It is the 4th year I have had the pleasure of returning to the small coastal village of Chaiuin, Chile to coach at the Simposio de Kayak Pacifico Sur. The team at Pueblito Expediciones have captured the South American market of sea kayakers as they flock from all edges of this grand continent to play in the surf and amongst the swell that crashes against the monolithic coast lines. It is in this familiar yet still foreign environment that I find pause to reflect on what we are all doing here bobbing around like corks on the sea.
It is easy to dismiss what we are doing as ‘just sea kayaking’, which on the one hand reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously. On the other hand, I wonder what lies beneath the surface of our desire for adventure and become more and more curious about ‘why kayaking’?
There is something powerful about separating ourselves entirely from that which is familiar and for us as human terrestrial creatures, the watery world of the ocean is as unknown and foreign as can be. In teaching kayaking, I find myself working with the elements of movement and direction in unfamiliar terrain in tandem with the less measurable realm of human experience. What are we really doing out here? What motivates us to head “into the water”. (Kokatat – meaning: Native American word for ‘into the water’.)
Sure, we are spending time with friends, feeling more alive as we bob up and down in the waves and perhaps, we simply like the sense of accomplishment that comes with mastering a new skill. Likely this is enough thinking for most – there is not always a need to delve much further into our motivations. Woven into these outcomes and goals is, however, a deeper more profound element that can lurk just beyond our awareness.
Just like traveling to a new country or learning a new language, my feeling is that learning to be comfortable in the foreign environment of the sea offers us more than just the physical ability to survive in these places. Perhaps it offers the gift of building confidence in our own capacity to be more than we may have previously thought; perhaps it helps us to understand that we are all capable of more, beyond that which is visible to the naked eye. What if I were to make the outrageous statement that we are not ‘just sea kayaking’, but we are in fact learning more about what it means to live into our human potential in all its possibility? Now that’s a reason to go sea kayaking!
Maybe I am overstepping. Maybe you simply took up kayaking as a personal challenge or as a romantic idea, just for fun, or simply as an alternate method of travel. But what if within those seemingly benign motivations lies a more dynamic impulse. What if kayaking could be a metaphor for those things that at first seem nay impossible? What if learning to steer your 16 foot kayak on top of a powerful driving wave is a training ground to muster internal strength to learn to surf the similarly unpredictable wave of human experience. The metaphor of surfing the wave then becomes an expression of knowing when and where to change direction and how to go with the flow.
For me, when I pause to reflect on what it is I am really doing out here and ask myself what I have learned, I hear the answer “I am learning to steer my vessel in a challenging environment, I am learning when to go and when to pause, I am beginning to understand how to work with the energy of this grand oceanic force.” From this vantage point the wave and indeed the ocean become the metaphor for this greater ride we are all on and I begin to know that I can learn the skills needed to navigate these often challenging and labyrinthine waters of daily life.
There is something frantic in the air right now. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it feels like summer is not all that anxious to let go of it’s busy hot days to the deep cool days of fall. It will of course let go, and yes I know, we are only in the middle of September, but I can still feel this resistance building. I feel my own drive to keep on going till this end of summer work is complete, while also trying to compete with my inner needs to begin a period of slowing down as the days get shorter.
I begin to secretly long for the cooler days and deeper colours that the autumnal arrival hails. I hear the geese calling overhead as they begin their journeys southwards. Without wishing too hard for the rain and the cold of winter, I welcome the transition between them. I ready my being for a gentle slowing, while still staying focused on the task at hand and the vision that motivates it.
This year, I say, I will be prepared for the transition. This year, I will be equipped with intention and newfound understandings of what it means to let go. I will pull out my drysuit and wear cozy socks, I will get out my warm blankets and begin to make soup. I will also give myself permission to go out and get damp from the wetness in the air, to witness the landscapes transition as it paralells my own into the shorter days of fall. And oh! The colours are so bright just before they fall to the ground… and I do feel colourful these days.
Between the busy days of summer and the slower days of winter is a time to reap the harvest of summer, to dance in the moonlight, eat peaches and let the juice run down your chin and to feel the cool breath of winter gently kissing your neck. It’s time to get out for sunset paddles and kick the leaves underfoot, finish that one last project and shine brightly before the simple stark renewal of winter is upon us.
I have long craved a map and a compass. I long for the certainty that comes through being able to plan for the journey, know where I stand in a landscape and can then clearly navigate the terrain to the next waypoint. My chosen career in wilderness guiding has been a fitting metaphor to fulfill this desire. I have become fluent in the languages of True and Magnetic Norths, I have learned to read the clouds and feel wind directions to predict weather; and I have studied the tidal cycles, learning how to work with the power of the ocean. I have slowly, ever surely become a great navigator of this wild and beautiful ocean meets forest terrain. Somewhere, though, there emerged a deeper longing – a longing to know more intimately an inner wilderness.
