Monday, August 29, 2011

Are Greenland paddles going mainstream?

I seem to do most of my paddling with my trusty basswood Greenland paddle and have done so for probably a decade now. I still get the questions from people asking 'Is that thing as good as a real paddle?'but not as often as I used to. I really don't remember what prompted me to purchase a Greenland paddle in the first place but I do remember it was from Dale Hedtke at the now defunct Boat House across from the Schmidt Brewery in St Paul. I took the thing out to Lake Calhoun and was aggravated and muttering for about 15 minutes as I attempted to figure out how to make that damn fluttering and cavitation stop. Eventually my muscles figured out the technique or maybe the paddle showed my muscles the correct technique, I'm not sure. As my skinny stick paddling progressed I slowly fell in with the riff raff that makes wooden boats, skin on frames, and carves their own Greenland sticks. At that time there was a growing group of Greenland enthusiasts but not that much general interest in the blades, a condition that seems to be changing.

Most of the kayak symposiums I've attended are offering an expanded Greenland or traditional learning path and I know a lot of folks who have either carved one or bought a Greenland stick to play with from time to time. I think that the majority of paddlers would agree the Greenland paddle is easier to roll with than the standard Euro blade. More companies are producing Greenland paddles and a number of clubs and other organizations are offering classes in carving a personal Greenland paddle. Just this last week however I became aware of a couple things that could be the tipping point for increased Greenland paddle usage. One was a review of carbon fiber blades in the October 2011 Sea Kayaker by Christopher Cunningham. The other was a post late last year by Eric Soares of the Tsunami Rangers about finally getting a Greenland stick in his hands. And loving it.

The Sea Kayaker gear review focused on three carbon fiber Greenland blades that are currently being produced commercially. I happen to know a paddle maker just west of the Reefer Creek deer camp, FivePieceRoy, that's making the things for fun. They are of commercial quality, a good thing in some ways but a bad thing if a guy happens to be sending one as a gift to his daughter in Iceland. Since it was 'obviously' a commercial paddle the authorities made her pay $250 in duty. Oh well. I have not seen the Northern Lights paddles but I like the idea of the insert that can turn it into a storm paddle. Of the three, Superior has been around the longest and Novorca is our local operation here in the Twin Cities. RonS, the owner and founder, was kind enough to throw a piece of basswood I had into his CNC machine and crank me out an Aleut blade. That blade style almost seems like a stepping stone between the Euro and the traditional Greenland paddle. I find myself using a bit of a modified wing paddle style when I use it and it is very quiet as it enters the water. I prefer wood personally because it just seems alive in my hands. It also has twice as much flex or whip as the carbon fiber, an attribute measured by Christopher Cunningham in his review. It makes me feel I get that extra snap or push at the end of the stroke. The warm feel of wood is a plus as well, and many times my paddling companions have had gloves on while I've been paddling along with my nice warm wood paddle shaft in my hands. That being said, carbon fiber is very popular and one fact is undeniable; it is amazingly light and strong. I have broken two Sitka spruce paddles, the only wood that seemingly can compete in the lightness category, so strength is an important attribute. I do hope to play with a Northern Lights three piece however, and rumor has it they will be arriving at Boreal Shores in the not too distant future. ChrisG offered to let me borrow his NL paddle, a ploy that I'm sure he hopes works as well as the time he let me borrow his NDK Explorer HV.

I was mildly amazed when I stumbled on to Eric Soares' blog post on his Greenland paddle experience. I think of rock garden play and surf battling as the domain of the gigantic Euro spoon blade and that seems to be where the Tsunami Rangers live. It sounds like it took ten years and watching John Heath, Maligiaq, Dubside, and Helen Wilson for him to finally grab one and head out onto the water. The bottom line on the experience: "Two thumbs up!". 'Fad or Future?' was the title of his post and that would seem to be the question.

All paddle styles have their pros and cons and it's fun to have more than one arrow in the quiver. It always takes me about 10 minutes to get adjusted once I go from one blade to the other but that's just part of the fun of paddling. If you haven't tried one, grab a Greenland paddle. I understand they are not contagious and can only enhance your paddling knowledge. If you really want to get your head around what the Greenland blade can do, head up to the Traditional Gathering the weekend after Labor Day. There you can rub shoulders with the riff raff I described in the first paragraph, watch Helen Wilson do her thing (and perhaps, like Eric Soares, be inspired), perhaps have a shot with Will Bigelow, and help thin out the overpopulation of styrofoam seals on Lake Carlos via harpoon. The bugs are gone and took the humidity along with them, the air is crisp, the water clear and warm, and its prime time in the Great Lakes paddling season. Don't miss it!

Friday, August 26, 2011


In the comments section of the previous post about the kayak group that attempted to paddle to the mainland sea caves under what had been roughly 24 hours of small craft warnings, kykr13 points out that while there were a dozen comments on the stupidity of the paddlers there were none on the stupidity of the 39' powerboat that apparently just ran into the Ashland harbor breakwall. Both required a response by federal agencies but apparently the powerboat screwup did not raise the ire of the public like the kayaker screwup did. Methinks that if there were a black box recorder on boats, most boating accidents in Wisconsin might occur after the phrase, "Hey, hold my beer and watch this!". Both incidents beg the real question however. If you buy a kayak, are you a kayaker? If you own a big 39' cruiser are you a boater? And if you have a sailboat in a slip in Bayfield are you a sailor? My answer to the question would have to be an unequivocal 'hell no'.

