Thursday, October 25, 2012

My other life

I discovered kayaking almost fifteen years ago. It was about twelve years ago that I decided to try to make kayaking into my career. I became an instructor. I ran a kayak program (or two). I got a real job to pay off my debt. I worked retail. I kept teaching and working 'in the industry'. While I have enjoyed the sport immensely, it hasn't given me all I want on the job front. So I'm moving on - sort of.

Those who know me know I quit my full time job at California Canoe & Kayak several months ago. I continue to teach kayaking and I have no plans to ever stop doing that. But I've decided to take a year off from full time work of any kind to write. Not kayak stuff. Mainstream stuff. I've finished several novellas, one novel, a complete draft of a second and am about to write a third in the month of November (it's National Novel Writing Month). I have a lot more planned. Hopefully I can turn this passion into a career the way I did with paddling.

So if you enjoy this blog, if you find my words are appealing, then maybe you'd like to check out my other self. I write under a pen name (Blair B. Burke) and I have a website and a blog. I also have self-published a series of novellas that are available as eBooks - the first in the series is free and available at Smashwords. Most of my stuff is fantasy/scifi but some of it is just contemporary normalness.

If you're only here for kayaking, that's fine too. I'll still be paddling; I'll still be posting. I've actually been enjoying kayaking more than ever. It seems like a lot of new people have been stopping by here lately and it's nice to know that people enjoying reading this stuff. Writing is fun, but when others enjoy it, it becomes rewarding. That's what a career should be.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Lumpy Waters

Just back from the Lumpy Waters Symposium put on by Alder Creek up in Oregon. Each year it's the highlight of my fall and each year it keeps getting better.

In the past we've lucked out with nice weather, but this year the forecast was miserable. It wasn't as bad as expected, but that just meant not as much rain or wind. We did see snow on the ground one morning. In spite of that, everything seemed to go smoothly, changing venues and switching up classes to make everything work. The participants also seemed to take it in stride, charging into challenging surf or doing some rock gardening inside of the harbor. Everyone just wanted to learn and have a good time and that's what we did.

photo by Christine Tabor-Burris
As always, my class assignment got changed at the last minute, but this time I was more than happy about it. I got to teach a class with Leon Somme of Body Boat Blade. I've been seeing him at these things for years but we've never had the chance to teach together. Not only is Leon a great instructor, but I knew our personalities would just work well as a team. The students weren't the only ones disappointed that we had to end class to get back in time for dinner.

These events are always a great chance to meet up with old friends, both instructors and students. It was great to see Matt and Nick who were up at Okisollo with Sean and I, it was great to see Kim who's recovering from a shoulder dislocation but out paddling again, Bob, Rob and Alex working the event, Paul running around trying to organize of all us, Dave and Suzi overseeing it all (well, Suzi handling the details and Dave doing whatever she says). It's really like a family reunion but with lots of fun paddling.

Of course, the funnest paddling is saved for the day after the event. That's when a dozen of the coaches hang around for some serious play. We headed out to Three Arch Rocks off Oceanside yet again. This year the swell was smaller than last (pictures here), but larger than the first. It was a little too big to get into everything (I watched a fifteen foot face slide inches past my face as I was testing the rocks), but not large enough to create the massive surf we caught last year. It was still fun playing in the arches, bouncing off each other, and watching some acrobatic rides into the beach. Mostly it was just fun to be with such good people.

With the busy schedule, the rain and wind, a poorly functioning GoPro unit, and no waterproof case for my Nex-5, I didn't get a lot of pictures or video. But here's a little something from our play day:

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


I'm a professional kayak instructor. That means I get paid to teach people how to kayak. I like to teach. I also like getting paid. It allows me to do things like eat and pay rent. So it seems like a good combination, right? But there's a problem.

You see, for me, kayaking is about exploration. It's about self sufficiency. It's about taking your skills and putting them to use. Testing yourself. Learning about yourself and doing what you want to do. Being the one in control. It can be greatly social or it can be quite isolated. It's not about following.

At the beginning, it helps greatly to have someone show you the basics. You could figure things out on your own, but it's much faster, safer, and better to learn from someone who knows what they're doing. Once you have those basic tools, I think the joy in the sport comes from using them (the most important of which is judgment). Classes should be used to learn specific things that will allow you to go do something new. They're not a substitute for practice and reflection, they don't replace critical thinking and studying. Ultimately, you have to be able to do it on your own.

Here's where the conflict comes in. In order to keep getting paid to teach kayaking, it's in my best interest to get students to keep taking classes. Not just me, this is true for all instructors and instructional programs. On the books, we love perpetual students. The ones who take every course on the schedule and come back for more, maybe set up some private lessons, maybe ask for classes on specific things. They keep pumping money into the system.

