Thursday, July 29, 2010

Longshore rip currents: Dangerous and avoidable

While having breakfast on the shore of Lake Superior a week ago today, the FrugalFisherman took a call from his spouse informing us that the Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture, Rod Nilsestuen, had drowned near Marquette. She had worked with Rod in the office of former US Rep. Al Baldus back in Eau Claire in the mid 70's, and she and the FF had remained in touch over the years. I met Rod at the same time and even applied for an internship from him in the DC office of Congressman Baldus. Every publication from the farm journals to Business Week have been praising him as the man who revived Wisconsins dairy industry and could work well with both sides of the aisle toward the public good, a very rare and valued quality in these polarized times. The accounts said that Rod had been volunteering on a Habitat for Humanity project in Marquette and had gone for a swim after working. Witnesses say he was unable to swim back to a sandbar at the Picnic Rocks area near downtown Marquette. I know the area well. I was there the week before on my way to Grand Marais.

Picnic Rocks has been the scene of 12 drownings since the 60's. There is even a plaque at the beach with the names of the victims on it. The problem is that there is a tombolo or sand bar, that connects the shore to the rocks out in the lake. It can clearly be seen on the image above. When the wind blows from the north or east a strong current forms, almost like a rip current only running paralell to the shore instead of out into the lake. People either step off or swim off the narrow sand bar and then panic when they can't swim back to the shallow water against the current. The situation is described far better than I could in an article published by Sea Grant Michigan. It describes both the phenomena and how it can be dealt with. NOAA also has an excellent description and is where I heisted the Google map image above.

So how an we avoid another tragedy at a beautiful, inviting, yet dangerous spot? The lake after all, is indeed the boss and the conditions will not change. When I stopped at Picnic Rocks there was no parking within 3 blocks, it was sunny, Gitchee Gumee was flat, and people were having a wonderful time. Banning swimming there, as the National Park Service did in the Dalles of the St Croix River near Interstate park on the MN/WI border, is not the answer. Knowing how to deal with these rip currents would seem to be, but how do we educate people to the dangers? That sign with the 11 names on it certainly got my attention but, like many things, warnings aren't taken to heart until experienced personally and sometimes that's too late. About once every 4 years according to the history of the place.

I don't have an answer. Tell as many people as you can, write a letter to the editor, forward the two linked websites to folks that you know enjoy swimming in the lake, and try to educate. Rod Nilsestuen will be missed on many,many levels. If we all do our small part to make this little known fact about Lake Superior common knowledge, I would hope that a few lives might be saved along the way.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Traditional Gathering

We've successfully made it through three straight weeks of kayak learning with a weeks vacation thrown in the middle. The GLSKS was sandwiched between two traditional events, a Turner and Cheri weekend in Bayfield and the Traditional Gathering on Lake Mille Lacs this past weekend. I'll have more posts on the vacation paddling in the Yoopee with the Fall Trip cronies but I wanted to get some stuff up on the Gathering while its still fresh.

Low key was the order of the weekend. We had two guest mentors from either coast. Helen Wilson was present, fresh off her trip to the Greenland championships, and Will Bigelow was back, trusty bottle of single malt in hand, from the Walden Qajaq Society in Massachusetts. There were also many local mentors in the mix, to innumerable to name. The crew camped at the Kathio State Park group site and the learning took place on the south shore of Lake Mille Lacs, near where the Rum River exits the lake. The SCSU Experiental Learning Cell, eg. the beige single wide with the dead blue pickup in the yard, was made available for parking and a quasi base camp and we shuttled down to the beach. As usual the goal was to learn traditional skills and the structure was amorphous at best. If you wanted to learn something there was someone that could teach you how to do it. There were sign up sheets but in keeping with the nature of the people involved and the skills being learned, if a student wanted to wander from group to group that was OK. And wander we did. Skill levels ranged from a guy from Iowa who didn't even own a boat and found the Northern Lights Qajaq Society on the web, to Doug from Bemidji, steered in our direction by TheMayor, to more advanced folks that wanted to polish skills and learn some more advanced rolls and techniques. The mentors moved seamlessly from beginners to advanced and everyone learned a lot. I personally learned the counter intuitive forward finishing storm roll (thanks Helen!), The ManFromSnowyLegs is now a proficient static bracer, the IrishPirate has a rock solid balance brace and recovery on both sides, and the VOR has her forward stroke tuned like a Rolls Royce engine.

