Thursday, May 19, 2011

Mary The Kayak Lady: One Woman, One Kayak, 1007 Lakes

At a time when everyone seems to be so enamored of the big feats of kayaking (crossing the Atlantic, circumnavigating Australia), it was refreshing to read about a woman who simply chose to make it her goal to kayak on all the lakes in her county.  No sponsors, no website, no blog.  However, if you live in Itasca County, Minnesota, that may not be as simple a goal as it sounds.  The first problem is that she lives in the "land of 10,000 lakes".  Her county claimed to have 1007 lakes while the DNR's official lake list "only" included 945.  It took her eleven years to get to the 945 lakes on the DNR list, and then she made it a quest to find the 62 other bodies of water that were considered "lakes" under DNR criteria.

The author, Mary Shideler, chooses to highlight just a small sampling of her experiences during the many years that she paddled on these lakes.  Her life circumstances change over time, and she changes over time, as well.  The chapters are illustrated with photos taken by Mary and her friends.  The photos are nothing spectacular in an artistic sense, but their inclusion gives us a clearer picture of Mary and her personality.

While paddling on the lakes, Mary also attempted to add to the body of information about the lakes in her county by taking depth measurements and water clarity readings on each lake with a Secchi disk.

At a mere 142 pages including dozens of photos, this is a quick and easy read.  It may not be worthy of a national bestseller, but in it's own way, it may be an important inspiration to other paddlers to get out and set a big goal for themselves.  It isn't always necessary to paddle around a continent to be an accomplished kayaker.


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"Ten Rivers: Adventure Stories from the Arctic"

For the time being, I have decided to keep the Paddler's Book Club blog with the blessing of its creator, Rick I. However, it is going to be more of a book review format rather than an "Oprah"-like read and discuss book club format. I still invite your comments, but each blog post will be devoted to a single book.

I just recently finished reading the book, "Ten Rivers: Adventure Stories from the Arctic" by Ed Struzik. While not easily found on sites like, this book can also be found published under the title, "Ten Rivers Run Through It: Adventure Stories from the Arctic." It is published by CanWest Books Inc. copyright 2005.

I stumbled across this book as I was doing research on paddling the Thomsen River on Banks Island in the Northwest Territories of Canada. There is a chapter in the book on the Thomsen River which is mainly why I bought the book. Other chapters cover trips that the author has done on the Nahanni, Mackenzie, Snowdrift, Nanook, Firth, Brown, Cunningham, Taggart, and Back Rivers. Most of the trips were done using canoes, although the chapters on the Brown Cunningham, and Taggart Rivers are an exception.

The book is a very readable 228 pages, full of information about the history and wildlife of these Arctic rivers. Unlike many adventure travel narratives, Struzik does not get bogged down by giving a moment by moment account of every stroke he takes on the river. He accents the interesting highlights of each trip (both positive and negative), and gives expanded background information about the particular animals or native inhabitants of the region through which he is traveling. As a "map addict", I really appreciated the maps that are included at the beginning of each chapter which help to locate the river on the map of Canada as well as identifying the locations on the river which are mentioned in the text.

You can find many interesting and informative articles written by Ed Struzik, who is a science journalist, by doing an internet search of his name. He has been traveling in the Arctic for more than 30 years and has been a witness to many of the changes that have taken place as a result of climate change and human development. I plan to read his most recent book, "The Big Thaw", very soon.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Decision Time

I have finished writing about the book, "Crossing the Ditch" by James Castrission and am now at a decision point about what to do next.

I took over this blog for Rick Isaacson about a year ago as he did not have the time to carry out his plans. I don't know that I have really done justice to the vision that Rick had for this site. There was a long lapse between when Rick stopped posting and when he turned the keys over to me. The momentum and comments that were generated under Rick's watch never really rematerialized after I took over.

That being the case, and since blogging seems to take up a lot of time (for me at least), I'm at a point where I need to decide if I will continue to maintain the Paddler's Book Club blog.

If I do continue, the format of this blog would change from its current "Oprah Book Club"-type focus, which was Rick's vision, to a book review format. My blog posts would simply be reviews of paddling-related books (instructional, travel narratives, historical, etc.). Another option would be for me to return the Paddler's Book Club site to Rick and just start a whole new blog for my book reviews.

If anyone has strong feelings about this, I would appreciate hearing from you.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Expert" or "Lucky"?

How do you feel about the author, James Castrission, and his partner, Justin Jones, as a result of their having attempted and completed a crossing of the Tasman Sea? Do you view them as "expert" kayakers or were they just lucky that they weren't killed? Are they "heroes"? Do they deserve fame and adulation for their exploits? Did they deserve any "sponsorship" from the companies that gave them gear for the trip?

