Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Making of a Kayak Nerd


Early in our relationship I asked Henrick if he was into kayaking.

He replied, “I’m not a kayak nerd.”

Enthusiast was how I translated that.

But he did get a Romany so we could explore island coastlines together on our sailing journey across the Pacific. On the rare occasion that he asked a kayak-related question, I had a 1-sentence opportunity to answer. But if I kept my mouth shut I could sometimes look over to see a perfect imitation of the bow rudder I’d just been using to play around the rocks, and I was content.

Paddling together in Patterson Inlet of Stewart Island, the southern bit of New Zealand, my favorite Swedish kayak un-nerd said something that about knocked me over.

“I should get a kayak to have in Sweden.”

I enjoyed the sound of that for a moment before teasing him. “Be careful—you’re starting to sound a little nerdlike.”

Reviewing photos of our NZ trip, I can see the subtle beginnings of kayak nerd-dom. The headgear is the first sign. After a properly windy day, he switched from a baseball cap to something with a homemade strap. Then the cold, and he bought a snug cap with earflaps.

There’s the wearing of kayaking gear in public places. He’s been photographed wandering around small, uninhabited islands in kayaking gear. That’s the first step down a slippery slope.
As the un-coach of my favorite kayak un-nerd, I’m impressed at the skills he’s acquiring and the conditions he’s willing to tackle with me. Pelting rain and katabatic winds down off the mountains in Milford Sound.

Motoring onward into 20knot winds on Stewart Island.
Shooting through tunnels on a swell.

Playing in a little tide race in Marlborough Sound.

He even displays enthusiasm for heading out on the water.

But the clincher was washing dishes at 12-Mile Delta outside Queenstown. We camped one site away from the spigot, but he carried the dishes the other direction to the lake to wash them. Like a good kayak nerd.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Milford Sound and a Little Wind

On the evening of the first day of 2014, Henrick and I shared a 495-piece puzzle of boats in a harbor with a pair of cousins from Nelson and Belgium. We finished just minutes before Gunns Camp shut the generator down and we all left the common hall for our respective dorms to sleep to the music of rain on the roof.

In the morning Henrick drove “Scooby Doo” the Subaru to Milford Sound and I shot photos out the rain-spotted windows. Over the pass, through the long, dark tunnel. Spectacular waterfalls tumbled down the sides of mountains. Snowfields played hide-and-seek with the clouds above us.

The Milford Sound Lodge was full for the coming night, but they did have the forecast: Severe gale warning with NW wind by late morning, and drenching rain. Following 2 days: NW gales and more rain.

At 11am the rain was still unmolested by the forecasted wind, so we launched our kayaks down a cobble bank by the car park and paddled past the cruise boat harbor. Bowen Falls blasted wind and billowed spray across our path. To Henrick I said, “I’ll try crossing it. You can learn from what happens to me and decide.” I edged into the blast and scooted across, eyes squinted tight against the pelting drops.

Mitre Peak, 1683 meters above the sea level of the Sound, was Henrick’s inspiration for wanting to come to Milford Sound. The shy mountain only disclosed its kneecaps this day, as swirling grey skirts and white petticoats veiled the rest. Cruise boats were still dwarfed by the mountain’s kneecaps.

We paddled along the north shore, some 40 meters out, along the flank of Cascade Peak (1209m), Water poured over grey rocks, through tenacious tufts of flax and ferns, between clumps of forest. Watching the vertical creeks tumbling down I thought it best not to paddle too close, lest the water loosen some rocks. I hadn’t yet verbalized the thought when we heard a shot and a crash. A big splash bloomed up in front of us against the shore. We didn’t have to discuss whether to stay offshore.

A peak rose triangular and steep between the main channel of the sound and Harrison Cove. “The Lion” shook greytone clouds about its head like a mane. Wind began to texture the Sound. Forty-five minutes into our paddle, we rafted up to share beef jerky and a sip of water. A German paddler in a red plastic sea kayak passed us on his way to the underwater observatory. I was sorely tempted to go there too. Or to get a closer look at the roaring waterfall at the end of Harrison Cove. Or to paddle 20km to the sea.

But there was the forecast. There was our simple preparation for just a short paddle. There was Henrick getting cold in wet gear when he wasn’t paddling to keep warm. Our margin for error was thin. Sometimes the wisest decision is the hardest. We turned back. Our first goal was already accomplished: paddle on Milford Sound. Only the second goal remained: return safely. We weren’t likely to see much different scenery if we went further. Just more vertical mountainsides tasseled with white cascades, as if they were draining the clouds directly into the Sound. More twisted trees, proud in their creative postures against the rain. More raindrops cratering the water. More wild clouds cavorting about the peaks. The mind can only take in so much drama and beauty at one time!