The apres' paddle bonding was excellent as well. We were all camped in a large group site on the Rum River. Campfires were burning, the large party tent offered about 4 picnic tables worth of cover from the sun and rain, and food and adult beverage were shared among the 50 or so attendees. No strangers at this event. The whisky tasting that had been postponed from the GLSKS came off nicely around the campfire Saturday night, with three excellent bottles from Ireland and Scotland respectively. Will B opined that a bottle would not be turned loose like that on the east coast but it seemed like the thing to do here.

The Gathering is a great event, probably my favorite of the year. The ACA/BCU system of stars and levels is fine and has worked well for years. The Greenland style of mentoring is more of a deal where if a person is good at a skill their expertise is informally acknowledged and they teach it. As more folks become proficient, they begin mentoring and the cycle grows and continues. Speaking of which, JeffB mentored the only international harpoon competition in Minnesota this year. Evil, surly looking floating seals were harpooned by a number of contestants from 4 different countries.

It was a blast. Next year can't come too soon.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Learning on the move

One of the most powerful learning tools at any symposium is the paddle tour. When there is a good instructor to student ratio people can cruise along, paddle up next to someone, and talk paddling. It's a more informal setting and folks can pretty much work on whatever they want to, as long as it involves going forward.....for the most part. On Saturday morning all the tours were canceled due to wind and waves with the exception of one 'kinda tour', the Learning on the Move class. I was assigned to that class along with SKOAC crony JeromeR. Actually we were somewhat conned into it the night before,shortly after happy hour, when Mr. Blades kept asking, "C'mon Olson, whaddya wanna teach tomorrow?? How about learning on the move with your buddy?" I figured why not, at least I'd probably stay dry in that class.

The big water had Keith Wikle and Danny Mongo practically giddy in anticipation of their surf class, as were the Wind and Waves and Paddling the Bumps folks, Ben Lawry and Steve Scherer. The group Jerome and I drew were mainly beginners,a few intermediates, with a couple long time paddlers who said they were 'self taught'. Some had not heard of the 'paddlers box' and others were just brushing up on some skills and wanted to paddle rather than float around and focus on one activity for two hours. We paddled around and did some forward stroke stuff, edging, sweeps, stern rudders, that sort of thing, and then we began the half mile paddle out to the end of the breakwater.

That half mile paddle was an eye opener for me. Varying skill levels means keeping the more advanced paddlers engaged and interested while not pushing the beginners too far beyond their comfort zone. The other part of that is keeping the group together. The big challenge however, occured when we it the big water at the end of the breakwater. Waves were breaking on the outside wall and water was coming over to the sheltered side. 3-5 footers were wrapping around the end of the breakwater and the two above mentioned classes were out there playing already, making for a noisy, convoluted, and very exciting environment. We suggested that one or two of the folks stick their noses out at a time and that was working well until one of the 'self taught' guys, a rather large fellow, went barreling out into the waves. It became apparent that turning around would be difficult for him and Jerome gave chase while I stayed with the group. All was well and we were pretty happy we didn't have to put the guy back into his boat, which would have been interesting.

