Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Butt off the water on Lake Superior

Saturday found four of us launching from Red Cliff, crossing to Basswood, then up to Frog Bay to check out the beach on the brand new Frog Bay Tribal National Park.  We then crossed back to Oak, looped around Raspberry, and then headed back to Red Cliff.  Pretty decent paddle except we weren't paddling.  We were on a very nice 30' Hunter sailboat.

My business colleague, good friend, and unindicted co conspirator in a number of memorable incidents over the years, SkipperCharlie, had suggested that we rent a sailboat in the Apostle Islands one of these weekends.  We picked the weekend and I immediately got in touch with another crony and bitter business competitor, BarnacleBill, who owns a lovely boat up at Port Superior.  BB is on a secret government rehab mission, but kindly went out of his way to direct us to a couple of the rare bareboat charter outfits that would rent for just a day.  Crow's Nest and sail lake offered a one day rental at a reasonable cost and we got in touch with Reeve.  After SkipperCharlie sent in his extensive resume, including three Trans Superior races and some British Virgin Islands trips, we were approved to rent the boat.  In the interest of full disclosure, SkipperCharlie did admit that he and his crew may be the only guys to not finish three Trans Superior races.  Serious racers stripped every piece of extra weight from their boats for the race and his crew was spotted trundling cases of beer down to their boat in a two wheeled dock cart. 

The forecast was for a decent wind day.  10-15 knots out of the southwest would be fun for we  rookies and yet keep us moving at a decent pace.  SkipperCharlie and his wife, BlueberryBets, along with the VoiceOfReason and I boarded the 29.5' Hunter and got underway around 9am.  BBets was an experienced deck hand but the VOR and I were pretty much clueless.  My only other Great Lakes sailing expedition was with EyeCutterPete out of the Port of Milwaukee.  He took my friend Woody and I out on Lake Michigan, knowing full well that Woody was a farm boy who swam like a large rock.  The swells were big and as we were turning back toward the harbor he hollered some sort of sailing gibberish at us like "secure the jib line and reef the mainsail...arrrr!".  When we just stared at him dumbly he translated: "One of you a-holes grab that flocking rope, yank it tight, and tie it on that flocking cleat in the deck".  Now that we both understood!

It was a very nice day on the water.  I was struck by just how much information is absorbed kayaking that translates well to sailing.  Wind behavior is the key one of course.  Knowing how the wind behaves as it bends around headlands and funnels up channels, knowledge gained on countless paddle trips in the area, really helped chart a course.  Kayakers of course, go out of their way to avoid the wind and get in a lee while we were looking to fill those sails  and keep moving at a decent pace.  Knowing where the shoals were was a nice tidbit of info as well.  The wheel had a device that measured speed and depth next to it but given my mistrust of electronic devices, a mistrust that has actually resulted in a shooting a couple years back, I had the chart of the islands right next to me when I was allowed to take the helm.  Three inches of draft in the kayak vs. four and a half feet  in the sailboat has to be in the forefront of the brain at all times.  I also thought about my attitude toward sailboats when I was kayaking juxtaposed against my attitude toward kayaks when I was sailing.  In the kayak I pretty much stay out of the way, thinking that I am more maneuverable and not really knowing how, when, or if said sailboat would tack, change course, or perform some other maneuver that might put me in their path.  While on the sailboat, it became apparent that it was pretty easy to switch direction a few degrees to steer clear of any kayakers.  When both of us are moving at 3 to 4 knots on a bright sunny day, the very idea of a collision would seem to be ridiculous. 

My one constant head scratcher regarding sailing is the fact that a majority of sailors don't sail.  They fire up the 'iron spinnaker' as SkipperCharlie refers to it, and just motor along, sometimes with the sail up, sometimes down.  If you don't want to put the damn sail up, why have a sailboat?  We saw a number of sailboats motoring along, sails furled, as we clipped along at 3-4 knots in a nice breeze.  After commenting on this a 'couple' times I was instructed by the VOR to STFU (figure it out people).  I still don't get it.  Any comment by sailors in their defense to clarify this puzzling trait would be welcome.  I will admit that we had to fire up the diesel on the backside of Raspberry Island but only because we had a time limit on our charter and a half knot of speed would not get us back to Red Cliff in a timely fashion.

