Thursday, June 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Teaching on the River

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Kayaking the Mendocino Headlands

I'm about to run off for a few weeks of teaching on the river, but before I had to get in a little coastal paddling before leaving our beautiful home. The weather had been beautiful on shore, with temps in the seventies and plenty of sunshine, but high winds and 10' @ 10 sec swells haven't made for the best paddling. With plans to launch at the always protected Van Damme, we stopped to look at Big River and decided conditions were fine for a trip out the river and around the Mendocino Headlands.

Gearing up in drysuits and helmets, we got plenty of strange looks from the folks in shorts and tee shirts riding their sit-on-tops or rented outrigger canoes up river. Be we rode the ebb, passed under the Highway One bridge, and dodged the sandbar at the mouth to punch through small surf and be free on the ocean.

The tunnels start immediately on the rocks fifty yards offshore and continue all the way around the headland. One right below the main street in the village of Mendocino has a collapsed ceiling, creating a skylight as you pass through the tunnel. Tourists gathered around the wooden railing and watch with awe as we paddled through.

Around the headland it took a little timing and care to sneak in behind the reef and find the protection of the outer islands. Tunnels appeared at every turn, allowing us to pass through point after point, until we reached the north side where the waves had direct access and made things bumpy. We retreated to a nice beach, needing to strip off the drysuits for a moment to cool down - it was hot out of the wind!

After the brief break we suited up and headed back around, more tourists watching from above, undoubtedly jealous of the beaches and arches you can only enjoy by kayak. More tunnels offered more options, a parallel but different route to once again return to the mouth of the river. The current still ebbed and the sandbar had grown on the falling tide, standing the waves up steeply. I rushed in and caught a ride that ended dangerously close to a pirouette on the sand, but turned at the last moment to merely windowshade on the wave and continue on my merry way. A great way to remember the coast as the warm temperatures and cold water of the Sierra foothills await.

More tunnel pictures here.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The River Mild - Kayaking the Albion River

The Mendocino coast is known as a world class kayaking destination, with it's many sea caves, great surf breaks, unbeatable rock gardens, and dramatic vistas. I love all that, but what I think makes this area a true kayaker's mecca is the softer side - the rivers. Because when things are big and nasty, or you just want a mellow day, you can cruise up on of several rivers for beautiful scenery and plentiful wildlife.

The Albion River reaches the sea at the eponymous little village of Albion, several miles south of Mendocino proper. Highway One crosses high above the river, overlooking a rocky, twisting channel that is the entrance to the harbor. Looking west, one sees all the rugged beauty that makes the coast famous. But the other direction possesses something special of its own.

On the north side of the bridge is a road that drives down to the river, with two separate campgrounds that both offer kayak launching (one is closer to the ocean, one further away, so it just depends on which way you want to paddle). Wherever you start, putting in and heading upriver quickly takes you around a few bends and far from the town and civilization, winding your way through steep walls of verdant green, past resting seals and frequent herons. It works best to ride a flood tide, the ocean pushing its way in along with you, before turning and letting the ebb and river current carry you back out.

We didn't have favorable tides and almost got stuck on the sandbars, but about three feet is all you need to make it up three miles where fallen trees block the path. The continued flood fought us on the way back, but it only slowed our pace a little, giving us more time to appreciate the action: a seagull chased an immature bald eagle carrying a fish; a lone cormorant struggled to take flight at our approach, shaking his wings to dry them before the launch; an osprey circled high above, letting the afternoon sunlight reveal targets in the pools of calm water below.

But it's not all wildlife and nature up the Albion. You also get treated to the quirks of the region and the mystery of the floating houses. Three separate structures, each elaborate and quaint in their own way, built on the water with signs of habitation but no owners in sight - perhaps because owning a house on the river isn't exactly legal. Somehow they only enhance the natural beauty of the area, adding charm to its list of good traits.

So the next time the winds howl and the waves crash, or you want to paddle in shorts and a tee shirt for a change, look inward. The Albion, the Navarro, Big River, and the Noyo all provide miles of interesting scenery and peaceful water. It truly is a paddler's paradise out here.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Kayak Review - Jackson Karma update

My reviews of the Jackson Karma (Part 1 and Part 2, and the Rock Garden version) have gotten a lot of hits, so I thought I'd update my thoughts after a little more time in the boat. I still feel like I'm figuring it out, but definitely have a better handle on a few things. For those who haven't been following or don't want to bother with the links, here are the basics: I'm now paddling a medium Karma after paddling the Villain S. I generally prefer displacement hull creekers for the softer landings and solid tracking, though I've paddled all shapes and sizes in of boats in the past. I'm 6' and 175 with size 11 feet, and fit easily into the boat.