It was a good afternoon. Once again the coaches, at least me, seemed to learn as much as the students and group dynamics was pounded into my head in a way that makes it easy to remember. I most certainly won't get to put the lessons into play with my fall trip buddies that we're meeting in Munising, because any attempt at group discipline there would be like herding cats. Once again lessons were learned and the learning went both ways. As I said before, it was a good symposium.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Great weather in Grand Marais,MI

The Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium in Grand Marais, MI is beginning its final day. This is my favorite symposium for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that zero driving is required. The launch, the campground, the motels, the community center home base, and yes, the brewpub, are all within easy walking distance of one another. Other than driving a car full of paddles, pfd's, and other gear down to the beach there is really no reason to jump in the vehicle. The instructors are world class and the harbor of Grand Marais is very nicely sheltered for beginner classes. A sheltered harbor generally infers the presence of big water close by and this lineup of instructors, combined with a cooperative lineup of 1'-3', 2'-4', and for awhile 3'-5' waves right outside the breakwater over the course of the day made for some excellent learning.

I did some excellent learning myself even though I was there as an instructor. My first assignment was Paddling the Bumps, a course on boat control in bumpy water. My 'partner' was Ben Lawry, a situation that I thought was similar to a new high school coach at a football camp being assigned to work with Brett Favre on teaching students to throw the ball. I just kept my mouth shut and helped the students refine the things they were learning. The next day I was assigned to coach with Steve Scherer, who designs boats for Wilderness Systems (you may have heard of the Tsunami) and travels the country teaching with wife Cindy. Then I figured it out. The inimitable Mr. Kelly Blades must be a basketball fan. He was pairing instructors just like the seed the NCAA basketball tournament where #1 plays #64 and being a newbie, I was definitely in the #64 category.

The weather and waves cooperated perfectly for teaching. We could work on and demo skills in the sheltered area and then head out, or maybe just stick our noses out, into what at times was 3-5 footers with waves refracting and growing as they swept around the breakwater with the northwest wind. There was trepidation at first and then the adrenaline rush and exhilaration as folks realized that the edging and bracing skills they practiced in the calmer water worked the same way in the bumpy stuff. Everyone I talked to was excited about their new acquired skills and I saw several practicing on their own between sessions. We received a number of 'thank yous' as people visibly gained skills and confidence in Gitchee Gumee.

It was a great weekend to run into old friends and meet new ones as you can see from the above shot of the VOR sandwiched between Silbs and FivePieceRoy like a rose between two thorns. The venue was great, they brewed my favorite beer style, ESB, at the brewpub, and the fresh whitefish was wonderful. I will post a bit more on the symposium but at present I'm on vacation with a half dozen cronies and will be playing in the Munising area. The decision today: paddle Grand Island or Pictured Rocks. It will be decided over coffee in a couple minutes and I suspect we all win either way we go.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Bad, bad choices

All kinds of good, exciting, and fun kayak stuff is happening this month. Instruction, trips, and general good times on the water are happening in the heart of the northland summer. I have blog material galore, including a paddle trip I did around the six lake chain where our childhood cabin used to be. But instead today I get to write about a shooting outside a neighborhood bar in Northeast Minneapolis. My neighborhood bar.

Grumpys is my primary after work stop a night or two during the week. I know a number of the regulars, the bartenders, and the owner. Its a friendly spot with countless events and specials, including Hotdish Night, various musical acts, Vinyl Night, and most recently a benefit for Haitian relief. The vibe does change on late weekend nights however, and on the rare occasion I've stopped after a game or a show, I haven't recognized many patrons. Friday and Saturday nights are the only nights that the bar has a bouncer and that's not by coincidence. Last Saturday night at 1 am, a young man that had either been cut off or asked to leave the bar, went home, grabbed a butcher knife, and returned, after his mother urged him not to. According to media accounts, the 24 year old drove up on the curb, got out of the car, and attacked the bouncer with the knife. The bouncer tried to ward off the attack with a collapsible baton and then shot the man twice after he was cut on the hand. The bouncer, who had a valid carry permit, received stitches at the OR. He was questioned and released by police.

Reading the sparse accounts in the paper prompted me to jump on my bike after work and ride down to talk to the folks at the bar and get some more insight into what happened. Those sparse reports however, were more than enough information to prompt over 200 predominantly crackpot comments on the article describing the incident. They ranged from the 'he was a good boy/ban guns/jail the bouncer' to the 'the punk deserved it/arm everyone/send the riff raff back to where they came from' camps. Middle ground was very, very rare in this amazing regurgitation of comments and half baked opinions.