It was a wonderful day on the water, as most of em' are.  The benefits were a much wider range of vision due to ones derriere being several feet off the water instead of sitting in it, the ability to move around, and the nice feature of being able to enjoy an adult beverage while underway. It was also nice not to have a wet ass when I got off the water or that sweaty wet band around my torso where the neoprene spray skirt had been stuck to my shirt for most of the day. I don't think we will be looking to rent a slip any time in the near future however, but sailing, especially sailing in the breathtakingly scenic Apostle Islands National Lakeshore,  is a pretty nice way to spend a day on the water.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Et tu, Basswood?

Wednesday evening found me on Spring Lake, a lake I had never paddled on but a lake that I had pulled many a spawning bluegill out of with my flyrod before I was distracted by this long skinny boat thing. I had told Christopher Crowhurst of Qajaq Rolls that I would head down and play with forward finishing rolls.  We had a half dozen folks armed with Greenland paddles, avataqs (fake inflatable seal-like bladders used for rolling practice), and the desire to finish on their front decks.  Christopher, fresh from Training Camp, went through a nice progression with the avataqs and then we went to the paddles.  A paddle float on the end of the stick helps with the motion and muscle memory needed to complete the roll.  Since I already have a half assed forward roll I went straight to the paddle as we played around. The paddle I used was my trusty hand carved Greenland blade, as strong and as  durable of a wooden paddle as I've ever owned.  Up until last night that is.

I've broken paddles in the past, pretty much all of us have.  The main paddle victims have been made of Sitka spruce and Redwood.  Both are very light and strong for their weight but the fact is, like some of the new light kayak layups, they just trade off too much strength for the light weight.  While Basswood might not be any tougher pound for pound, its heavier weight and grain structure makes is naturally stronger.  I've carved a couple Basswood blades under the auspices of the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, MN and Basswood is the only wood that they use. Ron Steinwell of Novorca made me a very nice Aleut paddle out of a piece of clear Basswood that JeremiahJohnstone procured for me from north of Mora, MN.  In my mind the strength and 'workability' of Basswood that make is a favorite of wood carvers, offset the weight, especially when I'm just out for the afternoon rolling.

Last night I leaned back on the deck and capsized with my paddle in the chest scull position.  I began to turn the boat and sweep, and the damn thing snapped off at my right hand.  I looked at it, mentally swore (vocal swearing would occur when I was upright), grabbed the longest piece, and did a layback to come up.  The poor old piece of Basswood must have just had enough.  The sweep felt good and effortless like when you swing through through a baseball perfectly or hit a slapshot right on the sweet spot of the stick.  I didn't feel that extra torque on the paddle that is experienced during a screwup so I guess it was just that paddles time and it broke. 

Christopher wound up giving me a quick tow back to his dock using a sweet little short tow rig whose design he readily admitted heisting from Gordon Brown.  It was elegant in its simplicity, so much so that I ran down to Midwest yesterday to pick up the components.  He then loaned me a very nice Novorca carbon fiber paddle from his arsenal to use for the rest of the session.  It was a very nice paddle but just does not have the warm feel of wood.  It is also very, very smooth.  My hand slipped off a couple times on various maneuvers but the thing is admittedly feather light.  Very, very light. 

