Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Art of Whitewater: Focus

This is the seventh 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, Part 1
Part 6: Fear Management, Part 2
Part 7: Focus


The Theory

"Start left to right, cut hard left after the big boulder, boof the hole, and pick your way through the run-out."

OK. Little splashes. Small curler. Left stroke. Follow Bob. Bright Sunlight. Small hole - dig hard. Water in face. Straighten out. Where'd Bob go? Is that a strainer on the right? Another wave. More water. Brace. Straighten out. Boulder. THE boulder? Holes, rocks, water, sunlight, shadow. Paddle hard. Ledge. Paddle harder. Underwater. Light. Dark. Bubbles. Spinning. Tuck. Roll. Roll NOW! Air. Water. Spinning. ROLL! Air. Kayak. Leslie. Rock. Brace. Turn. Paddle Hard. Right. Left. Sunlight. Flat water. Bob. Breathe.

There's a lot going on in whitewater kayaking and it can be really hard to keep track of everything and do what you're supposed to. One of the most important survival skills is to learn to focus. But what exactly do you focus on, and how do you do it? It's not a simple answer, but one that helps differentiate those comfortable and in control on the river versus those trying to survive. You can't focus on everything, but you can't lose track of the big picture. You have to focus on the immediate and the future, the near and the far.

You have to be aware of what's right in front of you and what comes first, otherwise you'll never make it to the big scary part down the road. It's natural to think about the crux of the rapid (or the crux of the day), but you have to take care of the business at hand and that means to be aware of your immediate surroundings and each and every move you need to do to get where you want to go. When I stop in an eddy with beginners and point out where we're going next, I always end the discussion by reminding them how to do a peel out to exit. If they flip on the eddy line, any other planning is out the window. You need to pay attention to eddy lines, side currents, small holes and river waves. Know what strokes you are taking and what you'll need to take next to put yourself into the position you want to be in. Take it one step at a time.

But you also need to have the big picture in your head. If you just look at what's right in front of you, you aren't calculating for the big hole and you'll go wherever the water takes you. The other common error for beginners running a rapid (and often advanced paddlers when they're stepping up) is tunnel vision. Their paddling becomes about reacting, and the problem with that is many challenging rapids are hard because they involve multiple moves. You have to keep your head up and maintain an image of where you want to get to next and how one move leads to another, far enough in advance to put yourself in the proper position for the crux when it comes. Even the hardest rapids are a lot easier when you're in the right place.

The Practice

First things first: the immediate. The key to handling what's right in front of you without losing the big picture is to be very comfortable with what you need to do. If you're paddling your first class IV, there's a good chance the rapid starts with class III water and moves. If you're still stressed and working hard in class III, you might not be ready for class IV. So spend more time in class III. Spend time going through class III features. Let yourself get offline, take the big hole to the face, make that hard eddy without paddling hard, work it until class III is easy enough that it doesn't consume all your mental energy. Then you'll find that class IV is a whole lot easier because most of the rapid IS easy for you. You need the skills and confidence to handle what's right in front of you without too much effort. If you're paddling at your edge the whole time you will never be able to look downstream.

Part of this comfort comes with technique practice. You shouldn't need to watch your paddle in order to get in a powerful stroke. Braces should be automatic, allowing you to react physically while keeping some mental distance. Practice skills on easy water, flat water even, and they will come to you quicker when they're needed in the rough stuff. Those physical skills will help you relax and your mental state of mind is probably the most important thing to get right when pushing your limits.

Another way to help accomplish this is with scouting, particularly from shore. The more you know what's coming, the more you've already seen the whole rapid and know where the hard parts are and where it's easy, the less you'll worry about the unknown. This helps you relax a little more in the easy part, allowing you to trust that it IS easy, so you can save your energy for where it's needed.  For crucial moves, sometimes you even want to map out exactly which strokes you're going to take where (though don't get too carried away with this - paddling is dynamic and every plan goes to hell almost immediately, so be ready for plan B - or C or D or Q).

Scouting also helps you keep a mental map of where you're trying to go and what it takes to get there. That's key for the big picture. As I mentioned, plans often go awry, but you still need to avoid the big hole and be aware of key dangers like sieves and strainers. Maybe that little waves turns you when you hit it - is it OK to get pushed a little right or do you need to immediately correct and charge hard left? Know the big points and keep them in your head so you can react properly instead of instinctively.

This all requires heads up paddling. It's a concept most are taught in driver's ed: look further down the road to see what's happening instead of just watching the bumper in front of you. It takes awareness, and awareness requires a fully functioning mind. Some of this comes back to the ideas covered in dealing with fear - fear takes away deliberate thought and forces us to focus on one thing: what which we're afraid of. So before you start that big rapid of the day, take a deep breath, get a clear picture of the whole thing, and relax a little bit. This is fun - focus on that :)

Thursday, April 16, 2015


Photo from Kokatat's blog: Destination Torngat
I recently had the privilege of watching a screener for Ben Stookesberry's new film, Destination Torngat. If you're a whitewater kayaker you've probably seen some of Ben's films; if you're not, you should still check them out. I've seen his film-making evolve over the years and the best thing about the recent ones is that they really tell a story - a story that is about more than incredible whitewater shots. It tells about the people and the adventure and contains truths that relate to everyone in many aspects of life.

