Monday, August 20, 2012

First aid and boat repair kits: what we used

It's a basic tenet of safe paddling: Bring what you need to fix whatever goes wrong with your boat or your body, and know how to use it. Boat repair and first aid kits are permanent fixtures in our day hatches--essentials we're happy to have and hope not to use.

Our compact boat repair ( in waterproof Pelican box) and first aid kits.
Before a longer trip, it's especially important to reassess the contents of both kits. In preparation for our recent wilderness trip, we considered the things we were most likely to need and added several items to our standard kit:
  • epipens (in case of anaphylaxis)
  • prednisone (in case of severe allergic reactions)
  • antibiotics (in case of infection)
  • inhalers (in case of asthma). 
Our first aid kit with additions; we stored it in a dry bag.
Wilderness Medical Associates offers a helpful guide to assembling a wilderness first aid kit. We suggesting buying a basic first aid kit and modifying it for your needs. In the end, you have to make choices about what and how much to bring.

We also restocked our repair kits with additional materials for fixing leaks, holes, lost hatch covers and jammed skegs. Here, too, we made choices and left a spare skeg cable at home.

We used the first aid kit twice (not including regular provision of ibuprofen--or "vitamin i," as it's commonly known). Both incidents happened on land, which isn't surprising when you compare the risks during paddling (mostly repetitive stress injuries, which are unlikely if you have good technique, but possibly injuries caused by impact during a rescue) with the risks while carrying heavy boats, climbing on rocks, using knives and fire to prepare meals, and walking around in the dark.

Sharon sustained the first injury during lunch about a week into the trip. Perched on a rock, holding her rescue knife (with which she had just sliced cheese--one of its main uses), she reached for a falling water bottle and cut deeply into one of her fingers. It bled profusely, which was great for ensuring it was clean, but it required bandaging to stay closed and heal without infection. We were happy to have antibiotic cream, waterproof bandages and nitrile gloves to protect it (not to mention Alec, who has both Wilderness First Responder and EMT certifications). For several days afterwards, Sharon was our "super villain," complete with lavender glove.

Sharon protecting her bandageded finger from infection (and pretending she lost half  of it). Photo courtesy of John Fleming.
Keith sustained the second injury on the final night of the trip. Walking in the dark on the beach, he kicked a log and split open one of his toes. Alec used a syringe to thoroughly clean the wound, and then antibiotic cream, gauze and vet tape to protect it. For these two injuries, we had everything we needed, but we realized we should also have had an anti-fungal cream because of the potential for fungal infections from all the time we spent in wet neoprene gear.

Our boat repair kit partially unpacked.
We had only one boat repair, when Sharon's back hatch filled with water and we discovered a chunk of fiberglass missing from the skeg box. We repaired it with vinyl seam repair tape--a remarkable sealant that sticks to wet and dry surfaces, is stable and nontoxic, and comes off with acetone when you're ready to do a permanent boat repair. (We bought it in bulk and are happy to sell the excess length for $4 a foot; contact us if you're interested.)

Removing the repair tape after returning home. It successfully kept water from entering a chipped skeg box.

We also had one boat modification; we used the tape to attach two pieces of foam to Sharon's seat to relieve pressure on her tailbone. (Sharon was paddling a NDK Pilgrim, since her Avocet LV doesn't have sufficient storage capacity for longer trips.) We didn't actually have foam in our boat repair kit, but we had some in a camera bag. Materials that can serve two purposes are especially handy when you're trying to minimize weight and volume.

These incidents reinforce the importance of checking and reassessing your boat repair and first aid kits. They should include everything you might need, and you should know when and how to use everything they contain. They should also be kept in an accessible location -- we keep them in our day hatches -- and be in waterproof containers.

The seat issue was also a reminder that it's not a great idea to change anything significant before a long trip. Sharon had not paddled the Pilgrim for several long days in a row, so the seat issue didn't arise before the trip. Fortunately, we had foam and were able to successfully modify it.

Finally, the medical incidents highlight the importance of caution on land, not just on the water, especially when you're in a remote place where help is not available, because ultimately, prevention is better than a cure.
A typical beautiful and slippery cobble beach in Pukaskwa National Park.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Paddling gear for trips: what worked well

Our recent trip along the coasts of Pukaskwa National Park and the Lake Superior Highlands was a great opportunity to test a variety of gear. In addition to our ongoing quest for a paddling shoe that fits, protects and lasts--the holy grail of kayaking, we're convinced--we've been assessing the performance of clothing, camping equipment, camera bags and other accessories.

On a wilderness trip, every piece of gear has to justify its weight and space in the hatches.
We put our gear to the test over the course of a 120-mile wilderness trip. Here's what we concluded.