I do have one more piece of paddle worthy Basswood in the garage.  I also have a lovely and spacious man cave complete with workbench at the Washburn place.  I suspect that after a few grouse are in the skillet and a couple bucks are on the pole this fall, that a new paddle will begin to emerge from this hunk of Basswood. A nice fire in the stove, a couple cold beers in the cooler and a plane, spoke shave, and a Mora knife.  Sounds like a pretty good afternoon already.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Launch or stay put? Another riff on the subject

I ended yesterdays post with my demoralizing tale of the two young women headed to the sea caves, woefully unprepared if virtually anything other than blue skies and light breezes occurred.  An email exchange with the Grand Duke, VytautasOfTheMidway himself on the post, reminded me of another part of the story. ( As an aside, 'OfTheMidway' refers to the old nickname of the Chicago Bears, the Monsters of the Midway. For some reason, sea kayaking and pro football just don't overlap much). One factor that I neglected to stress enough in the decision making process was water temperature.  The other that I failed to mention at all was false confidence born of either excellent physical conditioning or competence in a complementary activity. 

Warm water can make up for a lot of mistakes and omissions in sea kayaking.  Dressing for immersion lately has involved a pair of shorts and a long sleeved spf 50 Hydroskin top or similar.  The lake has been unseasonably warm and part of the decision making process of the group on Devils involved the practiced skills of the paddlers in getting each other back in the boats plus the fact that the meter would not be running as it would be in cold water.  Once again however, the lake is indeed the boss.  Just yesterday I chastised the GurneyGranny for not being out more in her kayak, my old beloved Gulfstream, in these balmy conditions.  She informed me that she had been over in Herbster on the other side of the Bayfield peninsula and balmy water was nowhere to be found after the northeast blow earlier in the week.  Sure as hell I checked the surface water temp link and there was 56F water that had welled up from the deep water reserve of 40F water.  The motto would be never to leave the neoprene at home on Lake Superior.  The 70F water that RangerMark and I were playing in on Sunday near Washburn was twelve crucial degrees colder 25 miles away as the crow flies. 

Part two of the decision making reprise is the 'I'm in great shape and can deal with anything' or the 'I'm an expert canoeist/whitewater paddler/swimmer and know what I'm doing'.  Both are dead wrong and attitudes that can get you in serious trouble or worse.  The young fellow that died in the mainland sea caves a few years back was a super physically fit soccer player at my alma mater UW-EC.  He capsized, was pushed into the sea caves by a northwest wind, and was hypothermic by the time help arrived. In August.  The very first time I took a Lake Superior trip was with son, CptO, when he was in high school.  We went out to Sand Island with Trek & Trail and had an orientation paddle,  strokes, wet exits, etc., in two foot waves at T&T beach in Bayfield.  Two 'expert' canoeists, a married couple with dozens of BWCA trips under their belt, jumped into a double after giving a cursory and rather disdainful listen to instructions from our guide.  Very shortly they were hammered into the sea wall next to the ferry landing and when they got back to the beach they demanded their money back.  That was not going to happen back when Greg Sweval was running the joint and I'm not sure it should have.  The point is that in order to develop sea kayaking skills you need to sea kayak and train for that particular activity.

Fast forward to the Bear Spit nine days ago.  As the VytautasOTM group set up camp and prepared to hunker down for the evening, a double and a single kayak paddled up.  Rather than me paraphrasing it, here is the first hand account from the Grand Duke himself:

Interestingly, we ran into a group headed to Devils on the SE spit of Bear.  It was a 14' single and a double.  Catalina I think was the name of the boat.  The double had about 1.5' of gear on top of the decks between the two paddlers and none of the people had any idea about paddling sea kayaks.  There was a lady in a single and a couple in the double.  The lady in a single looked like she had a lot of paddling under her belt but she was a WW paddler.  The gentleman in the double also said that he had 10 years of WW experience but when I asked him about his experience paddling in the following seas he hadn't had much to offer. I advised them strongly to reconsider the downwind crossing: they had to hit a 40' target in the mouth of the harbor on Devils and, if they blew it, it was either the meeting with the rocks on Devils or Canada on the other side.  I did not feel they could rescue each other in the case of a very likely capsize.