But his lates film made me think even more about the lessons of kayaking relating to life. The film centered on an expedition to a remote part of Canado to kayak a river with amazing waterfalls and difficult rapids. The paddling required phenomenal skill, but the grueling nature of the approach impressed me the most. The team hiked for hundreds of miles, carrying hundred-plus pounds of kayak and gear on their shoulders, through mosquito infected arctic tundra, up and down hills, video-ing the action all the while. It was bad-ass.

It didn't look especially fun. They looked miserable during the hikes. There were comments about being more tired than ever before and hating life and the bugs that ate them up. All for some whitewater to kayak. Don't get me wrong, the kayaking looked amazing, but I live in California and there's some pretty amazing kayaking just up the road, whatever road you end up on. I certainly haven't done a lot of the high sierra classics, but I know that they match up to anything in the world. So why spend all that time and effort, why face all that pain and agony, just to kayak some similar but slightly different rivers?

Because the pain is part of the pleasure. Most of us enjoy something a little more when we have to work for it. The effort sharpens our appetite and adds to the flavor. For most of us, this combination is best taken in moderation. We love a cold beer after a hot paddle, a ice cream sundae after an evening run, a bonus for an extra effort at work. We want to know the world rewards hard work and a sense of self-satisfaction is hard-wired by evolution. It's part of what makes us human and is a very good thing because it's the source of much that is great in the world.

For some people, this balance tips to the extreme. They constantly seek greater and greater reward through greater challenge. It's the spirit of adventure, and it puts them out in front of the crowd, where the wind is fresher and it carries a little salt - be it sea, sweat, or tears. I don't need to ask why people climb the mountain (or kayak down it) - I see it in their eyes and hear it in their voice (and it comes across very well on the screen). They're bad-ass, and I'm thankful they exist. And now I'm off to do a few push-ups before indulging in some chocolate.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Fun from the shore

As much fun as it is to play on the ocean, sometimes it's nice to play around it. There are days when the waves are too big, or the seas too rough, when you just want to sit on shore and enjoy the majesty of the sea. There are also days when you're looking for a different perspective, a new way to see the waves and wildlife, or see it all through the eyes of a non-paddler. Those days can be just as fun as paddling.

Over the weekend, in between some garden work and writing, while the sun was still out and the wind was blowing, I headed down to the coast for an oceanside hike. So simple, so rewarding. We saw ocean creatures and could sit calmly and watch them without drifting or scaring them away. We looked in the tide pools, calm water clearly showing the many inhabitants living in close proximity. No paddles, but a couple of lenses and a full battery in the camera. I live in a very beautiful place. I hope you enjoy the pictures.

Mendocino from a different angle

These pictures were taken from the Spring Creek Ranch hike, a new addition to Van Damme State Park, just north of the beach.

Lots of great tidepools to esplore

Protected from the fierce ocean by a friendly reef

Water so clear it didn't seem to exist

In addition to the small creatures, there were some larger mammals out and about. The whales were a good mile offshore, so I was pretty lucky with this shot.

One of several whales probably headed north for the summer

Some seals about to lose their sunny perch

While I'm actually quite happy living inland a few miles from the water (much warmer, less fog, peaceful evenings), if I were to live on the coast, this is how I'd like to do it.

My future home when kayak blogging becomes the next big money-maker

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Playing on the Mendocino Coast

Not a whole lot to say about it, but in the past few weeks we've gotten out in our whitewater boats for some coastal exploration nearby. The video footage below shows what the coast is like here in Mendocino: lots of tunnels and caves, interesting rocks to paddle around and over, and gorgeous scenery wherever you turn. It's a compilation from a couple of days, one launching out of Caspar, and one just south of Van Damme State Park (both under twenty minutes from our doorstep).

While there definitely isn't a single boat that's perfect for everything, there are definite advantages to one over another in certain situations. We chose our whitewater/surf kayaks for these adventures because we knew we didn't have far to travel (about four miles total on each trip) and the play features were dense and waves plentiful. Even if you're not a whitewater kayaker, it's worth it to have a short boat that surfs well for such ocean paddling. You can tell from my wife's smiles and laughter that it makes playing around easier and more fun. Give it a try if you get the chance - and visit Mendocino for the best place to do it.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Paddler's Journey: What it takes to create a book

As my regular readers know, I've been working on a book, a paddling memoir tracing my career as a kayaker. But I know from experience that most people don't really understand what all it takes to make a book, so I thought I'd explain the process a little more.

