Sunday, March 29, 2015

Playing on the Mendocino Coast

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

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

Sunday, March 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Storm Gathering USA

Over the weekend I had the wonderful opportunity to teach at the first Storm Gathering USA put on by my good friends Helen Wilson and Mark Tozer of Greenland or Bust in Trinidad, CA. When you go to the first time of anything, you're never quite sure what to expect. But Mark and Helen have put on other symposiums before, including the Storm Gathering UK, and Trinidad is their home base, so I expected they'd have everything dialed in pretty well - and I was right.

I've talked before about what makes symposiums so fun in general, but what I really liked about the Storm Gathering was how local it seemed. While the coaches and the participants came from all over, everyone involved in putting on the event was a local. From Mark and Helen, to the many safety boaters from the local paddling club (Explore North Coast), to the caterers, to the sponsors (Kokatat is based a few minutes away in Arcata), it was put on by a bunch of people who knew the area and knew each other.

So not only did we all get great local information to help decide where to take our classes, but we also got great recommendations on where family members could go play, or how late the local shops were open. The truth is we didn't need much because everything was provided for us, from great accommodations for the coaches within walking distance of the launch site AND the dining hall, to fresh, organic meals that were some of the best food I've ever eaten, to free boat rentals from P&H (Thanks Jaimie!). It was all so easy and so fun.

I also liked that a number of the classes, especially the ones I got to teach, focused a little more on the mental side of things. As a coach, I find that teaching skills is fine but very transitory. People learn physical things through repetition, and technique really comes down to practice more than instruction. But I like to share a mindset, the things worth thinking about that can be hard to come to on your own. Some things it's far better to learn from others' experience than having to go through the hard knocks yourself.

I started with a class on Practical Leadership with Rob Avery. I've known Rob for years and he used to work for California Canoe & Kayak (but way before my time), but he now lives and works out of the Seattle area. We had a quick chat and exchange of ideas before meeting our students and it felt like we were on the same page, each with different ideas for the particulars but ones that blended together nicely. Among the exercises that Rob came up with was a variation on the 'leading the blind' that I hadn't seen before and it was a highlight of the class for lots of the students. It's so fun when you can teach and learn at the same time!

The next day I taught a great class on Incident Management with Cate Hawthorne of Liquid Fusion Kayaking and I really like how we laid out a simple framework to get people thinking (CLAP) and then did a number of scenarios to have them use it. We found a good balance of realistic situations and then twisted things a bit to make them harder and more complicated. It seemed like everyone got something new out of the class, even though it was a very experienced and skillful bunch.

I ended up with the afternoon off and got in a little paddle with my wife, who was volunteering with the ground crew and did a lot of cleaning up and sorting out over the weekend (the volunteers for this even were AMAZING and did so much hard work. Thank you all so much!). While it's always nice to get out on the water with my honey, we were joined by some migrating Grey whales, including a mother and pup. It's always great to see this giant creatures up close and at water level.

And after that great display, we got another one when the CoastGuard arrived to give a rescue demonstration (take home lesson was that rescue swimmers are seriously bad-ass). Then we had permission to fire off any expired flares on hand - with this group that ended up being quite the fireworks show. No one was harmed in the making of this picture :)

On the final day I got to go on a Coastal Journey with none other than Justine Curgenven of This Is The Sea fame. I've met Justine before and know she's great fun, but never had the chance to work with her. For someone who's always smiling, laughing, and joking, it's great to see how she works in lots of really solid concepts of tons of great wisdom learned from more time in a kayak than even most die hard instructors can dream of. We also got treated to a presentation on her latest DVD, Kayaking the Aleutians, which was once again super entertaining and very educational. If you ever get the chance to hear Justine present, don't miss it!

And no symposium would be complete with an after event pub dinner with whatever coaches were able to stick around. It was fun catching up with old friends and new, and I only wish more people had had the time to stay.

Once again, if you ever get a chance to go to one of these events, make sure you revel in all the people and the time spent off the water. Sure, you'll learn a lot in the classes, but it's the time in the community that makes the sport great and worth more than any individual skill.

More pictures on my Picasa page.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Art of Whitewater: Fear Management, Part 2

This is the sixth 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

Fear Management, Part 2

The Theory

In the first part on fear management I addressed the most common, and probably most obvious fear related to the sport: the fear of getting hurt. But there's a lot more going on inside most people's heads, more concerns and issues that are connected to the physical danger but also distinctly different. 

Some of these are caused by the physical risks. If you have a bad day on the basketball court, it doesn't really increase your chance of injury, but things are different on the river. The simple fact that we know making a mistake might lead to really bad consequences makes us fearful of the mistake itself, not just the possible outcome. And when you make a mistake, it might be your friends who are risking their own safety to help you out, or at the very least taking time away from their fun to make sure you are okay and don't lose your gear. It's this knowledge that our actions can have a significant impact on the entire experience and everyone in the group that creates a very special kind of performance anxiety.

Like fear itself, there is a useful side to this anxiety. It's helpful to realize that maybe we shouldn't go on this particular run with these particular people, because it may not lead to fun times for us or them. It's okay to limit yourself, to wait for another day and another team to push yourself, but it's all too easy to let the worries become an excuse and allow them to limit you in a way that ultimately holds back your paddling. Challenge is a part of this sport - a very good part - and with it comes some risk, physical and otherwise. To avoid it entirely is to miss out on one of the best aspects of kayaking.

How do you overcome this performance anxiety? For me, it takes a multi-prong approach. First, I start with the physical fear as related in the previous part of the series. The more I take my fear of the rapids out of the picture the less I'm concerned about what will happen if I 'fail'. When I'm confident in my paddling, I'm much less likely to spend a lot of time inside my head and create new problems for myself.

