Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Where's the next wave? Ginni plays in Penrhyn Mawr, in Wales. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Rocks, Water, Action!

The trip began with pure adventure. Even though Dutch BCU coach Axel well outranks me in skills and coaching certifications, I have more experience with Pacific Ocean swell. The importance of this became vividly clear to me when Axel and a Pacific Ocean set found themselves sharing a long archway. The 17’plastic boat he was paddling through the 16’ wide tunnel tossed about like a toy. The yellow bow aimed skyward, then the hull appeared (that would be the bottom), then the whole boat spanned the tunnel without touching the water below it, then just white water, then the bow moving in an undirected, unmanned kind of way, then the deck of the captainless boat. Hmmm, one says to oneself, this is not a promising start to a journey.

When the set subsided, I paddled my little wooden boat back through the tunnel, clipped my short tow on the wallowing banana, and dragged it out the far end to Axel, who was unhurt, but worried about the boat, which was mine. I dumped it out, he climbed in, and we went to a beach nearby to inspect.

Just a flesh wound. A few scrapes in the bow and stern, a few pieces of rock embedded, a little bend in the deck, a little gap between the rim of the day hatch and the deck easily repairable with duct tape and a float bag for security. Some dry clothes for Axel, a few moments of heart rate reduction, and we were back on the water. This became the event that we got the most conversational mileage out of over the next few days. We decided it was a good 5-star rescue precipitated by poor 5-star judgment. Thereafter we conscientiously exercised good 5* judgment.

The Mendocino coast is the domain of rock arches, including one 4-way with the intersection open to the sky. We explored and played, and surfed a little bit in a protected cove. One set wave came in when I was waiting outside the break and Axel was heading out through the impact zone. He said something I didn’t quite catch (perhaps it was in Dutch), and leaned on his paddle with long arms. The wave jacked up and crested, obscuring my view of Axel in the bent banana. Suddenly out the back of the wave, through the green middle of it, a yellow projectile launched, with a yellow-clad passenger bent over the middle and white streams of water flying off. For a moment it was completely airborne in a snapshot of high drama.

After a quick tourist visit to the Redwoods, we and found ourselves on the legendary southern OR coast. This is the secret frolicking ground of sea stacks and offshore rocks. Mazes of them. Playgrounds of them. We used them to full advantage, sometimes riding between as a swell compressed its way through. We stumbled upon sleeping seals, which look like kelp until you’re too close. They float vertically, noses out of the water, bobbing on the swell with eyes closed and nostrils rhythmically flaring and relaxing.

The rest of the Oregon coast was unfriendly as we drove up it, with 13’ swell and high wind. Just across the Columbia in Washington, however, we found the holy grail of sea kayak surfing spots inside the mouth of the river, and covered an awful lot of mileage in 200-yard increments.

Now I’m home, cozying up to computer work and a propane heater, or out puttering in the garden in the short sun of winter, or walking the woods in bright clothes so I’m not mistaken for an elk.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

fiberglass transplant and cosmetic surgery

June 20, 2004 coastal trip

Location: Manzanita to Cape Falcon & back.
Characters: AJ, Jim, Geoff, Andrew, Ginni, client Chris
Forecast: SW swell 3’, wind W 5K to NW 10 K Tide low in morning

It was a gap I’d studied on several trips, but had never braved it. Swells pushed up against a sloping wall, making a swirling, sloping floor. A passageway turned right, followed the wall, entered a network of caves and rooms open to the sky, and came out at several more accessible places. When the swell receded, it poured over a rock ledge that guarded the entrance. As it began to recede, it made a thick waterfall, which rapidly diminished in volume, exposing the rock, then folded the water back on itself in front of the rock.

Patient observation revealed that there were moments of sufficient calm to paddle through with good timing. The swell was small, tide low, and I was feeling lucky. It appeared that out would be easier than in, so I went around and entered another opening. Jim followed. A set came through, and I calmly surfed a swell along the narrow passageway. At the gap, the water mellowed, and I cruised through on a pool-flat surface.

Jim followed, a moment too late. A swell surged him up towards the wall, and he hesitated for a moment before starting to paddle out. He started to get the waterfall, held his paddle up for the drop, and stalled at the bottom. Over he went, riding the incoming swell upside down back towards the wall.

His paddle came up for a roll, but the kayak was against the wall, and didn’t come up. He came out of the boat, a helmeted head beside a blue hull, and rode the waterfall back over the rock. AJ was closest, so gave Jim his bow and paddled backwards. It took only about 4 strokes to pull Jim and his boat out of the zone. I studied Jim’s face, which didn’t appear to have gotten banged up. We were all wearing helmets, but faces are still vulnerable. He said he was unhurt. AJ dumped the water out of Jim’s’ boat and helped him back in.

It was an exciting time, and the rest of the crew gathered around. Jim, in his irrepressible way, exclaimed, That was fun!

I took his word for it, once Jim was ready to go again, and went back at the gap to settle the score. I mistimed an entry, didn’t like the feel of it, and backed out quickly. In this environment, judgment is the better part of survival. A little more patience, and I cruised in on flat water. Turned around, and got set to exit again.

Perhaps it was impatience, or maybe I just wanted more excitement. A swell pushed in against the wall, and I paddled out onto it, turned, and committed myself to a ride over the falls. The turn took a stroke longer than I’d wanted it to on account of my hips for some reason not being as relaxed as usual and the boat not gracefully edging for the pivot. But committed I was, and I punched out a couple strokes for momentum. Over the drop I rode, bow disappearing into the foam below the rock. I braced on the right just to keep contact with the water. Then, Bam! Solid wooden hull came down on even more solid rock. That was all; momentum and a few more strokes carried me through, and everything was peachy.

