Thursday, May 31, 2012

The pleasures of a Level 4 class

It's not often that we get to coach higher-level classes. In the great pyramid of kayak lessons, beginners form the base. Comparatively few people seek out instruction after they're solid intermediates.*

So it was a pleasure for Sharon to spend Memorial Day weekend teaching a Level 4 Open Water Kayak Training for Geneva Kayak Center with Scott Fairty, one of our coaching mentors. Designed to help participants work on the skills they'll need for an American Canoe Association Level 4 coastal skills assessment or a British Canoe Union four-star sea leader assessment, this course simulates tidal features by using the Menominee River in Wisconsin and then chases exciting conditions on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior for wind, waves and surf.

The large-volume Menominee River provides current and class I and II rapids--perfect for  working on eddy turns, peel-outs, attainments and ferry glides.
The Menominee is one venue that allows midwestern paddlers to develop skills needed for paddling in ocean currents. In addition to moving water, it offers eddies, overfalls and other ocean-like features. It demands precise maneuvers of paddlers who wish to avoid getting washed downstream and hung up on rocks. We spent the first day on the skills necessary to successfully enter and leave eddies, ferry across the river and attain upstream.

Storm coming in. Load the boats and head for the water!
Then, as predicted, the sky clouded over, the wind picked up, and the temperature dropped. The weather was custom-made for a Level 4 course in the Apostle Islands, so we loaded up and drove to Lake Superior, where the forecast for the next day was winds of 15 to 25 knots out of the northeast and waves of 5 to 7 feet.

Near shore, the waves were far smaller, allowing for some practice launching and maneuvering in conditions. We paddled out to Sand Island, beloved for its sea caves, where we had lunch in the refuge behind a park service building.

Lunch the the lee of a park service building.
Then we set out in search of larger waves, which we found slightly further along the shore. We paddled out into 5- to 7-foot waves with the wind howling in our ears, then turned around and paddled back with the wind and waves behind us. These are serious white-knuckle paddling conditions for intermediate paddlers; these participants impressed us with their mental and physical fortitude. They're also challenging conditions for navigation and course plotting because the wind figures into the calculation. We practiced various ways of accounting for the push of the wind, and ended the day exploring the power of the waves along the shoreline.

We debriefed over pizza ("Serves five? We'll take two of those!"), discussing paddling strategy in wind and waves, risk management, rescue strategies and other facets of the day's experience. Overnight, the winds calmed and shifted to the southwest. The next day was perfect for rock gardening, paddling through arches and poking into sea caves.

Bill paddles out between two rocks, just ahead of a surge.
Rock gardening is all about timing and stroke placement. Do it right, and it looks easy. Do it wrong and you're stuck on a rock. It's fun in its own right and great practice for paddling on the ocean.

Paddling along the sea caves.
The waves were all but gone by the afternoon, allowing us to practice extracting boats from sea caves along with other rescues. The cold water -- barely 40 degrees -- provided an incentive for quickly getting people back into their boats.

Scott showers off below a waterfall.

During the final debrief, we talked about what we had worked on and what people had learned. Everyone said they had learned new skills, some of which they had not realized they lacked and needed. Everyone knew they needed to work on the speed and efficiency of their towing and rescue skills. And everyone had fun, which, at the end of the day, is why we paddle in the first place.

*"Intermediate," of course, means different things to different people. Some cease to call themselves beginners after their first class. We would define an intermediate as someone with fairly solid boat control and a reliable roll in winds to 10 knots, rescue and self-rescue skills, knowledge of safety and environmental considerations, and the ability to be a competent member of a paddling group. The BCU three-star award defines intermediate paddler very comprehensively. But that's a post for another time. 

1 comment:

Cate Hawthorne said...

Sounds like a GREAT training with a variety of venues.