Friday, April 29, 2011

Ten boats??

Derrick had a great post on ten boats we must paddle before pulling the trigger on our purchase. Obviously this post provoked several responses by those who felt their favorite boat was left out. BryanH, up in Minnesota's arrowhead, countered with 10 boats that he thought should be tried, including one that he didn't even like. Impartial journalism at its finest. My question would ask how many readers out there in cyberspace actually paddled ten boats before they bought? Given the limited opportunities to paddle that many boats, combined with many peoples impulsive nature, my guess would be a fairly small percentage of those buying sea kayaks, especially first timers, tried out that many boats.

Paddling ten boats can be problematic. Most of the larger shops hold demos on local lakes but none of them can claim to have all the models from all the manufacturers, and because they are for profit businesses they have the most popular saleable boats. I love the Anas Acuta but can't remember the last time I saw one on the rack at a shop.....maybe Rutabaga in Madison a couple years ago. Which is a nice segue into boats that can be paddled at symposiums. Rutabaga sponsors Door County, Downwind Sports sponsors the GLSKS, and the Inland Sea Kayak Symposium in Washburn is not sponsored by a shop, although NDK has a very strong presence for a number of good reasons. Years ago I paddled Feathercraft folding boats, Betsie Bay Kayaks, Chesapeake Light Craft, and other smaller obscure brands at various symposiums. For obvious reasons, if a brand of boat is not carried by the company sponsoring the symposium, it would quite rightfully be at cross purposes with their financial interest to have those boats available to paddle.

Which takes us to the mindset of the kayak purchase. There are people who study, paddle, read reviews, consult with more experienced paddlers, mine the knowledge at clubs, agonize, and then buy a boat. Then there are those who jump in a boat or two, paddle them, and write the check. The majority of my friends fall into this category. My own experience is instructive. The first sea kayak I sat in was a Perception Eclipse, which I dumped about 100 yards into my inaugural paddle. It was a twitchy craft with minimal initial stability, as I recall, but this didn't prevent me from renting another Eclipse when I visited No1 son at his summer job guiding in the BWCA out of Ely, MN. Familiarity I guess. Then I went on a guided trip and was put in a Current Designs Storm. This might be a good point to say that my boat choices are much more limited at 6'4", 225#'s, than most folks. The boat fit well, was stable, tracked like a railroad train, and held a pile of gear. That fall I bought a used rental Storm from Trek and Trail in Bayfield and was happy as a clam with my first boat. Until Dale Hedke at the now defunct Boat House in St Paul had me paddle the Solstice GTS high volume. Narrower, faster, lighter, seemed to fit great.......see ya later Storm. Dale was the master boat builder for the MN Canoe Association and handled Chesapeake Light Craft kits. 1stLtO, then a junior in high school, wanted a kayak. Both the price and the clever thought of sneaking in 60-70 hours of one on one father/son time convinced me I needed a CLC 17 LT. When it was done I had owned 3 boats and paddled exactly four. It jumped up to 5 when Ken Ketter had a 'hot deal' on a CD Gulfstream, my first foray into British style boats, skegs, and day hatches. My buddy Podman paddled my Solstice, his lone test drive, and now owns it. As my skill, discrimination, knowledge, and awareness of what I really needed in a boat grew, I worked my way through a Scirocco, Valley Aquanaut HV, Valley Q Boat, and a NDK Explorer HV. Along the way a Valley Avocet, a Valley Skerry, and a P&H Capella also lived at my house. Just for variety a Feathercraft Big Kahuna, a sweet boat until the airlines started having me bend over and grab my ankles when I tried to get in on their planes as checked baggage, and the venerable expedition double, the Aleut II, were also in the stable. I know where 90% of my old boats are and they are being paddled by friends who have basically paddled one or two boats before deciding to pull the trigger on my low, low, friend discount boat prices.

Paddle more boats! I don't go to a symposium where I don't paddle damn near everything that's there and then hit up people to try their boats if they aren't available on the demo beach. Never, never think about purchasing a boat that you didn't paddle, preferably in bigger conditions. Also, never underestimate the power of a good demo to help craft your personal opinion of a boat. The crafty ChrisG at Boreal Shores in Bayfield suggested RonO and I use a couple Explorers on a blustery Bark Bay Fishing Invitational weekend, always the first Saturday in May. We took them out of Saxon Harbor and put em through the wringer in some enjoyable Lake Superior nastiness and then both pulled the trigger and purchased the boats.