I gave up motorcycling a few years ago when I realized that my 'slightly modified' 1986 Gold Wing Interstate simply insisted on going too fast for my personal safety. I realized this after getting a speeding ticket for going 77 in a 55mph zone. I was actually pretty happy because when I sensed the State Trooper I jammed on both brakes and managed to get down to 77 from 115mph before he triggered the radar lock. At that point I had 30 years of street bike experience. This was during the peak of the Harley 'get on the waiting list' craze. We used to look down at what we called the 20/20 riders, guys that had $20,000 and 20 miles of motorcycle riding experience under their belts. Those guys owned motorcycles but they were not 'bikers' in any sense of the word. There are plenty of people using the water that are in that same position. The VOR and I went sailing last night with my buddy Jonesy and his lovely spouse. He is a sailor and has been for years. A person never needs to wonder if we are coming about, his angles are precise, he knows the waters, and if there is a terminology slip up he will let you immediately know that there are no ropes on a sailboat. He also knows the rules of the water inside and out, crucial on busy Lake Minnetonka, where everything from vintage Chris Craft and the restored steam streetcar ferry Minnehaha to stand up paddlers and jet skis can be found.

The stakes on Lake Superior are exponentially higher than on an inland lake like Minnetonka. Seamanship on Gitchee Gumee involves knowledge of right of way rules, navigation by map, compass and watch as well as the gps, local knowledge of the area of the lake you are on, a keen weather eye, and a strong and honest sense of your ability and the strengths and weaknesses of the craft you are piloting. This whole mix of skills and awareness are what make up seamanship. Seamanship also requires a rather large dose of common sense. While you may legally have the right of way over the Paul R Tregurtha, exercising that right of way would be the act of a suicidal idiot. There are those that might say that having all your sails up as the thunderstorm approaches or heading to the mainland caves with 3'-5 footers and 20-30 knot winds would fall into the same category. So would trying to catch that last lake trout while trolling several miles offshore as the east wind is howling and the front approaches from the west.

Is one stupider than the other? I think not. Egalitarian stupidity encompasses all of the scenarios above. Part of the seamanship thing is an awareness of the other craft on the water and their strengths and weaknesses. Judging speed and angle of approach so you can decide whether to safely pass in front of or wait to pass behind the Island Queen is a good skill to have. Awareness of wind direction and when sailboats are likely to tack is another. If you are in a power boat and a reasonable distance from kayakers do you slow down? (My answer: No. The wake of a boat that is planed out is much less than the wake generated by a boat plowing along at low speed). This watercraft cross training can be surveyed by taking a Power Squadron course, which is a great idea no matter what gets you out on the water. The bottom line is that we are all on the water and we all need to get smarter. In a lot of cases much, much smarter. Read Silbs fine post on seamanship and also Professor Lichen's on when the 'kayaking light' went on. Think about whether the people you are sharing the water with perceive you as a kayaker, sailor, boater or whether, like the 20/20 motorcyclists, just a yokel who happens to have enough money to own the watercraft they are piloting. It is a very crucial distinction for you, the other people on the lake, and the people that may have to risk their lives to save your dumb ass when you get in over your head. Actively pursue getting better at your chosen watersport and at being more aware of your water environment. Everyone benefits.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Poor judgement at the sea caves. Again

I've written a number of posts on the decision to paddle or not to paddle and on the conditions around the mainland sea caves in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. It is well known that two paddlers died in very similar incidents there over the past few years, so well known that a group of federal and state entities and volunteer groups rounded up the money to install a real time wave observation station that's linked under the Lake Superior resources on the right of this very blog post. There is also a large sign at the top of the stairs warning of the conditions that can and frequently do occur in the Meyers Beach and mainland sea caves area. In a nutshell, there seems to be plenty of printed and online information out there plus the ace in the hole: there is a ranger stationed at the launch advising people on conditions at the time they are launching. I think former Vikings coach Denny Green framed the underlying problem best however. When asked what he thought of the criticism of his underachieving football team on the sports talk radio stations he replied,'The beauty of this country is that anyone can state their opinion. The other beauty of it is that I don't have to listen to it'. Unfortunately this is the attitude with some of the paddlers leaving for the caves. It is usually the guys (and I emphasize 'guys' here) in the 10' rec boats with cutoffs, Tshirts, and no spray skirt. This time was different however. It was 10 paddlers on a guided trip with longtime Bayfield outfitter Trek & Trail.