I couldn’t have told you about this longing two years ago when I began my thesis journey at Royal Roads University. I could have told you that I was interested in the connection between Nature and Culture, but never could I have told you that my studies would take me deeper in to my own connection with Self and an inner wilderness I had only previously had a glimpse of. I could have told you I was going to embark on a Vision Quest, but I never expected how my life would unfold after the ‘questing’ was over. It is only with the gift of hindsight that I can see clearly that I wanted to explore the more psychological dimensions of wilderness adventure, to peek into the intersections and embraces of inner wilderness and outer wilderness.
As I began this journey I felt as though I was blind, stumbling around in a place that felt uncomfortable, in a fog of not knowing that was more extensive than I had ever experienced. I had no map, not even an inkling of what the territory might look like. What I truly lacked was a compass that I could use in the dark. So, I stopped searching and I started listening, using deep self-awareness as a compass for how to proceed, when to proceed, if I should proceed. I began realizing that what I was seeking was nothing more than to see myself through the eyes of loving compassion that I might see mySelf wholly in all my glorious paradox – to learn to see myself as an Innocent and a Dragon, a humble servant and a powerful leader.
The concept seems so much easier to put in a sentence than to practice as a human being.
[I use the spelling of ‘mySelf’ to imply a deep self-awareness that Carl Jung might call soul connection.]
At this point in my thesis journey, which I recognize extends far before and far beyond my time here at Royal Roads; I can see the delicious darkness that holds juicy secrets that need time still to germinate; I am able hold mySelf with a greater loving tenderness; and have an ever-increasing compassion for my fellow humans and the earth upon which we live. I am certainly not finished this journey and sincerely doubt it will ever truly be ‘finished’, but in my searching for inner health, equilibrium and knowledge, I feel as though my compassion for others has increased as I find it for mySelf.
[ This love I spoke of in the last paragraph, I don’t mean it as a gushy, ooy-gooey kind of smoochy way, I mean it as a deep acceptance of something, in this case myself. Being able to spend enough time in the shadowy realms of my human experience and being, so that I may better understand these places and perhaps be able to work with them as I work with ocean currents on the sea. This love for mySelf that I have been cultivating in the darker days of winter has strangely begun to spill out. It has begun to affect the ways I interact with and see other people, the other-than-human beings around me and has been, it appears, to be a curious by-product of inner reflection.]
My journey has been inherently impactful to me as a leader, especially in terms of the concept of ‘leading from where you stand’, if only because I am more fully aware of just where it is I am standing. I embarked upon a Vision Quest as a grounding foundation for my study. The vision quest is designed to initiate participants and invite them on a journey towards being able to more wholly embody their truest Selves, to encounter soul and learn to use Ego in service of its deepest longing. A year and a half after my Quest I have traveled through initiation, which took a lot longer than I expected – or hoped- and am now actively participating in the Return (which has also taken a lot longer than I had imagined). This process of bringing the gift, mySelf, back into the world is a heavy task. It seems as though it is requiring me to be more responsible than ever before – deeply responsible to mySelf.
To clarify how truly big this responsibility to mySelf is, feels like a daunting task. If I can try to distill it down into its simplest form: responsibility to mySelf means I am open and clear about where I am now; that I can listen enough to hear when I need sleep, to be social, or to run in the hills; that I can be compassionate enough to honour those needs in myself and in turn, others; to continue to trust that I will always have what I need (even if it doesn’t always feel like it); and that everything I can be, I already am. Ha, no big deal right!?!
First and Last – A Sea Tech Towline Odyssey
My first towline was a North Water Sea Tech tow line. It got its first use at Skookumchuck Narrows while I practiced rescues in the turbulent currents. I have since carried that tow line with me to Patagonia & Australia, it has traveled hundreds of miles with me up and down the BC coast, it has helped me solve problems in the tide races of North Wales and Scotland, and those are just some of the highlights – still it continues to deliver.
I only recently decided to retire it because of how much I have used it over the past 10 years and I felt as a professional that I should keep my gear current, especially for rescue scenario practice. I was sad to retire it, as it seems like it has got more life left in it. I have loved the simplicity of its design and use.
As I pulled the latest version of the Sea Tech tow line out of the box, I was excited to see that its function and use had not changed in any fundamental ways. Why mess with a good thing? In fact, when I look at them side by side, the old and the new together, I do notice a bit of wear on my old retired line, but other than the red of the fabric being a bit sun bleached, they both look ready to use!
They have, however, made some useful improvements to the existing functionality of the system. The rope is now even more easily removable from the bag and slightly improved bungee system for reducing work load while hauling as well! They have also moved the rope contact point to one side so the rope bag can be re-closed and out of the way while in use. It is hard to improve on such a good thing, but they have done it.
So, long story short, I couldn’t bring myself to retire my old rope fully. It is now my go-to back up and lender for that moment when you realize you’ve left yours in your garage still hanging from the last trip out.
My first towline was a North Water and with the way it’s going, my last towline will be a North Water! Cheesy, maybe, but most good love stories are.
Deck Bags – what are they good for?
