Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ironies of paddling, part three

Paddling along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

When students sign up for day trips during a kayak symposium, they typically are given a choice of beginner or intermediate trips. Those who plan and lead the trips take a few things into consideration in determining the skill level of a trip: distance, length and number of crossings*, and overall potential for conditions**.
Students who sign up for trips are supposed to take only one thing into consideration: their own paddling proficiency.
But how are they supposed to know whether they are beginner or intermediate paddlers? Those are vast and highly subjective categories. Is a beginner a complete novice? Someone who has paddled only occasionally? Someone who can't break three knots without a tail wind? Someone who hasn't paddled that distance before? Or someone who's just terribly insecure or paddles with too many people with greater skills and experience?
I (Sharon) regarded myself as a beginner well into my third year of kayaking. Yeah, I had a reliable roll and could paddle pretty hard and pretty far, but I was paddling with some fairly spectacular kayakers, like Bonnie Perry and Andrea Knepper (and Alec, who is slightly embarrassed that I've mentioned him here), and by comparison I felt like a novice.
A few days ago, I helped lead a 12-mile trip along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. It was billed as an intermediate trip, and 17 students signed up. By the standards I set for myself, none of them were true intermediates, and the trip was challenging and exhausting for many of them. But they all made it and they all had a good time. This trip was a serious stretch for many of them, but by taking it on, they improved their skills and their confidence.
So were they intermediate paddlers after all? Probably not, and they certainly had no business attempting that trip on their own. But with five instructors to guide them and handle the issues that arose (which included issuing a "securite"*** to motor boats we couldn't see through the fog, executing a rescue close to the cliffs, and towing one paddler for five miles), they were intermediate enough for this trip.
In any case, I'm glad they didn't ask me before signing up. So here's the irony: Even though they had less experience and training than me, they improved my understanding of what a beginner or intermediate trip truly is.

* crossings are non-coastal portions of trips when paddlers are more exposed and less able to take refuge at shore.
** conditions refers to wind, waves, fog and weather.
*** "securite" is a notice to mariners over channel 16 (the emergency channel).


DaveO said...

Nice post. We (Kathy and I) were also up at GLSKS and likely met you. Kathy enjoyed working with Lyn and Bonnie on traditional stuff. For some reason whether its kayaking, skiing, or anything else, most people tend to inflate their own skill level. Sounds like a good thing you guys had 5 instructors!

bpfamily said...

I think having an exaggerated sense of your own skill is a symptom of being good enough to quickly gain beginner competence but having little idea of the depth of skill a sport requires.
Thanks for commenting, Dave O!