While there aren't a lot of people who attempt major crossings like this, there do seem to be an awful lot of paddlers who attempt very ambitious trips. In this day of social media, these trips get a lot of publicity through blogs, websites, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Some paddlers may view this as a way to rocket to the top of the kayaking world. They can become instant "experts" with street cred as long as they survive and successfully complete the trip. They will get their names and faces plastered all over paddling magazines.

In my own neck of the woods, I have seen a fair amount of attempts being made to cross Lake Michigan. Some are well-planned trips made by skilled paddlers with a desire to test their personal limits. Unfortunately, many of them are just ill-conceived plans made by inexperienced paddlers who have visions of grandeur. Thankfully, their have been no deaths, as yet, only a couple of rescues.

I suppose I have given an indication of how I feel about many of these adventures. My favorite adventurer is Ed Gillet who crossed from California to Hawaii with no fanfare or sponsors, and didn't even write a book about his trip. Whatever the reasons for his trip, they were and mostly remain his own. Most kayakers are still unaware of his name and what he did.

However, I'm curious how other people view these kinds of exploits, speaking either specifically about the Tasman Sea crossing related in "Crossing the Ditch" or generally about any such attempts. Does glorifying these people encourage unprepared paddlers to take risks that they shouldn't in hopes of grabbing their 15 minutes of fame?


Friday, February 25, 2011

Does Technology Make Kayaking Safer?

James Castrission and Justin Jones took the following items on their trip across the Tasman Sea:
  • 2 EPIRB's
  • 2 satellite phones
  • 1 laptop
  • 1 VHF radio
  • 2 handheld GPS units
  • 1 Daestra TracPlus locater beacon
  • 1 electric water desalinator
  • solar panels to recharge and power the above
Andrew McAuley took the following items on his trip across the Tasman:
  • 1 EPIRB
  • 2 satellite phones
  • 3 handheld GPS units
  • 1 Fastwave GPS tracking beacon
  • 1 VHF radio
  • solar panels to recharge and power the above
Twenty years ago, when I started kayaking, GPS was a military technology that cost thousands of dollars, assuming you could find a unit in the first place. Cell/satellite phones were likewise very rare and were bulky and heavy. There were no PLB's. EPIRB's were something that were carried on larger sea-going vessels. VHF radios were available, but you had to get a license to use one. Mostly, kayakers had to depend on their knowledge, skills, and navigation ability with a paper map and compass. If anything went wrong on a trip, you were most likely going to have to handle it on your own. On the positive side, we didn't have to depend much on electronic or battery-powered technology that has a tendency to fail in a marine environment, and focused instead on those skills that would hopefully keep us out of trouble in the first place.

Here's the $64,000 question: Is kayaking safer now with all the available tracking, navigation, and communication technologies? Or do paddlers rely too heavily on these items and put themselves into more risky situations figuring that the technology will save them when the you-know-what hits the fan?


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What is the definition of a "kayak"?

Over the years, there have been several major crossings of oceans by people using "kayaks". However, if we look at each of the actual boats used, these "kayaks" would look quite different from each other.
Of these seven expeditions, only Ed Gillet used a totally stock sea kayak without modifications. Andrew McAuley's kayak had some modifications to increase volume so he could carry enough food and gear. Romer and Lindemann used stock folding kayaks that were only modified somewhat, but they mostly sailed their kayaks and only used paddles occasionally. Bray, Doba, and Castrission/Jones paddled, but had kayaks that included a sealed cabin for sleeping.

When McAuley and the team of Castrission/Jones were making their preparations to cross the Tasman Sea, the sea kayaking legend, Paul Caffyn, expressed his feeling that using a 29-foot kayak with a cabin was essentially "cheating". It wasn't really a "kayak" in his estimation.

How do you feel about this question? What is the definition of a "kayak" for the purposes of doing a major crossing for the record books? Does it matter? And what about all the new communication technology that is available to today's adventurer? We'll address that specific issue another time. For now, let's focus on the definition of a kayak. What do you think?


Friday, February 4, 2011

Chapter 4: "You're Going To Kill Yourself"

When James and Justin tell their parents about their plans to kayak across the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand, both sets of parents are understandably upset. It was certainly not an unreasonable fear on the part of the parents that these two young men might very well die in this attempt.

This chapter brings up a larger question for everyone who participates in high-risk adventure sports. What responsibility do we have towards our family and friends, those who love and care about us and will be left to mourn if we should die or be required to care for us in the event of a crippling injury while pursuing our passion? Is there or should there be an obligation to consider the feelings of others before undertaking these kinds of trips? Is it selfish of the parents to ask their sons not to do this trip? What do you think?