Here's the ticker!  I had a chance to use Aras' wisdom.  I very emphatically painted to this group a romantic picture of the bucolic beach on the NE side of bear with plentiful cliffs and caves around it and a 1/4 mile of pristine brownsand beach!  The ladies, at least, totally heard the message and were extra keen to capitalize on the alternative to the crossing to Devils.  The man thanked me for the safetymindedness and insisted that he is very capable of making a judgement himself. 

Two things come to mind here.  The overconfidence in skills that just don't translate well and the very dangerous attitude of 'I know what I'm doing' when its apparent to someone who actually knows what they are doing that you couldn't find your ass with either hand in regard to the situation you are so confident about.  Park Rangers encounter this situation all the time.  If a person was to sit Ranger Bob and RangerMark down and put a pint in front of them, they would not run out of 'leave me alone, I know what I'm doing' stories until they had to be carried out of the bar. 
So kids, look at the damn water surface temperature map and don't leave the neoprene in the car trunk.  Also, keep an open mind, especially we bullheaded and testosterone addled males, when you speak with someone who pretty obviously has their 'feces in a group' to use the polite euphemism.  Two more factors to load into the mental computer when we decide whether to paddle or not paddle.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Launch or stay put? More decision making on the big lake

Lake Superior was pretty benign this last weekend.  RangerMark and I tipped over repeatedly off the end of the Washburn coal dock, the only place we could think of with any sort of conditions, weak though they were, for some rescue practice.  Beggars can’t be choosers with a  6-7 knot SW breeze and a few rebound waves off the side of the coal dock is about all there was.  Saturday offered a northeast wind that made for some fun play along the cliffs and stacks south of Washburn, but nothing that required much thought or evaluation.  In other words conditions this weekend did not require much assessment or analysis, the very opposite of last weekend’s paddling scenario. 
Last Saturday after the Point to LaPointe Two Mile Open Water Swim, the wind picked up out of the southwest.  The ManFromSnowyLegs and I paddled to Bayview Beach rather than Bayfield and had the wind in our teeth the whole time.  It blew steadily the rest of the day and was still blowing the next morning when we paddled north of Washburn.  We had a plan to launch around 4pm and then round Point Detour to our Oak 3 campsite with a bit of a tailwind.  When we arrived at Little Sand Bay, checked the visual conditions, checked the nearshore forecast and real time wave site, and then talked with the Living Adventures guys that were just coming off the water, our foursome collectively decided not to launch and to wait until the morning.  Some wanted to go, others were uncomfortable and since we were out to have fun we implemented plan B and headed to Patsy’s Bar per an earlier blog post.  ProfessorLichen’s group from CanoeSport Outfitters had planned to launch in the morning and camped at the Town of Russell campground at LSB after joining us at Patsys.  As I also mentioned in that post Mr. EngineerGear, the man who authored the Sea Kayaker article on an economic model for sea kayaking risk analysis, had prudently spent the Krugerrands for the ferry back from Presque Isle into Bayfield.  He and his SO, the WillingAccomplice, weighed all the factors including wind, route, paddling skill, forecast, estimated paddling time, Keewenaw Brewing’s Widow Maker, and the award winning Patsy Burger, and were able to synthesize the information into a very prudent decision.  Meanwhile, up on Devils Island more critical decisions were being made and some tough paddling was taking place as we swilled our beers.
A couple years back I met a fellow coach from the Chicago area at a coaches update and we stayed in touch. He now holds the lofty title of Grand Duke of CASKA.  VytautasOfTheMidway as  he will be  known on this blog, was leading a ACA Level 3 training trip which found itself on Devils Sunday morning with a destination of Little Sand Bay that evening. A 20 knot west wind that had been blowing for pretty much 24 hours and conditions were roughly at the top of the Level 3 skill expectations.  To make the situation even more interesting, one of the paddlers in the group had become ill and was under tow.  Decisions and evaluations were made based upon the wind, waves, and perceived skill level of the group and the collective decision was made to launch.  The crossing from Devils to Bear was accomplished and required a stop on the familiar NE beach on Bear to tend to the ill paddler. The group then continued down the eastern lee side of Bear to the Bear Spit.  The ill paddler was by this time exhausted and the group asked some power boaters if they could give her a ride into Bayfield. The power boaters were a bit cowed by the wind and weather and had planned to stay put on Bear until things got better. VytautusOTM and group decided to set up camp and stay put as well.  About 6:30pm however, the  boaters decided to make a go for it and took the ill paddler with them and were off to Bayfield.  The paddle group then decided to break camp and paddled from 7:30 until 11:30 to reach Little Sand Bay.  Their route was the classic island hop that many of us have done under the same conditions, an island hop to get a couple lee shores to rest when the wind is screaming out of the west.  Bear to Raspberry, Raspberry to the mainland, and then a careful sneak around Point Detour and into Little Sand Bay.  That route is about a 9 mile paddle and it sounds like the group must have averaged around two and a half mph, not bad with a headwind, waves, and towing a loaded kayak.  Paddling after dark in conditions can be daunting but a nice moon can mitigate that problem nicely.

