Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Higher levels

Leading the group in for a landing
I've said before that my favorite people to teach are other teachers. Some people like to teach beginners - it's hard to match the joy of introducing a new sport, one that can be life changing, to eager students. Some folks like to teach advanced courses - the chance to do some paddling that is truly fun and exciting while welcoming some new blood into the brotherhood. For me, instructor training is the highest level of coaching. It's more involved, more complicated, and more rewarding than any other class. At its best it delves into the minutia of how to transfer information from one person to another; it dissects the human psyche to develop systems and stratagems to help students learn as quickly and efficiently as possible. It's down right complicated and that's what makes it fun.

Apparently purple isn't visible enough
So this past weekend was a special treat as I assisted teaching an advanced open water ACA instructor certification course in Half Moon Bay. The advanced level cranks everything up a notch - the candidates are more experienced and motivated, the coaching is at a higher level, the conditions and locations are more challenging, overall it's just more fun! It was also a chance to work with Roger Schumann who I've known for years but never gotten to teach with before. And in addition, everyone in the class was a friend and paddling buddy. So it was really about workshopping with peers, where everyone is contributing ideas and sharing experiences.

Flat water fun
This being an advanced course we also got to go play in some fun conditions: a day of surfing 4-6' waves at Pillar Point; playing at Yellow Bluff and under the Golden Gate with4.5 knot currents; and a little rock gardening out at Pt. Diablo. The only disappointing thing about the weekend was the lack of wind - we needed at least 15 knots to create the proper conditions for the certification but in the three days of the course the wind never once reached that speed anywhere we could find. It's a sad day when December in San Francisco can't manage to stir up at least a little winter weather. But we made do with what we had and even at the end of a long weekend people were still playing around on the way back to CCK's classroom and the Princeton Boat Yard.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Pt. Bonita Rock Garden video

Don't have a lot to say, it was just a nice day of paddling on the coast with friends. Waves were a little big, but I'll let the video do the talking on that.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

New moves

Sometimes it's interesting to look at the stats on this site. Occasionally I'll see that an old post is getting a lot of attention. Often I have no idea why but sometimes it makes sense. Lately I've gotten a number of hits on a post I did last year on off season training. Seeing as how we're back into the off season it's reasonable that people are looking for ideas to stay or get in shape. The article itself is still good but since I wrote it I have added a couple of exercises to my routine that I think have made a real difference so I thought I would share them. These are both particularly well suited to kayakers but are great core exercises for anyone that does anything.

1. Planks. No, it's not just lying still in strange locations. It involves using your core muscles to hold your body straight in alignment instead of crunching to compact them. The basic technique is to prop yourself on your forearms and toes and hold your body straight just off the ground. This better simulates how we use our core and works all the muscles in the region. The variation of a side plank where you use one forearm (or straight arm) to extend the body off the ground helps focus on the obliques.

2. Mountain Climbers. It doesn't actually involve climbing. You start in a pushup position with arms straight and you alternate bringing one knee at a time to your chest. Twisting the right knee towards your left elbow and vice versa is great for paddlers wanting to improve their torso rotation. You can add to the workout by throwing in a pushup in between reps with the legs.

What I like best about these exercises is that it doesn't take any equipment to do them. You can do them anywhere and they don't take much time. And they translate very directly for kayaking.

Here is a site with a little more description and you can do a google search if you want to see video.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Assessing Risk Assessment

Risk assessment seems like the topic d'jour. Perhaps that's just my perception, but between the incident at Lumpy Waters, the record number of whitewater fatalities this year and the instructor training I've been doing, risk assessment and post-game dissection has been a recurrent theme in my world. Part of that is the growing trend in kayaking towards the extreme, part of it is a modern aesthetic of justification through analyses, and part of it is the nature of 'social' media and mass communication (all these damn blogs...). While there is lots of useful discussion, debating, debriefing, dialogue and deliberation, I would like to throw a little reality check into the mix.

First, all the Monday morning quarterbacking is just that - Monday morning. After the fact everything is different. Perceptions, recollections, and facts themselves change and distort over time and the complete reality of a situation is never the same. So we can learn general points, we can point out mistakes, we can say what we would have done, but in the end all we can do is move forward. Don't get tied up to the incident that happened and the people that were involved. That reality will never come again and the only wisdom of value is that which can be applied in the abstract.

Second, everything we learn will be forgotten. I say that as a teacher. All these valuable lessons we learn from analyzing mistakes made and planning for the future will be needed again when the same mistakes are made. It's human nature. We may take a different path to making the mistake and at the time it will look completely different (because each situation is unique); but it will be the same mistake. Some people will learn, some people will change, some mistakes will be avoided and our general knowledge will grow. We can develop systems and strategies and procedures to follow for safety; we can create a rubric to protect everyone. But it will fail, and here's why:

Kayaking is fun. People having fun will not follow a system or instructions or a checklist.  It goes against our nature - we want to be free and we want to have fun without burden of restrictions or control. It's what draws us to this sport. (aside: it's been shown that surgeons following a simple checklist, even those with hundreds of similar operations under their belt, will have better results and make fewer mistakes. But surgeons don't want to follow a checklist.) So mistakes and tragedies will still happen, and here's why:

Kayaking is risky. So go ahead and conduct the postmortems; have an incident review; develop a system of safety. It will help. But in the end it comes down to something much more basic: human nature. Some will evaluate at a subconscious level and make the safe call; some will ignore their intuition and take that risk. Safety is ultimately an individual choice and responsibility. The only advice I can offer that might be truly be of use is to be aware of that simple fact. Be aware in general.

Awareness at its most basic level is what allows us to assess risk and properly manage it. Awareness is what allows us to recognize a situation and connect it to lesson learned from previous experience. Awareness is a conscious effort to separate the actor from the action. Awareness is going outside yourself and gaining perspective in the process. Awareness is a skill, an ability and a habit. Awareness can be learned and developed. Awareness is individual but can be shared. Awareness is what allows for the understanding of risk and the assessment in its undertaking. It's not a system or a chart, it's not a tool or a plan, it's not a template or document. Awareness is sum of who we are: our skills, knowledge, training, experience and thoughts. Let that be your guide and your beacon and you will make the right choice.

