Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Art of Whitewater: Technique


This is the first in a series of posts about whitewater kayaking and some philosophy beyond the basics; ideas and concepts meant to help intermediate paddlers improve and get more out of the sport. As parts are added, these links will go live:

Part 1: Technique
Part 2: Momentum
Part 3: On or Across the Water
Part 4: Group Management
Part 5: Fear Management

Technique


Technique is not something that you learn at your computer. Yeah, videos can be helpful, and breaking down components can give people new ideas to try. But you learn by doing, and learn fastest with feedback from someone who knows what they're talking about. The truth is that if you started with a two-day class from a competent instructor you probably were taught most of the technique you actually need to use even on a class V river. The problem is even those who 'learned' the right technique do very little to practice and improve it. With that, most paddlers on the river have poor technique that gets even worse when under pressure or fatigued. Even most class V paddlers.

That points out a couple things: first, you don't need to have great technique to paddle hard whitewater; second, me talking about technique on a blog isn't likely to change anything. But I'm going to throw this out there anyway, in hopes it might inspire a few folks to do what is needed to improve their technique - and only you can improve your own technique. All it takes is practice. You really just need to want to improve your technique. So why should you?

Technique gives you options. It gives you control, protects your body, increases your safety, extends your career. It's a long term thing. Most people paddle whitewater for the thrill, the sensation of of wildly crashing down a rapid and hoping to make it to the bottom. Technique, in a way, is the antithesis of this. That's why I think beginners give up fairly quickly on technique once they've reached the point that they can survive a rapid upright - they've achieved their short term goal and don't see the need to put in more work. Over time, they learn to handle harder rapids and advance in the sport. That's when the short term thinking eventually catches up.

When you start paddling class IV and class V, the consequences are more severe. Not just the danger of the rapid, but the toll it takes on your body. The rivers are more powerful, moves need to be executed quicker with more precision. The lack of good technique leads to blown lines and blown shoulders. It holds you back, slowing progress and limiting fun. But by the time most people realize this, they're set in their way and think they know what they're doing. It's hard to step back and NOT have fun on the river, to spend time working on technique and admitting that there is more to learn and improvements to be made. So most flounder on, having fun without recognizing that even more enjoyment is just beyond their reach.

If you want to get more out of your kayaking, and you want to do it for many years to come, find yourself a good instructor, get a one day lesson on a river a grade or two easier than you normally paddle, and learn how to do things properly. Then spend lots of time working on technique every time you paddle. Practice, it's that simple.

That's the philosophy, here's some concrete:
A good forward stroke will vastly improve your ability to avoid hazards. It will give you more return for less effort, saving you energy and allowing you to paddle safely as you age and lose strength. Most people have crappy forward strokes. I'm not going to try to teach the keys to an efficient forward stroke here, but I will say that a good way to learn what works and what doesn't is to do attainments. And slalom practice - that's always a good one for technique.

A good brace (technique-wise) is the difference between staying upright and flipping over with an injured shoulder. If you work on the other lessons you shouldn't need to have to brace much, but when you do it's essential that you have safe form.

Eddy catching. There are lots of techniques to catch an eddy - bow draws, low braces, duffeks, gliding stern draws, etc. What dialing in the varieties and proper form will give you is the ability to catch the important eddies - the small ones near rocks, the hard ones with fast current right above the drop - and the right way to leave that eddy and enter the drop. I tell my students all the time that eddy catching is the most important skill they will learn for running hard stuff and I stick by my words.

As I said, you don't need to have good technique to have fun. But I do believe that the better your technique, the more potential for fun you will have. Isn't that worth it?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Kayaking South of the Mendocino Headlands

A few months ago I wrote up a little paddle we did around the Mendocino Headlands, exploring the many caves and tunnels. Starting from the same place, Big River, this time we headed south. The rock is similar in quality, creating many caves and tunnels again, but it seems like the rock is a little weaker on this side of the bay, with more collapsed ceilings and portholes in the walls.

It was a quick and easy paddle, and this time I shot video instead of stills. Enjoy:

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Kayaking the Isle of Skye

I'm just returned from my honeymoon in Scotland, three weeks of sight seeing, hill walking and a little kayaking. Thanks to the gracious Gordon Brown of Skyak Adventures, my wife and I had boats and gear for four days of paddling on the Isle of Skye, the largest island in Scotland, just off the west coast.

Skye is a beautiful place with some of the most rugged mountains in the country (the Cuillins), as well as rolling green hills, glacier carved valleys, volcanic rock cliffs, and protected water wherever the weather is coming from. It's really hard to beat as a paddling destination and our four days provided only the shallowest of introductions to this spectacular land.

The first couple of days had high winds and we took it easy, sticking close to protected shorelines on the south and west side of the island. The scenery wasn't dramatic but simply the calm beauty of Scotland - green hills, lots of sheep, and castle ruins from several hundred years ago. Coming from America, the sense of history and spirit of the past that linger in the land always gives me a moment's pause, soaking in the fact that countless generations of people have plied the land and fished the waters. Kayaking among the remnants of ages long past adds to the peaceful feeling of the place.

With a break in the wind, we moved on to Staffin Bay on the northeast end the island. It was strange to paddle on an exposed coast with no discernible swell, the water as flat as a Sierra lake with a steady sprinkling of rain. The rocks here are old, basalt columns created when lava flows cooled and condensed, leaving a colonade of sharp angles and cracks that time has worn into caves and tunnels on a scale much greater than our little boats. Poking our noses in lead to giants caverns rising way beyond our heads with multiple entrances and exits, rock garden heaven.