A number of different decisions were made that weekend and given the information at hand as well as the various factors in play, they all seemed to be pretty good ones.  The decision not to paddle, to take the ferry, and to paddle in from Devil’s were all made based up on the information available to the decision makers at the time and all seemed to be sound.  Practical decisions based upon the available information, including physical conditions as well as psychological and intuitive factors, is the way we keep our butts out of trouble while paddling on Gitchee Gumee.  Depressingly, as I came off the water on Tuesday I saw the two young women in the video below heading out to visit the Sand Island sea caves.  The weather was nice, the lake was flat, and the water was warm.  They had life jackets and one had a little dog with his own little life jacket in her lap. No spray skirts, bilge pump, paddle float or even water bottle that I could see.  From the video a sharp eyed coach might assess that the paddle technique might not be quite refined as it could be.  When they pointed out to Sand Island and asked, “Are those the caves, on that end?”, I just shook my head and said yup, those are the caves. I just wasn’t in the mood for my usual warning speech and managed only a weak 'be careful and keep your eyes open'.  I can’t imagine anything befalling them on that trip but if it’s  successful it will likely spawn more trips. The future trips will be undertaken with a false sense of security from their success this time, and Lake Superior just does not allow that type of blissful ignorance to continue. 
Let’s keep our eyes and ears open, gather as much information as possible on all relevant factors when paddling on Superior, and give the big lake the respect that she deserves.  She will tolerate nothing less.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Return to Ironwood Island

When our intrepid foursome finally launched from Red Cliff on Monday morning en route to the Ironwood spit, we experienced the easiest and fastest paddle that I can ever recall.  A 15 knot southwest wind that had been pretty much blowing since noon on Saturday provided surfable 2-3' swells and a leisurely, sunny paddle to Ironwood via Oak and the Manitour Fish Camp.  Lunch and a personal tour of the fish camp by Denise, the resident volunteer who had been there since mid June, provided a nice break in the paddle.  Although we saw a juvenile bear on the beach near the camp, the bear problems that had closed the island for virtually a year, well documented in this blog, seemed to be a thing of the past.  It's a pretty short paddle from the Manitou Fish Camp to Ironwood and it had been a number of years since I'd visited the spot that many of us referred to as the desert island, named for its thick inland vegetation and Sahara-like, vegetation free sandy spit.  I was very surprised by what we found when we landed.