But you will make mistakes. And the same ones again. There will be danger and harm. There will be regret and recriminations. But we'll go kayaking and have some fun.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Sports Cars

I recently tested out the new P&H Delphin 150. It's the smaller version of the Delphin 155 which has been one of the most popular boats this past year. And in looking around at some of the other 'hot' new boats out there you see a lot of exciting, playful designs. Boats like the Tiderace Xstreme, Sterling Reflection, etc. While it is cool that there are new designs coming out and boats that are really designed to perform in rough and challenging conditions, it's also a bit of overkill.

These boats are the equivalent of sports cars in the kayaking world. How many people really need to drive a sports car? Even if I owned a Porsche I wouldn't get to work any faster. And I certainly couldn't carry as much stuff with me. Even if you're a really good driver are you actually going to need the performance of a Porsche? How often do you need to get up to 60mpg in 4 seconds? Most of us drive sedans, SUV's and minivans for a reason. I take that same approach to kayaking - I want what is going to work for me in a practical way for how I paddle.

Don't get me wrong - I loved the Delphin 150. And these boats are great for the people who have the skills and opportunity to push them to their performance limits. Or for those who can afford multiple boats. But I see more folks with high performance kayaks than I see high performance kayakers. But I guess sea kayaking isn't about what's practical for most people. At the end of the day they are just toys, and I guess paddlers are like everyone else - we want the shiniest, sexiest toy we can afford. Having access to a fleet of kayaks through work maybe I'm not in a position to judge. But as to what I own I'll stick with my Ikkuma and my pickup truck.

Here's some video of both sizes of Delphins. Not even approaching their maximum performance...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Back to Basics

I just got home from the Lumpy Waters Sea Kayak Symposium and there was a bit of a recurring theme to my thoughts during the weekend. The first was that it was great to get back to the simple stuff - what originally drew me into paddling. I started as a sea kayaker. Playing in the ocean with friends, just having fun. And then teaching - again, something just plain fun. This weekend felt the same - doing a little teaching, hanging out with old friends and new, and definitely playing a little on the ocean. Even the twelve hour ride up (and back) went smooth and passed quickly.

The other thing I noticed is that Lumpy and other similar symposiums (GGSKS) attract some good paddlers. They have experience, take classes and practice their skills, have nice kit and are great people to hang out with. The symposiums are set up for them with lots of advanced classes: rock garden safety, long boat surfing, combat rolling, etc. The students learn a lot and really enjoy the classes. But if truth be told, when I look around and think what should these people (and most paddlers) spend their time learning or working on? the answer comes back: the simple stuff. Forward stroke technique; T rescues, general seamanship and navigation. Those are the skills that are used all the time and make you a safe and effective paddler who can go explore and have fun. And far too many 'experienced' paddlers come up lacking in the basics when you really look at the details.

Symposiums are really cool and a tremendous learning environment. It's a great chance to push yourself beyond your normal comfort zone and get instruction in an environment that you might not get too very often. It's an opportunity to pick up wisdom from new people and to advance your knowledge base. But people too often move on to what's new without fully mastering the old. Just because you've had a class or worked on a skill in the past doesn't mean you are done. The great paddlers, the safe paddlers, are the ones who kept working on fundamentals until they were second nature. Rescues become quick and correct, knowing where to go is automatic, covering distance no problem. That is the result of working on the basics and those are the people who are a joy to paddle with. So the next time you are out for a paddle think about the things you learned when you first started and honestly evaluate yourself - if you really want to be a better kayaker you need to start at the beginning.

But speaking of people who are a joy to paddle with: once again several of the coaches went out to Three Arch Rocks for a little play session after the event. The surf was a little bigger this year and took some timing to make it out. Once out there we had some big action in the arches and a couple pour-overs. Then we headed to the point for a little surfing. Paul, Sean and Matt N. really got some great rides, easily 20 seconds on a wave. I had the distinction of the best wipeout on the way in  when two waves merged just behind me and sent me ass over tea kettle - the feeling off weightlessness as you are spat out of a wave and then the unbelievable soft landing in the foam is amazing sensation.

I only took my new little waterproof camera and didn't shoot too much, but I think I got some really nice shots so please check out the slideshow below:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Girls in Bikinis!

No, it's not just an attention grabbing title. But I'll get to the girls in a little bit.

I just returned home from a 3-day paddling trip to the Channel Islands. Sorry I didn't hit my SPOT when we got to the beach but I had packed it away in the wrong place and didn't want to dig it out of the bottom of the truck after getting packed for the long drive home. But the trip went well and mild weather made for some easy paddling. This was the classic Channel Islands - the perfect 3 day crossing trip. We launched from Oxnard; paddled over to Anacapa Island to explore and camp for the night; paddled on to Santa Cruz Island the next day and spent the night there; finally we paddled back to Oxnard. It's a great intro to kayak camping, open crossings and cave exploration all wrapped up into a long weekend.

View Anacapa-Santa Cruz in a larger map

Our crossing to Anacapa was under grey skies and calm winds. We headed straight for Frenchy's beach, the only place you are allowed to land, for a short break before working our way to the landing cove. The landing cove represents the biggest challenge of the trip - the dock is ten feet above the water. Hauling fully loaded boats up to 'land' is quite the feat. Pedro had devised a hoist system for a similar set up on Santa Barbara Island that would allow one person to do the task along - or at least that was the theory. This was our chance to test it out. But as we rounded the corner we were confronted with a group of bikini clad girls jumping off of said dock. Pedro now had plenty of hands to help haul up kayaks but for some reason chose to go it alone. The system was proven (it worked, but not pretty) with one boat but for the others I jumped up to give him a hand.

The next day the lowering of kayaks from the dock was much easier (maybe it was the help of gravity, maybe the lack of distractions). We paddled through the famous arch and around the south side of Anacapa where we ran into a curious pod of sea lions - check out the video below. Then we crossed over to Santa Cruz, a relatively short crossing at four miles but notorious for headwinds that funnel through the gap. But winds stayed light and we made it into Scorpion Cove before the sun broke through and winds picked up. Since we all have played in the caves around the landing sight numerous times before we decided to take a hike up the canyon to find the Island Ironwood - a small tree that only grows on the Channel Islands. I've been to the islands dozens of times but never heard of this particular tree before - it's cool when a familiar place still has something new to discover.