My brother died in a sky-diving accident many years ago leaving a wife and small daughter. Afterwards, I have always felt a greater pressure to stay safe and make sure that nothing happens to me. At the time, I had a small son of my own and I was left as the only child to take care of my parents as they aged. Does this thought ever cross your own mind as you go kayaking?


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chapters 1-3: The Early Years

For the next several weeks (or months), we're going to be reading and discussing the book, "Crossing the Ditch" by James Castrission. This is the story of how the author and his friend, Justin Jones, successfully paddled across the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand in a custom built kayak. This adventure caused some controversy as it occurred shortly after the unsuccessful attempt by Andrew McAuley who died while making his crossing. I will move through the book chronologically by chapters, although I want to address larger questions that this story brings up, rather than rigidly adhering to the recounting of the trip.

In the first three chapters of his book, "Crossing the Ditch", the author talks about his childhood and early adult life as well as that of his paddling partner, Justin. Castrission seems to be trying to help us understand the answer to the question of "why". Why do some people seem drawn to take on these very difficult and dangerous challenges? What was driving him and his friend?

I think it is significant that James talks about the influence that his family vacations camping in Australia had on him. I used to work as a naturalist teaching environmental education programs to children. There is a strong indication that early experiences in the outdoors are important to the healthy development of a child physically, cognitively, and emotionally. Although some people might argue that kayaking across an ocean is not evidence of mental health, I think being outdoors in natural settings is something that we all need for our mental well-being. It concerns me that too many kids today are spending all their time indoors interacting in artificial environments on TV and computer screens. Would you agree or disagree?

How important do you think their early experiences were in pushing James and Justin towards attempting this crossing? Technology does play a large part in this story, and I will discuss that in future blogs, but does it concern you that we don't seem to see a lot of kids participating in paddle sports or really any human-powered outdoor pursuits? (ie. hiking, cross-country skiing, catching frogs at the pond?) What were your experiences in the outdoors as a child?

What other questions do these chapters bring up in your mind? I'm hoping we can get some good discussions started with other people giving their opinions rather than me being the only voice.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Chapter 22: Carried to Safety

If I had written this chapter, I think I would have titled it, "Familiarity Breeds Contempt (or Complacency)". These two paddlers, whose names were withheld by request, should have known better than to get into this situation in the first place according to their supposed level of experience and skill. I simply can't fathom someone going out paddling in February in the Pacific Northwest without wearing a wetsuit or drysuit. And there were so many other pieces of gear that they should have had with them (tow rope, VHF radio, flares), any of which would have improved their situation. Thankfully, the outcome was positive and these two lived to paddle another day.

Since most of the lessons to be learned from this story were so seemingly obvious, I'd like to focus on one aspect that many paddlers tend to overlook when preparing for a trip. What will you do if you or another paddler loses a kayak? Have you given any thought to how you can prevent this from happening, or how you would deal with the situation if it occurs? It happens more easily than you might imagine. Short of sending out a distress message on a VHF radio, or shooting off emergency flares, I have compiled a short list of suggestions for equipment and skills that a sea kayaker should have to prevent or deal with just such an emergency.

  1. Practice wet exits to make sure you always hold on to your kayak and paddle.
  2. Consider using a paddle leash so that if you have either your kayak or paddle in hand, you are connected to both.
  3. Paddle with other people (you have fewer rescue options when you are alone).
  4. Wear a tow belt.
  5. Practice paddling with a swimmer on the back deck of your kayak.
Can you think of any other suggestions that you would add?

George Gronseth makes brief mention of using a tow rope to retrieve a kayak that has blown out of the grasp of the paddler. I can attest to how well this works in my own experience. A friend of mine capsized on a very windy day and lost contact with his kayak during the wet exit. In seconds, the boat was beyond his grasp. After checking to make sure he was OK and still had his paddle in hand, I was able to quickly paddle over to the vacant kayak and clip my tow rope to the bow before paddling back over to my friend who was calmly floating in his PFD and drysuit. Once I returned to my friend and had him grab on to my kayak, I pulled in the tow rope and retrieved his kayak in order to complete the rescue. Had I not had my tow belt, I would have most likely been paddling to shore with my friend on the back deck like "Smith" and "Jones". While tow belts may seem to be rather expensive pieces of gear, I strongly recommend that every sea kayaker invest in one and wear it on every trip!

While not as safe and convenient, even a decent length of rope would have solved the problem in this incident as "Smith" could have tied one end of the rope around the front carry handle of the loose kayak and then towed it back to where his friend was swimming. The other end of the rope could have been tied to the deck lines or bungees on Smith's kayak, Smith could have made a loop in the other end of the rope and put his arm through it, or he could have just held it in his hand on the paddle shaft as he paddled back.