Whispered amongst paddlers is the idea that when expedition paddling or even going out for the day, a deck clean of extraneous gear is preferred over the yard sale of kit that can end up cluttering the space in front of you as you paddle. There is an obvious reasoning that goes into wanting to have as little as possible strapped to the outside of your kayak when traveling in complex waters, open ocean swells and landing on surf beaches – there is simply less to lose and to get in your way. There is also a great argument to have certain tools available to you should you need them in a sticky situation.
I carry a number of tools and resources in a small bag that I carry inside by cockpit that might resemble a ‘ditch kit’. It has some communication devices, water purification, extra snacks, fire starter, a knife… all the usual stuff one might need if separated from your boat. There are times, however, when I might find myself in a situation where I do not want to open my skirt and compromise my dry cockpit to access these tools, like in any kind of adverse sea condition. In this case, I have found it necessary to have a small deck bag that has a store of practical tools that I might find useful as I bob about in rough seas.
I have been using the North Water peaked deck bag and fill it with a quick repair kit, a few flares (waterproofed of course), snacks, gum (for sea sickness), a warm hat and gloves, compass, and a few other bits and bobs depending on what I am doing. When paddling and working in coastal environments, I have found this sweet stowage system on my deck has vastly helped me deal with common problems without compromising my own personal safety.
First of all, it comes in this snazzy blue colour (also yellow and black), lol. It has a snug fit on my deck and secure attachment points which I use confidently in surf and rough conditions. It’s solid shape on the deck makes for easy access to all it’s contents and the best part is the double-slider zipper which allows me to stow my compass while having it tethered to a bungee on the deck outside for those foggy navigation days.
So yes, a clean deck is helpful, practical and makes your kayak look ‘super sleek’. I have found my deck bag to be the perfect solution to keep my kayak deck looking clean while giving me safer access to the resources I need when on the water.
As the sun begins to climb higher in the sky heralding the beginning of longer days and inviting the green spirals of forest ferns to emerge from their winter sleep in the forest, I too am drawn out into the light to join the marine life that is beginning to stir with great vigour brought with the coming of summer.
[This is how I feel after a 2-day paddle with the young and talented Finn Steiner as he makes us way around Vancouver Island in an attempt to be the youngest person to ever circumnavigate it.]
It is hard not to feel some sense of connection to the mollusky creatures that sit clasped between their sturdy shells half covered by the ocean. Sitting the in the hard shell of my kayak, encased and kept warm and safe by my layers of dry suit and fleece, I can taste the sea in the air of the misty isles of my home waters of Vancouver Island – the enchantment is palpable as we sit watching the Pacific white-sided dolphins travel and porpoise beside us.
[I joined Finn in Campbell River on the east side of Vancouver Island after some blustery days where decision making was the lesson given as winds opposed tides. I felt so lucky to be able to join him for 2 days as he paddled through Seymour Narrows, an area where currents can exceed 16 knots and is well known for its turbulant and whirlpool filled waters, and onwards past “the knuckle of the island” as we transited from the Strait of Georgia into the Johnstone Strait marked by Chatham Point.]
I feel so lucky to know the magic of travel by way of water, to intimately feel the ebb and flood of the ocean as it caresses the rocky shores and sandy beaches of this coastal playground. Sometimes I feel like I have been told a great secret of the mystery of the natural world and my – our – connection to it. It is this time of year that I revel in setting out in my kayak to search of the feasts of the natural world, like the sweet orange insides of urchin, the bitter-sweet freshness of young fiddleheads and the salty softness of the muscle and oyster. I was once told by a First Nations Elder from Haida Gwaii that “when the tide is out, the table is set,” and today in this fresh, unfurling of spring I know it to be true.
[Our time on the water together inspired this dreamy dialogue with the cycles of the natural world and I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky both to live in the beautiful place that I do, and to be surrounded by the community of inspired paddlers that exist here. The adventure that Finn has undertaken is one that many people could not even dream of, and here he is, asking all the right questions, allowing himself to learn from his experiences and displaying remarkable amounts of courage in the face of difficult decisions (all at the tender age of 17).]
The coming of springtime is a time of splendor for the kayaker. There is something almost magical that invites us out of the darkness of winter and into the light of spring that ever-promises the joys and delights of summertime. It is days like these that keep me excited about paddling.
[Finn has helped me to remember the magic of the natural world, has reminded me of my own sense of wonder and connection to this beautiful place; and as we stopped at beaches in rhythm with our bodies’ needs, we discovered amazing things like Sea Urchins, dolphins, native fishing weirs, scampering martins and the sheer magic that happens when we dare to stop and listen!]
- Finn has now rounded Cape Scott and is headed South on the outer West Coast of Vancouver Island. You can follow his progress on his PaddleVI 17 Site…Good Luck Finn – this is indeed quite the “rite of passage” you have embarked on – and what a man you are becoming!
You can be guaranteed that somewhere in the world someone is always paddling. As we Canadians begin to trade dry suit for snowsuit and kayaks for skis, paddlers down in South America are dawning their colourful Goretex Suits in readiness for the kickoff to the Chilean paddling season at Simposio de Kayak Pacifico Sur.