The third day we had another early launch. The forecast was for winds increasing and out of the NW. We were headed NE and figured a little action, hopefully at our sterns, would help the 20 mile crossing fly along. But the winds never came - even as we approached Oxnard and the sun came out it remained calm and warm. we landed early in the afternoon in time to grab a little sushi (the normal burger joint was closed) and head on home. Not a terrible way to end a simple little trip. More PICTURES HERE and a nice little clip of the sea lions checking us out below:

Astral Swim Contest - Twenty Seconds

The contest is now over - I finished second :(  But the story's still a good one, so read on. Help! I'm a finalist in Astral Buoyancy's 'Swim' story contest. It's my write up of my swim through an underwater cave on the lower Kern river a couple years ago. There are three finalists and Astral is letting votes on Facebook decide the winner. So take a quick moment and read the stories HERE and then go vote HERE.

The winner gets a new Astral PFD but since I have plenty of PFD's if I win I will raffle it off for a good cause: The Jason Craig Recovery Fund.

And here's the video from the swim, just in case you want to see what really happened:

And here's a different write-up I did for American Whitewater (they didn't use it but I think it's actually a better version - just didn't fit in the size constraint for the contest...)

Twenty seconds

Time passes differently on the river. The days are longer, filled with more than should fit into a twenty-four hour period. Each minute seems to have endless possibilities. Every second gets stretched out to a tangible period of time with multiple thoughts and actions. This slowing of the passage of time is often a pleasing aspect to river travel, but it takes on a more extreme character during a crisis.

We’ve all heard the stories: I was in that hole forever; I was under water for minutes; I thought I would never get unpinned. But usually these are exaggerations, the actual time spent under duress being far shorter than the true reality of the situation (or what our friends experienced while watching the action). But there is a difference between the time measured on a clock and what we experience on the river.

Twenty seconds. That’s how much time I spent underwater, mostly in a cave. The helmet cam video proves it, though it is black for a lot of that time. It felt longer to me. And to my friends watching from shore. But I still had plenty of air in my lungs when I emerged so it might actually have only been twenty seconds. But those twenty seconds were filled to the brim with thoughts and reflections.

At the top of the rapid I am focused as the rocks and holes fly by at high speed. Then the final hole spins me around before the big drop and everything switches to slow motion. Once backwards I have time to debate whether I should try to spin around or just go with it. In a fraction of a second I weigh the pros and cons: if I miss the spin I’ll go over sideways and get recirced – or maybe surfed towards the cave; if I go over backwards I could still stay in the current and go past the cave. I decide to stay backwards and backpaddle for as much speed as possible. It doesn’t work.

As I hit the bottom of the drop I feel my stern get turned sideways and the current grab my edge. I’m flipping with too much force to try to brace so I immediately go into a tuck, ready to roll before I’m upside down. In the white chaos I pause to see if I’m in the hole or flushing out. I feel the push of current that says I’m free and have time to note the power of that current as I begin my roll. Part way through I'm stopped – I hit the rock on my way up and know that the rock is above me, holding me down. I'm in the cave and the light quickly fades.

I pull my skirt as my boat comes to a rest pushed against the back wall of the underwater cave. I know exactly where I am and quickly exit the boat, choosing to release my paddle since it will be no use to me now. I quickly scan my environment – I can see the light coming from upstream but the flow of water pushing against me makes that route unattainable. I reach to the ceiling to try to get above the water – but there is no air pocket to be found. I start to feel around with my hands, looking for a passage out or anything that might prove useful. I notice that my boat is still right next to me and I wonder if it has an air pocket of its own. I leave that for later since I still have plenty of air at the moment.

As my search comes up empty part of my mind considers my situation in the abstract. I might actually die in here. There’s no flash of past memories, no thoughts of regret or curses for the cruelty of fate.  There is acceptance, the understanding that this situation is simply a logical outcome of the choices and actions that led to it. This is what we choose to risk when we paddle at this level. I accept that risk but I am not ready to accept that final outcome so I focus back on the situation and how to change it.

I feel a tug on my feet, the current going down and pulling me with it. I remember the story of a past boater swimming down and out this very cave; I remember that he got stuck on a tree branch in the process. But I know that to stay is to die so I push myself down, further down into the dark, further from the air above.
Now the sensation of speed has momentarily returned. I feel the rush of the water and sense the walls flying past. But the darkness is complete and my fingers no longer reach the rock. I note that the tunnel seems long, that I’ve been moving fast for a long time now. 

Then I'm out. The current fades and openness returns. I orient myself and see light far above. As I slowly rise I know I am safe. I think back on my time in the cave and how my mortality was so starkly laid bare before me. I note how calm I stayed through it all and marvel at the clarity of my thoughts. As I am still rising towards the surface I realize that my friends are up there waiting and now I feel distress. What must they have been thinking during this long stretch of time? What horrors were their minds conjuring? What did I just put them through?

And then I break the surface. I grab a lungful of new air and time resumes its normal flow. I still have a sense of purpose in swimming to the shore and I note my friends waiting there with throwbags in hand. I reach the rock and climb up and out of the river. Now safe my thoughts become a tangled mess: I am happy to be alive; I feel awful for my friends; I am pissed at myself for my mistake in execution; I am totally uncertain if my decision to run the rapid was foolish, stupid, brave or all of the above. The clarity and calmness are gone. But I am glad to trade the cool, detached awareness of imminent danger for the chaos and hassle of a complicated boat recovery. As long as time continues to flow on I am content to move at its pace. But those twenty seconds now account for a large portion of my life, what I learned and experienced during that time will stay with me forever. Those twenty seconds were full.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Check-in/OK message from spotbryant SPOT Personal Tracker

GPS location Date/Time:09/25/2011 12:51:15 PDT

Message:This is an automatic post from my SPOT tracker. All is well and here is my position:

Click the link below to see where I am located.

If the above link does not work, try this link:


You have received this message because spotbryant has added you to their SPOT contact list.