Kokatat's Portage paddling booty.
Paddling booties: We've been on a quest for a booty that fits as well as the NRS Sasquatch Water Shoe but has a more durable sole. (We've each gone through two pairs of the Sasquatch in one season.) Sharon is sold on the Kokatat Portage shoe, which is roomy enough in the toe bed, has a strong and grippy sole, and has a snug enough cuff to keep feet in and pebbles out. We like the Portage's clean exterior (no loose cords to catch on foot pegs) and the internal lacing system that snugs up the boot. The sizing is unisex and only goes down to six. Ordinarily a women's size six or seven, Sharon was pleased to find that the unisex six fit well with a pair of wool socks underneath, with or without the addition of Gore-tex drysuit booties. Oddly, the larger size didn't appear to have a wider toe bed, and Alec found the shoe too tight. He is still wearing the NRS Desperado Shoe while he continues his search for the perfect paddling footwear. (Portage retail: $72)

Morning yoga--or something like it--in paddling gear.
Paddling clothing: We were confronted with the Lake Superior clothing conundrum. The air and water were unusually warm: daytime air temperatures were in the 70s, and the water was in the mid-60s. But there was potential for cooler, windy and rainy weather. Drysuits would be have been too warm, so the challenge was bringing the correct layers to cover the possible temperature range and keep us comfortable during long days on the water. On the warmest days, Alec wore his Kokatat Destination Paddling Shirt, which provides UPF 40+, and is quick drying and comfortable; Sharon wore a short-sleeved Immersion Research jacket, which is no longer produced. In cooler weather, both of us were dry and comfortable thanks to our Kokatat Gore-tex Paddling Jackets, which are still holding up after more than six year of serious use. Underneath, we wore short-sleeved wool or rash guard shirts to prevent chafing. Nearly every day, we both wore our Kokatat Surfskin pants, which have a thin, windproof rubber layer over fleece. Since we got them three years ago, they've been our go-to layer when it's not quite cold enough for drysuits. The Surfskin pants were terrific on all but the warmest days. Sadly, they aren't proving as durable as our other gear; the rubber is cracking in many places. They are a favorite clothing item, though, and we will replace them. (Destination Shirt retail: $73; Gore-tex Paddling Jacket retail: $409; Surfskin Pants retail: $120)


The MSR Twing, erected with paddles.
Wing shelter: A decent shelter can make all the difference between comfort and misery on a cold, rainy day. A better-than-decent shelter is durable, lightweight, packs up small, and is easy to erect. The MSR Twing satisfies all of these requirements. It is 6 by 8 inches packed, weighs just 2 1/4 pounds in its bag, and it provides 68 square feet of protection when erected (plenty of space for the four of us and some of our gear). During our one weather day, when 35-knot winds whipped the lake and our campsite, we lounged under the Twing--supported by two paddles--and stayed dry and comfortable. (Retail: $280)

Ground cloth: That red ground cloth under the Twing is another of our favorite items: the Grabber SPACE All Weather Blanket. This 5-by-7-foot, 12-ounce tarp is silver on one side, red on the other, and folds neatly into the bottom of a day hatch, where it keeps everything from rattling around. We use it nearly every time we paddle because it provides a clean surface for picnics, helps protect our drysuits from whatever we're sitting on, and can be used as a space blanket or signaling device. (Retail: $17)

Our Mountain Hardware LightWedge 2 tent on a particularly windy day, secured with rocks and boats.
Tent: We love our tent! The Mountain Hardware LightWedge 2 is roomy (for low-volume paddlers like us) and has a vestibule large enough to keep an Ikea bag worth of essentials protected. It's quick and easy for one person to pitch and take down, and weighs just over five pounds packed. We divided it into several bags and stowed them in various places in our boats. (Retail: $250)

Luxury: The Crazy Creek Hex 2.0 Chair.
Seating: OK, it's true. We could have sat on the ground (as we have in the past ), and we certainly would have if we hadn't been able to fit any chairs in our hatches. But the Crazy Creek Hex 2.0 Chair rolls up into a 4-inch-diameter cylinder and weights just 21 ounces, so we pushed them into the narrow spots next to our skegs and hardly knew they were there. And what a luxury they were! No matter what the surface, we had a cushioned seat and back support. (Note that in order to keep these chairs svelt, they aren't as padded as the old style.) We called them our "gravity wells" because once we sat down in them, it was difficult to get up again. (Retail price: $52)

Sharon prepares a meal on the MSR Dragonfly.
Stove: MSR continues to impress us with its effective, field-repairable gear. We've had our Dragonfly
stove for about a decade and see no reason to replace it with anything newer and flashier. Sure, it sounds like a jet engine, but it can boil a pot of water in a few minutes or simmer a stew so it doesn't stick to the pot. It can run on a variety of fuels, and it folds up into one of our medium-size cooking pots. In addition, it's efficient: Over the course of nine days, we used only 20 ounces of fuel for two cooked meals a day. (Retail: $130)