In its 4th year running, hosted by the hardworking boys at Pueblito Expediciones in the small coastal community of Chaihuin, Chile, this year’s sea kayak symposium was better than ever! With venues that include the flat water of the river estuary, southern pacific breaks onto long sandy beaches, and spectacular rock garden play spots at “los cormillos” or “the Fangs”, there is something here for everyone. It would be remiss of me not to mention the delicious Chilean cuisine of local fish, classic lamb ‘asados’ (barbeque), soups and local brews by Cuello Negro – the food is definitely part of the experience!
With participants arriving from all over Chile, Argentina and even Uruguay, this event continues to draw new paddlers to the sport while creating its own gravitational force within the South American paddling community. I have seen this event continue to bring familiar faces back again and again to share stories and have so enjoyed taking part in the magic!
One of the highlights for me this year was seeing the strong showing of women who attended. It seems as though each year there are more and more, and this year they were fierce! There is some serious talent and determination in this group of ladies! I can’t wait for next year!
Among the surf sessions, rescues and maneuvering classes there were 2 young boys, ages 11 & 12, who were excited to learn all the technical skills they possibly could and quickly mastered balancing skills – showing up even the coaches in their abilities to stand and dance on their kayaks! The diverse mix of participants made for wonderful learning environments for everyone, participants and coaches alike – and I haven’t even mentioned the whole English/Spanish language adventure.
One evening after a long day of paddling, the entire coaching team held an open Q & A session with the participants. We shared stories, answered questions (both serious and silly) but one of the most interesting questions that arose was “How does the paddling community here, in South America, differ from those in other parts of the world?”
There was a long pause from the coaches panel, which is unusual, as you might imagine. The easy answer might be: this paddling community speaks Spanish. The final consensus, however, was the obvious: Paddlers are people and they are fundamentally the same the world over.
Students bring an excitement to learn, a passion for the water and often a fear or challenge to overcome – no matter which ocean you are on. What changes from place to place is what happens in the moment – the conversation shared over a plate of food, the smiles exchanged after tough rescue on the ocean and laughter as you help a stranger zip up their dry suit preparing for a day in new waters – these are the moments that bring an event to life…and this event is alive and well!!
This vibrant Latin American affair is one of the highlights of my year. From the amazing people, to the beautiful place, the delicious food and not being made fun of for using my hands more than most to talk… this event is one of my favourites! It is a tease of summer and warmth to get me inspired to keep my dry suit in use during the cold winter here in Canada. Thanks Pueblito Expediciones for continuing to deliver the best and Kokatat for its ongoing support!
Well, the busy summer season is over. I have been in my rubber boots these days, but rather than tromping through sand, I have been tromping through fallen leaves. I have been watching mushrooms sprout in the green forests and breathing the sweet air laced with the smell of decaying leaves.
(Don’t worry, I will be surfing and kayaking all winter, but let’s be serious…it won’t be as busy as the summer!!!)
I love the fall – The colours, the smells, the swells, the cold air and jumping in piles of carefully raked leaves. There are also the feelings that so often accompany this time of year. It is some set of indescribable afflictions that go along with dealing with the unknown and transitioning from one way of being to another. I notice them in myself and in the people around me. I have lived a seasonal lifestyle for so long now, that I am able to recognize the changes in my own cycles as they correspond to each season. Fall is a time of change, leaves die and begin to decay. The trees shake off the productivity of the summer and prepare for the long cold winter months ahead. The change of pace, from working sun-up to beyond sun-down as a wilderness guide, to having entire days that are waiting to be explored and lazed about in, can be a bit startling. I know that sometimes I find it quite unnerving.
But…The beautiful part about this feeling, is I have had it at this time, every year for as long as I can remember. The unsettled, unsure wave of anxiety that I have as I transition from summer into winter is a regular visitor. Like clockwork this feeling creeps up as the last trips of the summer run to a close. Equally, I have learned that this state of not knowing is often (if not always) followed by some amazing opportunity that has the capacity to surprise and somehow always brings me exactly what I need! How do you think I ended up in the circus!?!
Living in the wilderness and on beaches has highlighted many things for me, but most importantly it has shown me that there are patterns and cycles in the natural world – and in turn, patterns in my own way of being and feeling throughout the year. Fall is a time of storing up energy, of letting go, of rooting down and of slowing the pace. So when I catch myself getting upset because I spent the whole day at my home, puttering about in the garden, in my sweatpants…I remind myself that productivity and busyness has its place, but so does slowness and spending time as a hermit.
“We all change colours and lose our leaves, then we bloom again.” -Maria Lago
Sea kayak surfing – the fringy sister of an already fringe subculture of paddlesports – has taken on its own following in recent years. Although it emerged from the simple necessity of being able to guide a sea kayak into tough surf landings on long trips, it turns out that surfing unloaded kayaks is also incredibly fun. The longboat is the longboard of the kayak surfing world, carving smooth turns as it finesses its way through the water. It’s not easy to control a 16-foot-long boat on a moving, churning wave – perhaps that too is part of the appeal.