But confidence only goes so far. What's most important for me is the crew I'm kayaking with. If I know that they have my back, no matter how poorly I perform, if I trust them to help me out while taking care of themselves, if I know that I won't be judged or looked down upon for expressing concerns or making mistakes, then I have a good time paddling. As I've said before, if you surround yourself with good people life becomes a whole lot easier.

But that's not always possible - sometimes we paddle with whomever we can find because that's the way things work out. Some of us are more comfortable in a group of strangers than others, so on top of everything else we add in some social awkwardness and more personal fears of rejection. What to do then?

As an instructor, I paddle with strangers all the time. The truth is I'm an introvert; I'd rather be alone, or with a small group of people who I know very well. When I'm teaching, I'm supremely confident in my physical skills and experience, and being in charge makes it easier to feel in control. But when I venture out to new rivers and meet up with unknown folks to run class V rivers, I have lots of mental blocks to overcome. I feel the pressure to perform because I want them to like me, because I'm a professional who's supposed to be really good at this. I have an expectation of personal perfection that's very hard to live up to.

Here again I fall back on my experience. They may be new people, it may be a new river, but I've kayaked rivers before and met enough paddlers to know that they're generally very welcoming and supportive. I trust that my skills are what they are, that I might have trouble and I might walk some rapids, but I've always made it down (or hiked out safely) from every river I've done. I remember the times when complete strangers have jumped in to help me or my friends, and how at the end of the day my reputation and the opinion of strangers doesn't matter nearly so much as my own happiness and the joy that I receive from kayaking itself. Focus on the positive.

If you're still building up that experience, if your fairly new to the river scene, go outside the sport. We all have things that we're good at, that we've done for a long time and feel a sense of mastery with (even if it's just tying your shoes). Reflect on your journey a bit and you'll remember a time in the distant past when you lacked such skills - when your shoelaces flopped all over the place - but you persevered and it all worked out. Realize you are on that same path with kayaking, and that all of us have been on that path.

When I started whitewater kayaking I had a mentor. He was the most graceful paddler on the water and was completely at home in any rapid. He ran harder whitewater than I ever thought I would be able to do, and he always seemed relaxed and in control. In my own struggles as I developed, I often thought back to a story he shared about his first weekend on the river: he swam 37 times. That simple fact, knowing how he started and where he ended up, told me it was okay if I didn't master everything right away. It gave me permission to suck a little bit. Eventually I sucked less and less, and while I'm not sure if I paddle with the same grace that he does, I do all right these days. So can you.

The Practice

As I've been working on this article I listened an interesting story on a 'game' called Rejection Therapy. You can follow the link for the full details if it interests you, but the take away for me was to change your mental approach so the thing you are afraid of becomes the thing you seek out, making it trigger the reward center in the brain instead of the flight or fight response. It actually is exactly what I was talking about when I encouraged everyone to practice swimming.

How this applies to the social side of fear is a little different, but it can still work. If you're afraid of paddling new runs with new people, start by paddling a comfortable run with new people. Instead of going up to your local river with your usual friends, find another group to join for a day. This gives you the chance to interact with strangers while feeling confident in your kayaking. It will also expand your paddling circle and lead to more opportunities to paddle with people who are no longer strangers.

But when you want to step up, when you want to run a new run that makes you nervous, it's all right to be selective of who you have around you. Ask your more experienced friends, the best paddlers you know, and chances are they'll be stoked to take you down your first class IV. The vast majority of really good boaters I know are some of the most generous and helpful people around, and we truly like the opportunity to give back to the sport.

One reason for this is the role-modeling that happens in this sport. Most of us who've been around for a while have learned from folks who shared their time and passion with us. We've seen the spirit of the river and we want to pass that along. Whatever stage you're currently at in your kayaking career, you can create that sense of community yourself.

One way is choosing how you talk about these issues of fear and how you react to others. Be aware that if you're giving your buddy a hard time for not running the big rapid, the newbie next to him is taking away a certain message. Be conscious of the strangers on the river and offer your help even if it's not needed. People naturally have a tendency to hide their own concerns through bluff and bluster, but if you want to have supportive friends around you, start by being a supportive friend yourself.

(A little aside: this is one of my problem with the 'booty beer'. It's fine for those who want to partake of the tradition, but I don't want anyone to think our sport is about punishment and ridicule. If everyone is between swims, then swimming itself can't be a 'wrong'. There are circumstances where people swim when they shouldn't, and people whose rolls are not as strong as they should be, and I think some public pressure to remedy those situations is fine, but blanket public shaming of swimmers is not what kayaking is about for most of us.)

And most importantly, give others the freedom to make mistakes and give yourself permission to do the same. It's interesting how some of the most compassionate paddlers, the ones who are so quick to offer condolences and support others, are the harshest on themselves. Accept that you will flip, that swimming is an occasional if undesirable part of the sport, and notice that everyone does it. Take your expectations away from river ratings and put them towards paddling experience. I've seen smiles on class II rapids as big as anything on a class V expedition.

Social fear is most often rooted in our own heads, our own sense of insecurity. Pick your head and look around, and you'll find that kayaking brings together folks from all different stripes who share the joy of paddling, and most everyone is there to give you a hand, whether it's a round of applause or a gesture of support. Embrace the community and trust yourself, and have fun wherever and whatever you're paddling!


This wraps up my Art of Whitewater series - unless you all have more topics you'd like me to discuss. I've tried to get a little bit more into the philosophy of paddling, try to relate the things that I see among the most dedicated and skillful paddlers, and share them with those who have less time and experience in the sport. These have been some of the most challenging and rewarding posts to write, and have made me think harder about exactly what it is that I do and how I see people approach paddling. I hope you enjoyed it and I'll add more if inspiration strikes. Thanks.