The bottom line is that this happened because of bad, very bad choices. In this situation, as in many potentially dangerous situations including kayaking, bad decisions and bad judgement tend to pile up, raising the stakes geometrically and more often than not ending badly. I don't want to debate the nuances of the event, parrot the liberal or conservative party line, or paint is as some morality play one way or the other. I just want to stress again that good decision making and cutting your losses when bad decisions are made, can prevent this sort of tragedy.

There are some interesting parallels between this event and the kayaker deaths over the past few years at the Meyers Beach sea caves. Neither kayaking or drinking are inherently dangerous activities but when the bad decisions begin to accumulate, the dangers increase geometrically. Venturing on to Lake Superior in rec boat with no spray skirt is shaky. Add cold water and shorts and a T shirt and the danger ratchets up. No method of getting back into the boat and a 25 knot wind and we are well into the danger zone. Paddle into nasty rebound waves along sheer cliffs and sea caves and chances are huge that bad things will happen. In two instances they did and fatalities occurred. In Saturday nights incident at Grumpys too much alcohol, with a combative attitude added in, was bad enough. Driving home in that state while intoxicated made the danger level worse, and grabbing a knife and returning to the bar to attack the bouncer escalated it into the almost certain disaster range. In both instances there were a number of points where disaster could have been easily averted simply by stopping but the mistakes, bad judgement, and poor decisions kept piling up until people wound up dead.

I hate to keep referring to "the bouncer" because I know the man, but names are being avoided for obvious reasons. He's a good guy, family man, veteran, and very active in the community. The first question from 1st LtO (my youngest son), a guy who has held a firearm in life and death situations, been a bouncer on New York City's lower east side, and is currently trained in the use of lethal force, was, "how is (the bouncer) doing?". On the other side of the equation, the assailant, according to some of the more lucid folks in the newspaper comment section, was a troubled but good guy who was trying to get his life back on track. He leaves a mom and dad, sisters and brothers, and friends trying to make sense out of that which makes no sense at all. There are no winners and losers although I will say that 'the bouncer' did his job and protected himself, the bar staff, and the bar patrons. That does not make it any less tough for anyone however.

Whether you're going out for a drink or a short paddle on Lake Calhoun in the city, take 10 seconds and think a bit about consequences. I encourage people where I work to become good pool players. Don't just sink that stripe ball next to the corner pocket, think things through a bit and see if you can't maybe set things up for more opportunity down the road. Since the beginning of this blog the masthead has read 'Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement. Bad judgement can and does happen. By thinking, just a little bit, and taking an easy peek into the crystal ball, most trouble can be avoided. And for god sakes, when the bad crap and bad decisions start to pile up just step back, take a look at the situation, and then stop. Just stop. Lose the macho 'blindly plow ahead' attitude and stop. Everybody wins that way and no mature person will think any less of you because of it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Fine tuning at Bayview beach

The first of three straight weekends of training and instruction kicked off Saturday morning with Turner Wilson and Cheri Perry's Greenland Comprehensive at Bayview beach in Chequamagon Bay. Seven of us ranging in skill from 'I just got my boat this spring' to those who own a half dozen rolls worked through a day of learning new skills and refining existing ones.