Every day is an Adventure. Share Yours.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Check-in/OK message from spotbryant SPOT Personal Tracker

GPS location Date/Time:09/24/2011 15:26:44 PDT

Message:This is an automatic post from my SPOT tracker. All is well and here is my position:

Click the link below to see where I am located.

If the above link does not work, try this link:


You have received this message because spotbryant has added you to their SPOT contact list.

Every day is an Adventure. Share Yours.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

boof rock

Student #2 looks good (before the landing)
As instructors we all love the moments when our students have a breakthrough and feel that moment of success when understanding and accomplishment emerge from persistence and practice. But sometimes we also take a little glee in the those little failing that indicate the students are trying but haven't quite got it yet. Last week while teaching some whitewater students how to boof I went first and demonstrated on 'boof rock'. Then I set up in the eddy to take pictures as they came down. The first student caught the edge of the rock and flipped. I wasn't too worried - it's deep, flat water below and he knew how to roll. The next hit the boof but didn't stick the landing - over he went and without a roll he waved his hands for a rescue. As I put away the camera and came to his aid the next student hit the rock in the right spot but without momentum - over she went. As the one student grabbed my bow and started to right himself I realized I had three students upside down, all within a couple boat lengths. As my guy flipped himself up using my boat I saw the first student finally get his roll as the third was struggling with hers. I quickly handed my guy his paddle, gave him a shove into the eddy and got to my roller just as she decided it wasn't working for her and she grabbed my boat and came up. Three down, three up and no swims. They haven't mastered the boof but they all had smiles after the attempt - what more can you ask for. (for the record, student #4 bypassed the rock but student #5 nailed it perfectly)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hold the phone - summer's not dead!

After all my talk of switching into sea kayak mode I got a late night call from Matt saying he was planning to run the N Stan, leaving early the next morning. Amazing that such a great stretch of river still has water (barely) in the middle of September. It's only a two hour drive and Matt was planning on doing a bike shuttle but wanted a third person for the trip (three is much safer than two). Lydia was the third and it was her first time on the N Stan and her first time really creeking. The weather was suppose to be perfect and I hadn't packed away my whitewater gear quite yet so I joined in on the fun.

And fun it was - a perfect day of carefree boating. The low water changed a lot of the rapids but for the most part they still help up. The first rapid of the day is the toughest and it had a fair amount of pin and piton potential. (The actual first rapid at the put in is a class V+ nightmare that we didn't even consider at these flows). Matt and I charged it and we both had smooth lines that made it feel like we had accomplished something and also helped us to relax the rest of the day. The river itself was clear and picturesque and it had the right combination of pools and easy rapids with a few more technical ones thrown in. Lydia was picking things up as the day went along and really got the hang of low water, rocky creek paddling.

The single biggest drop is actually the very last one, right below the bridge at the take out. Matt went first and briefly disappeared before popping up upright and giving the go ahead. I had the same basic ride but manage to keep my nose up enough to just get instantly surfed out the side of the hole. Lydia was dead on target but still subbed out and emerged upside down - but rolled to the cheers of the onlookers above. In fact a super kind older couple watching the action came over to show us the pictures they had taken and offered to email them to us. And after they asked how we planned to get back up to our car at the put in and we showed them the bike they offered to load all of us and our gear into their truck and drive us back up. Now that's the way you end the summer with style.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Summer's over - let the sea kayaking begin!

Out of staters often complain that California doesn't have seasons - not like they do back east or in the midwest. We just have nice weather year round. It's not exactly true but even if it were it is a strange thing to complain about. Our seasons may not be as dramatic but there are some key signs that summer has ended: we had rain in the forecast (only got a sprinkle, but that doesn't happen in the summer); most everything in the Sierras on Dreamflows is in the yellow; and the raft traffic on the South Fork American is only mildly annoying when teaching a class. Personally, my seasons are broken down by activity as much as weather.

Spring and Summer are whitewater seasons - the rivers are flowing, the weather is warm and there are a ton of options. I might get out in my sea kayak for a trip or two, I may do some flatwater paddling on the lake, but primarily I'm in my creek boat. But by Fall most of the rivers are dry so I start to head off for more ocean paddling. The weather on the coast is at its best - light winds, less fog, warmer temps. This is the time to plan big trips or just head down to San Fran for the day.

While I don't have any big expeditions in the works for this season I am looking forward to a couple of great sea kayak trips. First, I'll be heading down to the Channel Islands in a couple of weeks. Just a quick three day trip out and back to a couple islands I've been to many times. But The Channel Islands is where I started my paddling career and it is always special to head out there for some kayak camping. Then next month I will be heading back up to Oregon to teach at the Lumpy Waters Symposium. Last year was my first and it was the funnest trip of the fall. With some more friends headed up there this year it should be amazing. I can't over-emphasize how fantastic this type of symposium is for all those involved: the instructors learn from each other as much as the students learn us and together we have such a great time on the water and off. Then it looks like I will be leading an ACA Coastal Instructor cert course or two this fall/winter and then it will be time for the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium before you know it.

Here's the video from last year's Lumpy Waters to get everyone in the mood for fall ocean paddling:

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Paddling vs. Kayaker

There's a difference between someone who paddles and a kayaker. Someone who paddles rents a boat and goes out on the lake for a couple hours for fun. They buy a boat at Costco to take out when the grandkids visit. They use 'oars' to slowly float down the river. A kayaker is someone who is enthusiastic and dedicated to the sport.
Don't get me wrong - people who paddle are great. I love to see the family taking a canoe out for a day of fun; the vacationers trying out a pedal drive boat for a couple hours; even some kids riding rec boats in through the small surf on a nice sandy beach. But I'm in the business of creating kayakers. When I go paddling that's who I want to paddle with. I want to sit around the campfire and talk paddling with those who want to understand what it means to kayak. Kayakers are a separate group from the general population and we share a connection that you don't get from just going out for a paddle now and then.

So what exactly makes someone a kayaker? That can be hard to define but the other night I was working with some ladies on sea kayak rescues and was struck by the thought that rescue practice is a defining activity. Real kayakers, whether flat water or ocean, learn and practice their rescues. That shows an understanding and commitment to the sport. Without rescue skills you are either confined to benign environments or you are a risk to yourself and others. You don't have to know how to roll, you don't have to be able to do a paddle-float rescue in under 30 seconds. You just have to be aware enough to know that you need to learn some way to get back in your boat and you need to try to get better at doing so.

