Thursday, May 31, 2012

Kayak training opportunities

Memorial Day weekend is in the rearview mirror and the summer paddling season has begun.  OK, OK, the summer paddling season on Lake Superior really begins on the 4th of July but close enough.  There are a couple training and skill development events in the hopper and the first one is the SKOAC Intro to Sea Kayaking course on Saturday June 9.  It is an all day class that will help get new paddlers ready for big water trips such as Lake Superior.  It is a lot of fun for both instructors and participants and the student to instructor ratio is excellent.  I've enjoyed teaching at this event as much as any symposium that I've participated in. It is invariably a motivated, eager to learn group of people.  Two weeks later is the 'graduation trip' for those who are interested.  This year it will be on Sand Island in the Apostles.  Trip preparation, boat packing, and safety skills will be discussed and then a three mile crossing with experienced ACA Instructors out to Sand Island to camp.

Mid July brings the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium, sponsored by Downwind Sports in Marquette (and we can't forget the Houghton store either).  This is the granddaddy of Lake Superior paddling symposiums and always attracts a gaggle of well known instructors.  The venue, Grand Marais, MI, is great and once you arrive there is no need to step into a car. Everything is right there. Tours in the Pictured Rocks area (you need to drive for those), classes both on land and in the harbor, as well as the very real possibility of 'conditions' outside the breakwater for some serious rough water skills development. There is an excellent kids program and this year we kayak fishermen will have our passion addressed as well. Another unique feature of this event is the opportunity to abuse the instructors in the annual race, dousing them with both water and epithets as they circle the race course. Finally, you can keep an eye on the demo beach while sipping an excellent pint of Cabin Fever ESB at the Dunes Saloon brewpub if you get the correct bar stool. If you register before June 1st,  tomorrow, you can save some serious ching.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list of learning opportunities in the area, it just happens to be two of them that I'll be involved in.  ISK beginner courses, Rossport Symposium, Door County, Two Harbors, and likely a half dozen more that I've missed are all out there for our paddling and learning pleasure.  If you've never attended one of these events I'd strongly suggest giving it a try.  The energy of all those paddlers and the very real opportunity to simply learn by osmosis is worth the price of admission.  I hope to see you on the water this summer.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

NOAA strikes again

Memorial Day weekend found us in the Bayfield peninsula after the annual Saturday wood making event at CampO near the Wisconsin/Michigan border.  The weather forecast was threatening but to paraphrase one of the members of the camp, 'If you believed everything you heard on the weather forecast you'd never do nuthin!'.  This truism held when we headed back over to Washburn after a pontoon ride, an adult beverage or two, and a refreshing sauna.

I had delivered a talk Monday at the last ISK indoor session before the summer break on wind and weather in the Apostles.  The subtitle was 'NOAA forecast or a wet finger held in the air?'.  The Memorial weekend nearshore forecast was full of Small Craft Warnings, waves 2-4' building to 3-5', northeast winds and marauding thunderstorms.  An analysis of all the information, including several links on the right side of this collection of drivel, would seem to generate a markedly different conclusion though.  The main weather event of the weekend was a thunderstorm late Saturday night that carved new drainage ditches on the hill at our joint in Washburn, muddied up the big lake, and caused patrons to leave Patsy's Bar two by two, looking for the ark.  A first hand report from a well known area kayak and high end lodging entrepreneur informed us that many of the ISK folks at Little Sand Bay had left Saturday after paddling Bark Bay and playing in the waves off LSB.  In retrospect this was very wise given the thunderstorm and deluge as I suspect some tents would have been floating.  Those who stayed around however,  enjoyed some excellent paddling on Sunday and Monday, even though the official weather experts would have had you believe otherwise. 

A quick Sunday morning look at the radar, realtime wave site, and Devils Island weather station seemed to indicate that there wasn't a three foot wave anywhere on Lake Superior, even though these swells were still being discussed on NOAA weather radio, channel 7.  Wind reports from the reporting stations such as Port Wing, Sand Island, and Oak Point Wisconsin seemed to indicate that the mix of fetch, duration, and wind speed necessary to create a three foot wave were not present on Gitchee Gumee that day.  The BessemerConvivialist, ManFromSnowyLegs, and FiddleJohn ventured out off Houghton Point, an area that a northeast wind both sculpted and continues to ravage yearly, and reported that the nearshore was a bit off.  The MFSL, a man raised in Australia on the metric system, opined that perhaps they got their feet mixed up with centimeters on the wave report.  They did report adequate surfing off the coal dock in Washburn with one to two footers piling up a bit.