Check out the story in the Ashland Current for the basic facts of the story. Waves 2-3' and building and a ranger on the scene discouraging the party from launching were facts that are not in dispute. We don't know the skill level of the customers, what NOAA was saying on the radio, or how experienced the guides were but from my perspective the whole scenario just does not smell good. Typically experienced paddlers don't pay for the privilege of a guided day trip to the sea caves, they just saddle up and head out. This means the group were advanced beginners at best. If the guides were truly experienced and had that hard won 'local knowledge', they would know that with a west wind the bluebird, sun bathing weather on Meyers Beach at the launch would turn into those 2-3 footers once they got out past the wind shadow of Mawikwe Point. They also would know that those same 2-3 footers, maybe nice swells out past the point, or more likely building waves with the wind blowing the tops off them, would turn into a disorganized mess once they hit the sheer walls of the caves and bounced back out into the lake, clapotis/reflection wave conditions that would extend at least 300 yards out from the caves. There is a image, taken by the RTWOS camera during a September storm of a reflection induced eleven foot high square wave off the caves.

On guided trips the clients tend to trust the guides judgement because that's why they purchased the guided trip in the first place. They want to see the cool sights, learn a bit about the sport, and do so in a safe and controlled manner. It sounds like that trust was misplaced in this case. A similar incident involving a guided girl scout group from another state and a rapidly developing thunderstorm occurred a couple years ago but it was apparent that the 'guides' were from an inland environment and had minimal experience on the big lake. Not the case this time around. Reading the comments on the linked article and the one before it when the story came out are interesting. "Why should the taxpayers shoulder the burden of rescuing people that supposed professionals placed in danger?". "We should blame the guide service this time. Lives at risk is unacceptable. Suspend their license and fine them". " The clients did the responsible thing and paid to be taken out to the sea caves by professionals probably becuase they wanted a safer experience than going out alone. We can't put all of the blame the clients for being stupid or inexperienced. We CAN blame the guide service". "People who require rescue services out there should be billed for their stupidity". My personal favorite.....not!........"I think the government should take over the guide service like they did GM. Then everything would be better. Those private companies just take too many risks to make a buck".

Bill em for the rescue, fine em, stupid clients, etc. I'm sure this is not the end of this story, there will be more coming out in the next few weeks. Park officials are meeting with the owner of Trek & Trail today. It would be an interesting discussion to hear. I personally had an experience with the company back in 1997, when it was under a different owner, that had me questioning their decision making process but that's another post. I was in the same position as the eight clients were in this incident, an unconscious incompetent in the Lake Superior kayaking world, trusting the judgement and experience of the people I'd hired to make me better. It didn't quite turn out that way and it sounds like this trip didn't either. The attitude of the locals is summed up in this one last comment on the news story. "Dear kayaking tourists, thank you for bringing your tourist dollars into our area but please stop putting our locals at risk with your cocky attitudes towards Lake Superior". In this case the comment needs to be directed squarely at the two guides and perhaps the 'corporate culture' of the Bayfield tour outfitter. It will be both interesting and instructive as this thing plays out.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Food and paddling

My elusive, globe trotting friend, the BessemerConvivialist, has been scarce on the water this year. Last night in a multitasking coup de grace, she managed to combine a bit of kayaking with her service on the board of the Youth Farm & Market Project. At a fundraising auction for the organization she offered a guided paddle trip with instruction, lovely appetizers, and wine on the water for two. The folks that won the bid asked if they could bring another couple and 'double down' on the bid. The BC jumped on that like a hawk on a field mouse and the deal was done. The problem was she only had one extra boat.

Enter the ManFromSnowyLegs, BemidjiIntelOfficer, the VoiceOfReason, and me. The SKOAC trailer was rounded up, along with paddles, life jackets, and other gear. The MFSL dropped off the trailer at our joint with two boats and we added two more, a couple on the roof, and headed for Cedar Lake. We unloaded just as the four auction winners, Ron, Paula, Ed, and Lisa showed up. Some quick instruction, sans spray skirts, and we were on the flat water of the Minneapolis city chain of lakes.

Youth farm is part of a growing initiative to showcase locally grown food. City kids are shown that carrots are not little finger shaped, uniform things in a plastic bag at the grocery store. They need to be planted, weeded, tended, and harvested. They learn that performing this work, mainly outdoors, is kinda fun. A big lesson of the program teaches them that this 'homegrown' food is not only tasty and healthful, but that people will give them money for it! One of my skinny stick buddies, FrogtownTony, and his wife FTownPatty, are involved in getting a program of that type off the ground in their St Paul neighborhood. The VOR, who will shortly be feeding 11,000 kids a day in the South Washington School District, is actively involved in a farm to school program. Locally grown produce is purchased and showcased on the school menus for that month. September is 'beet month' with a couple recipes from the outstanding Duluth Grill. More importantly, local chefs are buying the produce as the local food movement gains critical mass. This evening there is another fund raiser for Youth Farm at Brasa Minneapolis. Brasa used to be a nice, quiet place in a converted Midas Muffler shop in NE Mpls. Then things happened like a couple feature on the Food Network and a bunch of people in New York City deciding that the chef/owner Alex Roberts should get something called the James Beard Award. Now, to misquote Yogi Berra, "Nobody goes there any more, its too crowded". But if you go there tonite Chef Alex will whip up some wonderful chow, you can listen to some live music, and support Youth Farm, all in one fell swoop.