Ancient, craggy trees overhung grey rock along the water’s edge as we rejoined Milford Sound’s main channel. Wind-swell picked up, followed shortly by the wind itself. Tailwind with surfable ½ meter waves. Heavy rain dropped miniature cannon-balls into the metallic surface of the water, kicking up rings of splash and giving distant waves a white outline. I fell behind taking photos, then surfed a series of waves to catch up.

Less than half a mile from the car park, the wind saw us escaping and picked up for real. It plummeted straight off Cascade Peak to pick up whitecaps right at the shore and blow them across the Sound, trying to carry us away too. We angled into it, edged into it, and paddled with focus. Gusts lifted fat drops right off the surface of the water, somewhere around 25kts. It rained down, up, and sideways.

A bend in the shoreline gave us a momentary respite before crossing Bowen Falls’ blast zone again. We paddled into it together, Henrick on my left hip. I was too busy clinging to a wild bronco of a paddle to get a photo of Henrick emerging from the spray on the other side, but he looked dramatic. We admitted that we were not only wise to have turned back when we did, but a little lucky as well to have accomplished our second goal.

Off the water, we headed straight for the Milford Sound Lodge for a warm shower, hot drinks, and some food. A posted notice warned of the pending road closure due to hazardous weather: 100km gusts and more heavy rain expected. In the lodge parking lot a guy’s hat blew off and flew into the forest like a frightened bird. The forest danced, flinging colored leaves about like confetti. Camper van doors slammed open or shut of their own volition. Pedestrians walked hunched into the wind with hoods drawn tight as rain streaked sideways. People in the lounge sank into comfy couches, ordered hot coffee, and watched Mother Nature’s show.

We hit the road and blew all the way back to Invercargill a day early, but happy to rest and dry out.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

A Journey of Curiosity

The bow of a kayak leaves a crease in the gravel as it pushes back from the beach. Nine others slide seaward as paddlers tuck in legs, stretch spray skirts over cockpit coamings, and check moving parts. The paddlers glide along a coastal cliff, passing between rocks in a graceful slalom.

A small white gull paddles with folding feet to hide behind a miniature rock island. A white kayak sneaks up and pauses for a closer look.

“It has a dark dot behind its eye.”
“Bonaparte’s Gull?”
“Don’t see them much around here.”
“No.”

The kayaks glide on. Wild fig trees cling to rock walls with long pale toes. Cacti dig their roots into creases. Cliffs rise sheer. High above, the frigates lounge on crooked wings and watch as little darts of color stitch the rocky shoreline into a memory.

Rocks structure our world. They cradle our beds, define our landings, funnel the wind, hem the sea. Plants and animals, too, have relationships with geology. Shelter. Support. Mineral sustenance.

I am paddling the coast from Loreto to La Paz, along the Sierra la Giganta mountains, for 10 days with 9 other people including Anna, who has been so moved by the expressive geology that she’s on a mission to make a guide for paddlers. She has inspired me with her enthusiasm. We’re not specialists in anything except curiosity, but onward we go, asking questions, taking photos.

Along the edge of the sea, rocks expose themselves. In their breaking, eroding, dissolving, re-sorting, they show their weaknesses and demonstrate their strength. The sea opens to a page, and we try to read the stories of the rock—the crooked, massive, tiny, colorful stories.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Driving by Emotion on a Rational Grid

“We’re not going into business with you because we won’t make any money,” a wise and slightly greedy business person once said to me.

Business should be planned, structured. Numbers crunched into place. But I do what I do for a living because I love it.

Is this an infraction? I’ve been driving by emotion on a logical grid. I’ve never completed any market research or followed a 5-year plan. There are so many variables that I don’t really know how, and things keep changing about 1.5 years into the Plan.

But I do know that if somebody comes along who is passionate about an idea complimentary to what I’m passionate about, it can go a long way and be an enjoyable ride. Somehow, I’m still eating. Still camping out under the stars. Still playing on the sea. Still traveling, even too much sometimes. Still working with amazing people. Still finding myself completely blown away at where this circuitous route has led. Awash in thankfulness at the peaceful end of another day.

A waxing moon just past half-full centers itself between canyon walls. Lightening blinks on the eastern horizon. Waves pound and grind beach pebbles into sand.
Jim plays the harmonica. Santi accompanies on well-tuned kayak bungees and some kitchen equipment.

We celebrate Sarah’s birthday with chocolate brownies from the Dutch oven, and start a game of stacking rocks. Balancing a tower. Building bridges. Constructing castles. Two leftover birthday candles grace the turrets, but blow out in the breeze, their horizontal flames flickering for a moment like flags.

People drift away. I walk down a row of kayaks, colorful in the moonlight, checking that everything is secure. Cocoons glow down the beach, campers bedding down. Near the kitchen, the guides and I make our nests. After 9 years, Marcos’ Big Agnes pad has finally outlived the repairable stage. “Marcos, why does your tarp have a valve?” asks Santi. And we all giggle for a bit.