Monday's NOAA nearshore forecast persisted with the 2-4 footers even though the wind report was 5-10 mph out of the north and NOAA's very own realtime wave site had one foot waves all over the lake.  Once again a three foot wave can be created  by a 15mph wind blowing for seven hours over a 40 mile fetch.  I just don't get the math or the disconnect when issuing such a forecast based on the other information available, or maybe even by looking out your window at the Duluth NOAA office.  Once again we checked the radar, stuck our fingers in the air, and decided to take a young lady, MsKirbette, out for her very first kayak experience on the big lake.  Long Lake was discussed but the two to four centimeter waves and sunshine convinced us, a crew with three ACA Instructors, that we might be able to chance it.  It came off without a hitch, she paddled through her first sea cave, and had a wonderful time.  I got the old wooden Chesapeake out and we paddled water made murky from the clay washed into the lake by the previous evenings gully washer storm. Along the way we ran into one of the ISK folks who had arrived late on Sunday and she joined the crew.  It was a nice paddle on a nice day and a fitting end to the Memorial Day weekend.

The moral of this story is to use all the resources at your disposal when making the decision on whether to paddle or not.  Any one taken individually can throw a person off their paddling game.  The human brain is the best computer and, with a bit of experience, can synthesize lots of info and combine it with personal observations to come up with good decisions.  The Apostles are is a microclimate and the wind direction on Monday was 180 degrees opposite between Ashland and Devils Island. In defense of the nearshore, its really tough to generate a forecast that is correct at both Port Wing, Bayfield, and Saxon Harbor. The place that your radio can really help is when the thunderstorms are rolling through as they did both Saturday and Sunday night.  The weather radio will give you realtime info on wind, rain, any hail, and most importantly speed and location of the cell.  If one of your chart/maps is a simple Wisconsin highway map, you can track where the storm is, its direction, and when it will arrive at your location.  This is invaluable when planning your immediate movements  on or off the water. Use all of your weather resources, including your wet finger in the air, to make safe and intelligent decisions on Lake Superior paddling.

Finally, Memorial Day or Decoration Day as they called it when we graybeards were young pups, is a time of reflection and thanks.  I would have to guess that there is not a person reading this post that does not have a close relative, friend, or acquaintance that served. In my male lineage including grandfather, father, and No2 son, CptO, I'm the only guy who didn't serve.  I appreciate greatly those who did and would hope that in the upcoming year, with all it's political importance, that we use those hard won freedoms to inform ourselves and make the crucial distinction in the battle between propaganda and education. Happy paddling and happy Memorial Day folks.

Friday, May 25, 2012

RIP "The Rook"

We had the difficult task of bidding adieu to our faithful and happy go lucky mutt, Rookie, earlier in the week.  As I pointed out to him many times, he was a good dog and a good boy and as I sit here writing this, I am greatly missing the unwavering eye contact and persistent low key whining to go out for our walk that invariably occurs right around the time I got settled in with my coffee.

I was introduced to the boy the first time I visited the VOR's home in Bismarck several years back.  I walked in the split entry and was confronted at eye level by this barking, seventy pound black beast with a bull neck, triangular head, and wild look in his eye.  I offered the back of my hand, told him he was a pretty good looking boy, and the barking ceased and the tail wagging began.  That was the end of any guard dog instincts, we were buddies from that time on. Independent, singularly focused, and poorly behaved at times, it was pointed out that the reason we got along so well was that we were identical in so many ways.  Both of us have a very mixed lineage, are willing to eat damn near anything, and can normally only focus on one thing at a time.  We are both at our very best when we don't have a roof over our heads and are very comfortable and happy with a few feet of snow on the ground.