This was the last chapter of the book, "Sea Kayaker: Deep Trouble". I'm sorry it took so long to complete the review and discussion of each chapter, but I hope that, like the book itself, the discussions helped encourage kayakers to think about the things that can go wrong when you go paddling and how to prevent yourself from ending up in those situations. My next post to this blog will begin a new book, "Crossing the Ditch" by James Castrission. This is the story of how James Castrission and his friend, Justin Jones, became the first kayakers to complete a crossing of the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand. As their successful attempt came fairly soon after the tragic death of Andrew MacAuley while attempting the same feat, this book brings up some very interesting topics for discussion. I look forward to your thoughts.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Chapter 21: Ice Fall in Blackstone Bay

This accident is quite a bit different from most of the stories in the book, "Sea Kayaker: Deep Trouble". While George Gronseth chooses to focus on issues like the number of paddlers in a group and the lack of a VHF radio in the "Lessons Learned" section, I think there is an obvious lesson that was missed. Eugene Weschenfelder (who eventually died) and Susan Putt should never have been paddling in the spot where the accident occurred.

Having visited Alaska several times, I know how beautiful the glaciers can be. While it is possible to paddle right up to the base of many tidewater glaciers, the recommendations that I have always heard suggest that you should never go closer than a quarter mile to the face of a tidewater glacier. Ice falling from above is an obvious hazard (the hazard that killed Eugene) and a less obvious hazard is that of ice chunks breaking off from below the water and suddenly surfacing at the foot of the glacier. Even being on shore near calving glaciers has its risks as the falling or surfacing ice can create huge waves that break on the nearby shore. When camping near glaciers, you need to set your tents, kayaks, and equipment well back from the shoreline or you may find your tent inundated by water and your kayaks washed out into the bay.

A careful reading of the description of the incident indicates that Susan and Eugene were probably next to a rock cliff that was in close proximity to the actual face of the glacier. They may have thought they were safe because they were not directly in the line of calving ice. However, they failed to take into account the smaller pieces of ice that can and did fall from the top of the rock cliffs as the glacier was melting and moving.

Any accident becomes much more serious when help is going to be hours, if not days, away. Since glaciers are mostly located in remote, wilderness locations, kayakers should be taking extra precautions to avoid putting themselves in unnecessarily risky situations.

For anyone not familiar with calving glaciers, I have included some video that shows the beauty of this natural phenomenon. However, I think it's easy to see the potential danger for kayakers that might be paddling within a quarter mile of that ice face. Sometimes it is difficult to appreciate the scale of these glaciers since there is nothing in the picture for comparison, but many tidewater glaciers are hundreds to thousands of feet high above the water and even more thousands of feet of ice extend below the surface of the water.

I apologize for the fact that the video below is a commercial to get you to buy a DVD, but the footage of the calving glaciers along with the ice emerging from below was the best I could find on YouTube.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Chapter 20: Lessons in Judgment

Reading this chapter reminds me that "years of paddling" does not equate to having acquired greater skill, experience, or better judgment. In other words, you are not an "experienced" kayaker just because you have been paddling for several years.

Case in point, my husband and I. We both started kayaking at the same time back in 1989. He is actually the person responsible for turning me from a canoeist into a kayaker. However, twenty-some years later, my husband is still a relative novice when it comes to his paddling skills. He is not, and never has been, interested in paddling in more challenging conditions. He is uncomfortable in large waves and doesn't care to learn to roll. That's OK. We just make sure that when the two of us go paddling, we have to seek out locations and conditions that fit his level of skill and experience.

On the other hand, over those same twenty-some years, I chose to take instruction, practice new skills, learned to roll, found other like-minded souls who wanted to paddle in more challenging conditions, read everything I could get my hands on about sea kayaking, and became an instructor. Defining someone's level of skill in a single word can be difficult, but I guess by most measures I have gone past the intermediate level of skill and knowledge and into advanced.

John Gaulding, I think most people would agree, did not show particularly good judgment in this incident. Good judgment comes as a result of experience, and experience comes from surviving episodes of bad judgment. Hopefully, John gained some improvement in his judgment as a result of surviving this situation.

If, like John Gaulding, you have paddled many years without having any serious or dangerous kayaking incidents, you may be tempted to think that nothing bad will ever happen to you. This is a danger for all sea kayakers (even those who are truly skilled and experienced). To become a more skilled ("experienced") kayaker, you need to take conscious steps to improve your skills and increase your knowledge. You will most likely need to seek out more skilled paddlers who can teach you what you need to know, mentor you as you take your first steps in more challenging conditions, and then keep practicing those skills to keep them sharp.

Don't make the mistake of assuming that time spent paddling a kayak automatically makes you a better kayaker, and don't become complacent about following your standard safety practices just because you've never had a problem before.