Back on Cedar Lake, we paddled through the channels to Lake of the Isles, took a quick lap around the west end of Isles, and then back to Cedar. We rafted up, hauled out the wine and horz doovers, and watched a spectacular sunset. Our guests, who lived near the lake and spent lots of time walking and biking around it, marveled at the view from the water and the new perspective that it offered. As Ed said, "We could be in the BWCA if not for the lights". We paddled back when the sunset show was over, said our goodbyes, and loaded up. It was as they say, a good night on the water.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Launching kayaks at Red Cliff

If my increasingly flawed memory serves me correctly, the very first time I visited the Apostle Islands was when I was a high school sophomore. It was a family trip with my youngest sister's god parents and we used a combination of tents and a couple Ford Econoline vans for the sleeping arrangements. That same Econoline, pictured below circa 1977 or so, was used throughout my college years as a road trip machine, cheap camper, and general party bus. Note the lovely curtains and attractive paneling screwed into the door panels. On that very first trip we camped the first night at the Red Cliff campground, which was and is run by the Red Cliff band of Lake Superior Chippewa. When the casino craze hit a few years back the tribe put up a modest casino and the campground and marina stayed pretty much the same as it was those many decades ago when I made my first visit. That is not the case these days though, as the Legendary Waters Casino opened for business last weekend.

During most of the construction kayakers could not launch from the marina. The pessimistic side of me feared that we might never launch there again as the fancy new casino dominated the former campground area. The whole point of the casino is to make money and the perception in the area is that kayakers show up with twenty bucks in their pockets and one pair of underwear and neither gets changed during the entire visit. It is not an unfounded observation. I am very happy to report that paddlers can now launch from the marina and pay a modest launch and parking fee. Pay at the new casino and park in the lot across the street at the old casino. I would also suggest that we frugal paddlers support the tribe in their endeavor. You don't have to double down at the blackjack table or put a weeks pay on the come line at the craps table but at least have a nice greasy burger or some fresh whitefish at the new digs. Pack that stinkin' MSR Whisperlite stove away for when you are on the island, suck it up, sit down at a table in what is sure to be a dining room with a spectacular view of Basswood Island, and spend a couple bucks on a fine meal. Heck, a person could even stay at their hotel the first night in town rather than making that night crossing to Oak or Basswood.

It seems like the vast majority of Apostles trips that I've done over the years have originated at the Red Cliff Marina. It's a great launch site, aims directly at the heart of the archipelago, and is perfectly sheltered from all directions. Bayfield adds 3 miles both ways and pretty much adds an hour to your trip on both ends as well as parking nightmares. Little Sand Bay is an excellent launch and location but its tough nailing that first night reservation on York or Sand, a critical thing if a person want to start with a short paddle at dusk after driving up after work. I daresay there is a lot more to do that is within striking distance if paddlers are staying at Red Cliff campground than there is at the Town of Russell facility at LSB. Right now the launching beach is minimal due to the orange netting that keeps construction runoff out of the bay but that will be gone soon. We should be happy that the Red Cliff band has seen fit to accommodate we kayakers at their new facility, especially since other marina owners in the area look at us as undesirable riff raff. Spend a couple bucks at the new facility, tell the folks that you interact with how grateful you are that we are allowed to launch there, and thank them for their support of our sport over the years. Just be sure to never take a hit on 17 or put your money on '8 the hard way' at the crap table.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Another year on (OK, near) Lake Monona

The Great Taste of the Midwest Beer Festival came off once again without a hitch. Roughly 125 brewers, each with 4 or 5 beers ranging from the lightest wheat beer to the 10% plus ABV of some dark ales and winter warmers were available for sampling. This was the silver anniversary of the event and, as usual, the 6,000 tickets sold out in about 2 hours and a few of the lucky folks that applied by mail for the lottery tickets were successful as well. The weather was superb until the rain squall at the very end but by that time no one really cared all that much. We set up our lawn chair enclave under a live oak about two first downs from the Real Ale tent. My dark little secret is that I only sampled one beer that was not a real ale in the entire 5 hours, a fact that horrified my companions when I informed them.

How could I ignore five beer tents, each with two dozen brewers and probably 120 beers each? Because a lot of those brewers took the trouble to brew and rack a real ale for the event, which meant over 60 cask conditioned real ales to sample. Real ale is a traditional English beer style where the beer is fermented again in a secondary operation to carbonate it naturally in its 10.8 gallon key or firkin. It is not filtered or carbonated with CO2 which results in lots of flavor components being left intact as well as healthful live yeast in the beer. A smoother, much more complex and flavorful, a significantly less fizzy beer, and a nice tight head of foam is the result. Most of the other beers I can track down in the area. It is the Great Taste of the Midwest after all. At this point in the Twin Cities exactly 4 places have cask ale on tap and usually only one, maybe two. My local bar, Grumpys NE, has firkin Friday and always taps an interesting brew but the real ale scene in MSP is minute. Hence my single minded focus on these excellent beers.