On the river it's a little different. Whitewater has a convenient rating system. But you don't need to paddle class III (or IV or V) to be a kayaker. And again you don't need to have any specific rescue skill (rolls are good but I don't think they define you). For me, what makes you a kayaker on the river is the ability to lead a rapid. To be out in front and find your own way down, whether an easy class II or challenging class IV. You don't have to lead every rapid - we all follow people at times. But to take the personal responsibility to scout and rapid and find your own line is what kayaking is about. Those who can only follow others down the river are really just out for a paddle.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Hole story

The latest issue of Rapid (click the link for the FREE online version) magazine has an article of mine on how to escape from holes. It's a short, 5 point summary of some methods to get out of a sticky hole. My original article was much longer but it didn't fit the magazine's format. At first the idea of cutting my article down so much seemed a little daunting and hard to take. But after seeing the final product I think the editor was on to something - it comes across well and I think it's just the right amount of information. But that being said, I still want to share the original article in all its unnecessary length and with a couple awesome illustrations by my friend Alex Horangic.

The Hole Story
Tips for getting out of those sticky situations
By Bryant Burkhardt
In whitewater kayaking you’re taught right at the start to avoid holes.  “Just go around them”.  Or if you can’t miss them, “just hit them head on and paddle through.  If they flip you you’ll flush out.”
 And that works for beginners - most of the time.  But eventually you’re going to hit that big monster of a hole that you should have avoided, you won’t have time to square up to it and once it flips you you won’t flush out.  To prepare for this eventuality you need to know some strategies to get yourself out.
Quick review:  a hole is a hydraulic feature where the water on the surface is re-circulating upstream.  It’s the re-circulating surface level water that pushes you and your boat upstream, essentially holding you in the hole.  But underneath the upstream current the deeper water flows downstream – in large holes that downstream flow may be quite a ways below the surface. 
Drawing by Alex Horangic
OK, you’re in a hole
Here’s the situation:  you hit a hole, flip and stick.  What do you do now? The first thing to do when stuck in a hole is to keep your wits about you - and stay in your boat.  Swimming is an option but a safer and generally smarter strategy is to first try to get out of the hole while staying in the boat.  The ability to think clearly and use specific techniques to escape the hole often makes the difference between a short surf and an epic swim.  Begin your exit strategy by tucking tight with your paddle in a set up position for the roll – this will protect your shoulders.  That re-circulating water we talked about earlier can be your friend – it’s circular, meaning that it will actually help roll your kayak back up if you go with the flow of the water.  Don’t just throw out a roll attempt – work slowly and feel the direction the water wants to roll you and go with it using a small paddle motion and hip flick.  This motion should bring you up sideways in the hole leading to a side surf.  To stay upright in this side surf make sure you lean downstream as much as possible to keep the water that is pouring into the hole from catching you and flipping you again (and again and again – something referred to as window-shading).

Surf it sideways
From the side surf you can make your first and safest attempt at getting out by paddling or ‘surfing’ your kayak to the side of the hole and escaping.  Holes are generally weakest on the side so if you can make your way over there you might just wash out.  Use your brace (high or low depending on what you’re most comfortable with and what the environment is like) to move yourself forward or backward to get to the side.  Make sure to try both sides – if you can’t get out forwards don’t forget to try going backwards.  If you can get yourself to the side of the hole don’t be afraid to reach for the water flowing by with your paddle – it will help to pull you out.  Side surfing takes some practice and the best place for that is the ocean surf.  If you don’t live near an ocean find a small hole that you know will release you and practice with that.  

Surf it straight up
If the side surf isn’t working – you can’t make it to the side or once there you can’t break out - then you have to be prepared to surf the hole straight up.  Point your nose upstream into the hole and drive forward.  This will take you into the current of water that pours into the hole and hopefully that water will drive you and your boat down deep and take you under the hole with the downstream current.  Yes, this action will likely flip you - so get a big breath and hold it before you dive in.

Rodeo away
If you’ve tried to surf you way into the heart of the hole and it didn’t spit you out then you are most likely going to begin a rodeo session whether you like it or not.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Try to ‘throw down’: get the ends of your boat into the current as much as you can, potentially getting your boat into a vertical position.  Often a vertical boat (especially a creek boat) will be sticking down into the water far enough to catch that downstream current.  Many a boater has done a tail stand going through a hole and washed out the bottom still vertical.  By rodeoing the hole the same motion can work to get you out after you’ve gotten stuck.

Go deep
This approach is generally a last resort since it puts your shoulders under strain.  Since we know that the water underneath the hole is going downstream we can go down there and grab it.  The first step is to flip upside down.  Again, take that big breath before if you can.  Once upside down start in a safe tucked position and slowly reach a paddle blade over your head (this means reaching towards the bottom of the river).  Try to keep your elbows in as close to your body as possible but for really big holes you may have to extend your arms quite a ways.  Once the downstream water grabs your blade you need to hang on and let it pull you and your boat downstream and out of the hole.
Drawing by Alex Horangic

Getting wet
Sometimes you just can’t reach that downstream water while you are in the boat.  That boat, after all, is just a huge plastic balloon full of air that floats on the surface.  So one final trick is to let the air out – go ahead of pull your skirt.  The boat will flood and sink below the surface – if you manage to stay in the boat you can catch the downstream current and ride it out.  Most boats have enough flotation to bring you back up to the surface once past the hole and you will then have the fun task of paddling a kayak full of water to the shore.  Not easy or graceful but it helps keep you with your gear.  Another advantage to this technique is that it is also the first step in the final option:

During all these techniques you will be flipping and spinning and underwater at times.  While it is generally good to stay in your boat sometimes it makes sense to wet exit while you still have some air in your lungs.  The exact timing of when you decide to swim is a judgment call but the more you can mentally focus and remain calm the better your decisions will be.  If you do exit your boat and find yourself still in the hole you will need to swim towards the downstream current once again.  Most of the same techniques you tried in your boat can be tried without a boat.  As you get pushed back upstream into the falling water tuck yourself into a ball and go as deep as you can and let that water carry you under and out the hole.

