Friday, March 29, 2013

Season opener: Paddling Lake Michigan again

Still wintry, but calm and ice-free. Time to paddle!
With the ice mostly melted and the air and water temperatures in the mid to upper 30s, we decided to go on the first relatively long paddle of the season. After months of confinement in swimming pools, it was exhilarating to be out on open water yesterday.

On the Chicago River, water taxis were practicing man-overboard drills. A few hearty tourists took part in architectural boat tours.

A man-overboard drill on the Chicago River.
It took several minutes to gain the attention of the lock tender at the Chicago Harbor Lock.

"Kayakers to Chicago Locktender. Request passage from the river to the lake."
Everywhere we looked, we saw evidence of how low Lake Michigan's water level has become. The river banks are higher than they were. Previous water levels are evident on the sides of the locks, far above where the water currently laps the walls. The difference in height between the lake and the river is no more than an inch or two. Out on the lake, wooden pilings that date from the shoreline construction of the early 1900s were exposed to the air.

Paddling past the Chicago skyline.
Great Lakes freighters motored in the mid-lake shipping channel; helicopters occasionally whirred overhead. But the lake was otherwise quiet--just us, the birds, and one fishing vessel out catching perch.

In a few months, we'll be cautious about collisions with inebriated recreational boaters; now we realized there's nobody here to harm us--or help us. It was one of those low-risk, high consequences situations: the chances we'd capsize or otherwise need assistance were remote, but if anything bad were to happen, we'd be on our own in a dangerously cold environment.

Alone on the lake, and not too far from shore.
That had been part of our risk assessment before we got on the water. It affected our choice of route (near shore, 18 miles, with plenty of places to stop if necessary), timing (late morning to late afternoon, with plenty of daylight hours to spare), clothing and equipment. Light winds and a stable high pressure system added to our positive assessment. We brought a four-star kit and were prepared if the journey took longer than we had planned, and could help each other or summon help. As usual, we had also filed a float plan with trusted friends.

But all went well. Though our hands and feet were cold at times, the pleasure of being out on the lake again overwhelmed any discomfort and made us especially appreciate the miracle of hot water on demand when we got home afterward.

Loading up afterward, looking forward to getting warm again.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Why we still love the WMCKA Symposium

Thumbs up for the WMCKA symposium, one of the family friendliest paddling events in the midwest.
We have a special affection for the West Michigan Sea Kayakers Association (WMCKA) symposium. Held on Memorial Day weekend at YMCA Camp Pendalouan near Muskegon, Michigan, the WMCKA symposium is notable for:
  • World-class guest coaches/speakers. This year, Nick Cunliffe of Kayak Essentials in North Wales, will join the talented midwestern coaching staff and offer an evening presentation.
  • A huge assortment of on-land classes in the mornings. Participants can learn about navigation, weather, VHF radio use, dressing for paddling and many other essential topics.
  • An even larger assortment of on-water classes. From strokes and maneuvers to rescues and towing, the phalanx of dedicated coaches offer a myriad of courses for beginner through intermediate paddlers.
  • The beginners' track. Novice paddlers can comfortably start with courses on boat fit and wet exits, and quickly progress into courses on basic skills.
  • The kids' program. This popular program, for ages 7 to 14, helps kids build skills while playing games, and includes time on land doing summer camp activities with Camp Pendalouan's wonderful counselors.
  • BCU 3* training and assessment. Participants with intermediate skills can challenge themselves in Bonnie Perry's two-day training and opt to follow it with a one-day assessment.
  • Neptune's treasures. This pop-up consignment shop allows participants to buy and sell used gear, from wetsuits and PFDs to kayaks.
  • The sense of community. Everybody stays together at the camp, either in tents or small cabins, and eats together in the large dining hall. Evenings include speakers, parties and plenty of social time.
The dining hall. For a small fee, participants can take advantage of communal meals.
Big Blue Lake, where the on-water courses are held.
Now in its 24th year, the WMCKA Symposium is always adding something new to its offerings. This year, it is hosting a Coach Level 1 training and assessment May 21 through 21, immediately before the symposium begins.

This is the first symposium we attended--the symposium that set us on the path of long-term paddling and coaching. Registration is open, affordable, and limited to 170 participants (and 25 in the children's program). Sign up here.  

Communal (and free!) camping at Camp Pendalouan.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Body Boat Blade debuts the Haghighi on YouTube

Having spent significant time with Shawna Franklin and Leon Somme of Body Boat Blade this past year, we've become fans of the Haghighi: the extreme-edge quick turn technique created by Leon's dentist, Dan Haghighi. It's one of the skills we practice during the winter months, when we do most of our paddling in swimming pools and we need small-space challenges.

