Saturday, November 28, 2015

5 Life Lessons Learned Through Kayaking

I've learned a lot about kayaking over the years, but just as importantly, I've learned a lot from kayaking. The river, in particular, teaches us many things about overcoming adversity, making wise decisions, and staying humble. Here are five principles I've learned  over my twenty years of whitewater kayaking that I try to apply to my life every day.

1. You have to commit if you want to improve

If you only dabble in the sport, you might find it quite enjoyable, but the path to improvement is paved with consistent effort and dedication. There are no shortcuts around time in the boat. During the spring runoff of my first season, I boated seventeen out of eighteen weekends. I paddled with people better than me and listened to what they said. I worked on skills, I did drills, I took some beatings. But by the end of the snowmelt I paddled class four consistently and never looked back. Nothing says you have to be a class V kayaker to enjoy the sport, but there is a steep learning curve to get to a basic level of competency, and if you don't get there chances are you won't keep kayaking for long.

There are a lot of different things you can do with your life, but if you don't put much effort into any single area, you most likely won't get very far. We get more out of long-term relationships than transitory ones. We learn more, contribute more, and generally make more money and find success when we commit to a career path. You can change and adapt, maybe even start over in something completely new, but at the start you need to give it everything you've got if you want to get the most out of it. Life requires more than dabbling.

2. If you mess up, you can't just quit

Everyone gets off line once in a while. You miss your boof, you misjudge the current, you get flipped over. In the middle of a rapid you can't simply stop and get off. You roll up. If that doesn't work, you try again. You quickly take stock of the situation you're in now and come up with a plan to get back to where you wanted to be, or you find a new path to the bottom.The river doesn't quit so neither can you.

No one's life goes perfectly according to plan. We lose jobs, we say the wrong things at the wrong time, we make bad choices and suffer bad luck. But complaining about it doesn't get you anywhere. Neither does beating yourself up. The way to get ahead is to look forward and figure out how to go there, to make the best of whatever situation you've landed in. You keep fighting. And bonus points if you can learn not to mess up the same way again in the future.

3. Everyone is on their own path; enjoy yours

Expedition kayakers have more air miles but they don't have more fun. Slalom kayakers have more skills but they don't get the best scenery. Playboaters learn to enjoy themselves without going anywhere. There are lots of different ways to kayak the river and each one is as valid as the others. Some people paddle class V in their first season; some stop at class III for their entire career. We all end up around the campfire at the end of the day swapping stories and sharing laughter.

Success is such a vague word, but so many people want to define it explicitly. Even worse, they let others define it for them. Chasing someone else's goal is never going to provide satisfaction. If you take a little time to decide what's important to you, what you want to get out of life, it becomes much easier to see the path to get there. Don't be jealous of someone ahead of you - they might be headed in the other direction. Don't worry if someone walks faster - they might have farther to go. Stop comparing yourself to others and you'll not only find more joy in your own successes but you'll be better at helping others achieve theirs.

4. The opportunities you skip are what you regret

Some rivers only run in big rains. Some require permits that are hard to get. Still others cost a lot of money and time. They're always worth it.When we look back on our paddling careers we remember the once-in-a-lifetime dam spill, not the day of work we skipped to go paddling. Eventually we make enough money that we don't even notice what we spent on that Grand Canyon trip. The more stories we have to tell, the more time we've spent with our paddling buddies, the bigger our smiles. What we regret is the river we never ran.

Life is about experiences, not things. Everyone knows this. Every old person says so. Yet we constantly make choices in our daily life that prioritize material goods over people and activities. We work hard now with the justification that it will lead to a better future. While it's fine to be responsible, it's good to build a nest egg and lay the groundwork for a successful life, it doesn't have to be at the expense of living in the moment. Take time off to spend with your kids. Blow the budget on a vacation to see old friends. And if you ever get a chance to go on a multi-week river trip - take it!

5. Who you go with is more important than where you go

A lot of people kayak for the excitement. Or maybe for the scenery. Or the physical challenge, the mental challenge, or just because they like water splashed in their face. But we all love the community. We make life-long friends on the river, even if we just met them at the put-in that morning. We bond faster, deeper, and more meaningfully through our shared adventures. And in the end that's what makes kayaking great. I've had just as much fun on the local class II run with good friends as I've had on remote wilderness trips. I've had bad experiences on beautiful rivers when the group cohesion fell apart. The ultimate paddling experiences start and end with people whose company you enjoy and who you willingly trust your life to.