Rookie and I enjoyed a number of mutual activities but the annual Packaging of the Venison Sausage was probably a mutual favorite.  We butcher our own deer and anything that doesn't 'look like a steak' goes into the trim container and is taken to either Jim's Meat Market in Iron River, WI or Kramarszyks Sausage Co. in Northeast Minneapolis.  Typical trim weight is around 25 lbs, so 50lbs of various sausage is returned once pork, beef, or veal is added.  When the call comes that it's ready, the happy villagers break out grills, homemade buns and a copious amount of beer as the sausage is packaged, frozen, and of course sampled.  There have been notable incidents at Venison Sausagefest, especially the famous "It's just a f-ing blind" scenario, also entitled "Russian Imperial Stout Gone Wild", but Rookies assistance and participation was constant and unwavering.  As soon as the big box of sausage is hauled in and the smell of fifty pounds of smoked goodness fills the house, our boy was sitting exactly in the spot he occupies on the photo.  He sat very patiently, eyes never wavering from the sausage stash, with the only movement a tongue that frequently circled his lips and the steady drip of drool as his tiny brain and all it's reasoning capacity was focused, laserlike, on the sausage.  I'd flip him a piece every now and then and when we sat down I'd cut one up and put it in his bowl.  If I didn't cut it up I was afraid he would just inhale it whole and suffocate.

He was not much of hunter, only one grouse to his credit, he didn't listen worth a damn (unless you were holding sausage of course), and his usefulness pretty much ended at keeping peoples feet warm as he pestered them for head scratches.  His main interest in water was drinking it and laying in it, although there he is at the mouth of the Brule in the above image. Yet he was the best buddy that a guy could have.  He was also similar to me in that he had the 97% accurate asshole radar, a thin slicing skill that allowed for snap, accurate judgements when meeting people.  If he liked you, he never forgot you.  If he didn't.......well, in any event he will be missed by his family, extended family, and most of the other dogs in the immediate area.  He was affable with his fellow canines and a tail wag and quick ass sniff were always offered as a greeting.  We all hope that his spirit is in a place where the ground is littered with sausage, the rabbits all have three legs, and the head scratches are readily available and unceasing.  So long buddy, you will be missed.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Rolling Troika

I've had a continuing conversation that's gone on for years with one of my Madison cronies, a man famous for having a head that no hat can possibly look good upon.  His theory is that you don't need 35 different rolls on each side, just one that will get your ass out of the water if needed.  This is a completely practical approach to and view of rolling the kayak.  I counter with the assertion that rolling is actually fun and not just an end to getting out of the water.  While there is no way I will ever learn all the Greenland rolls, it is fun to play around with them and a good day on the water can still be 45 minutes of rollling where you paddle a total distance of 50 yards.  Unlike most of our political leaders however, I have found myself edging away from my dogmatic and ideological Greenland party line that all rolls are good rolls and should be embraced, toward the more practical attitude of practicing what will get my rear end up and sitting on the water rather than saluting the sky.  The arrival of Justine's video of Turner & Cheri teaching and breaking down three rolls only served to reinforce my move toward rolling moderation.

The video, This is the Roll, is outstanding.  But you don't need me to tell you that, its all over cyberspace in several languages.  I've had the pleasure of training with Turner & Cheri a couple times, as have many interested Greenland paddlers (they do get around!) and Justine has captured their teaching style and 'the T & C vibe', set against some spectacular backgrounds, perfectly.  As only Justine can do, of course.  As others have said, I plan to heist as many of those teaching techniques and tips as my smaller than average brain can hold for this summers training and symposium season.  I do hope to pay them some royalties in the form of New Glarus Brewing products at Ethel's in Bayfield this summer but it will be small compensation for the good stuff I saw in the video.  The thing that I enjoy most is the filming of the screwups.  All of us have performed those stupid rolling tricks while learning, but when our video cameras come out it is to record our successful efforts.  The great part is after we watch the screwups, painfully remembering how we personally and precisely botched the roll in that fashion, Turner & Cheri break down what happened and how to correct it.  I found that to be invaluable, both personally and for future students.  The other part that got me thinking was the focus on three rolls, the three rolls that will get you upright in whatever conditions you encounter.  The more I thought about it the more I realized that I'd never gone over while gutting a seal on my deck, necessitating the crook of the elbow roll to hold on to my knife.  I'd also never had both my paddle and my spare paddle go flying away and been forced to go to the Norsaq roll.  I also realized on Long Lake last evening that while my layback roll is solid on both sides,  my forward finishing and storm rolls on the 'other side' (thanks Turner) both have the success rate of a 'good glove/no bat' shortstop, about .214 average.