Body Boat Blade just posted it on YouTube:

In addition to the technique itself, here are some things to notice in this short video:

  • It's structured more or less in the IDEAS format, one of the go-to coaching methodologies. 
  • There are demonstrations done without talking.
  • There are multiple viewpoints and perspectives on key points.
  • They emphasize proper biomechanics to avoid injury to joints.
  • They reveal a sense of humor.

It's harder than it looks, and (as with other techniques) good coaching can help you learn to do it. If you give it a try, post your thoughts here.

Monday, March 18, 2013

What we wear now*: WoolCore by Kokatat

Over the past several years, we've moved away from polypropylene and polyester thermal layers and toward merino wool, which feels great, insulates even when wet, effectively wicks moisture away from our skin, and doesn't get stinky like synthetics. But the wool tops and pants we own aren't designed for paddling, and they have seams that can chafe when we spend hours on the water.

Alec in his WoolCore after a comfortable day paddling in 36 degree air temps and 16 knot winds. (He wore it under his dry suit liner and dry suit.)
So when we heard that Kokatat was going to make paddling-specific merino wool insulating layers, we were excited. The new WoolCore garments are made of a 50/50 blend of merino wool and polyester. They merino comes from non-mulesed New Zealand sheep; the polyester is added to enhance durability and speed drying time. All of the cutting as sewing are done in California.

We each got a pair last November. We were surprised by how light they were and wondered whether they would provide sufficient warmth. But we were impressed with the fit. The arms are slightly shorter than usual to keep them from extending under dry suit gaskets--a feature that worked well for Sharon but not for Alec, whose shoulder-width to sleeve-length ratio is unusually high. The back is slightly longer, providing good coverage while seated. The waist band on the women's pants are especially nice--a wide, yoga pant-like band, ideal for people (like Sharon) who don't like an elastic band around their waist. Best of all, there are no seams on the shoulders to cause chafing under a PFD, or under the armpits to cause chafing during repeated paddling motion. This is achieved by the large gussets under the armpits.

The jersey-style neck falls below the dry suit gasket.
The large gussets under the arms ensure no seams where they can cause chafing.
The wide, flat waistband on the women's pants is especially comfortable.
We put them to the paddling test, wearing them as the first layer next to our skin. They were very comfortable, wicked moisture exceptionally well, and didn't stink after days of repeated use. Even though they started to pill a little bit after several months of wearing and washing, they haven't lost their shape. Adding them beneath one other light to mid-weight layer made all the difference; we now use them when we would otherwise use silk-weight BaseCore. They've become our go-to base layer for paddling, and we've found ourselves wearing them for cross-country skiing and other outdoor activities, too. (But because the WoolCore isn't completely opaque, these garments aren't ideal for wearing to the pub or on the street.)

Other information about WoolCore:
  • Shirts are available in men's S through XXL and women's S through XL, and in long and short sleeves.
  • Pants are available in men's and women's sizes S through XL. 
  • Color choices are grey or charcoal.
  • Fabric weight is 140 grams per square meter, which is 10 grams lighter than the lightest versions offered by Ibex, Icebreaker and Smartwool, but 10 grams heavier than Kokatat's all-synthetic silk weight Basecore base layer.
  • Price is comparable to equivalent weight merino wool products: $74 for pants and long-sleeve shirts; $70 for short-sleeve shirts.
* What we wear now is an occasional series in which we highlight paddling clothing that works.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Save yourself! The scramble demystified in 20 minutes

Comparing notes before the start of our pool session.
Our pool presentation at Canoecopia 2013 was on the kayak self-rescue known as the scramble. Our goal was to show the rescue, explain how to do it effectively and efficiently, answer questions from people who've found it difficult to execute, and have fun in the process.

Warming up by playing on our boats as people came in and found places to sit and stand.
The keys to success with this rescue are:
  • maintaining your grip on the boat and paddle
  • finding the best position for getting on the back deck 
  • floating your body to the surface before launching on to the back deck
  • pulling the boat under you, not yourself onto the boat
  • establishing and maintaining balance while pivoting to face the bow
  • getting into a "jockey" position
  • moving forward, thighs to wrists, until you're over the seat
  • dropping into the seat and maintaining balance while bringing your feet in
Most of the questions involved problems with:
  • gear management
  • getting on the boat
  • moving toward the cockpit
  • maintaing balance
To address these, we shared strategies that work for paddlers who are larger or less agile than we are. We also demonstrated that with good technique, this rescue works even if you have long legs or a very large chest.

Sharon getting up on the back deck wearing two PFDs.
Back on the boat in spite of the extra large chest.
We shared several games that help develop the skills this rescue requires. Judging by the smiles on faces all around us, we weren't the only ones enjoying ourselves.

It's helpful to have a strict time limit. With only 20 minutes per pool session, we had to focus on the essentials and make every minute count. We're hopeful that with practice and good coaching, those who came to our presentation will be more successful with their future self-rescues.