Both Derrick and Bryan, as well as the commenters on the post, came up with an enviable and worthy list of boats. Paddle as many as you can but if you jump in one you like, one that just feels right to you, don't feel bad if its the second boat you tried. I'm the personal poster child of the 'you can always buy another one' school of kayak acquisition. Most importantly, have fun.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Travelers or tourists?

We all seem to have a bit of both elements in us. The travelers part that wants to find the little restaurant or discover the back road spot that locals favor, well off any guidebook radar, versus the camera around the neck, bad shorts and hat, and rube-like gaping awe at sights we've seen a million times via images in those very same guidebooks. Although I will confess to taking a picture or two of our smiling band of yahoos in front of such sights as the Trevi Fountain and St. Petes in Vatican City, we followed the travelers route for the most part. That is where most of the interesting adventures and interesting people are found and we did find a few. One of the most interesting experiences of the trip was at a truck stop in a mountain pass south of Bologna.

We had spent a few miles driving on the autostrada, the freeway, north of Firenze on our way to Bologna. It is depressingly like a freeway here and we unanimously decided to get the hell off, even though the VOR and GreenThumbChef were wary and critical of the way I put the Fiat 6 spd manual sedan through its paces on the curvy mountain roads. In my defense, I was just trying to blend in with my Italian motoring brethren and their love of actually driving a car in a proper fashion. I did revert to grandpa driving mode however, and we enjoyed the back road from Firenze to Bologna which was twisty, mountainous, and unbelievably beautiful. I later discovered that this was roughly the route that the allies had taken to get from Firenze (Florence) up to Bologna in WWII and a key part of Field Marshall Kesselring's Gothic Line. Finding this out when I returned was timely since it could have resulted in history stops slowing us down even more than my prudent and sedate driving already did. We were nicely stocked with wine, bread, cold cuts, and cheese and planned on a picnic but then the Ristorante "Passo della Futa" Albergo Bar appeared at the top of the 1000 meter Futa pass.

The joint was classic truck stop and surrounded by trucks parked kind of haphazardly along the road. I did a quick U turn and we slid into a spot and strolled in. A sure sign of local color is when the full body stare is received from all patrons and staff, like walking into a northern Wiscosnsin bar, when entering the place. Good smells, long tables, rustic atmosphere, and reasonable costs seem to be truck stop modus operandi the world over and this place was no exception. A large jug of the house wine and homemade bread were awaiting us without asking and we settled in. As we looked around it was apparent that bicycle racing was the theme of this establishment. Trophies, cups, ribbons, pictures, and jerseys were all over the place. We realized that our genial host, a spry, effervescent, gray haired fellow that seemed to be in his early 70's, was the owner of the ristorante and also the young man in the vintage bicycle racing pictures, apparent winner of all the displayed hardware. He was making the rounds of all the tables, slapping backs, cracking jokes in Italian, and keeping the water glasses and bread baskets full. After a great lunch, featuring meat sauce, Bolognese style on pasta, along with some fine anitpasto and of course dolce (dessert), we talked to the guy at the counter who turned out to be a son. His dad, Vittorio Poletti, was a pro cycle racer in the early '60's and had raced both the Tour(s) de France and Italy as well as hundreds of other races. We tried to ask a few questions but could not penetrate the language barrier so reverted to tourist rube mode and asked Vittorio, mainly by pointing and gesticulating, if we could take a picture. He nodded but then had his son pour two shots of grappa, a grape based paint thinner substitute that has quite the alcoholic bite and content. Apparently we had to drink the grappa in order to get the picture. This was a sure sign that we were well off the beaten tourist track........"you can take my picture but you have to drink a shot of my homemade hootch". Our arms needed zero twisting, the shot was drunk, and the picture was taken by the VOR. He seemed genuinely happy that we had stopped in his ristorante for lunch.