Loreto to La Paz. My first trip of the season. Marcos’ first trip with Sea Kayak Baja Mexico. The adventures don’t end when we get off the water.

Ten days of kayaking south. Five hours driving back. Fifteen minutes from the house, the clutch breaks. Marcos inserts a socket in place of the broken plastic, and limps it home. The next day, the mechanic across the street modifies a part he finds in town, replaces the broken one for about $25, and we’re shifting again. There are just some things that flow in Mexico. Living by heart, creativity, and hard work is one.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Recalculating

Eugene, OR
(music) “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot…” was playing from the Ford dealership loudspeaker as I walked across their expansive blacktop towards the service department and my truck. I laughed out loud. The morning had started with a visit from AAA to jump-start the battery and tell me that the alternator was shot and that I should get straight to a service station before my battery charge ran out. They wouldn’t tow my truck with kayaks on top.

I left the truck idling on a slight slope when I returned the Motel 6 key and returned to see fluid pouring out of the back end. Gasoline. I raced through early morning Eugene traffic to the Ford dealership watching the battery charge level wane and the gas gauge drop as I left a trail of damp highway in my wake.

It turns out the battery and the alternator were both worthy of replacement, and somebody had cut the filling hose to my gas tank in an attempt to siphon fuel during the night. The fuel hose cost over $300 and needed to be overnighted from Sacramento, another $50, and another night in Eugene. Total repair bill over $1000.

Recalculating. (in the longsuffering tone of the GPS navigator). It wouldn’t be a trip to Baja without some adventure. Breathe. Forgive.

I need forced stops like this to reconnect with the human side. To pause and breathe. Just be. There is no reason to hurry through to the other side of the moment; there is just more waiting over there. Life seems to make these stops happen when I don’t. They’re generally less expensive when I do it willingly, though. Someday I’ll learn!

It could be worse. I was near enough to a shop to drive myself there with the bad alternator, and didn’t have to leave 4 kayaks beside the road, or more likely stay with 4 kayaks while I watched my truck get hauled off.

Could be better. If I’d have driven further last night maybe nobody would have tried to siphon gas and cut the hose.

Could be worse. Nothing was stolen from the overloaded back of my truck, or from the roof. All that makes $350 look like pocket change.

Could be worse. At least I have money in the account to cover the Ford bill. Unsure about covering the $3,500 importation bill, the $900 in kayak parts waiting in San Diego, and the approximately $1000 in fuel, food and hotels between here and Loreto. But 2 more people are signing up for the Loreto to La Paz trip. Funds seem to trickle in just when needed! Sometimes I stress out a lot about money, but today I’ve decided not to.

I go for a walk to Delta Ponds where a nature trail winds through a park.

Yes, it could be much worse. The late morning sun feels good. Ground I’m sitting on is soft and dry. I sink through the levels of relaxation, breathing slows. Mind wanders, free from its short tether of focus. Sounds float down from the forest and from a distant construction project. Sunlight filters through the canopy. Ducks clear wakes through the lily pads.

A week before leaving home, I had another cancer scare. After a few follow-up tests, the docs decided there wasn’t enough evidence to go on, and that I should return in 6 months for more testing. I will. Meanwhile, with that clearance, I (over)loaded the truck, and headed south, taking it as a reminder to live well and be thankful.

I have this breath that I am breathing right now. It is a gift. As a bonus, I should still be able to get to the border in time to import the kayaks and get to Loreto before running my first course.

Friday, August 02, 2013

The No-Garbage Theory of Chicken Spirits

Nothing disappears. I looked into the yellow and black eye of my chicken as she gasped, and the presence departed from that eye. Where did that breath just go?

I read somewhere of “primitive” cultures without the concept of trash. Where resources are a closed system.

In our lives, garbage goes to that magic place called “away” and new things keep appearing on the shelves. But that’s an illusion. Everything goes somewhere, everything comes from somewhere.

So where does a chicken’s spirit go? Or it’s breath, if you don’t want to grant chickens a spirit. There is something in there that is alive, then it isn’t.

I had a hard time killing this chicken. She had chickenality, which is personality with feathers. But she was a meat bird, I rationalized, of a hybrid breed that will usually die of a heart attack if let live much past its prime butchering age. Besides, somebody was eating the laying hens’ eggs, and that behavior is not to be tolerated in the coop. It was just her time to go.

I cradled her in my arm as she looked around and told her I’d love to meet her again someday, when she’s not the chicken and I'm not the farmer; when we’re more equals. And then I stuffed her gently but firmly into a bucket, pulled her head through a hole in the bottom, and cut her jugular.