With all these techniques you will most likely come out of the hole upside down.  Don’t forget to roll up.  I’ve seen many folks fight a hole and make it out but then pull their skirt because they weren’t aware they had escaped.  It all comes back to keeping your wits about you.  One of the best ways to work on your mental control is to do some playboating – working on your physical control.  Practice in friendly situations so you will be prepared for the less friendly ones.  Remember:  knowing is half the battle.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Back in the saddle

I officially retired from playing kayak polo after the world championships back in '06. Since then I have played occasionally - random tournaments or visits back down to LA where my old club still plays. But those occasions have been getting less frequent and I honestly don't remember the last time I played hard polo with a group of experienced players. But yesterday the guys in the San Francisco club were having a one-day training camp to get ready for Nationals next month. They needed some extra bodies to scrimmage against and they asked me to drive down for the day to play with them. While not my club, there is no other club that I have spent more time with in the polo world - from playing against them for years in local comps or playing with most of them on the national team. So I rinsed the cobwebs out of my boat, patched up one of my broken paddles and headed out for a long day of polo in the sun.

The good news is that I can still play. I wasn't as sharp as I used to be - my aim was a little off, my reactions a little slow - but I felt like I kept up with the guys just fine. The not so good news is that fitness is a very specific thing. I've mostly been paddling rivers lately, with the one exception being my Lost Coast trip, and I've been biking and working out. So I feel quite strong. But polo is a different beast - it involves lots of quick sprints, constant maneuvering and fighting hard for position. During the warm up I hurt my elbow blocking a shot on goal - just a super stiff paddle transferring the shock of impact to my joint. Before long my forearms were pumped from gripping the paddle so hard (a light, easy grip doesn't work in this sport). By the end of the day most of my body was sore and I barely stayed awake for the lat night drive home.

But the day was really fun. I do miss the camaraderie of playing on a team. With the SF guys it's like an old family out there - everyone knows each other a little too well; there's lots of jokes at each others' expense and there's some bickering and complaining, but mostly we just get on with it. Kayaking is largely an indiviualistic sport even if you don't normally do it alone. But when you're part of a team it completely changes the dynamic of you and your boat. It's something more paddlers should experience.

No pictures or video from the day - we didn't have any extra bodies to shoot it. But here's a clip the Nationals a couple years back for those who don't know what the heck I'm talking about:

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Mind over matters

A couple of days ago I got the news that a paddler I know died on Upper Cherry Creek. His name was Allen Satcher and I only got to paddle with him a few times. Like most paddlers he was very open and friendly on the river; he also seemed to be a very thoughtful person who willfully chose to be a positive force beyond the paddling world. He kept inviting me to go paddling even though my work schedule and personal lack of motivation to paddle hard stuff made me turn him down. He was out there paddling the rivers that I should have been paddling this season, with Upper Cherry being the number one run on my list for the past several years. I'm confident that if I had expressed interest in running it this year Allen would have been the first to invite me along. But mentally and physically I was not ready for the trip and didn't even try to go.

Paddling class V whitewater is a tricky thing and many folks have written about why we do it and how we accept the risk and what it means for us. Personally I don't have any deep thoughts or profound wisdom at the moment, maybe that will come later. I just see the pain left behind by the early loss of a great person. I've been taking a break from paddling class V since my own beat down earlier this summer. That break will definitely continue until my head is in a space where I really want to get back out there. I'm sure that time will come but until then I will paddle easier waters, spend time with my friends and focus on life off the water. Focus on the things that truly matter to me.

Here is a short clip of Allen (green boat/helmet) from our run down Slab Creek earlier this summer. He will be missed.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Lost Coast - off the couch

Sometimes you plan out your big trips:  research the charts, search out local knowledge, follow the weather patterns, open the schedule to go when conditions permit, train your body and mind to be ready to handle the worst. And sometimes you pick a date, jump up off the couch and just go. And get lucky.

Four of us CCK instructors (Sean, Matt, Anders and myself) picked a date to paddle the Lost Coast and came up with a general plan. Sean instigated the trip and came up with the starting and finishing points (and the necessary back-country permit); Anders did the chart work and sent out emails to get any advice we could. I myself just looked over the route on Google Earth but didn't do much to physically prepare - I paid for that with some tendonitis issues but nothing terrible. The plan was to put in outside Ferndale, paddle 75 miles down a remote and exposed coastline, and get out back at Highway 1 just north of Ft. Bragg. We all took plastic boats ready to play in the rocks as time allowed. We knew we had some protected landing options but an exposed launch to start and possibly again at the end. We all had a four day window between wives and work to squeeze it in without running into major problems in our real lives. It seemed do-able but certainly not a given.

But it all turned out well. Small swells on the first day allowed an easy start. The winds were generally light or at our back. We found some rocks to play in and generally we had long days of paddling (8 hours/day) with sunny skies. We had some nice campsites, generally shared with hikers or surfers, some lonely lunch spots with stunning scenery, and lots of good times with good friends. The last day had some of the best caves and tunnels to play in, which kept us busy in the morning. The afternoon found strong headwinds and growing swells which led to a couple guys getting out a little earlier while the other two of us continued on to paddle down to the truck and then retrieve the others on our way back north to get my vehicle from the put in. The swells had grown but our takeout site, a random alternate from where we had originally planned, turned out to have more protection than expected and the landings went smooth.

All in all it was a great trip with very minor issues (a flooded hatch, a lost spare paddle, missing sunglasses). It is a beautiful stretch of coast that transitions from big off shore rocks (like Trinidad) to a maze of tunnels and slots (like Mendocino). Sean's much more complete writeup is HERE. Anders is working on putting together the video that we all shot so hopefully that will have some good stuff - but it may take a while. A quick edit of my video is below. And here's a link to the rest of my pictures from the trip.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Check-in/OK message from spotbryant SPOT Personal Tracker

GPS location Date/Time:07/27/2011 16:02:53 PDT

Message:This is an automatic post from my SPOT tracker. All is well and here is my position:

Click the link below to see where I am located.