It's not that I don' like money. And I understand that some people feel more comfortable learning from watching others than exploring on their own. But I just can't get myself to teach to that mentality. Maybe if you have the money to spend it's no big deal, but most people don't. And it isn't necessary. Kayaking, like most things in life, is built upon fundamental principles applied to various situations. Learn the principles and then apply them in ever more challenging environments. If you know how to do rescues on flat water (properly), then you know how to do rescues in rough water - you just need to practice. If you can paddle class III well, you can paddle class V - once you have the experience.

I mostly teach beginners. I think that's where the best instruction is needed. I definitely have the skills and credentials to teach advanced courses (I'm doing that at the Lumpy Waters Symposium this weekend). Those classes are fun, and they can definitely be worthwhile, but I always worry the students are expecting that the class will make them a better paddler. It won't. Paddling makes you a better paddler. Classes just teach you what you need to do when you go paddling.

Maybe it's just me. I certainly have lots of friends who teach advanced stuff and work with the same students repeatedly. I know quite a few paddlers who have done many different classes and seem to enjoy the experience. Maybe I'm just shooting myself in the foot by not getting my students to depend upon me. Maybe I'm old and cranky and set in my ways. But if you end up in my class, I will do everything I can to make sure you don't need to take another one. I do love seeing my students again, but hopefully it's when I run into them out paddling on their own.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Okisollo, the fun tidal wave

The Inside Passage between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland is filled with many island and narrow channels between them. When the tide floods in, these constrictions can create fast currents. Fast currents can create standing waves. Waves can be surfed.

View Quadra Island in a larger map

Discovery Island Lodge
The Okisollo Channel is on the north and east side of Quadra Island. The island can be reached by a ten minute ferry ride from the town of Campbell River on Vancouver Island. Once on the island it's a thirty minute drive to the end of Surge Narrows Road. This will lead you to both a public dock (with a ridiculously steep final 50 feet), or to the Discovery Island Lodge. The Lodge is a kayer's hostel right on the water, with plenty of dock space for visiting kayaks and delightful accommodations for your time of the water. It's the perfect place for a base of operations.

While Surge Narrows has plenty of fun action in its own right, the larger, cleaner wave at Okisollo is what really gets people's attention. So here are some more details for those looking to catch the wave.

The Okisollo wave forms just off Cooper Pt. It's about a six mile paddle north from Discovery Lodge. Leave two hours before slack and catch a little of the ebb going through Surge. This will put you at Cooper Pt. around slack (start earlier and you'll get a bigger push but have longer to wait).

Sean and Nick sharing the front wave
The wave forms on flood currents above 7 knots. Use 'Hole in the Wall' on the current charts as your guide. For sea kayaks, currents between 7 and 9 knots are the best - you can surf the wave the entire cycle. Above 9 knots the wave is steep and surging and better for whitewater boats. At those faster speeds you'll still be able to use a sea kayak as the flood diminishes - but it will be a much shorter window.

Within half and hour of flood starting you will see the waves forming. At first it's just a bunch of turbulence, but it soon becomes clear where the front wave is. That's the wave that you'll be surfing. It starts out fairly shallow and will get bigger and deeper as the cycle progresses. We had max currents around 8.5 knots and that gave us a three to four hour window of surfable wave.

Waiting for the wave
There is a nice waiting eddy and rocky landing to get out and watch. The eddy has rocks below that make accessing it once the flood gets going more difficult. Early in the cycle you can paddle up with proper timing and hard work. Later on you have to get out on the back side of the rocks (it's perfectly calm) and portage over the rocks for about ten feet. Not hard, but kind of annoying. As the tide fills in the portage becomes shorter and easier, almost covering the rocks completely.

The wave itself is steepest on surfer's right. The middle is where it gets less stable and where boils or surges could flush you off. It's also where the wave starts collapsing when it gets big. As you surf you will be down in a pit - head below the horizon in front of you. It makes it hard to see what's coming and we saw a number of large logs floating through - having a lookout on shore or in the eddy is not a bad idea.

You can just sit on the wave all day long. People where doing paddle twirls, pulling out cameras for pictures, and just generally resting. But the real fun is cutting back and forth - a good twenty feet of width to play on. The wave is very forgiving and once you find the rhythm it's quite relaxing. It's what's behind that intimidates.

Nick on the second wave as it collapses
The second wave is actually surfable at lower speeds but it's irregular, and it just gets worse as thing speed up. If you flush off the first wave try to surf the second to one side or the other. If you surf to the outside you'll be in clear water but have a longer paddle back to the eddy. If you surf to the middle it's not too bad but expect some crashing waves. As you approach the eddy line be aware of randomly forming whirlpools. Nothing crazy, but enough to flip a boat and suck a swimmer down for a few seconds. But there is plenty of space after the turbulence to pick up the pieces if necessary.

