Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Inspirational Words from Brian Shulz

Brian Shulz
Sometimes I have things to say, and sometimes they've already been said by better people in better ways. Brian Shulz of Cape Falcon Kayaks is a friend of mine who designs and builds wonderful skin-on-frame kayaks. He also writes beautifully about kayaking, adventures, organic farming, and life in general. He's faced some serious medical adversity in the past couple of years. His words and attitude really inspire me, and I would just like to encourage anyone who gets any pleasure out of reading my blog to check out his latest post. It's kind of heavy - his medical situation is not good - but it's also a great testament to his spirit and something that I think most paddlers can relate to. We all should be so lucky to live lives as full as his.

Do yourself a favor and read a little of his fine writing. Enjoy his beautiful pictures. Look around and appreciate his world for a moment. Maybe even leave him a comment - you don't have to know someone to thank them for sharing something beautiful with the world. Brian has shared a lot over the years - he's opened his home to me on more than one occasion, and he puts his whole heart into everything he does. There are few people who I look up to more. A simple thank you would brighten his day and that's definitely worth your time. Thank you for your time.

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