The same is true with work. The same is true with friendship. It's easy to fall in with a random group of people and even easier to let people stay in your life who shouldn't be there. Kayaking is a crucible that grinds away the outer shell and reveals who people really are, which makes it easier to choose who you want to hang with. But we can do the same in life, we just have to look a little harder. Pay attention to what is said and left unsaid. Observe how they handle themselves in stressful situations. Trust our instincts. Most importantly, we do have the power to choose who we want to spend our time with and who is a negative influence that should be avoided. Everything we do, every trip we take or day spent behind the desk, is either lessened or uplifted who we share it with. Choose wisely.

Of course, I've learned a lot more from kayaking over the years. Too many things to fit into a simple list, and I'm sure as I continue to paddle I'll learn many more. But these are five truths I remind myself of on a daily basis. How about you? What has kayaking taught you?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Lumpy Waters coming up!

I'm getting really excited about headed back to Oregon next month for one of the great kayak symposiums out there - Lumpy Waters. Also really looking forward to seeing good friends, often for the one and only time of the year. I'm sure I'll have some pictures and video to share afterwards, but in the meantime, here's a link to my write-up from my first time at Lumpy - hard to believe it was five years ago...

Lumpy Waters and Sunny Skies

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Incident Report

In this day and age it seems impossible to have something interesting happen in the kayak world without it showing up on Facebook, getting discussed in forums, or even video appearing on the local news. And the news people aren't the only ones to sensationalize things - even your everyday paddler likes to talk about how crazy and extreme everything is. Then the internet outrage machine wants to pile on with their opinion - normally that someone did something wrong. Everyone has an opinion, it's easy to cast judgment, and the other guy is always in the wrong.

Debriefing incidents when things go wrong is one of the most valuable ways to learn and improve as a kayaker. But the essence of the process, the part that makes it worth it, is the time spent listening to those who were there and understanding exactly what happened and the steps along the way that lead to the final outcome. Looking at a single picture and claiming to have all the answers is a ridiculous way to go about it and does the opposite - it clouds the reality and teaches nothing.

Here in California we recently had dramatic headlines: 54 Kayakers Rescued from Tomales Bay! Breaching Humpback Whale Lands on Kayakers! Big enough headlines to grab the public's attention. And kayakers (of all levels) rush in to comment, both defending kayakers in general and attacking those who created such a visible spectacle. Neither does much good.

I wasn't involved in either incident. But I do know there are lots of ways they could have gone down. My experience as a kayaker and instructor tells me this. I've known incredibly competent and skillful kayakers to end up in really bad situations through very small errors in judgment. I've seen wildlife create havoc through no fault of the people involved. Every situation is complicated and has several sides and viewpoints, and the truth is a vague concept in the best of circumstances.

But I've seen folks calling the kayakers in both incidents morons, rookies, fools, criminals, and worse. I've heard lots of folks saying kayakers shouldn't be out there - regardless of the fact that hundreds and thousands of kayakers have done the same trips with no problem, regardless of the fact that at the time of both incidents other kayakers were around and even came to the rescue. There have been lots of opinions from folks with very few facts. What I haven't seen or heard much is careful analysis, history and background, or a detailed recounting from those involved.

Yes, it is illegal to approach within 100 yds of marine life. But the marine life apparently doesn't know that rule and they very often approach kayakers. Whales move much faster than we do, they often move long distances while underwater and out of site, and yet for all the many decades of kayakers watching whales in many places throughout the world this is the first time I've heard of contact - and it was only a glancing blow. Scary, but so far a one-of-a-kind situation.

And taking large groups out at night can be challenging, but once again it's something that's been done time and time again without a problem. Conditions can change rapidly and forecasts are often wrong. Those 54 kayakers who were 'rescued' were simply given boat rides from the island where they safely landed back to shore. Maybe mistakes in judgment were made, but I sure don't have enough information to say that.

I really don't like the easy judgment and criticism that flies so freely about the internet. I hate to see it being applied to the world of kayaking - especially from kayakers themselves. Let's all think a little before we respond. Consider the possibilities and maybe even give the other person the benefit of the doubt. We could all probably learn a thing or two from these incidents, but we have to try a little harder.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

River vs. Ocean Rolling Mentality

I was kayak surfing at Big River the other day, and on my paddle out I saw a big one coming and decided to turn and take it in. My takeoff was late but I managed to find the shoulder and start my run. That's when it hit me.