Putting words on paper (or into a word processor). That's what most people think of when you say you're writing a book. And you do have to do that. But that's the fun and easy part, and it's just the beginning. Sure, you could just ramble on for page after page, just collect the stuff I've already written here, but a book - a real and true book - is different than a collection of blog posts.

When I set out to write A Paddler's Journey, I needed a theme, something to hold it all together and give it a backbone to build around. I wanted to share some fun paddling stories, but that alone wouldn't be worthy of a book. I decided to show my progression through the sport and all the lessons I learned along the way. How becoming a paddler has influenced my life as a whole. I did this through stories, and the stories can be taken by themselves and enjoyed as individual adventures, but each one builds on the previous and they all lead somewhere - to the person I am today. I had to leave out some good stories that didn't fit. I had to include more than just the paddling - I had to talk about the people, since they influenced me as much as the water. It took a lot more thought and careful deliberation to come up with the content for the book.

But then I did write it all down. That was fun. Then I reread it and saw all my mistakes - mistakes everyone makes in a first draft - and that wasn't so fun. I edited, changing large chunks of text, deleting some chapters, including more of my emotions, trying to be more descriptive and entertaining in my prose. It takes a lot to edit a couple hundred pages.

Then I sent that draft off to several folks for feedback. Quite a number never responded. It's very understandable - everyone is really busy and even if they squeeze in the time to read it they might not know how to critique it. But spending months pouring your heart and sole into an artistic endeavor, one that reveals your innermost thoughts and lays out who you are as a human being, only to get chirping crickets in response, is never easy.

But some did respond. They said good things and they also made suggestions of ways to improve it. I didn't agree with all of them, and some were contradictory, but it gave me more information and allowed me to go back in for another draft. That's right, I re-wrote the entire book, tightening it up, making every sentence the best I could. Months of hard work.

That basically got me to a near-final draft. Currently I'm working on a little bit of final editing - more proofreading than anything, making sure there are no typos, no missed words or clumsy constructions. Going through 57,000 words individually to make sure each one is correct. It's not fun or easy and requires a huge amount of concentration. I take books seriously.

Is that it? Is having all those words sorted out enough? Not even close. I plan to publish my book as a physical thing as well as in electronic form. Both formats require more preparation.

Digital books are pretty easy to format. It takes a little more than just uploading your Word document, but not that much. The main thing is to make sure your code is clean, that the conversion engines can handle it (there are multiple eBook formats, so you have to have a slightly different source file for each one). It's about adjusting styles, removing tabs, including title page info, lots of little things. I've done it before so I know it's not too hard, but once again it requires a lot of attention to the details.

A physical book is a much larger beast to slay. You have to choose a font, decide on a trim size (how big the book will be), set chapter breaks, create drop caps for chapter openings, check the line spacing, the leading, the line wraps (removing widows and orphans), confirm margins and adjust headings for each section. It's typesetting, an art and industry unto itself, but as a self-publisher all the work falls on me unless I pay someone else to do it (which isn't financially realistic for a book that will likely make me a few hundred dollars). There are so many little things about a book that readers don't notice - unless it's off, then they know something's not right even if they can't name what it is.

Then there's cover design, another job that I'm doing myself. It's easy enough to put a title on top of a picture, but that cover is the main thing that sells the book, so choices of color palette, text sizing, font choice, word layout, all have a huge impact on how the reader first perceives that book. And if you get them to pick up the book (or stop to read the Amazon page), there's the back-cover copy, a one-paragraph summation of the entire project that needs to sell the book to a dubious buyer.

All of that to create a book, but it all means nothing if you don't market the book. You need to get people to look at the cover, to read the copy, to read sample pages. Again, with no budget to hire professionals, that means me talking about here on my blog, asking my friends to spread the word, calling distributors and even individual kayak shops to ask if they want to stock a few copies. All for a couple of dollars for each book you sell (and if you consider the average self-published book sells less than a hundred copies, you start to realize why very few authors actually make a living at writing books).

I'm nearing the end of the journey. I expect to have a proof copy by the end of next month and be ready to go to print a couple months after that. But I'm trying to do all this work while holding down a full time job and living the rest of my life (including teaching some kayaking now and then).

So if someone says they're writing a book, you might want to think that they're just typing away, writing out stories or ideas and having fun doing it. And that might be true. But if someone is a real author, if they're putting out a book that's equivalent to what would come from a professional publisher, then they're doing a whole lot more than that. As a reader, you're free to just enjoy the words, but maybe somewhere in the back of your mind try to appreciate all of the effort it takes to bring you each and every one of those books you breeze through and throw on the shelf to fade into memory. Writing is something special and I applaud anyone who takes it seriously and does it well. It's a journey every bit as challenging and rewarding as any kayak trip.