I decided last night that this summer will be the summer of what I have christened The Rolling Troika.  The Russians love a troika, the famous three horse hitch used for winter sleigh rides, and I think the symmetry and imagery of three perfectly coordinated and matched horses or rolls is appropriate and fitting.  Eiichi Ito of Qajaq Japan has an excellent site focused exclusively on the storm roll, one of the troika along with the standard Greenland layback and reverse sweep.  The motto on the mast head is, "The practice never betrays you!".  It became apparent on Long Lake last night that it is indeed and truly the case.  So practice I will.  I would also encourage my associate in Madison to move from his intransigent, fundamentalist position of one roll/one side, to embrace at least a reverse sweep or chest scull of some sort.  He actually learned to roll at The Gathering and was taught by none other than Ms. Cheri Perry herself.  He is currently on injured reserve as well, and we can all only hope the repetitive yet pleasurable exercise I've recommended to him can get his wing in shape in time for our July UP trip.  The water is perfectly warm enough for extended rolling practice, even in Chequamagon Bay, and I would encourage the fresh water rolling fans in the Great Lakes  region to get out on the water.  Its a short season and it's on now!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Wind and Waves

A couple months back I was prodded, cajoled, and/or persuaded by an esteemed member of the Twin Cities paddling community to give a talk on wind and waves for the ISK meeting at REI this upcoming Monday.  At the Washburn Inland Sea Kayak Symposium last summer Silbs and I gave a short luncheon presentation on the same topic under the pavilion on a rainy and blustery day. Said persuasive paddler was present there and requested a reprise of that talk. She is currently on injured reserve but claims she will be back on the water to celebrate Memorial Day.  We wish her a speedy recovery.

The theme of the presentation is pretty much weather and it's lackey, waves, in the Apostles.  The undercurrent of the talk will be evaluating whether NOAA weather radio is more reliable predictor of weather than sticking your finger in your mouth and holding it up in the air to gauge wind direction.  It will be tough without my co-presenter, Laurel without Hardy or Abbot without Costello, but Silbs is busily engaged in constructing a high end stitch and glue boat in his lair near Milwaukee.  One of the goals of the talk will be coming up with places to paddle on the big lake when the wind and waves pretty much preclude you from making your planned route.  This is the exact situation the VOR and I found ourselves in last Sunday.

We recently acquired a place up on the peninsula and work around the house and it's nicely wild looking yard had kind of trumped kayaking for a few weeks. On Sunday I was bound and determined I'd be paddling unless the Copper Harbor fault shifted, causing an earthquake and  catastrophic Lake Superior tidal waves in the Bayfield Peninsula area.  OK, OK, I made that Copper Harbor fault thing up, but my attitude was I was damn well going to paddle and it was damn well going to be somewhere on the big lake. 

Of course Sunday dawned with a very plausible forecast of southwest winds building to 25-30 mph with small craft warnings going into effect at 10am that morning.  For once, that is exactly how the day went down.  The wind kicked up, swung to the southwest, and we had us some small craft warnings. The VOR, being of course the VOR, was a bit concerned about the wind.  I had of course, withheld that little detail about the small craft warning.  We planned to paddle into the wind for about 2/3 of the time and then spin around and cruise back to the launch site.  The question then would be where to launch?  It would be nice to have a lee shore, some decent scenery, and a spot where we would not have to worry about being blown to Canada, always a concern when strong southerly winds occur in the Apostles.

My 'go to' windy spot has always been Bark Bay Slough.  It's not only the sight of the very first Bark Bay Fishing Invitational back in the mid 1980's, but this time of year its full of waterfowl and other wildlife.  There is a very nice DNR launch that is perfect for kayaks, canoes, and small rowboats but impossible for larger powerboats.  The area is dotted with bog islands and can be paddled into and down the Bark River all the way to Bark Bay, the 2nd largest bay on the south shore.  Its also a go to spot for outfitters when the mainland sea cave tours get cancelled. One fine day, when a dead south wind was gusting to 40mph, I inherited the task of assisting a Trek & Trail guide in towing two doubles with rookie paddlers back to the launch after they had pretty much been pinned to the sand tombolo south of the launch, between the slough and the bay, by the wind. The effort, combine with the aggravation of seeing inexperienced paddlers launched in marginal conditions, sent me directly to the Village Inn bar in Cornucopia.