It was a great lunch and an even greater experience. Moments like that define traveling for me and I remember them far longer and with considerably more fondness than staring up at a painted church ceiling with my neck craned, several dozen of my 'closest friends' crowding me, and zealous guards barking 'no photos!'. The bicycle connection was great as well, both because our travel group and most readers of this blog are people powered sports fans, and also because No1 son is in da bidness as they say, out in Portland. Here in the Twin Cities we have the Bike Expo this weekend at the State Fairgrounds, sponsored by the Bicycle Alliance of MN. Click on the link in the site for all the info on the Expo. The ice is melted on most lakes, the roads are clear, and spring is in the air. It's time to get those bikes and kayaks back into regular usage folks.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Back from Italy - Hiking trumps paddling

I have to make sure I remember how to do this blogging thing after two weeks. One Euro per half hour wireless access, a technical inability to figure out uploads on my Iphone, and just plain too much fun put blogging on the back burner. We did notice as we flew back that the sea ice on the south end of Greenland is breaking up, lots of ice bergs are floating around, and the inland lakes have thawed out somewhere north of Lake Ontario.

We tried to rent kayaks in Cinque Terra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on the Ligurian Sea but apparently we preceded the season. The ocean was plenty warm to wade in and every one of the 4 cities we hiked to had kayaks stashed under bridges or along harbors, but no one around to rent them. After a couple of cryptic emails back and forth with a couple of outfitters we gave up and decided to hike the beautiful rugged trails. We were told that they were closed however, and that there was also a one day train strike so riding the local train was out. Apparently the wet winter had caused a few slides along the steep trails and they hadn't gotten them fixed yet. We decided to give them a try anyway and turn back when we hit the blockage. We had seen landslides from the ferry that we had taken to a couple southern villages in the group and were prepared for a little out and back hike.

Spectacular does not do justice to the views from the trails. Rather than wasting time babbling about them, you can just look at the images. Sea views, terraced hillsides, narrow and treacherous paths that would cause ADA proponents to lobby Congress, and the fresh sea breeze off the ocean made for a fine hike.

After a couple kilometers we hit the heavily labeled yet rickety closed gate. These are pay trails and the people at the ends of the trail must have been showing solidarity with the striking rail workers since not a soul was around. The trail crews apparently were one with the rail folks too, because we passed a number of untouched piles of construction materials. As we debated whether to squeeze through the gate or not, a very weak debate considering the usually practical VOR, former legal eagle GreenThumbChef, and a guy who would enforce gratuitous gate crashing violations, RangerMark, were all in favor of pressing on. Our decision was made easier when we saw people approaching from the other direction. We compared notes and determined that the trail was perfectly passable in both directions. It was kind of like the driving of the Golden Spike on the Vernazza to Monterosso trails. So we hiked on, over and around more piles of untouched construction material, and reached Monterosso just in time for a wonderful lunch and a couple liters of vino de casa, the ubiquitous house wine that all of the little cafes, osteria, and trattoria had.
There had been concern about how we would get back and I was prepared to bribe an Italian driver for a lift but the ferry workers were not showing solidarity with their railway brothers (this was a Friday strike by the way, kind of a long weekend without pay for the train folks) and we took the 30 minute boat ride back. There was a fellow selling birra on the ferry so I invested in a bottle and decided that Italian birra was OK as was our little slightly illicit adventure hike up the coast.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Fun with flying

I was planning a quick 'gonna be gone for two weeks so no posts' post but then got caught up in the NCAA Frozen Four hockey tourney in St Paul. I was happy to see the team from the shores of Gitchee Gumee, the UMD Bulldogs, win but i got too wrapped up in the hockey and packing for our vacation and never got around to it. I do have time now however as we are stuck in Chicago rather than landing in Rome.