Finally, you may want to start your paddle back before the wave is completely gone. If you wait too long, you will hurt Surge Narrows at ebb and have to fight your way upstream to get home. You can do it, but it won't be fun after paddling twelve miles and playing for three hours on a beautiful wave. The other option is to just camp at Okisollo and save yourself the distance for tomorrow's session.

Quadra Island tidal racing

Just back from five days of paddling in BC. Six of us spent the time hanging out at the Discovery Islands Lodge on the east side of Quadra Island. We spent our days playing in the tidal races nearby and the evenings relaxing in the sauna on the dock. It was a nice change to do a trip based out of a beautiful B&B instead of camping and making miles each day. Incredibly fun to play on tidal currents over 8 knots - great surfing and plenty of whirlpool action.

Quadra Island - Okisollo Channel
 The trip started with a ten hour drive to Portland for three of us Californians to meet up with the rest of the crew. After a night sleeping on a sailboat, the six of us (in two vehicles now) headed across the border, caught the ferry to Vancouver Island, and continued northward. The third day found us in Campbell River and a short ferry hop onto Quadra Island brought us to our destination. We set up base camp at the lodge and set out to paddle while the flood tide was still flooding.

The area is part of the inside passage, a protected waterway formed by hundreds of islands stretching along the BC coast up to Alaska. It provides protection from the weather and the swells of the open ocean. But it also creates restrictions that lead to fast currents during tidal exchanges. You can avoid the currents if you want, but we came specifically to play in them.

Our first day was spent at Surge Narrows, a stone's throw from the lodge. The flood was just over 8 knots - that's a very fast river - and with several small islands and rocks it created overflows, standing waves, solid eddy lines, and some impressive whirlpools. It was a fun playground with some challenging features, even though the size of the waves were generally what you'd find on a smaller river - around two feet in height. Some could be surfed in sea kayaks but mostly it was just a fun place to feel current, ferry and attain, and play on a giant 'river' in a long boat.

The second day we got an earlier start and paddled up the Channel several miles during the ebb. It pushed us north through Surge Narrows (there's fast water but not much action during an ebb). We paddled up to Cooper Pt. where we arrived at slack to see a point of land that wasn't anything special. We kept looking around to see something interesting and as soon as the current started flooding we found it. A little outcropping of rock points into the channel and soon small waves started forming. As the current kept increasing (it topped out at 8.4 kts that day) the waves got larger and more organized. It wasn't long before a solid three foot green wave appeared at the top of the rapid and we started surfing. This was the Okisollo Wave.

As the current increased the 'pit' of the wave got deeper and deeper. The wave stayed green (it starts foaming around 9 kts) and we were able to ride it an hour and a half on either side of the max. That's three hours of non stop surfing. I'll be writing up a separate description of the wave for full details, but suffice it to say that it was standing wave nirvana for sea kayakers. (the Okisollo post is HERE) We could fit up to three people on the wave at once. Rides could easily last ten minutes until the waiting line got impatient and the surfer would step off. I've never been to Skookumchuk, but it's hard to imagine anything better than this for long boats.

After the long surf session we had a return paddle of six miles that exhausted us. We weren't sure of repeating the long day, but we were saved by Albert who works at the lodge. The next day he joined us for a session and took us up there in the powerboat. Not having to save any energy we surfed all the harder.

Looking for a little variety, we went back to Surge the following day, again finding hours of surfing/playing goodness. While the waves were smaller, their speed wasn't any slower. And with more features it meant less waiting and another full day left us tired but happy.

For our final day on the water, we were thinking of doing a little cruising to change things up and see some more scenery. But we couldn't resist one last chance to take advantage of the current and play at Okisollo. We paddled up in time for some play on the increasing flood before heading out at max flood to catch a ride through Hole in the Wall and around Maurelle Island. Hole in the wall is known as a dangerous corridor, with giant whirlpools that have been known to take down fishing trawlers. Our current wasn't that high but we still entered with caution and in full combat mode. We carefully picked out route, avoiding or fighting through the small whirlpools that popped up randomly. Luckily our sharp-eyed leaders spotted the one giant whirlpool the size of a football field and we passed safely to the side. After that it was just a gorgeous paddle through the beautiful islands of British Columbia.

Satiated with our paddling, we left before first light the next morning and drove straight back to Cali - twenty-three hours of road time. It's nice to be back to the heat and sun but I will definitely miss the stunning waters of the inside passage. And the perfect wave.

More pictures are on my Picasa Page. Here's the video:

Monday, October 1, 2012

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