Did I get through all five dozen beers? Nah, but I gave it my best shot. I actually managed to maintain some sort of drinking discipline, working my way from the wheats and the bitters up through the pale ales and IPA's, then on to the brown ales, stouts, and porters. Then at the end I circled back to my favorite bitters and used the time tested, "Hey, I'm going to sit down and take a break, do you think I could get a little extra pour this time? Inevitably I would be handed a full glass. What were my favorites? The parochial beer drinker in me had a soft spot for the two Surly products, the tea bagged (dry hopped) Best Bitter and Furious. New Albion's Becks Best Bitter and the Great Dane's hoppy pale ale were also outstanding. I will admit going to the well more than once on all four of these gems.

After five solid hours of research our intrepid crew took the bus back to the Great Dane brewpub then walked to State Street and Parthenon Gyros to regain our strength. I noticed that no one ordered a beer. Other than a pub crawl to England a few years back, where we used the CAMRA guidebook to steer us around the island, this is by far the most real ale that I will encounter over the course of the year. Were it only breweries serving 'pushed' beer I might have had to put the festival on the bi annual schedule list, but that ever expanding tent of real ale keeps me coming back every August.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Dress for immersion

Dress for immersion is the mantra of the Lake Superior paddler. If you are expecting me to rip the young lady in the image above you are wrong. On that particular day the water temp at Little Sand Bay, where the image was taken, was in the 70F range. I'm going to ignore the lack of a spray skirt and the life jacket bungeed on the front deck for now. If you look closely at the lead image from the last post you will see her paddling off along the shore as we middle aged warriors in our Hydroskin, neoprene, and even a stray dry suit, prepare to launch for some island hopping. Many of us actually went swimming that same day on the Raspberry spit and not just for a quick dip. It was luxurious floating and swimming in the balmy water after stripping off the malodorous neoprene that we all wore out of force of habit on the big lake. The question however, is how do we know what the water temperature is on Gitchee Gummee and what it will be in a few hours or the next day?

I made a little change in how the links on the right of the blog page are organized. I broke out the Lake Superior resources and called it trip planning. The realtime wave height, nearshore, mainland sea caves wave tool, and mid lake and Devils Island weather stations are all in one convenient spot. So is the critical real time satellite water temp chart. On the day we launched the wind was minimal and the water temp all around the islands was consistently in the high 60's to low 70'sF. That was not the case this morning. Click on the water temp map below and take a closer look.

The wild card on Lake Superior is the wind. In a 1,300' deep lake with a summer that pretty much goes from the 4th of July until Labor Day, there is always cold water lurking around somewhere. Its the wind that can move it to where its least expected. On shore winds typically blow warm surface water into bowl shaped bays and other sheltered areas and there is some mighty fine swimming in the waters around the Apostles this time of year. Look closely at the image above. I know, I know, the map sucks with missing and misplaced islands but we all can get the general idea. That warm water is still around in the Stockton Island area and deeper into Chequamagon Bay. But look at Point Detour at the tip of the Bayfield peninsula. Roughly two miles apart we see 48F water and 65F water. Check out that 36F off the north end of Sand Island. Off shore winds blow that warm water out into the lake and the colder, deeper stuff wells up. A rough gauge of what to wear on the water has been the Rule of 120. This states that if the combination of the air and water temperature (Fahrenheit) is over 120 you should be good without protective gear. This satellite image pretty much debunks that theory. It's been in the mid 80's recently. If a person went over off Pt Detour today, the rule of 120 would say you are good; 80F + 48F = 128. If you go over in 48F water and aren't wearing a wet or dry suit however, you can kiss your ass goodbye in a relatively short time. How long of a time? In 30-60 minutes you would be unconscious and in under 3 hours you are deceased.

Our attractive paddler above was good to go last Sunday. Today she is risking her life, especially because there was no paddle float or bilge pump to be seen. This time of year I would have to say a paddler needs a minimum of Hydroskin gear. I paddled solo back to LSB from the Bear Spit on Monday after wishing the rest of the Tri State paddlers the best of luck. The day before with 9 other paddlers I had my Hydroskin on. For the solo trip I had on the shorty wetsuit. I had a radio, phone, map, gps, and a pretty decent roll. The air and water were warm. In my mental risk evaluation run through I was looking pretty good. Wear your gear on Lake Superior. It just makes it that much more refreshing and even sensual as you peel off that smelly garment and slip into the cool, clear waters of the worlds largest lake. Just make damn sure its in the 68F part. That 46F stuff can definitely result in shrinkage!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Deicsions, decisions.........

As I mentioned in yesterdays post, our Tri State (IA, MN, NE) Apostles expedition got off to an unexpected start when a line of thunderstorms appeared to be heading in our direction on Saturday afternoon. I was at Red Cliff with my boat loaded, heading up to the casino to pay my launch fee, when I got a call from DocL. The crew had made it about 100 yds off shore when ProfLichen heard the thunderstom alert on the radio. They paddled back to LSB, looked at the radar in the ranger station, and decided to wait. By the time I showed up it was 3pm and the 16 mile hump to Quarry Bay on Stockton seemed like quite a stretch before dark and we would have to make supper and set up camp as well. We booked a couple sites at the Town of Russell and I drew upon local knowledge to steer the group to the Village Inn in Cornucopia for incredibly fresh grilled whitefish and the equally fresh South Shore Nut Brown Ale.