I held her head down so she wouldn’t flop out of the bucket as she expired. I apologized, and I sobbed. A chicken takes a long time to completely expire. The eye is lucid, then it blinks. It fades, then returns briefly. The body jerks. One has eons to think and to feel while standing there, knife in one hand, chicken in the other, burgundy blood dripping.

If spirits “come into this world” and go out of it, where is the spirit warehouse?

There was an energy that was trotting around, pecking, scratching, flapping. Now it hangs limp in my hand. Physics gives us the “law of conservation of energy” which says that nothing disappears. That chicken’s breath has gone somewhere. The energy in the flesh has not gone anywhere yet, though it will eventually become part of three things: my body, my activity, and my composting toilet fodder. Poop will become dirt, and then nutrients taken up in a tree. My body, too, will eventually become dirt, taken up by plants. My activity makes body heat and moves resources. So our legacy is dirt, and the things we move. Plus spirit.

One can follow nutrients around. But spirits? Can they appear, like new toys on the shelf, and go, like garbage hauled off in the truck? Then where is the factory, and where is the dump? Or is it the recycling plant? There must be a circle of understanding big enough to encompass the resource flow of spirits.

If rattlesnakes can register the heat left in a mouse’s footprint, and physics can split atoms, should we not be able to measure a spirit and follow its trail as it departs into thin air? Maybe spirit is air itself. It animates a body, and then it stops entering it, and takes that heat back into itself. Is God in the air? Is God the air itself? Is God the Warehouse of spirits? Or is God the warehouse Manager? Or is God just a word for things we can’t measure but need to believe in?

The next steps made the chicken less resemble the entertaining creature I knew, and more resemble food. Scalding, plucking, removing head and feet. Eviscerating. During the final step, I noticed that she was developing chicken testicles inside that body. Sorry, little rooster. Life is full of surprises.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

We Crossed an Ocean



We crossed an ocean. It really just hit me today. Misty’s sails are down and folded under a tarp on the deck. We’re motoring towards the ramp where we’ll take her out of the water tomorrow.

We’re headed into the wind and little whitecaps, but if I look back, the sea appears calm. The backs of waves always look smoother than their faces. So it is with journeys.

Each moment is just a moment, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing. Just one day you look back and you’ve crossed an ocean. Moments of tension or struggle flatten as they recede into the broader story.

Was I really there? There’s an unreality to it. But it’s a valid question. WAS I really there—in each moment, present? Am I really here? Is contemplation a removal or a deepening? If I were truly, deeply here, would I be writing about it, or just breathing it?

Short sleeves in the afternoon sun. Glint off Misty’s bare boom. Wind in our faces. New Zealand flag whips its tattered end in a sky only 2 shades a lighter blue. Motor growls deeply. “Mutiny” the dinghy bounces in our wake. White sails tilt across the horizon near and far. Two people fish from a tiny motor boat as it bounces radically in the waves. Forested hills and bright grassy slopes pass slowly. Paihia. Russell. Whatiangi .The birthplace of English-speaking New Zealand.

Cape Brett and Cape Wiwiki lie hazy in the distance. This is the bay we entered after crossing from Tonga. It was a clean slate then. Now it’s crisscrossed with memories like the tracks on our GPS.

We crossed an ocean. It’s an emotional realization.

At the same time, we built a relationship. Hands down, the harder of the two. At least in crossing, you know what direction you ought to go most of the time, and you have a map, a GPS, or a nautical chart. Still, each moment is only a moment, just the same. Only looking back do you see the sum of what you’ve built, and hold it even closer to the heart.

There’s something profound in what it means to have a boat. Something about freedom, and the cost of exercising that freedom. It’s not a fancy freedom, but it did get us from one continent to another.




It’s a different dimension, living on the sea. A calendar with elements of wind, tide, climate, and swell, and less attention to hours, minutes, and appointments. It’s perspective. Seeing the land as little green punctuations in a vast watery openness, instead of seeing the sea as a fringe of blue between the beach and the horizon. Living at the mercy of the weather, even on anchor and in the middle of the night.

I take a final dive in for a bath at sunset in Kerikeri Inlet. El Condor Pasa plays on the stereo, on flute and native instruments, nostalgic in the fading light. The New Zealand waters test one’s resolve for bathing, to be sure. Henrick is loosening the rigging for tomorrow’s haul-out and removal of the mast. He says he feels sad, too. The end of a year of travel together, and a journey we’ve been preparing pretty much since we met almost 4 years ago. We will depart separately for who knows how long or where we’ll next see each other. If I think about it I can’t keep from crying.

“Goodbye My Lover” sings James Blunt. Little things to do for tomorrow. Dinner. They keep me sane right now.

End of a trip. End of our year. Like the end of anything, a life. What did we do with it? Took our floating home across an ocean. How does that fit into the big picture of anything? Only Time has the clues.