The feeling of riding a clean, green wave – accelerating the long waterline of the craft to the wave’s trough, riding the line along the green face and changing direction at a snap as the boat rises to the top – it is the closest I have ever gotten to dancing with water.
If you are reading this, you likely already know what I am talking about, so enough of all that. I’ll get on with it.
After you master the take-off and positioning on the wave (or even if this is something you are still working with) you will want a few tricks up your sleeve to help accelerate your learning. Whether you are surfing beach break, point break or tide races, there are three key variables you can mess around with:
Play with Your Edges
If you are familiar with biking or skiing, you will know that when you want to initiate a turn, you lean – or carve – into it. With longboat surfing this is not always possible as the momentum of the boat can create immense amounts of pressure on the hull, keeping it running in the same direction. In order to release the pressure, it is often necessary to briefly edge away from the turn first (lean away from the direction you want to go), and then you can lean into it, carve, as the boat changes direction.
Body Trim – Fore and Aft
Where you position your body over your cockpit can make the difference between catching a wave and missing it. Subtle shifts in weight forward and backward, pivoting at the hips, can also help you move up and down the wave face. A common reaction to the feeling that one is falling off the backside of the wave, is to put pressure on the foot pegs, moving your upper body weight behind the hips. The mental process goes, “If I push my hips forward, my weight will be forward and therefore I will ride down the wave.” Unfortunately, what this actually does is put you in a standing position where the majority of your body’s weight – your head and torso – is behind you and behind the wave. Instead, bring your chest forward over your thighs or knees and pull your knees towards your body. This allows you to dramatically shift your weight and affect not only your boat’s waterline but also your positioning on the wave.
Use Your Head
Don’t worry, the bow of your boat will not likely disappear – quit staring at it! Often times we get focused on the spot directly ahead of us, but the head is a powerful tool. Our body, and whatever might be attached to it, i.e. the kayak, tends to follow the head. So look around you, from side to side, know where you are on the wave. Then decide where you want to go and stare at that spot, I mean intensely. Perhaps you imagine, like I do, that you are “Mr. Magoo” leaning forward, squinting through bottle bottom glasses to see that future water as it comes into focus.
– written by Kate Hives
Read more at http://www.canoekayak.com/skills/messing-longboat-tips-surfing-sea-kayak/#4ZLplWtlLxjfrOYK.99
I made this little “how to” video for my friends and family as they were preparing for a kayak trip with me. It is a trick to pack your sleeping bag so it can withstand an ocean dunking – and stay dry!! I have tried many different methods and this one, by far, takes the win for both reliability and cost.
You will need:
1. Your sleeping bag
2. A stuff sac
3. A garbage bag
It has been a whirlwind of a month which has most recently landed me back in Victoria BC, Canada (my home waters), but I feel I am only just arriving here and in order to truly arrive, I feel I need to reflect on my magical times in Scotland.
I didn’t know it was a dream of mine to paddle in Scotland, until I paddled in the Small Isles last year. Once I had floated around in the tidal streams; explored the bleak, yet beautiful rocky and heather coloured islands and had the opportunity to bask in the depth of cultural myth that fills this place, I knew I needed to return.
This year I was lucky enough to get an amazing weather window that forecast calm winds and cool seas. It was just the push I needed to hop on a ferry from Oban to the Outer Hebrides and launch my little kayak from Castle Bay on the Isle of Barra heading for the cliffed islands stretching south into the horizon.
I arrived and immediately floated my boat, setting out for an evening paddle. I wove my way through the Isles as the sun dipped itself into the ocean and the puffins heralded dusk, returning home after a long day fishing. I arrived at the Isle of Mingulay at 10pm and fell asleep under a pastel sky.
An early start took me around the Isle of Berneray with breathtaking sea cliffs covered in curious Razor Bills, screeching Kittiwakes, bobbing Puffins and 2 golden eagles soaring high above the lighthouse. The calm waters around Barra Head afforded me a closeness and stillness to be a silent witness below the skies completely alive with birds on the wing.
The west coast of Mingulay was exciting. It is a cliffed and rugged coast with caves, arches and fissures perfect for paddling through and around. Being alone, I had a word with myself about what kinds of passages I may paddle and decided that anything I would want a helmet for was completely out of the question. But when I got to a natural arch inside a cave that heralded light on the other side… I had to do it! I took a deep breath, held it, accelerated and blasted through the opening into another cave and out into the daylight. I guess it wasn’t really all that dangerous, but I felt exposed for a moment. Once on the other side the sense of excitement and surprise was overwhelming and it spilled out of my mouth as a hoot that echoed through the cave walls.
I wove my way back north being sure to explore each isle in its entirety. The wind stayed down, the seas were forgiving and I moved through the seascape with wonder and ease. When I arrived back at Castle Bay, it was a Sunday and I could hear music coming from the local pub. I’ve never been one to pass up a good old local jam, so I headed for the sunny patio and ended up with a beer and a whisky in front of me as we sang old songs accompanied by accordion! The local scotsmen of Barra are alright with me!