If the above link does not work, try this link:


You have received this message because spotbryant has added you to their SPOT contact list.

Every day is an Adventure. Share Yours.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Check-in/OK message from spotbryant SPOT Personal Tracker

GPS location Date/Time:07/26/2011 17:49:35 PDT

Message:This is an automatic post from my SPOT tracker. All is well and here is my position:

Click the link below to see where I am located.

If the above link does not work, try this link:


You have received this message because spotbryant has added you to their SPOT contact list.

Every day is an Adventure. Share Yours.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Check-in/OK message from spotbryant SPOT Personal Tracker

GPS location Date/Time:07/25/2011 17:37:50 PDT

Message:This is an automatic post from my SPOT tracker. All is well and here is my position:

Click the link below to see where I am located.

If the above link does not work, try this link:


You have received this message because spotbryant has added you to their SPOT contact list.

Every day is an Adventure. Share Yours.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Check-in/OK message from spotbryant SPOT Personal Tracker

GPS location Date/Time:07/24/2011 18:47:36 PDT

Message:This is an automatic post from my SPOT tracker. All is well and here is my position:

Click the link below to see where I am located.

If the above link does not work, try this link:


You have received this message because spotbryant has added you to their SPOT contact list.

Every day is an Adventure. Share Yours.

Friday, July 22, 2011


It's kind of interesting how folks get ready for a trip. Is it a big trip or little trip? New area or familiar ground? Have you been paddling a lot or not at all? Using your regular gear or need something new? Are you too busy to prep or do you have some free time? How do you like to eat/pack on trips in general? The same trip can lead to lots of different preparation strategies.

In a couple days I'm headed to the Lost Coast - a stretch of northern California where the land is too rugged for the Pacific Coast Highway to actually follow the coast. It's a short but possibly intense trip - 75 miles of rugged, exposed coastline that none of us have done before. I'm excited for the trip but I've been busy at work, recovering from a sore shoulder and a couple rough whitewater trips and in general have other things on my mind. So my preparations have been rather minimal - a little virtual scouting on Google Earth, rustling up camping food from the kitchen cupboard, grabbing my standard gear. I'm sure I'll be fine, but hardly my normal thorough preparation.

View Lost Coast in a larger map

Luckily some of the other folks are doing the heavy lifting on this one - figuring out put in and take out locations, getting permits, beta from those who know and making sure the group has the requisite camping/eating/repair/safety equipment. And to a large extent they will enjoy the trip more because of this prep - which itself is fun to do for many of us. But I'm looking forward to getting out there and leaving everything else behind - the best part of a paddling trip is that once you've launched the preparation is over and you just do with what you've got.

I'll be using my SPOT to post our nightly location. Anders has the full tracking feature on his SPOT so you can follow our progress real time HERE.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Second walk off in a week

For the second time in less than a week I ended up walking off a whitewater run. The first was the Rubicon epic detailed in my last post. This time it was not epic. In fact it was quite mundane and rather easy.

After the trials of the Rubicon mission I had a weekend free for boating but no motivation to do anything strenuous. So I met up with a couple friends from Southern California at the N Yuba. The plan was to do Pauley and Lavezzola creeks and some section of the N Yuba itself. All class IV runs that I've done before and knew should be relaxing and fun.

The first day two of us did Lavezzola while the third member was still on the road. The flows were good and a little higher than the last time I did it. We took our time and had a nice little run. We had planned to do Pauley afterward - the runs are only 4 miles each - but we were feeling lazy and just went for a little hike instead. Our third arrived for burgers and beers in Downieville and we planned to hit the Sierra City run on the N Yuba the next day.

We slept in since we wanted to wait for the flows to drop in a little from the diurnal high overnight. We drove up the river and left vehicles at the bottom and middle of the run so we had takeout options. We put on and the action on the run begins immediately. While Sierra City is not as hard as the Rubicon it actually has the same gradient - there are really no pools at all for the first five miles. After the first big rapid of punching a couple holes I pulled into an eddy and noticed my shoulder was sore. I had hurt it a month ago but thought it was all healed up. We pressed on and the more I paddled the more it hurt. So when we saw the road dip down close to the river I just climbed out and called it a day. Instead of hiking up 2,000 vertical ft. I only had to go up 50 ft. Then an easy two mile jaunt back to my truck. Not a bad hike out at all.

But I think I need to take the point and rest myself up for a little bit. Just some teaching and easy paddling for a while. At least until my mini expedition on the coast in three weeks...

I had camera problems so no pics or vid. But here's an old vid of Lavezzola:

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Rubicon = Epic

The Rubicon always seemed like a legendary river to me. Just the name itself summons up a sense of mystery and adventure. Kind of like Big Foot - everyone's heard about it but descriptions are vague and no one has seen it in person. But even after hearing stories about this great river whose waters have been so dammed and diverted that it runs maybe once a decade, I still didn't really know where it was or what it was like. But the takeout is only about 50 miles from my house. And with our great snowpack in California it's finally got water in it - lots of water. The legend started becoming a reality.

A little background on The Rubicon. It is a tributary of the Middle Fork of the American River. It lies between Tahoe and Sacramento. It spill out of Hell Hole Reservoir but does so rarely - the water is usually diverted for power generation. In fact, it's more famous for the jeep trail that crosses its dry river bed than the whitewater kayaking that the flowing river can offer. There is an upper and a lower run. The upper is 8 miles and a 'day' run, though there is little beta to be found on it. The famous run is the lower; it's 20 miles of continuous rapids normally done in two days. It's rated class V but some say it's an easy V and some say otherwise. It's hard to get precise information but the general consensus is that it is one of the best rivers in California and you should never miss an opportunity to get on it. The trick is having water and knowing how much water is there.

But thanks to Hilde's daily updates on boof.com we had flow reports. Word also came back that a group went in early with flows of 2000 cfs and found it too high and walked out after a couple scary miles. Without regular water to run through the river bed the willows have grown thick in the shallows and there are few eddies and even when you can find a place to stop you can't see anything.So the flows kept rising and I looked at my calendar and figured I would have time to research it and decide if I wanted to do it before the flows came into runnable levels. But then the flow dropped in half unexpectedly and it looked like there might be just one chance to do it - the flow was around 1,000 cfs which was the recommended optimal. I told work I wouldn't be coming in and emailed some folks to find out who wanted to tackle the myth.

