Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Graduation paddle

Last weekend a number of folks that took the intro to sea kayaking course on tiny Shady Oak lake two weeks ago had the opportunity to put their newly acquired skills to work on very large Lake Superior.  They were joined by more experienced paddlers and instructors for some island camping, crossings, and skills development.  I served as a 'destroyer escort' and joined the group for the paddle over to Sand Island and then had to head back due to other weekend obligations.  We used to run this trip to Basswood with it's short, sheltered one mile crossing but once a person was on Basswood they pretty much had to enjoy either Entymology or historic brownstone because mosquitos, fish flies, and old quarries are pretty much the available Basswood attractions.  Sand offers sea caves, the lighthouse, trails, and historic structures and relics.  There can be some Entymology interaction but a favorable breeze can minimize that aspect of the experience.  The main goal of the trip however was to give new paddlers a taste of the big lake and steer and encourage them in the direction of becoming self sufficient paddlers that can plan and execute an island adventure of their own.

The day started out with a look at the radar which showed a front with moisture heading right for us, including a "chance of showers and thunderstorms".  That phrase seems to have been in the forecast for the past two weeks, and a 'chance of thunderstorms' was the part of the forecast that we focused on the most at the crossing preflight meeting.  The wind and waves were relatively benign, under two feet with wind under 10 knots.  We talked about maps, charts, and why everyone should have one on their deck so they can 'follow along at home' as Bob Barker would say.  In fact the importance of the holy trinity, (map, compass, and watch) was stressed with a few war stories including the woman at the symposium a couple years back that missed Sand Island and had supper in Two Harbors.  She of course, wanted to sue the park service for not warning her when she should have been indicted and prosecuted for gross stupidity.  A few folks had gps units, which we like to think of as a handy back up to the map and compass. The Sand Island shoal was discussed, a band of 4 - 7 foot deep water stretching over two miles from the mainland to the island, and the funny things that waves can do when they hit shallow water. Of special interest in this area are the Lake Superior 'three sisters' waves sets where randomly three waves will each increase in size and then drop back down to the predominant wave height. A wave breaking around the cockpit can be disconcerting a mile from land. Back to that 'chance of thunderstorms' and possible accompanying lightning.  The key that we stressed was that being on the water with lightning was bad and that using all available knowledge including the radar, the nearshore forecast,NOAA weather radio, length of the crossing, and especially your own eyes, ears, and experience was how the decision to go or stay put was made.  Once again it was a collaborative effort designed to make everyone responsible rather than compliant customers on a guided tour.  I did mention that they may have noticed my wooden backup Greenland stick and that at the first sign of lightning I switched to that and a very low stroke while encouraging my fellow paddlers with carbon fiber paddles to go to a high profile stroke to get to land faster.   Most of  'em got the humor........

I think that too many times people sign up for club  tours so they can be taken care of and forget that they need to be responsible and actively thinking.  "Forgetting" your first aid kit, spare paddle, paddle jacket etc., only works once in my opinion.  My dad used to say he'd go fishing with anyone but only hunted with a select few.  I have the same opinion on Lake Superior paddling.  Show me that you are responsible, engaged, willing to learn, observant, and can think ahead like a good pool player, and we can go out and play on Superior.

The other part of being engaged is a willingness to push a bit and get better.  This is essential on a body of water like Superior because you will be pushed.  On the way back Sunday the group wanted to cross to York and battled a 10 knot headwind.  More experience was gained and a little taste of a bit bigger waves. A couple people were nervous but that's to be expected.  I feel, as do most of my fellow instructors, that mentoring folks to be aware and get better is the end game, creating more self confident and thoughtful paddlers. The converse of that, something that rarely gets discussed but is often seen, is that the bigger waves make some people realize that they enjoy relaxing paddles on Lake Calhoun and really don't want to push the envelope on bigger water.  That is perfectly valid as well.  My days of moguls are over on the tele skis.  I've fallen into steep, smooth, and groomed for my gravity skiing mode.  The envelope pushing is over for me on the long boards. After all, fun is the goal.  Some of us like nice safe fun and others like challenging fun that pushes a bit.  One is not inherently better than the other.  We need to keep that in mind while teaching and mentoring on shakedown cruises such as this one.

Our weekend contingent, the GraciousPartier, the Legend, the VOR and I, managed to hit Little Sand Bay just as the ten paddlers were returning to shore.  We had been touring the south shore per image to the right. Compared to the rain that we had launched in the day before, it was as perfect of a summer weather day as a person can find in Wisconsin. The vibe was that everyone had a great time and was very proud of completing three crossings on Gitchee Gumee.  I think vicarious pleasure is one of the best kinds and we all felt good about helping novice paddlers toward kayaking independence, self sufficiency, and along their journey to understanding just how deeply they want to get into this sea kayaking thing.  It was a good weekend on the water.

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