It started poorly. I was detected with an illegal knife, the 3/4" fingernail cleaner on my money clip. I refused to surrender it, they rejected my offer to break the blade off so I left the area and broke the blade off myself. My boarding pass now had a large orange "P 4 knife" scrawled on it but I made it back through. In Chicago we had to leave the secure area to get to the international terminal where I was detained for illegal water in my carry on. To solve this security breach, I grabbed the bottle and chugged it. Disapproving looks all around. Once in the O'Hare int'l terminal we found fewer amenities than in the Bismarck airport but they would sell us a $8.50 Bud. We boarded our Alitalia Airbus on time, left the gate, and sat on the Tarmac in 90f cabin temps while they worked on some issue. I asked if anyone wanted me to whisk them with the birch branches or throw some more water on the rocks but I just got blank looks. After two and a half hours we were disembarked and told to come back the next day for a 2pm flight. We stood in line for hotel and meal vouchers, not valid for alcohol of course, and were shipped to the hotel. Our precious tickets for the tour of the Scavi excavations under St Peters in the Vatican are now officially useless. We leave for round two of airport angst in an hour.

I may kick out a quick Twitter-like post upon arrival in the Eternal City but it depends on connections. I also can't figure out how to upload photos on this iPhone so it loomsime text for now. In a small but fitting example of how this whe thing was handled by the airline, as we all stood in line awaiting our laboriously hand written vouchers, a couple hundred of us, an Alitalia rep stood up and loudly announced in English that all Italian speakers who couldn't speak English needed to move to the right of the crowd for instructions in Italian. You just can't make that stuff up!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Kayak jottings

We have an iconic 91 year old sports columnist in the Twin Cities named Sid Hartman. Sid wrote his first column a month after WWII ended and was the general manager of the Minneapolis Lakers (now in LA) at the same time he was covering them for the Mpls Tribune. A Sports Illustrated writer once wrote that, "English appears to be his second language" and people love to rip him for his opinions that have little basis in fact. One of 'Grandpa Sport's' long running writing ploys is a section in his column called 'jottings'. This is usually rambling and disjointed thoughts on whatever flies into his brain or skirts the edge of it, with no discernible thread tying everything together. Well folks, today is going to be the blogging equivalent of a Sid column. Enjoy the ride.

On Sunday I got back into town and decided that paddling thing was kind of fun and wanted to do a bit more of it, especially since all my cold weather gear was in the car and the boat was on the roof. I decided on the pool above Coon Rapids dam since it was some of the only open water that wasn't moving at five plus knots and choked with large debris. Fortunately the launch area had a ribbon of open water which allowed me access to the main channel. As you can see from the above image, it had not been open long since there were still ice fishermen jigging on the frozen center. I worked pretty hard paddling upstream against the 3 knot current above the dam but it felt good and I must have flushed two dozen ducks in pairs and groups of 3-4. As I turned around for the quick ride back to the icy launch area, I remembered that this dam is supposed to be the uber carp barrier, the Maginot line (sorry, unfortunate analogy) of anti Asian carpdom that will keep these environmental disasters from the pristine and relatively carp free 10,000 lakes in our fine state. With the tourism dollars at stake and the general walleye mania among our residents one would think that this proposal would get legs quick but that's not the case. Consultants, the DNR, the National Park Service, our old buddies at the Corp of Engineers, and probably 6 other agencies are all engaged in studies, holding meetings, etc., thumbs firmly and solidly embedded in their collective nether regions. Guess I don't know what else I can say. There will probably be Asian carp patties for school lunch in a couple years. Maybe it will be subsidised by the Feds as part of the Federal Commodity Program as part of the obesity reduction effort. I had to eat carp for several meals when I was in the Soviet Union in the mid '70's. Trust me, a nice pasty white steamed carp fillet will inevitably result in weight loss.

Moving right along to lighthouses, the NPS is accepting comments on what to do with 5 lighthouses in the Apostles, Sand, Outer, Michigan, Devils, and Long islands. There is a lengthy pile of documents to wade through but its worth the wading if you enjoy stopping at the lighthouses, one of the most popular attractions in the park. I understand they may have a bit of history surrounding them as well, history that can be accessed on a daily basis by clicking on RangerBob's blog to the right of this post. This may seem pathetically simple as well, stabilize the lighthouses, throw a few bucks at the grounds, preserve historic character, etc., but significant bucks have already been thrown at the 'study' and the 'process', dollars that we simple visitors, not versed in the machinations and nuances of the federal dollar grinder, would possibly think could have been used to actually do the work. At the deer camp when the roof leaks or erosion threatens the sauna, we generally do two things: fix the roof and shore up the sauna. A much simpler situation I know, but I'd like to actually see something done on all of these federal projects before the Outer Island light is horizontal in Lake Superior and I'm sending in my entry form for the 10th Annual Lake Mille Lacs Asian Carp Fishing Tournament.