After the normal flurry of texts and random phone calls we ended up with a crew of seven but a late rallying time to accommodate busy schedules and long drives. We set shuttle with my truck at the bottom (we were only expecting five people at the time) and after rounding everyone up and getting to the put in it was 4 o'clock by the time we started paddling. But OH! what paddling it was. One rapid right after another, class IV/V, no eddies to stop in, no time for scouting, just charge it an go. We took our time as much as possible and relied upon a couple of brave probes to find the way. I took a swim early on after following the probes around a blind corner and into a terminal pocket hole. After a wild rodeo ride the swim was short and unremarkable and we continued on our way. But darkness was coming and we found a great sandy beach by a cliff wall to set up the perfect evening of camping along the river. We went to sleep well satisfied but a little leery of the long day we had ahead if we were to escape the gorge by the following evening as planned.

Day two started fine with the water a little higher just due to the diurnal cycle. It was still rapid stacked upon rapid with some bigger ones thrown in for most of our group to portage. We moved at a deliberate rate - as fast as seemed prudent but not as fast as we needed. We had a couple more swims - nothing too serious but always a time killer. We had a couple of hard portages that involved climbing and ropes. Dinner time came and went as we pressed on. With no markers we didn't really know how far we had left - we only knew we hadn't crossed Pilot Creek which was about five miles from the takeout. The skies got darker, the rain started falling and several in our group were losing energy and out of fun tickets. After another swim and a check of the time we knew we were not going to escape that night so we sought out the best option for camping in the rain without any tents - we found a cave.

The cave itself was a morale saver. The bonfire in the cave was a life saver. We weren't quite dry and warm but we were close enough to make it work. Everyone had brought some extra food and a communal dinner of beans and fig newtons and chicken Alfredo kept us nourished. We planned and early start and figured we could still make it out in time to salvage some of the following day. But the unexpected third day on the river was to be the worst.

After a morning with little breakfast and no coffee we were paddling by 7:30. The river seemed big and pushy and a little more brown than blue - but we didn't think too much about it, we were focused on getting out. But the river was even more continuous now. Not as many big rapids but each one went on for hundreds of yards. Most of us were just as tired starting this day as we had been ending the last. I was flipping in places that shouldn't have bothered me and my roll was getting weaker each time. Eventually it failed in the middle of one of the endless rapids and I had a quarter mile swim that allowed me to appreciate how flush drownings really work. My team was there to help me but with sheer cliff walls and no eddies there wasn't much they could do. But as we passed one wall I saw a handhold and clung to it with all my might. I even found an under water step to get myself out of the water and time to breathe some solid air again. But to be reunited with my boat I had to climb the thirty foot cliff and traverse downstream a couple hundred yards. Only to get there in time to hear the decision on the rapid below - time to portage and break out the ropes.

The fun part of the paddling was clearly over and we were into survival mode. We had another swim and several close calls. We had passed Pilot creek early on and knew the takeout was almost within sight. We saw Long Canyon coming in from the right and one of our members had done that trip earlier in the spring and had paddled the Rubicon out from there at much lower flows. But he did remember a big rapid right after Long and we stopped to scout at the first major horizon line. Sure enough, there was a big hole at the bottom. Big. Hole. River wide. While our probes had bombed into and through it the rest of us started climbing up and around. From our higher vantage point it was clear the river was now flooding - our conservative estimate was 3,000 cfs (we later learned it peaked at 5,500 that day). It was time to get off the ride.

Conveniently we also found a jeep trail as we were were scouting. One that led from right where we were up and out of the canyon. So the decision was made to leave the boats for another day and hike out to the truck. We knew it was only a couple miles down the river but we also knew the road would be a much further and steeper route. We climbed up and up and after a couple hours of hiking hit the main road. While a couple of us took a well earned nap two brave volunteers started walking back down into the canyon towards the take out. This is where the story takes a turn back towards the happy.

A kindly stranger picked them up after ten minutes and drove them to the takeout. There they found the two members of the party that kept paddling - not only alive a well but returned from town with cold beer and hot chicken. They all piled in and found us nappers along the road. Since we had some daylight left and a four wheel drive we drove down the jeep trail to retrieve our boats - turns out it's five miles and 2000 feet of elevation. We loaded seven boats and bodies, picked up the vehicles left at put in, made it to a mexican restaurant on the way home just before it closed, and I was in bed sleeping just after midnight.

So the river that was a legend is now a river that will be legendary. We'll be telling stories about the night in the cave for years to come. About the time Alex told me ever so politely that I couldn't be in that eddy with her as we got spun around like rubber duckies in a toilet. Or when Taylor calmly cartwheeled his loaded creek boat to escape the unsightly death hole. How Wolf was always there with a rope for a swimmer or climber. Scott always calm with advice, encouragement or perfect lines to follow. Thomas giving the group pep talks and then charging it just like he told us to do it. And Matt always cheerful and positive even while scared and exhausted like the rest of us. It's the ultimate brilliance of whitewater kayaking that brings out the best feelings in us while buried in some of the worst circumstances.  It's an experience that sounds awful but will long be remembered by those that were there as the trip of a lifetime.That's what makes an epic.

Not a lot of river pictures since we were trying to move fast - but definitely some good lifestyle shots. And the video suffered from the same time constraints but it still shares a taste of the action:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Check-in/OK message from spotbryant SPOT Personal Tracker

GPS location Date/Time:06/29/2011 15:52:45 PDT

Message:This is an automatic post from my SPOT tracker. All is well and here is my position:

Click the link below to see where I am located.

If the above link does not work, try this link:


You have received this message because spotbryant has added you to their SPOT contact list.

Every day is an Adventure. Share Yours.

Check-in/OK message from spotbryant SPOT Personal Tracker

GPS location Date/Time:06/29/2011 12:22:16 PDT

Message:This is an automatic post from my SPOT tracker. All is well and here is my position:

Click the link below to see where I am located.

If the above link does not work, try this link:


You have received this message because spotbryant has added you to their SPOT contact list.

Every day is an Adventure. Share Yours.