Sunday we were up for a short 90 minute paddle however, and the drive from Washburn to Cornie seemed just a bit daunting.  A quick check of the map, the true wind direction, and a discussion of our visual stimulation requirements and we were off to launch and explore the shoreline illustrated in the images in this post.  Where is that shoreline?  It isn't the mainland caves, Bark Bay, or Sand Island, yet we did launch from the mainland.  Show up Monday night at REI and maybe I'll tell you.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Hypothermia season: "I know what I'm doing"

Last weekend was the Wisconsin Fishing Opener, which triggers the Bark Bay Fishing Invitational, an event I've written about annually since this blog began.  It is pretty much a 'Groundhog Day' type of thing with almost exactly the same activities and even the same food menu (which we heartily approve of) from year to year.  The attendee list varies yearly with some new blood every year.  Old blood tends to check in at some point and this year we received a call from RonO and Elmer, who were settled in at the Salty Dawg Saloon in Homer, AK.  One event that was only held for the second time was the 'Get Lost with Phil' event.  New attendees and some veterans that haven't been paying attention agree to walk around the lake with RawhidePhil and somehow he always comes back without them.  They usually stagger into camp about an hour and a half later, soaked from trudging through swamps with their tongues hanging out.  It's kind of the Gilligan's Island 'three hour tour.....a three hour tour' syndrome.  One of the new guys smart enough to stay in camp was a fellow from Ironwood, MI who had just purchased a couple of 13' rec boats with bulkheads for him and his wife.  They had tested a number of boats at a demo and these two Jackson kayaks, they sounded like Journey's from his description, fit them the best.  He said they paddled around the inland lakes mostly and then asked the question that we Gitchee Gumee paddlers like to hear: "What do we do to take the next step to do some day paddles out on the big lake?

When I got back last night I read Bryan Hansel's post in Paddling Light.  The age old dilemma, as 'Groundhog Day' as the Bark Bay event, of what to do when we spot the woefully unprepared person heading out in dangerous conditions.  Be advised people, it is the absolute peak of hypothermia season on Superior.  Balmy days and sub 40F water in many cases.  I thought Bryan handled it well and speaking from experience I think the outcome was as good as could be expected.  But will anything be learned from the experience?  Will she do the same thing tomorrow?  Will the fact that she had a decent outcome create the belief that she now knows what she is doing? One key issue is whether we come off as Cliff Claven's or as concerned paddlers trying to help and educate.  I've written about a fellow preparing to venture out to the mainland sea caves in the Apostles, the spot where a couple of people have paid for their unpreparedness with their lives in the past few years.  I had on a drysuit and he was wearing shorts and flip flops.  What caused the danger finally sunk in was when I invited him to continue the discussion while standing in Lake Superior.  It was a very short 30 second discussion before I helped him carry his 12' rec boat  back up the steps, directions to Bark Slough scribbled on the back of an envelope.  Many, many other times I've been told, "Don't worry, I know what I'm doing".  I've not perfected the ideal response to that yet because its usually patently obvious that they have no idea what the hell they are doing.  What can also fuel this unwarranted confidence is benign neglect from the people who rent these boats to people.  As Bryan pointed out there are a couple of outfitters in Grand Marais that are less than forthcoming with their rental clients.  There is an outfitter in the Apostles that rents sit on tops.  I've seen firsthand the results of that policy with some poor college aged guys freezing their asses off on Oak Island, both them and their gear soaked to the bone.  In the AINL there are now people at the Little Sand Bay launch during the busy season, Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers I believe, that gently instruct people about safety.  Same thing at Meyers Beach.  The fact that becomes very clear to these volunteers however, is many people have the attitude that they indeed 'know what they are doing' and don't have to listen.

Enough of that.  We all know the story and it's like a broken record.  Just keep on keeping on with the gentle hints, advice, and creative ways to illustrate them, and maybe we will make a difference.  I was lucky enough this weekend to sit and talk to a guy who knew very well he was in the 'conscious incompetent' quadrant of the famous matrix and wanted answers to some well thought out questions.  What is the next piece of gear I should buy and how do you dress for immersion were a couple great ones.  Fortunately the three of us that paddled Lake O, RangerMark, the KingOfIronwoodIsland, and I, had wetsuits and drysuits to illustrate the discussion. Poker losses had weakened TheKing mentally and physically so it was good that he had that wetsuit on.  As you can see from the above image the lake was placid but after a bit of rolling I was really glad the sauna was close by and stoked hard.  Lets keep up the feedback and the thoughtfully presented advice when we see a disaster waiting to happen.  Even if the response rate to the advice is the same as a good glove/no hit shortstop, .224, it is still another person, albeit one out of four, who has moved into that conscious incompetent quadrant, the first and essential step to safe paddling on North America's largest lake.