Finally, to finish this rambling post, a bit of positive news that you can even participate in! The president of Qajaq Japan and a Facebook buddy, Eiichi Ito, had a bunch of labels printed to help raise money for tsunami relief in Japan. He is selling them for $9 each and you can pay through PayPal. Free shipping to boot! They are 10cm x 10cm, 4" x 4" for we non decimal Neanderthals. Skinny stick aficionados need to stick together so lets support our fellow skin on framers in Qajaq Japan. I hope to see lots of these way cool samurai stickers at the Washburn, Grand Marais, Door County, WI, and especially the Traditional Gathering this fall. You simply send an email to Eiichi Ito [] and he will hook you up and let you know about the Paypal procedure. You really can't go wrong.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Gitchee Gumee's waters: liquid and frozen

Hasty paddle plans were laid on at a bar concert Thursday night, which resulted in Mr. EngineerGear and I heading for the south shore of Lake Superior on Saturday morning. I felt pressure to get on the water since the VOR and I will be on a first ever two week vacation beginning next weekend in a foreign land. The two of us had a lovely day on the Duluth ice mountains last weekend but she is infinitely more dedicated than I in 'ant vs. grasshopper' situations and opted to stay and get some work done. Our intention was to paddle the mainland sea caves but we were prepared to take whatever 'The Boss' decided to give us. After finding Bark Bay and the Bark Point boat landing iced in solidly, we found Siskiwit Bay in Cornucopia wide open and Meyers Beach in Mawikwe Bay kinda sorta open.

We planned to launch from Meyers Beach and paddle over to the sea caves, just like a couple of July tourists. Unlike July however, we had no trouble with parking spots. The problem was a shelf of ice that extended out into the lake about as high as the typical bar, and seemed to offer little opportunity to get on the water easily. We could have seal launched but weren't dead sure of how deep it was and if we would be able to clamber back up on the ice shelf when we got back. Plus our kayaking problem solving process was a bit dulled from 5 months of no paddling. We wound up lugging the boats about 250 yards west to a creek that had melted the ice down to the edge of the shore and launched there.

It was a great first day on the water. I always like to hit Superior for that first paddle, partially for the rush I feel when I get back on the lake but mainly since its the only non flowing water that's open this time of year. We had a 10-15 mph west wind which kicked up some chop and the a few mini swells. This provided some nice clapotis off the caves, just the right amount to remind us that we needed to keep loose hips and 'keep dancing' to keep the boats under us. Mr. EG opined that, "I don't feel quite like I did when I got out of the boat in Rossport after a week long paddle up from Silver Islet last summer". I felt rusty but really good. The ice falls around the caves were spectacular and the brilliant sun contrasted the white ice, reddish brown caves, and blue water very nicely. Some of the ice stalactites were dripping and others had broken off at the base as the wave action moved them back and forth. We remembered that spring is when the Miners Castle, Oak Island arch, and north shore arch all collapsed and stayed a respectful distance from the ice and caves. Like most first paddles, we went too far as we meandered east along the caves then had to hammer it back to Meyers Beach with the wind in our teeth. We chided ourselves as morons when we noticed a small exposed section of beach about 10 yards from the foot of the stairs, invisible from the foot of the steps but apparent had we walked 10' out on the ice. It was nice avoiding that little portage that we did when we launched.

We dined on fresh broiled Whitefish washed down with Summit EPA and Porter at the Port Bar in Port Wing, WI and bonded with a bunch of friendly and spectacularly intoxicated fisherman. The chop had been a little hard on their kidneys and the fish aren't really biting well yet, so most of them had been in the bar since mid afternoon. We arrived around 6pm and politely declined the generous offer of shots of Rumplemintz. A bunch of really good guys and, as one of them explained, "We all got a bad case of spring fever up here today". A warm April sun, spectacular yet fleeting scenery, a little bouncy kayaking refresher courtesy of Lake Superior, and a couple of fine tap beers made for the perfect first paddle of the season.