The go vs. stay put discussion is always interesting, even more so with 9 personalities and skill levels in the group. The basic concept is the 'weakest link' rule. If someone in the party does not want to go and feels uncomfortable, the group stays put. In reality peer group pressure can alter this dynamic and strong personalities can influence the others with the 'oh hell, lets give it a shot'mentality. Also, if a person feels uncomfortable speaking up or doesn't want to hold the group back it can result in trouble if and when the defecation hits the rotation on the water. Given the collective experience of the paddling group, their experience with the big lake, and the lack of any shrinking violets in the group, I have to believe the decision was arrived at in a thoughtful, rational, and collective fashion.

Back to me, strolling into the casino with a twenty dollar bill in my hand, still in street clothes but with my boat fully packed and ready to rock at the marina beach. I'm assuming I'll rendezvous with the group in the Basswood Triangle, probably off the southeast tip of Oak Island. The forecast that I heard called for a line of thunderstorms, mainly to the south of the lake, with thirty mph wind gusts. Unlike the NOAA report we heard on the 4th of July, there were no reports of trees down, cloud to ground lightning, or a storm plot that named towns in the path that had been or were going to be hit. I was geared up for solo paddling with safety gear, radio, shorty wetsuit (water temp was 69F), route plan with several bail points including Basswood, Hermit, maybe Oak, and no crossing longer than about 45 minutes. Four other folks were setting out and we chatted about the forecast and possible routes. I had pretty much decided to go when Doc's call came in.
More input is good most of the time in the decision making process. I quickly unloaded the boat and headed over to LSB. We had a fine time and an even better paddle the next morning. A trip to the Sand Island sea caves on Swallow Point, crossings to York and Raspberry where the light was toured, and then over to Oak. We were disappointed to not have made it to Quarry Bay but that was quickly forgotten as the paddles hit Gitchee Gumee on Sunday morning. Half of us were at Oak 4 and the others at Oak 6. I don't know how the evening went for the guys on 6 but the sunset on 4 made it well worth the price of admission. It was fun to hear that a couple of paddlers new to Lake Superior had crested the hill in Duluth on the way up, looked at the vast expanse of lake, and commented, "And we're going to paddle in that!?". In the end not making it to Quarry Bay did not make one whit of difference in the overall scheme of things. Which is how we need to look at that paddle or no paddle decision. There are always alternatives and in the end things seem to work out. Those with the gung ho mindset need to remember that or risk having "the waves turn the minutes to hours" if they choose incorrectly.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Point to LaPointe 2011

I will admit to a bit of trepidation before the start of this years 2 mile open water swim from Bayfield to Madeline Island. I noticed roughly the same number of safety boaters but that the field has swelled to 400 swimmers, double what it had been last year. Last year there had been a bit of a chop out of the northeast and keeping the swimmers heading to LaPointe on Madeline Island was like herding cats. This year there was not a breath of wind at the beginning of the race and that made all the difference.
It could not have been a more perfect day. The air was still and the lake looked like liquid mercury. Large pyramid shaped buoys marked the course across the lake and the safety boaters were divided up into 6 groups, each with a leader. The safety boaters would 'accordion out', with the group near the finish line paddling with the line of leaders and the other groups forming a picket line of sorts to keep swimmers aimed in the general direction of Madeline. Swimmers, like kayakers and people lost in the woods, tend to move in a circle if they don't have a point to orient on. Since efficient swimmers have their heads in the water most of the time it can be tough to go straight. When they start heading for Washburn or Basswood Island our job as safety boaters is to get their attention and help them back on course. This is more easily said than done due to heads in the water and swim caps over their ears. Yelling when they come up to breathe and sometimes a touch with the paddle is needed. With 400 swimmers and roughly 35 safety boaters that gave each of us roughly a dozen swimmers that we were responsible for. I did not like those odds but my concerns were unfounded. The race came off like clockwork. Everyone had fun and many personal best's were recorded, including the lovely woman and her homely companion in the image to the left.

Flat water and minimal current seemed to be the main reason that people stayed on course. In addition to the picket line of kayakers there were power boaters, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and USCG boats as well, many with EMT's on board. We were armed with little orange flags and many of us had radios. If a swimmer looked like they were in trouble we were to assess their condition. Questions that made them think such as their complete street address, middle name, or who is the vice president (no kidding that was on the instruction sheet!) needed to be asked and if they appeared as though they were going to boink we were to key channel 22A on the radio or frantically wave the orange flag. Again, to my knowledge no flags were waved and I did not hear any distress calls on the radio. It was the best day for the swim in my years of safety boating. I even got to bond with two of my former kayaks, the Gulfstream and Solstice GTS HV, Kathy's CD Storm, and my former VW Passat. All were in one spot in the image right.