Other equipment

The Ortleib Aqua Cam bag.
Camera bag: You don't want to take any chances when you're carrying a DSLR camera and lenses on a wilderness trip. The bag must be waterproof, protect the camera from bumps, be convenient to hike with on land, fit nicely into a kayak hatch, and be easy to open and close. The Ortleib Aqua Cam fits all those criteria and is pretty darn stylish, too. It comes with adjustable foam pads that form two storage spaces on either side of the camera (we used these for a spare lenses on one side, and cleaning supplies and filters on the other) and a shoulder strap. The large version kept our Nikon D7000, safe and accessible throughout the trip. (Retail price: $115)

Alec naps on a rock, protected by his cag.
Cag: No review of gear we love would be complete without an homage to our storm cags. The ones we have are made of siliconized fabric. Waterproof and completely unbreathable, they quickly warm us up when we take a break on shore, and they can even be worn on the water and secured to the cockpit coaming. Although the company that made ours no longer exists, storm cags are still available from Kokatat, Reed and Seals. (Retail: $200-330)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Why we chose to paddle Pukaskwa

Well, yeah, because it's there, but there's so much more to it than that. And yeah, because our good friend Keith Wikle suggested we paddle it together with him and John Fleming, but that isn't the whole story, either.

Alec and Keith strike a balance.
We chose to paddle the coastline of Pukaskwa National Park and the Lake Superior Highlands in Ontario because it provides a glimpse of what the Great Lakes were like before industry and development altered them irrevocably. It's truly remote: one road at Hattie Cove, another one at Michipicoten Harbor 120 miles later, and between them nothing but wilderness and pristine waters. This coastline requires complete self-sufficiency. Paddlers must bring everything they need and be able to solve problems that arise without assistance from others, because they are unlikely to find anyone else around.

This shoreline is so remote, you're unlikely to see another paddler for days at a stretch.
A trip like this requires significant planning and preparation. That's part of the attraction. You have to make a raft of good choices about everything from what boat you'll paddle to what food you'll bring, as well as how you'll handle anything that goes wrong with equipment, the weather or the health of the group.

Keith and Sharon on a windy day.
We began by creating a Google Doc, where we shared information in the following categories:
  • Expectations: distance per day, daily schedule, priorities. 
  • Logistics: shuttle, float plan, back country permits.
  • Gear: from first aid and boat repair kits to stoves, water filters and bear bags.
  • Emergencies: medical issues, medications, emergency contacts, extraction plan.
  • Group sharing: medical conditions, phobias and insecurities (bears, snakes, hunger, baldness).
  • Resources: maps, books, campsite info.
Then we met in person to go over the list, discuss some of the items on it and ensure that we shared the key expectation for the trip: that it would be a somewhat leisurely exploration of the coastline, not a race to complete the mileage, and would include plenty of time for taking photos, poking into crevices, hiking to waterfalls and drinking whiskey around a campfire.

Keith, John and Alec chill out around a campfire (one of our priorities).
Individually, we spent time assembling our gear. We bought and dried food, marked and laminated maps, checked our boat repair and first aid kits, assembled camping equipment, and verified that we could fit all of it in our boats. Until the last minute, we were calling and texting each other with questions and suggestions; the trip was a group effort long before we got on the water together.

Ultimately, that's one of the main reasons why we chose to do this trip. Paddling requires a considerable amount of individual knowledge, judgment and skill; paddling in a remote place requires a level of self-sufficiency that puts all of these to the test; Pukaskwa offers the potential for big seas and bad weather along with stunning scenery and solitude; paddling with others adds a level of complexity. The process of planning and executing a wilderness trip with friends challenges and builds leadership and group awareness skills, and rewards that effort with the pleasure of sharing the experience on the water. Paddling Pukaskwa together was a culmination of all our effort to become good paddlers, good leaders and good friends. Doing so successfully validated all three and was a tremendous amount of fun.

The four of us at Cascade Falls.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Cross-training our paddling and coaching

Sharon interpreting daily marine forecasts during a wilderness trip.
This has been an unusual summer for us. Ordinarily, we spend much of the season coaching locally and at symposia around the midwest. But this year, we opted to expand our horizons, literally and figuratively.

Alec and Matt chart a course in the San Juan islands.
We spent most of July in the San Juan islands, paddling in dynamic ocean currents and coaching for Body Boat Blade International; we spent the first two weeks of August on a wilderness trip along the northeast shore of Lake Superior.

John, Sharon and Keith assess conditions on Lake Superior.
Why vary the routine? Three reasons:

  • Paddling with a variety of people in a variety of environments is a great way to gain both knowledge and experience.
  • Coaching with a variety of people in a variety of environments is a great way to challenge our creativity and develop new approaches.
  • Personal paddling complements coaching. It puts everything we teach into practice and reminds us of our goal for our students: enabling them to safely paddle independently.
And besides, we've been longing to do more kayaking on the ocean and with friends!

Leon and Alec play in a slot in the rocks.

We'll devote the next few posts to reflecting on some of what we learned this summer--ideas that have affected our coaching, our paddling, our trip planning or our perspective.