The last time I was on Ironwood Island was with Pod and the KingOfIronwoodIsland in 2007.  That is where the King was christened with his blog name.  After camping on Basswood the night before and paddling out to Ironwood in some serious heat, we landed on the 'desert island' and jumped into the lake.  Camp was set up on a tent pad in the middle of the sand.  What made that sand different from all the other sand so that it was utilized at a tent pad was beyond our deductive capabilities, but what we did know was that nothing could possibly be better than an ice cold beer.  We had cans of lake temperature Heineken which we thought would have to do until the King sprung his surprise.  In the back hatch of his CD Storm was a very nice soft sided cooler full of Leinies and South Shore Nut Brown, nestled in a bed of ice.  He was instantly crowned King of Ironwood Island and his beer disappeared as if by magic. 

The actual Ironwood campsite though, was pretty boring. It was a good thing we had plenty of beer to keep us occupied because there really wasn't much else.   Sand and a few scrubby trees on the spit.  When we pulled in earlier this week it was almost like we were on the wrong island.  There was a small sign warning us to not trample the vegetation on the west side and to land on the east side of the spit.  There we found a nice floating boardwalk that led through abundant beach grass to a nice campsite further back in the woods.  We also discovered a Voyageurs Park style toilet, just a stool, or throne in keeping with the Royal theme of the island, a bit further back in the woods. The site had three built up tent pads and a nice grated fire ring which we used to fire up the dutch oven for supper.  I found the transformation to be both amazing and impressive.  The camp had a great feel to it, the view of the setting sun in the west was still impressive, and we got the added bonus of watching a thunderstorm develop to the north.  The fact that we had our own private island in the middle of a National Lakeshore in August was not the least of the great features of the site.

We left Ironwood the next morning en route for a rendezvous with ProfessorLichen and his party on the Raspberry spit.  Work is underway here as well and picnic tables and toilets are off limits until the work is complete.  Just off the Raspberry Island light we ran into a group from Lost Creek Adventures in Cornucopia, WI.  One of the women on the trip told us that she had volunteered and gone out to Ironwood with a work party to plant the beach grass and help with the boardwalk.  We assured her that her efforts were both appreciated and successful.  At that point I headed back to Little Sand Bay to reluctantly go back to work and my three compatriots headed to York to bask on the beach.

Its great to see positive improvement, improvements based upon enhancing the ambiance and natural environment of the island sites.  Even the eroded area at the top of the launch at Little Sand Bay has been roped off and planted with grasses and is looking very lush at this point.  Things are looking pretty nice and I hope the effort, both by volunteers and the park staff is ongoing.  It most certainly is appreciated.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Open Water Swim and some ensuing chaos

The only reason you are reading a post this morning is because we were windbound, unable to launch for our scheduled trip to Oak Island in the Apostles.  A bunch of us safety boated the Point to LaPointe two mile open  water swim and had planned to rendezvous with a bunch of friends going on or coming off the water on Sunday.  When I checked the link to the nearshore forecast, Devils Island weather station, and the realtime wave chart there had been a roughly 20mph west wind blowing for quite some time. It had actually begun late Saturday morning and the paddle back from Madeline Island was a bit more exciting than escorting the swimmers over. It was apparent that there would be some chaos among the campers in the islands on Sunday.

We checked out Little Sand Bay and talked with some Living Adventures folks coming off the water from Little Sand Bay.  Their group were all in doubles and reported steady three footers with some four footers thrown in for sport during the three mile crossing.  Some Chicago friends were on Devils and apparently got to LSB at 11pm and had an evac along the way. More to follow there. MrEngineerGear and his SO (still pondering blog name) got smart and took the ferry from Presque Isle to Bayfield and then paddled up to Red Cliff.  ProfessorLichen and a group from Iowa rolled in late afternoon and set up camp on the mainland at LSB.  Although I'm sure there was some pileup on island sites where folks of different skill levels either decided to go or not go, these things tend to sort themselves out.  The silver lining was that the whole group of us, including RangerMark and the Bad Hatter, all met at Patsy's for beer and burgers to discuss the situation.  Alls well that ends well is the motto I guess.

Gotta go, off to meet the crew at Red Cliff with a paddle to Ironwood as the goal for the day.  I don't want to aggravate anyone by being late