One of the features of that location is the near vertical cliff wall on one side of the river mouth. It often creates reflected waves that come at ninety degrees to the wave you're riding. The reflection comes down the line like a pulse of energy, and just as my ride started to crumble the pulse hit me and launched me into the air. I landed vertical, nose down, and drove deep into the building foam pile.

I tried to balance myself and even put my paddle out for support with the hope I could pop back up. My boat (a Necky Jive) is too long to loop even if I actually knew how to loop. But I thought if I could hold position my buoyancy would shoot me up and out and I'd at least be on the surface. That's when the rest of the wave collapsed.

The freight train flipped me over and drove me deep under. Now I was upside down with a pile of water on top and nothing but twisting, violent currents surrounding me. This is the spot where many ocean kayakers will wait for the wave to pass and then roll up. Here's why that's a bad thing.

While you're waiting, other waves are coming. The longer you wait to roll up the closer the next wave will be to hitting you. To fully take advantage of the lull between waves you need to be upright and paddling. It's great to be comfortable upside down, to think clearly and maintain your composure and awareness. But physically you can't accomplish anything. You're there to kayak and you do that upright. Take a lesson from river kayakers.

On the river, waves don't pass. They stick around. Holes can be even worse. It's possible you'll flush out and have a calm pool to roll up in, but you can't count on it. Being upside down is dangerous for the fact you might not go anywhere and for the fact you might go somewhere you don't want. It's essential if you're paddling hard whitewater that you roll up right away and get on with your paddling.

It's a normal progressioin in rolling on the river to wait. You get flipped in class II and there's probably a relatively calm patch of water after every feature. There aren't sticky holes. But as you move into class III, and definitely class IV, the rapids get longer, there are more features, and you can't always hang on until the flat part to roll. So you learn to roll in the mess.

Photo: Darin McQuoid
The first key point is simply the mentality. There's no thought of waiting. If you're upside down you start rolling up. Ideally you don't even worry about a set-up position. From wherever you find yourself, tucked or leaning back, however your paddle is oriented, whichever side it's on, you simply roll from there. If you can use the momentum of the water to help you all the better.

That's the goal and it takes practice - the second key point. Everyone starts out rolling in flat water so it's natural to get used to that. And it's good to practice in the pool. But get your approach away from setting up and finding the right position. Stop looking for the surface. Change your understanding of rolling from a specific sequence of motions to a general concept of using your paddle and your body to bring the boat underneath you. Practice it from every position. Practice it in the current. Throw yourself in a hole or the foam pile and practice it there. There's a reason why playboaters have the best rolls - they flip themselves over in dynamic water on purpose all the time.

This is what you do if you want to paddle difficult whitewater. It's also what you need if you want to paddle rough water in the ocean. Too many sea kayakers seem content with the wait and roll approach. Their rolls depend upon specific techniques, often ones that bring them up lying on the back deck in unstable positions. That's fine to start, but don't stop there and let it become the habit. Learn some different rolls, work on both sides, and get really comfortable being upside down. Make your goal right away to be able to roll in the chaos and come up ready for more. It may take time and practice to get there, but you'll be a better paddler and a lot safer on the open ocean.

I don't know how I rolled up from my wipeout at Big River. It was all very confusing, but I felt water pull on a paddle blade and I anchored myself on that blade and used my hips to bring my boat underneath me. I felt the air and I was up - facing backwards and still in the middle of the foam pile. One stroke in the smooth water behind the pile and I was free. I saw the next, larger wave coming and paddled to the side to avoid the hit. After making my way outside, I picked my waves a little more carefully and caught better rides without needing to roll again. That's how it should be.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Surf's up - if you can find it

The Mendocino Coast is a pretty amazing place to kayak. It has everything you could want - big swells, mellow days, rock gardens, sea caves, tidal rivers, a little whitewater, and breathtaking scenery. It also has some surf. And there are some good surf days. But the truth is that most of the surf spots are a little junky most of the time. There aren't any place that consistently get good surf conditions. The mouth of Big River, just south of Mendocino, is a place that always has surf. Some days it even works well as a teaching spot. But it's never very good.

That doesn't mean that it can't be fun. We had 3' @ 16 sec WNW swell which are nice waves but they didn't really hit any of the breaks right. Big River had some fun rides, but it also had reflections that came at you sideways. And it was on a flood, so getting out wore you out before you caught a ride. Whenever I go surfing I call it successful if I get one good ride. That's about all I got today, but I did catch it on film and I did leave with a smile. Enjoy: