become an issue, but I had assumed it would not be so close to the start. A veritable flood of worry entered my head and that too was something I concerned myself. I do spend a lot of time in my own head. River Quest would allow so much more solitude and I was fine being in my own company and moving through thoughts that I would not have normally had time for back home but now I was becoming consumed with the problem of paddling in pain. There was no way I was going to scratch from this! It ached and with each paddle stroke when I pulled my arm back to begin the next stroke there was an uncomfortable twinge. Nothing to do but paddle on and again the water softened and the skies reloaded for the next attack.
I have been away from the blog for months now as life and work and all sorts seems to take my energies away from my writing time. But as I did my weekend walk from my girl friend’s palatial apartment building and down through the tranquil Ross Bay Cemetery with a cup of coffee in hand it occurred to me that three months from now I will be doing the same darn thing on a Saturday afternoon as is my tradition while she is at work, but in three months time I will be doing this stroll recovering from and hopefully revelling, and not despairing the Yukon River Quest experience.
Now that the weather has improved my training has officially begun and I have set a 20km loop around the islands north of my home on Saltspring Island. Set in Trincomali Channel it can be flat calm one day and a tossed mess of white capped waves the next, and in the case of my paddle the other evening all in one day! I am relying on all sorts of gadgets to record my times and help assess my progress…if any over the next couple of months. I feel good, the boat is great and am looking forward to bringing a kayak I built in my living room over a decade ago to the Yukon River and put myself and my kayak to the grand test of racing from Whitehorse to Dawson City, a mere 715 plus or minus kilometers against the clock and against my own fatigue.
I admit to waking up some mornings wondering what the hell I have gotten myself into this time. Then, I sit in my kayak and all is well. While blasting through wind waves the other evening, knowing full well they, and the tide were conspiring to ruin my 20km lap time I was laughing. Like riding a bike. I have not put my butt in a kayak solidly for a couple of years other than occasional evening or weekend paddles. I am starting from scratch and feeling fitter with each outing. The sun of springtime helps, and I wonder how it is for my fellow competitors who may not have the availability of luxurious backyard waters to train in, and in such nice conditions. I am lucky in where I live, and the support team I have to help me undertake the crazy task of making it so very far on my own, alone on a winding river up in the great white north under a disinterested midnight sun.
I will keep you all posted from now on with regards to training, thoughts and with luck, I will be sitting on my girlfriend’s front porch in three months time writing the opening pages of the post Yukon experience.
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…
Last spring I was well on the way to a great year of kayaking. I set out at least once a week for a good 25 km paddle leading up to one epic day circumnavigating my home island of Salt Spring. (I am aiming to beat my best time this spring). I was feeling better and better with each paddle stroke until I made the grand mistake of bagging a full time job and within a couple of weeks I was side-lined with numbness and pain in both my forearms and wrists. With years of paddling I had not succumbed to the kayaker’s complaint of tendonitis, it took an 8-hour shift five days a week doing something repetitive and apparently stressful that caused such an extreme flare-up. I was gobsmacked by this turn of events as I have worked with my hands all my life and this was the first time it had become an issue. Coupled with being staggeringly pooped at the end of the day the idea of getting out on the water in the evenings, or on the weekends was a struggle of time and pain management. Reluctantly, I hung up the paddle for the season and tended to earning a few bucks while dealing with a certain amount of chronic pain. The result being that too much time on land has made me crazy.
Not this year! I am off work for the winter and looking for something less taxing on the old joints than the old job. Options open I am spending the time reacquainting myself with my lovely wooden kayak, which currently resides in the workshop while getting a fresh new look. I am also looking into exercises to use for kayaking now that the specter of tendonitis and Carpel Tunnel Syndrome CTS are looming over my head. I accept that this will alter my paddling, then again, maybe not. I feel the arms healing already and eager to get back in the seat of my kayak. But, a new regime of preparation and daily stretching is in order to help prevent or at least dull the lingering affects.
While investigating various ways of easing the pain and suffering I may now achieve with each paddle stroke I found this short but informative video on youtube. Very simple exercises to add to my regular paddling stretching before and after a day on the water. I thought I would share this as I know there are paddlers out there popping anti inflammatory tablets as I speak.
As the gathering winds of January blow chilly and cold the images of wintertime paddling would not be the one above taken on a spectacular morning with plus-side temperatures, and calm waters in Stuart Channel near my home on Salt Spring Island. On this day we set out for a lunch on a nearby islet and the only limitation on the day was daylight hours. Only by noon did the winds pick up enough to damage the mirror of the sea with a slight mischievous ripple. The best summer day of paddling, it was just in winter.
By contrast, a lovely morning paddle in that same stretch of water turned ugly, grey and challenging for the novice kayaker who paddled with me that day in, not November, December, or even January, but in May! We had a fair morning with calm waters to practice paddle strokes and techniques, a brief stop for lunch and our entertainment was the darkening skies looming on the opposites shores. Time to head home, but not before the squall packing gusting winds and heavy chop battered us. It gave my friend a tiring but fruitful day of learning to cope with good ol’ Mother Nature and her bad parenting skills. It gave me a chance to tutor someone through the storm. It was a terrific wintertime paddling day, it was just in May.
Summer it seems is showing the signs that the last act of the play is about to start and a season of heavy kayaking has come and gone for me without much time on the water. This was a summer of working, not playing. That said, I pulled my wooden kayak off the seas for a well-deserved renovation and care. The new job slowed the process and though I had the enthusiasm, the body was pooped and my days off spent catching up on rest and other more important things.
Alas, October is now scratching at the door like a wet cat and my kayak sits partly done. sigh. Today I realized that my gelcoating efforts should be beefed up as sanding her belly smooth revealed more wood than smoothness when removing the orange rind dimples I really should have been more generous with the gel coat… Another few coats to be added and a few more evening, and weekend sessions wet sanding to get the pro finish I really want. My newbie efforts at refinishing are showing but a bit more elbow grease is okay with me. She deserves it after so many years of keeping me safe and joyful.
So my summer project becomes a fall project. The kayak rebirth in the new year, her tenth year on the water with a shine and a new look.