I headed back to Bayfield with KleanDeckKate while the rest of the usual suspects enjoyed the complementary breakfast on the island. I needed to rendezvous with an Iowa/Nebraska contingent and head for Quarry Bay and a 3 day paddle in the Apostles. A few stops in Bayfield and I was at Red Cliff, where once again (to my mild surprise) a kayak can be launched as the big new casino goes up. The boys were heading out of Little Sand Bay but just as I was about to launch to meet them, boat all loaded and geared up, I got the call that they had aborted the launch. A line of nasty thunderstorms was on the radar and heading our way. NOAA had issued small craft and lightning warnings on the radio and they prudently turned around after a solid 100 yards or so of paddling. In the end it was much ado about nothing because the storm moved well to the south. Once again I wound up setting up my tent in the Town of Russell campground. This time however I persuaded the crew to head into Cornie for whitefish dinners and pitchers of South Shore Nut Brown at the Village Inn. This was followed by ice cream at Ehlers Store, a spot where I once purchased eye bolts, chicken, a box of .22 Long Rifle shells, and two six packs of beer all in one stop. We were all disappointed that we didn't launch but cajun broiled whitefish definitely trumped jet boil dehydrated lasagna for most of the crew. The next morning we were launched by 9am and off to Oak 4 & 6 via Sand, York, and Raspberry Islands. Life is indeed good.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A new life jacket

For a number of years I've worn what smart assed paddling associates have referred to as 'the Wonderbra' (above), I've pulled the trigger on a new life jacket. I looked around for a month or so before I settled on a Stohlquist TowMotion. I've really liked my two Lotus Designs life jackets but Patagonia pretty much eviscerated the brand since they acquired it and now apparently are getting out of the paddlesport business completely. I can't say I actually shopped around unless you call 2 minutes each in Midwest Mountaineering and Hoigaards shopping. Our little slice of the paddlesports business is so small and specialized that I did not expect to find a higher end sea kayaking life jacket with ample pockets, tow rig ready, and multiple attachment points on the shelf anywhere locally and my expectations were correct. I special ordered it from Doc at Hoigaards and made a multi tasking, gas (diesel actually) saving trip to St Louis Park to picked up the life jacket, a beer bottle drying tree for Podman, and a cold pint at Bunny's Bar. The first real on water test will be up in the Apostles this weekend.

I have a dirty little confession to make though. I've always hated and still hate wearing life jackets. We spent a lot of time fishing when I was a kid and it was constant debate and argument with the old man on whether or not I had to wear a life jacket in the boat. The boat was a 14' standard Crestliner fishing boat with a 7 1/2 horse Johnson motor. No live well, trolling motor, or swivel captain chairs here, just wooden bench seats and a couple anchors that were plopped over the side. One of the motivating factors to take swimming lessons as a young boy was the potential for decreased life jacket time. After passing my Red Cross swimming test, I was allowed to take off the life jacket when the boat was not moving, an act that was performed slowly and deliberately, almost like a striptease, for the benefit of my younger sister, who was cocooned in her life jacket even if it was 90 degrees out. The life jackets at the time were bulky and actually really didn't work all that well. I remember a mystery substance called kapok which would become saturated if the protective covering was pierced. That is the type of jacket seen in the image of my sister, happy about her fish but not happy about wearing the life jacket on the dock. We were even more unhappy when the horse collar life jacket became popular. It would float a person face up after the Coast Guard determined that was a good thing for unconscious swimmers, prompted by the sinking of the ore freighter Carl D. Bradley in 1953, but I was always fully prepared to take that drowning risk rather than wear the damn thing. I can empathize with Dolly Parton after trying to move around and accomplish anything while wearing that abomination.

I will admit the new life jackets are much more comfortable and handy for things such as the radio, tow belt, knife, light, an energy bar or two, a thermometer, and a compass in the pockets. I also never go on the water without wearing my life jacket, or life preserver if you prefer the more positive and descriptive term. I hate acronyms like PFD. Call me a DSOB but but we have enough stupid acronyms floating around....LOL. I generally don't wear one when I'm rolling, I use a Stearns inflatable belt device but mostly I have the thing on. Like bike and motorcycle helmets, car insurance, and air bags, a person never really knows when they will need em so we should always wear em. But like many things we should do, it is not a requirement that we like it.

I have all my goodies successfully transferred to the new life jacket and will be wearing it for safety boating the Point to Lapointe Open Water swim and then our 3 days in the Apostles. It feels pretty good and is much less 'out front' than the Lotus, a life jacket that I won in a raffle at an early GLSKS event. The on water test will tell the tale. Gitchee Gumee, here I come!

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Fighting 69th

This weekend was spent nowhere near a kayak, a rarity for the summer months. I've been long overdue in visiting No.2 son CaptO and his bride at their new digs in Forest Hills, Queens, New York. There was a high level SKOAC/Sebago Canoe Club summit meeting on the East River in Long Island City Friday night involving me, Bonnie K Frogma, and our support staff (images below) but no boats were involved. Three different 'conference venues' were utilized but no real substantive agreements were reached other than the agreement that the coq au vin with garlic mashed at Cafe Henri looked excellent. The highlight of this trip however, was the personal tour of the 69th Infantry Regiment, the 'Fighting 69th' armory on Lexington Ave between 25th and 26th St in Manhattan.