The calm water made it easy to explore, but the rain made picture taking a challenge, often forcing me to shoot from inside the cave where I was protected from the elements. We spent hours exploring the rocky coast, but I'm afraid my pictures don't do it justice. It really deserves to be seen in person.

Our last day of paddling took us back south, the the bottom on the island and most dramatic landscape yet. Launching from the little town of Elgol, we crossed the bay (or loch, as they call it. Lakes, bays, harbors - they're all called lochs in Scotland) to land at the foot of the Black Cuillin, not the tallest but the sharpest of mountain ranges in the country. This is where the great climbers from Scotland learned their trade, fighting their way up to the jagged peaks in miserable weather on crumbling rock.


Against this backdrop we landed on a small beach for a short hike to Loch Coruisk, a tiny lake nestled between the waterfall covered hills and the granite shoreline at their base. Unfortunately the rain hit once again and the clouds swallowed up the view as they so often do in the island - Skye is actually from the Norse and means 'island of the clouds'. But it was still a beautiful paddle and amazing place, the water running freely down the steep green slopes and blue skies breaking through on our return to Elgol.

We could have happily spent another week paddling in new locations on the island and only scratched the surface. Returning our boats to Gordon, he talked about the other nearby islands and all they have to offer, lighting up even more when discussing the further options like St. Kilda and the Outer Hebrides. I still feel that California has some of the best kayaking coastline in the world, but with the hundreds of islands, large and small, round and jagged, Scotland clearly has more variety and more options, all in less space. There are many places I would like to go paddle, but I think I could spend a lifetime exploring Scotland and never do the same route twice.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Paddler's Journey - book update: rough draft finished!

Finishing a rough draft is a bittersweet moment. There's a sense of triumph in having completed a project, more so when it's an entire book, fifty-four thousands words strung together to hopefully form some coherent picture. But there's also the realization that you are far from finished, that the joy of creation now turns into the pain of revision.

I'm really happy with the first draft of A Paddler's Journey. I like the balance I struck with paddling details and general story telling. Some humor breaks up serious moments, and deep thoughts and insights flow directly from the action. Non-paddlers can easily follow along while kayakers will undoubtedly remember their own similar experiences. There's adventure and beauty and characters and carnage. Just like real life.

Now I'm going back over it line by line, choosing the best words, checking constructions and descriptions, making everything flow and fit together. Once it's cleaned up I'll send it out to beta readers to get feedback from a wide variety of sources, then blend that all together to revise the whole thing as much as necessary to make it the best book possible. It takes time and is a frustrating process, but in the end it results in a better product and something that I know I'll be proud of.

In the meantime, here's a little excerpt from the end. Let me know if you like it.

...
We woke with the sun but took our time over breakfast and breaking camp, no one eager for the day’s conclusion. The bigger rapids lay below us, still packing enough punch to make folks nervous. I portaged Vortex with Norman, not out of fear but simple solidarity. I ran Carson’s Falls for much the same reason, taking more pleasure from Norman’s ugly but successful run than my own graceful line. No one had anything to prove but everyone took their shot, nothing but smiles on the downstream side regardless of the result. I finished up as happy and excited as the first time I completed the Forks without swimming. Pat and I drove back through the Sierra, scouting potential creeks and marveling at the beauty in the world.

I barely paddled in the six months that followed. My father passed away that summer after two months in the hospital, never regaining full consciousness after a car accident. I wrote a novel and began the long and arduous path towards its publication. When a friend called and needed a last minute assistant for a kayak class, I returned to paddling and met my future wife on the water, beginning a new stage of life while experiencing the sport through the eyes of another.

I am very much a kayaker these days and always will be, no matter how long between paddles or how much my skills deteriorate. Kayaking is a part of who I am. It’s the part that carries boats for those who can’t lift them and waits at the top of a rapid to guide down the less experienced. It’s the drive to be the best and test yourself against forces you cannot overcome but only hope to ride. It shares sorrows and joys with friends and strangers, the only requirements to join are a desire to try and the willingness to fail. In many ways kayaking is the best part of me, and I hope I give it my best in return.
*

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Teaching on the River

I'm back in the Coloma area for a few weeks, teaching on the river and enjoying my old neighborhood. Since I moved to the coast a year ago, I haven't had much opportunity to teach whitewater kayaking, so it's nice to get back out there. The ocean presents challenges in a way that allows you to choose whether or not you want to take them on. The river is much more committing, especially as a beginner. The challenges are a fundamental part of the progression and can't be avoided. It changes the mindset of student and teacher.

On the river, I find it very important to manage expectations. People need to understand that they are going to face the rapids and flipping is a likely occurrence during the learning process. They might be afraid, nervous, excited, and exhausted, all at the same time. There's a million things they need to remember - good posture, loose hips, steady strokes, torso rotation, watch the current, edge the boat, look downstream, follow my signals - while trying to stay upright.

I break it down into simple concepts, trying to keep their brains as free from clutter as possible. It's a process of loading information into the mind and the body over the course of a lesson, slowly letting parts sink in until they no longer need to be consciously remembered. When it all comes together at the end of the lesson, and they paddle the toughest rapid of the day with the best form and arrive successfully at the bottom, I know that I've done them right. The smiles tell me so.

It's good to be back, if only for a little while.