The day began with a bit of a glitch when a student, who shall remain nameless but authors a kayaking blog very, very similar to this one, led half the students to the beach leaving the other half waiting for them in Bayfield for the 'follow the leader' caravan. As a wise man once said, too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Thank god for cell phones. Things were sorted out and we hit the water on a beautiful summer day, with Madeline and Long Islands beckoning across the bay. As was the case a couple weeks ago, promiscuous paddle swapping was the order of the day with Turner and Cheri contributing a dozen or so sticks to the paddle mix. A paddler really needs to think about their stroke when gently shoved out of the comfort zone with a new paddle. New paddles also tend to invoke the 'boy, I think I need one of these' response in certain gear the one writing this blog. Paddle length, width, loom length and thickness, stroke frequency, and shape all made students think about what they were doing, how different woods (and carbon fiber) felt, and how the paddle fit them and their paddling style. The strokes segment was great as well, with some students being exposed for the first time and others picking up on little nuances and refinements that improve skill level on the strokes that we think we already know. It was an amazing balancing act that Turner and Cheri performed, switching seamlessly from the beginner to the advanced without missing a beat. I also managed to work most of the glitches, which I whined about a couple posts back, out of my rolls. Actually I didn't work a damn thing out. Cheri pointed out that my shoulder was coming out of the water and I wasn't squared to the water on forward sweeps and Turner had me slow down and extend rather than push down on angel/butterfly and stick rolls (Silbs, you were correct sir). Both comments, made after observing one measly roll, turned those rolls from broken bat singles to solid doubles off the wall.

It was, as we all agreed, a great day on the water. The weather was good, the water temp was good, and the mentoring and cameraderie was excellent. Next weekend I'll be making my debut as a 4th assistant beginning class instructor trainee at GLSKS and the weekend after we will be at the luxurious SCSU Learning Cell on the shores of Lake Mille Lacs for the Traditional Gathering. The more a person participates, watches, practices, and teaches, the more we learn. So get out and play in the water. SKOAC has an opportunity for the Twin Cities folks tomorrow night at Lake Calhoun and the price is right. Free. I hope to see all ya'all, as my southern buddies say, on the water. Remember, in 4 short months up this way, the water will have stiffened considerably and some of us will be forced to risk TCP (Terminal Chlorine Poisoning) in order to play in it. Go get wet now!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Paddlin' in the rain

We watched the local fireworks on the lake where my sister and bro' in law have their cabin. We bobbed around in the famous Windsor Castle, an early '60's vintage homemade houseboat, and enjoyed adult beverages with perhaps 100 other boats that were on the water. The lake was a sea of running lights in every direction. All of these boats were located on the lake, rather than being trailered in, but the next morning there was a light mist falling and exactly one of these 100 boats were on the water at 10am. Power boating or pontooning in the rain flat sucks. Kayaking on the other hand, seems to be pretty damn enjoyable.

Actually the people out on the water that morning were fisherman. They were bundled up in rain suits and looked decidedly uncomfortable, although I couldn't decide whether it was from the rain or wearing the rain suit in 80F and humid weather. I had my Reed tuliq on and the only thing that was damp was my face and hands. Since I planned on tipping over at some point anyhow, a wet face didn't really bother me too much. The rain didn't seem to bother the loons, eagles, and muskrats either and they were probably grateful to lose the rumble of the powerboats and the mindless whine of the jet skis. That jet ski sound always induces homicidal thoughts for me, so the lack of two cycle screaming added greatly to my chi being centered while on the water.

We had to head home since the VOR had to work Monday in exchange for a Friday off down the road. My usual paddle buddies were everywhere but the Twin Cities, including Alaska, Hurley, WI, Colorado, and Kentucky, so I sent out a 'SKOAC Group' email advising folks I'd be on Lake Calhoun at 1:30. It was pretty apparent that the rain was heading in and I got exactly two responses, one which begged off due to intensive expedition prep for an upcoming Silver Islet to Rossport gig. TheManFromSnowyLegs was game but saw the email too late and missed the outing. It wound up being just me and one of the new paddlers that had taken the day long intro course and also made the Lake Superior intro trip to Basswood Island. Other than a couple of canoes, the only craft on the lakes were kayaks and there were a significant number, mainly rec boats, enjoying the afternoon. Thunder was rumbling in the distance but most of the afternoon was spent 50 yards from shore and no lightning was spotted. We got back to the beach, did a bit of easy instruction, and headed for the barn.