I had one more day to paddle and decided it would be a wasted day if I didn’t set a goal, so I decided I would paddle around Barra. It was only 26 Nm but with half of the paddle likely to be into a stiff headwind, I wrestled a bit with my lazy self. I set out on the west side of the Isle and into a 15kn wind, finding myself more and more comfortable to paddle alone, in bigger sea conditions… It did take a bit of getting use to at first but paddling alone is feeling liberating.
The hard work paid off and once I reached the northern most reaches of Barra and it’s turquoise seas I turned to head south with an even stiffer tailwind. The push was a lovely change and as I paddled south, I sang and laughed as I danced with the wind and water. As the utilitarian Scottish castle came into view on my arrival back into Castle Bay, 2 white tailed eagles took flight from the nearby shore to soar above me and carry on southwards circling higher and higher. I settled into my tent that night, preparing for an early morning onto the ferry back to Oban, feeling as though I had tasted a little bit of magic that this place has to offer. I have not yet satisfied my desire to paddle in this place and the Isles to the north of the Outer Hebrides is now calling!
Paddling on your own can be scary. There is no one to help you solve problems if something goes wrong or if the weather suddenly changes. There is no one there to make you laugh with when you get lonely and no one to help you carry your boat up long beaches – no one but you.
Solo paddling can feel heroic and life affirming, but my intention to paddle alone did not stem from a desire to be bold or to do something no one had ever done. I wanted to see what kind of decisions I might make, how I would cope with the lonely days on my own. I wanted to crawl out of my comfort zone and use it as a time for reflection. I have been on the coast of North Wales for much of this winter and while spending time on the water alone, I have run into highly changeable weather, encountered fears I didn’t know ran as deep as they do and learned to find courage within, when I need it most.
I needn’t go into too much of the nitty gritty detail of the whole trip because it all gets lost in the in-betweens of calm days and rough seas, irrelevant distance measures and finding places to sleep. What is worthy of discussion is my thinking processes and the struggles to remain present in each moment.
I am always meticulous with checking weather reports, wind directions and tidal movement, but alone, I felt my need to know these things was even greater as I set out knowing I was the only one who could help myself if conditions got tough. It is one thing to intentionally go out in bad weather with friends, looking for waves and surf, but an entirely different beast when headed down an unknown coastline on your own. The other challenge I faced was forcing myself to get on with it, even when things looked less than perfect. It is a fine balance between making the decision to stay because of bad weather and pushing forward even when the outcome is uncertain. It is so tempting to stay in bed when you are only accountable to yourself.
I remember one day in particular that turned out to be a challenging one. My first task was to set a goal. I would paddle 40 nautical miles to make up for the short day I had previously due to high winds. I find that goal setting is essential in order to get out of my tent. The early 5 AM start felt like a success as I paddled off with the sunrise behind me. The billowing white clouds on the horizon were brilliantly lit. They were, however, sitting on top of a dark grey layer like merengue piled on top of a cake. This should have been my first clue that the weather was subject to change that day, but conditions were calm and I knew I had a few bail out points along the way.
I paddled in calm waters for a few hours, feeling meditative as each paddle stroke passed me by. The terns were soaring around me and diving like torpedoes into the water to catch their breakfast. I felt lucky as the sun shone down on me as though I had an invisible weather shield around me, while dark masses of clouds and rain passed me by on both sides. As the coastline turned from long sandy dune beaches to folded layers of rock rising out of the briny deep, the sea state began to change from glassy to corrugated. I often enjoy paddling with a bit of texture to the water, as it keeps me focused and makes things more interesting, but what happened next turned out to be a bit more than just exciting.
All morning I had been chased by dark squalls, surrounded by rainbows that signaled incoming rain, but had so far managed to be avoided by the masses of unsettled weather. When I reached a spot on the coast that made landing nearly impossible and I was fully committed to making it to the next town 6 miles away, the sky darkened, the seas started to heave and the rains began. I zipped up the hood of my Kokatat Gore-tex Passage Anorak just before the hail began its attack, hitting hard on my hood and stinging as it pounded my nose.
Normally the sea conditions would not have caused me to worry, but as the front closed in, the seas got bigger and bigger, the wind stronger and more powerful. It became a mind game of convincing myself that it wouldn’t get any worse – that I could make it safely to harbour – and I began talking to myself. The unknown elements began to creep into my thoughts like how long the squall might last, where I might be able to land safely when I got towards the nearest town and what I might do if the worst were to happen and my boat got smashed into the rocks. It’s probably not the best plan to think of all the negative possibilities, but in my mind I was preparing myself for the worst and hoping for the best.
Just as I had my first glimpse of the distant headland that heralded safe harbour, the seas picked up even more and a wave formed, big enough to crest and surf my boat sideways towards the rocky shores. This is what we train for – the unexpected. I braced into the wave, gave out a hoot and dug in harder. There are always options in life and the options here were, 1. Get scared, overwhelmed and give up (no good outcomes promised here) or, 2. Get inspired by the power of the seas and find my own power to match it.