Both the regiment and the armory have a storied history. The regiment was formed before the Civil War and was wholly Irish in makeup. One of their first mentions was actually for an act of mutiny. New York regiments were ordered to parade to honor the Prince of Wales in 1860. The regiments commander, Col. Michael Corcoran, refused to parade the regiment for an English prince. He was going to be court martialed for disobeying orders but the start of the Civil War made the military authorities reconsider. The regiment fought at several battes including 1st Manasses (Bull Run), Antietem, and the Wheatfield at Gettysburg. It was at Fredricksburg, a disaster for the Union side, that the name the "fighting 69th" was first used by none other than their adversary, Gen Robert E. Lee. The unit fought in most every other war that the US was involved in and a ton of historical info can be found on the regiments official site here.

The armory itself has quite a history. It was completed in 1906 and was designed in the Beaux-Arts style rather than the medieval castle look common with most armories of the time. In 1913 it was the site of the first modern art show in the country. Unheard of artists like Cezanne, Monet, Tolouse-Latrec, Van Gogh, and Picasso had their works exhibited at the armory and were the subject of much ridicule by the press and art establishment. Insane, immoral, and anarchic were some of the milder criticisms and former Prez Teddy Roosevelt declared, "That's not art!" Continuing in an artistic vein, Victoria Secrets fashion shows and other fashion and food events have been held there. In the sporting world, there were national track meets, the first televised roller derby event, and for a while the armory was the home court for the New York Knicks. After 9/11 the armory was used as a counseling center and clearing house for victims and their families and many of the notes, pleas for information, and other documents posted on the walls were preserved.

The tour began with MsE, broBen, and I pushing the door buzzer to state our business. We were buzzed in and greeted by CaptO's buddy, CaptB for the tour. We were turned over to Cpl Nick, a guy who, much like yours truly, is a genuine history nut. I was kind to my companions and didn't ask a ton of questions but I will need to return for more in depth study, hopefully when the O Club is open. First stop was the battalion commanders office, digs that would be the envy of any CEO in the country. An original letter from Abraham Lincoln to the regiment is on one wall and all but one of the Medals of Honor won by soldiers in the regiment are on another wall. Battle flags, a conference table with campaign streamers under the glass, and a great wood paneled motif with fireplace makes for an impressive room on a number of levels.

The rest of the armory was no less impressive. There is an entire room of murals painted by WPA artists during Roosevelts New Deal, depicting battles the 69th had fought in. A displays honored famous division chaplains including Father Duffy, a man played by Pat O'Brien in the 1940 movie "The Fighting 69th". James Cagney played the screw off WWI doughboy that Father Duffy straightened out during WWI. During that time the 69th served with the 42nd "Rainbow" division, whose Chief of Staff was then Major Douglas MacArthur. Other displays honor the Pacific service in WWII and the role that the armory played as a clearing house and meeting place after the 9/11 attacks. An alert 69th veteran noticed a sword on Ebay belonging to Col. Thomas Meagher, a Colonel of the regiment during the Civil War. Meagher was an Irish nationalist who had been sentenced to hang by the British but had his sentence commuted to transportation to Australia. He made his way to the US and the 69th Regiment by the start of the Civil War. The sword was purchased then donated to the Regiment, an indication about the esteem with which veterans hold their old unit. Restoration efforts are underway on old battle flags, the murals, and other gems in the armory.

The tour ended in the Officers Club. It was one of five bars in the armory at one time. Hey, this was an Irish regiment after all. They are down to two now, an officers and an enlisted man's club. The club was another wonderful room with memorabilia from visiting units from around the world and done in the same dark wood paneling as other rooms in the building. It was not open at this early hour but I look forward to returning to have the traditional regimental cocktail of Irish whiskey mixed with champagne.

There is another great regimental tradition that I have half a mind to participate in. Since the 1850's the Regiment has led the St Patricks Day parade, complete with their Irish Wolfhound mascots. Tradition has the Regiment march from the armory to the doors of St Patricks Cathedral on 5th Ave. The battalion commander's knock on the door is answered by the Archbishop of New York and mass is said. Then the parade begins. There may even be a bit of Bushmills with a Guinness chaser or two involved in the days festivities.

We thanked all of the folks at the armory for the tour and then adjourned to another historic site, Pete's Tavern with MsE, broBen, and Cptn's B and M. Petes pulled their first pint in 1864 and has been open continuously since. Prohibition you say? They kept right on serving while camouflaged as a flower shop and protected by Tammany Hall. CaptO joined us after work and we behaved about as well as can be expected given the situation. If a tour of the 69th Regiment armory can be wangled its well worth the stop and nicely off the traditional beaten Manhattan tourist path. My scheme is to head back with the VOR, another history buff, and try to do the in depth tour when the O Club is open. Right around the 17th of March if we play our cards right.