First, I got to do an overnighter in the boat, so I've now paddled a loaded Karma. It was only a two-day trip in mellow California weather, so the truth is I didn't load the boat down that much. There was a ton of extra space. The stern arrangement makes it simple to stuff lots of things in the back, and the awesome bulkhead design gives easy access to the front if you want it. The first day I kept everything in the rear, figuring I didn't need the room and it wasn't a lot of weight to affect the trim. But it did affect performance.

While I didn't think the trim was changed much, the nose became much lighter and squirrelly with the back weighted down. Small waves deflected me and I had a much harder time staying on track. I tried to keep my weight forward as much as possible, but still found myself popping wheelies when exiting holes. It was real easy to boof and get my nose up, but overall I wasn't happy with how it handled.

I thought about transferring some gear up front, but I was worried that putting weight so far forward would affect the swing weight and slow down the handling. Instead, I moved the seat forward one notch from my normal middle position. This helped immensely. The boat now carried more level out of drops and tracked better in the bouncy stuff. My friend, who's twenty pounds lighter, said he needed to move the seat forward when he paddled an empty medium Karma. Something to consider if you find the boat hard to control.

I also decided that the geometry of the outfitting just isn't working for me. I haven't been paddling the boat that often, so two days in a row was telling. And moving the seat position made some other things more obvious. In the past I always loved that I could jump in a Jackson boat, pull a few strings and be all set. But the boats no longer come standard with the Sweet Cheeks (the nicest thing you can do for your butt, in my opinion). The Karma seat is too flat for me and it's hard to keep my hips tilted forward (which is what you want for an aggressive paddling position). The backband is too high, restricting my torso rotation and not really supporting me where I need it. Both factors also lead to my knees being lose in the boat unless I hold them tight to the inner braces, which don't have as much purchase as my Villain did.

All these are personal things - outfitting depends very much on your body type and how it matches up with the boat. It's also easy to fix these things - I ordered a Sweet Cheeks for the Karma but put it in my Jive instead (so maybe I need to order another one). The backband can be lowered by drilling a couple holes in the back of the seat and tying it down with a bungie. Adding a little foam under the thigh brace padding changes the angle and increases the purchase. I didn't do these things because I was lazy and hadn't needed them in the past, but it really does make a difference how the boat paddles and feels. The only problem is that my wife uses the boat more than me and she likes it as is. We'll have to find a way to compromise.

So I think I'm getting used to the hull shape and adjusting to a planing hulled creeker. It still lands softly off boofs and the parting line is high enough so the edges don't feel grabby, but it also responds and accelerates quicker, and carves quite nicely. I like the design but I need to take a little more time to make the adjustments so I like the feel as well. Our season is mostly done, but I'd love the chance to get the Karma out on a few more good overnighters in the future.

Monday, June 2, 2014

When kayaking isn't about Kayaking

The sad state of California whitewater this year was evidenced by a Memorial Day weekend which saw flows below runnable across the state. So instead of kayaking, I headed for a weekend of camping and relaxing along the Lost Coast. Even got in some yard-work and a movie. A full weekend with nary a boat in sight (except for the fleet I needed to move around to mow under). So I was a bit surprised when I woke Tuesday morning to an invite to a class V overnight trip on the Kern.

My buddy Matt's birthday was Thursday and he always spends it on the river. The Kern had crashed out for the weekend, but somehow rebounded. He saw the Kern turn green on Dreamflows and rushed to put together a crew for a Wed/Thu trip down the Forks of the Kern, one of my favorite runs in the world. Could I say no?

I had lots of reasons to say no, actually. It's a nine hour drive to get down there. With commitments through the afternoon, I couldn't leave until 5pm. The run starts with a two mile hike in and I haven't set up a backpack system for my new Karma (my old system for my Villain was sweet, but requires some boat modification and custom webbing adjustments). My wife was taking off for the weekend on Friday, so I'd have to drive straight home after the trip (another 9 hours) just to get  few hours with her before she leaves. And I've done the Forks a lot, it's nothing new and special.

But you can't say no to your buddy on his birthday. I made the trip, not for the kayaking but for the company. A couple new friends joined us on the trip and I got to show them this beautiful river for the first time. Flows were ideal and the weather perfect. The Air Force training runs gave us an air show the entire weekend, with F-16's screeching up the canyon ahead of their thunderous roar. We even ran into some friendly rafters who ran the shuttle for us, saving us a couple hours on the back end. Clean lines and a hike up Dry Meadow Creek rounded out a great couple of days.

I didn't shoot a single picture or video of the kayaking action. It was all about the lifestylin' and scenery. Sometimes kayaking is a sport that enraptures us and consumes our world. Sometimes it's just transportation to a magical place. Here are some more shots from the river: Picasa Album