I put my fear in a box, thanked it for keeping me safe, and tucked it away in my mind to make room for focus. All my senses were heightened and instinct told me to paddle offshore. At least there, I would have time to solve any problems that I might encounter before getting blown dangerously close to land. The conversation with myself (yes, out loud) became positive, hopeful and even jocular as I turned my body into a powerful machine, moving through the water towards town, now coming into view.
This process I found myself engaging in is something I have practiced, though not always consciously. This is why I practice rescues in uncomfortable places, why I head out to surf waves on a beach that give me butterflies in my stomach. It is all training for the moment when you need it most, which is rarely planned, possibly overwhelming and often terrifying. The mind is a powerful tool which needs to be exercised and trained as much as the body.
I navigated my way safely into the walls of the harbour, not before a few more big decisions through and around rocky reefs and rebounding waves with the power to smash my tiny boat to pieces. I felt lucky, but in the end, it was not luck that had moved me through the water and kept me upright in blowing wind, crashing waves and pounding hail – it was my whole being. It was good preparation, the ability to turn fear into focus and being willing to be hopeful, even hilarious, throughout the ordeal.
It is easy to stay on shore, play it safe and avoid the unknowns of the ocean. But in making the decision to go, there is opportunity to learn more about your own inner will and courage than you ever thought existed. It is here that I find myself learning about when to be in control and when to let go – it is here that I am reminded and I learn to feel truly alive.
“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” – Vivian Greene
I’ve been paddling, or trying to paddle, the Cardigan Bay coast in Wales. It has been tough going with weather forecasts haunting my journey. I’ve only been able to make it 40 Nm and have been land bound for 3 of 5 days. I will have to return to finish the coastline. It feels very worthwhile!
These are just a few clips of my Vlog project… Raw, unedited and real. Kayaking is full of surprises and decisions, but maybe that’s why we do it. It is a pure adventure. You never know what might happen and there are always surprises that the weather dishes out!!
Sometimes you go out for a surf and you get skunked… but sometimes there are some gems in that video you didn’t even know were there!!! Here is a bit of silliness for your afternoon viewing pleasure! Enjoy!
I forgot to write you a letter last night. Apparently you noticed…
This morning when I woke up, I found a stack of my old letters to you dating back to 1983. Was this intentional or did one of your elves just leave it lying around? I’ll assume, until I find otherwise, that you meant to do this; I’ve never know your jolly laugh and the twinkle in your eye to contain malcontent (they were also wrapped up with a tiny bow… good hint). In re-reading these precious letters I wrote to you and your replies in return, I have learned 2 things.
- I was probably a frustrating kid to have around because I was always asking questions. It seems my perspective on you, Santa, changed when I was about 8 (that’s probably quite normal eh?). You became less of a physical manifestation of giving and more of a symbol, something that was bigger than a physical entity ever could be. But somehow, I never stopped writing to you… maybe writing is a bridge that connects the tangible with the intangible. On my 17th Christmas, I wrote you a heartfelt letter and you replied by fax (they were amazing times weren’t they?). My mother and father mirrored your words and spirit back to me in this way. Since then, Santa, you haven’t written in reply, but I still feel your spirit mirrored back to me by the wonderful people in my life and so I still leave out a bit of rum and some cookies for you by the fireplace, just in case.
Through my correspondence with you, Santa, I have been able to work though, transform and begin to deeply understand the spirit of giving.
2. This gift, Santa, of a pile of Christmas letters, is essentially an emotional bomb you have deposited under my tree. It carries me back in my imagination to times of lighting candles with warm hands, barely being able to sleep for excitement of Christmas day, snuggling up with mom and dad to open stalking gifts at 5am, eating together with family and lots and lots of laughter. In my remembrance of these times, I am joyous, but there is a twinge of the blade of this double edged sword that is memory. Alongside the joyous memories, I also feel the pain and longing for those people I cannot share this time with, that those memories encapsulate that which can never be again…this is a hard reality to acknowledge. This is what I feel I am learning this Christmas:
Thank you, Santa, for reminding me the value of memory and for HIGHLIGHTING the need to continue to make new memories without the fear of not having them ever again. To live into this gift of life wholly, requires a necessary dose of reflection, coupled with an equal dose of being here, now and living and laughing with a light heart.
Wishing you all love and light this cold (in the Northern Hemisphere, that is) season!! Happy Solstice and Merry Christmas!
Check it out!! James Manke, Roger Chandler and I met up with the Phantom Riders from Argentina for a little surf while we were in Chile! Check it out!
Big thanks to Pueblo Expeditions and #SKPS
I find myself, once again, in South America – Amongst the smell of burning wood stoves, delicious wines, rich Mapuche culture and an opportunity to remember what it is to open the heart to new experiences.
I have no illusions about my luck in this world, that I am presented with the opportunity to live this life wholly and I am not about to waste it.
I have spent the last 2 weeks in the mountain town of Pucon taking in experiences like Puesco Fest – A celebration of whitewater paddling, indigenous culture and in support of Patagonia Sin Represas (Patagonia, Without Dams). I have rediscovered the joy and wonder associated with marrying the physical challenge offered through paddling tough new rivers and the awe/wonder found in enjoying the forests and river banks in between rapid sets.