Thanks to Keith Wikle and Aaron Litchfield for taking photos while we were on the water.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Canoecopia 2013: It's not a small world after all

We often talk about paddlesports being a small world. But when most of the major manufacturers of boats, paddles, clothing and gear, along with clubs and organizations, outfitters and publications, come together under one roof in March, it feels pretty big. Add more than a hundred presentations in meeting rooms and a swimming pool, and more than 20,000 visitors, and Canoecopia earns its claim of bring the largest paddlesports consumer event in the world.

Dusting off a canoe before the crowd comes in.
We arrived early this year to help set up a table for The Gales Storm Gathering, the intermediate/advanced, bumpy water sea kayaking instructional event that will be held October 11 to 13 in the Apostle Islands.

Keith Wikle taping the new banners behind the booth.
We also got the update on the current line of spray skirts and pogies from Scott Lynch, who represents Snap Dragon Design at Canoecopia and spent more than a decade working in the paddlesports industry before launching his dream business: La Fortuna, a mobile wood-fired pizza business. (Like so many people in this business, he wears several hats.)

Scott Lynch explains the construction and features of the Glacier Trek spray skirt. Durable Snap Dragon skirts feature a one-piece spray deck and graduated levels of bungee tension depending on the model you buy.
We were double agents (at least--perhaps quadruple agents) at Canoecopia this year. We were vendors in the Snap Dragon booth, exhibitors at the Gales and CASKA tables, speakers at the swimming pool, and customers eager to soak it all in.  And there was a lot to absorb. As usual, we prowled the aisles looking for new products and innovations.

Sharon tries on the new Kokatat Maximus Prime PFD, a whitewater rescue vest that really fits smaller paddlers (and larger ones, too). This vest has especially wide shoulder straps and webbing adjustments in the front, making it easier to get a snug fit, even on a short torso.
Level 6 offers a Creek Boot with a wide toe bed and a  grippy, flexible and sturdy sole. Designed by Level 6 co-founder and Canadian Slalom Team racer Stig Larsson, it's slim enough to to bend and fit in a boat but sturdy enough to protect your soles during a portage.
North Water offers the tow systems preferred by most of the top paddlers and coaches in North America.
Alec checks out the P&H Delphin 150, which launched a new category of sea kayaks designed to excel in surf and play spots.
Canoecopia also offers a rare opportunity to talk with the designers, sales managers and often the founders of the companies that make the boats and gear we use. It's a chance to hear talks by and engage in conversation with all kinds of paddlers on all kinds of topics. And even though we always say there's nothing more we need, we end up buying something new and exciting. This year it was kneeling pads and painter rope for our canoe, and one new shirt apiece. We'll be back next year.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

TSA permits billiard cues aboard. Why not paddles?

The Transportation Security Administration announced yesterday that beginning on April 25, several items will be removed from the Prohibited Items List. In addition to small knives (with many size and type restrictions), passengers will be permitted to bring aboard billiard cues, hockey and lacrosse sticks, ski poles, and up to two golf clubs.

Now that you can bring hockey sticks on board airplanes,
shouldn't you be able to bring kayak and canoe paddles?
But not kayak and canoe paddles, which are still prohibited. When we plug "canoe paddle" into the TSA's "When I fly, can I bring my..." online interactive feature, it replies that canoe and kayak paddles are "sports equipment that can be used as a bludgeon (such as bats and clubs)" and they are therefore "prohibited in the cabin of the plane and must be transported in your checked baggage."

Wait. Golf clubs are OK but paddles are not? We called for clarification. In response, we received this email reply from David A. Castelveter, Director of External Communications for the TSA's Office of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs:

"Sorry Sharon, but for security reasons we are not able to discuss why certain items remain on the prohibited items list."

Let's see. Golf clubs, which have been used to murder people, can be carried on board airplanes even though they are unlikely to be damaged when checked; meanwhile paddles, which are ill-suited to combat and more fragile, can't be carried on board. (We typed "murdered with a golf club" into Google and got 33,800 results. "Hit with a kayak paddle" yielded just five, and none involved aggression, let alone murder.)

Aggressive canoeists aren't the TSA's only concern, of course. Checkpoint efficiency also figures into these decisions. "Imagine how congested the checkpoint would be if under the existing screening procedures we allowed a broader array of items, such as paddles, oars, ski poles, snow board, water skis and the likes," Castelveter noted.

But again, we find this disingenuous. How many canoeists and kayakers travel with paddles? (Not many per day, we would venture.)  And does it really take longer to scan a paddle than it takes to scan any other carry-on item?

Clearly, the golf lobby is more effective than the paddlesports lobby.

If this bothers you, send a message to the TSA Contact Center at or call 1.866.289.9673 and tell them why paddles ought to be permitted on board. And please post your letter here in comments, too, for others to see.