If you haven't tried it yet, sneak out on the water during a warm summer rain. It changes everything, from a visual softening of the landscape to quieter, more muffled sounds, a clean fresh smell, and the wonderful exclusivity of having the lake mostly to yourself on the biggest holiday weekend of the summer. Give it a try. I guarantee that you will dry off.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Security blanket

Now that we northerners are in the absolute sweet spot of the summer rolling season, I've been rolling pretty much every time I've been out on the water. Even Gitchee Gumee is pretty nice, at least in the Apostles, this time of year. It seems fairly ridiculous to wear a tuliq in thisweather and water temp but the sad fact is that I can't seem to roll worth a damn without it.

I love being in the water on a nice summer day. I have yet to set foot in the backyard pool that we have in our little townhouse complex but faithful blog readers know that I'm a virulent anti-chlorite. Why suck chemicals when I can be on a nice fresh water lake in five minutes? For some reason however, when I tip over with a spray skirt and life jacket my rolls just aren't as sharp, don't feel right, and I miss significantly more rolls than I do while wearing the tuliq. We all know the feeling when we hit a roll perfectly. The boat comes around smoothly, our paddle sweep is hardly felt, and we are effortlessly upright almost before we know it. The screwups result in muscling the paddle, a violent hip snap, or a quick scull to save your ass before you splash back into the drink. We're still up but it just feels wrong. One reason might be the balance thing. With the tuliq there is virtually no water in the ears, a frequent occurrence when rolling bare headed. Buoyancy is another factor that might be in play. Even though I never wear a life jacket with my tuliq (ok, don't worry....I have an inflatable around my waist most of the time) the natural buoyancy of the one piece paddle jacket/spray skirt seems to help. Having the damn life jacket on, and I've never liked them, ever since I was forced to wear one of those bulky, orange, around-the-neck things as a kid, can throw off the balance a bit but I don't think any of these thing are the true cause of the bad rolling form. I think I have the yips.

The yips are when a golfer can't make a three foot putt to save his life. When a baseball catcher suddenly can't throw the ball back to the pitcher or a second baseman can't make the toss to first base. I was out on Wednesday playing with rescuse, cowboy reentries, and all sorts of fun in the water stuff. When I tried a forward finishing roll I just could not hit it. After a couple aborted attempts I became pissed off and yanked my tuliq out of the day hatch. First attempt of the same roll wearing the tuliq felt like a home run swing. I was up in a flash with no excessive arm strain, near paddle breakage, or any other maladies. Don't get me wrong, I can still hit most rolls adequately and consistently with a life jacket and spray skirt, its just the feel and nuance of the more subtle rolls that is escaping me.

Fortunately help is on the way. I dropped RonO off at the airport on Wednesday for his month in Homer, Alaska, ostensibly working on airplanes but paddling as well. He won't be around to critique my rolling efforts but he did email me that the Homer Brewing Company's Best Bitter is superb. Next Saturday however, I will have Turner Wilson and Cheri Perry critiquing my rolls up in Bayfiled at a Boreal Shores Kayaking sponsored traditional paddling event. Then its off to Grand Marais, MI for the symposium there and then back to Minnesota for the Traditional Gathering up on Lake Mille Lacs with Helen Wilson and Will Bigelow dissecting my rolling efforts. I think with that kind of rolling instruction horsepower I should figure it out. In any event I'm not worried. Like a hitter that's in a slump and I'll roll my way out of it and have a hell of a good time doing it.

In another bit of blogging news, RangerBob is back in the saddle and once again appears to the right of this post. The vagaries of Facebook, with its privacy issues and limited mini posts has driven him back to more extended writing and the blogosphere will be better because of it. My company has suggested that Twitter might be a good social media option for us, but I told them that I've already authorized a half dozen or so of my co-workers to euthanize me if I ever 'tweeted', so it would be impossible and very dangerous for me to open a company Twitter account.

Have a wonderful 4th of July weekend everyone. Paddle, drive, blast fireworks, and party safely.