My struggle as a traveller has been in wanting to feel like I am more than just an onlooker – to find meaning and relevance within a lifestyle of moving from place to place. I feel a deep longing to contribute more, to DO more, and this feels challenging when I find myself in transition so often.
What I am learning – or perhaps relearning – is that the feeling that I need to be constantly DOING might be a bit of a trick. What I mean by this, is that the push I feel to be constantly doing something “important” does not necessarily leave room for the magic and mystery that comes from being open, receptive and in embracing the gifts offered through living in a place of not knowing what might happen next.
There is magic in the places of not knowing and the frustration I feel bubbling up from not being able to settle into a “meaningful” routine gives me pause to reflect on what is meaningful in routine anyway.
Sometimes, I find, that to abandon this push/pull of our culture to contribute something earth shattering and groundbreaking obscures my ability to be open to new things and to expand my way of being in the world – in essence the desire to be always ACTING limits my perspective, where perhaps being patient and receptive makes space for new and inspiring ideas.
I am now getting ready to head to Chaihuin on the Chilean coast for el Simposio de Kayak Pacifico Sur and again I am reminded that paddling itself might offer the same lessons I have described above – which is what draws me to it in the first place. Setting out to sea in its often unpredictable waters, perhaps one of the greatest mysteries to us as terrestrial beings, highlights the need to be open, receptive and to embrace change as it is happening. Both the sea and the act of travelling teaches me to be flexible, to be open to the reality of changing plans. It carries me to places of both immense challenge and surreal beauty – not to mention the beautiful people I get to share this time with.
So I shall continue this method of exploration on the water and through the world in a manner of living this life “sin prisa y sin pausa” (without haste and without pause). The balance I seek does not feel like a struggle between action and inaction, instead it feels like learning to operate as a creative, active being while also being open and receptive enough to let the lessons find me.
It has been a whirlwind these last few months. I say that with the lightest of hearts and with the utmost gratitude! I had a wonderful time at the Bay of Fundy Sea Kayak Symposium in Argyle, Nova Scotia – hosted by Committed 2 the Core. The hospitality and food there is unbeatable, not to mention the faces of a vibrant Sea Kayak Community!
Then I was whisked down to Pacific City, Oregon to attend Lumpy Waters Symposium hosted by Alder Creek Canoe & Kayak. As always, it was an amazing time of fun coaching, lively spirits and I even was brought to expose my little known passion for singin’ my little heart out in front of a crowd. It is not every day that we get to be vulnerable like that in front of so many people…to me this speaks miles for the community to which I belong.
Since this fall whirlwind of paddling and symposium I have taken some time to reflect. More and more I am listening to the wise voice within and learning to create some quality time for me – Learning to heed my own teachings. In guide training programs and incident management scenarios for sea kayaking, we always teach a certain “order of operations” as it relates to a rescue scenario:
“Who is the most important person in any rescue?”
Answer: Me the rescuer.
Then it follows that we secure the safety of the group and finally we take care of the person in need. Without making sure you, the rescuer – the actor in the scenario, is safe and secure first, the potential outcome of the rescue begins to look less favourable. This is some advice I am learning to use in my day to day life.
In the buzz and excitement of what makes up the whirlwind that I have only begun to describe above, I find myself feeling unable to find time to recharge in a meaningful, reflective way. The excuse that so often comes up is, “I have no time.” I think I have learned this lesson before…
In my 3rd season of guiding on Vancouver Island, working trip after trip, back to back, cooking all day, guiding 8 people in the Canadian wilderness… I was almost burnt out. I was exhausted and although I loved sharing guided wilderness experiences with guests from around the world, I was close to tears by the end of July. Perhaps I was just about at my breaking point, just on the edge of total exhaustion when I realized that I could literally cut wood and carry water, chop onions and fix tarps all day. The list of things that need to get done might never end, so unless I could stop, MAKE TIME and do something for me, I might never FIND TIME.
I learned that summer to stop and read for 20 minutes at a time; To go and sit near the waters edge for 15 minutes and breath deeply; To take some time to listen to the stars at night. By the end of the summer I felt better than when I had started. The funny thing was, is that even though I was taking time away from cutting wood and carrying water, the busy stuff… the trips continued to run smoothly, maybe better.
It is a simple lesson, it seems and I have clearly learned it at least once before. What feels different this time is that I listened to the call well before I became overwhelmed… like a precautionary does of self love. To rediscover the wild parts of the self that are waiting to be heard. Ahh… sweet excitement in the knowledge that I am learning to listen to the call and more importantly learning how to to answer.
“Now, looking through the slanting light of the morning window
toward the mountain presence of everything that can be
what urgency calls you to your one love?
What shape waits in the seed of you
to grow and spread its branches
against a future sky?”
– David Whyte
Birthdays, signposts & celebrations!!!! A day of reflection! I’m on the water today, paddling with aspiring guides! I love my work, I am grateful for my opportunities and the people who mirror myself back to me. Take a breath today and notice the magic! – It is everywhere if only we can find the eyes to see!