I flipped over so Jim could assess damages, and he said all was fine, so onward we went. It turns out the hull was fine for the rest of the day, but it does need some time in boat hospital before the next trip. It may be time to graduate to a plastic boat for coastal adventures.

Here’s to fun rides and no rocks!
Ginni (the gap mentioned above is behind Steve in the second photo on the Shellback homepage)

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Under Neahkahnie Castle

Oregon Coast
May 15, 2004
We launch at Arch Cape and paddle a couple miles of open coast, past houses nestled in cliff-edge coastal forest. To the west, a flat, wide horizon is curtained here and there with clouds. Birds everywhere--flying in flocks so big they look like weather patterns, floating, frosting the distant rocks. Murres, guillemots, pelicans, cormorants, gulls.

Onward to the cape of complex geology we paddle. Below the spruces are tan stripes of sandstone, or what passes for it from down here. The sandstone rests on a hundred feet or so of black basalt in complicated geometric patterns. At water level in the basalt are caves, pocketing swells and jingling them around like money.

Under Neahkahnie Castle lies a maze of a dungeon, only its underworldly beauty is too great to be called such. Enter the main opening and meet a vertical wall that catches the evening sun reflecting off the water. Along the wall in both directions run tunnels with light at the ends and black floors that undulate with the swells.

One’s first impression upon entering a sea cave is darkness, sound, and constant motion. Sea caves challenge all the senses, although one could argue that anyone paddling into a sea cave has lost all sense. After a few moments, eyes adjust. You adjust and realize that, yes, you are still an air-breathing mammal bobbing on the water. Under a mountain.

Sandy and Tobin exit a nearby opening, and I go through the shorter tunnel to meet them at the mouth of another vaulted room. Looking back through the tunnel, we can see the incoming surge glow emerald, infused by the sun. The next rock-walled enclosure opens to the sky through several portals, and rays of light angle through mist above the churning water.

Back through to the first room we file, then onward through the long tunnel, which is just a few feet higher than an upraised paddle when the swell lifts us. It’s a couple hundred yards long, long enough for several phases of thought to process.

Tobin thinks it feels like a Disney ride, through the tunnel on an undulating track. He starts singing in a small voice, “It’s a Small World After All.” I imagine the native people taking their canoes through here as a feat, having read that they did such things, and, being a water people, I can’t imagine them not. Just then, I think I hear voices in the mountain singing. Very eerie. Silhouettes of two kayaks glide leisurely along in front of me, rising and falling, through the timeless belly of the mountain.

For photos, see

Monday, April 26, 2004

The Other Side of Oregon

April 26, 2004
The Other Side of Oregon

Cape Lookout is a long, bony finger pointing west and a little south into the Pacific Ocean. The leading edge of the upper plate in a subduction zone, it rises some 300ft straight out of the ocean and bares the geologic stories of many ages in basalt and sandstone. A coastal temperate rainforest grows on its northern slopes, the skeletons of many-limbed crucifixes silhouetted through sun-streaked fog. At its base claws the unsleeping sea.

Some friends from Shellback kayak club—Sam, Jon, Sandy, and I—launch through toothy white surf, the gatekeeper of the ocean, Jon calls it, and into a dynamic world few ever experience.

The reported 5’swell rolls by, dwarfing Sandy in his kayak. Sea feet somehow appear much, much bigger than statute feet. The swell moves on to smash at the base of an offshore rock and send a blanket of white into the air. The water all around is bumpy, unpredictable, ever moving. As if someone were shaking the carpet beneath, but from several directions at once. Foam and sea birds dot the surface.

As we round Cape Lookout’s fingertip, the gray tail of a whale signals high out of the water, like a giant open palm raised in greeting or farewell. It slips gently below the surface. A column of spray shoots skyward, and the barnacled head of another gray whale surfaces for a breath.

South is the Caribbean side of Cape Lookout, sheltered today from direct wave impact. Swells rise and pour off the cliff base where rock is lined with colorful life. Purple and orange sea stars suction themselves to the wall and to each other like haphazard, animated tiles. Tasseled brown kelp grows on rigid, footlong stalks. Six-inch green anemonies bloom prolifically. Anemonies are animals, but their green color comes from tiny plants that live within their cells, bartering photosynthesis work for shelter. Deep inside sea caves, the anemonies are pale.

Our insignificance is magnified inside the giant granddaddy of sea caves, where wave energy ricochets and feeds a rumbling blowhole. Red footed guillemots perched in an overhead crevice whirr like party favors above the gastric churning.

Ah, the dreams we hatched and promises we made to come back to this place as we cruised along the sun warmed, sea bathed wall of life, and ventured into black depths of narrow, unnamed caves, and wove through rock gardens, timing wave surges for rides over little waterfalls. Perhaps the sea will remember even if we in our tragic busy-ness forget.

For photos, see

Friday, March 12, 2004

Open Water Kayak Expedition

Loreto, Mexico; Sea of Cortez

The First Annual Sea of Cortez Open Water Expedition must have been a success because many of the participants are talking about the next one. Personally the trip was rewarding on many levels. I got to share the Baja paddling experience that’s been so important in my life with friends who’ve wanted to see it. I got to run a Baja trip with an instruction component. Watched my handmade Pygmy kayaks carry Elaine and Marty across the Sea of Cortez, sunlight on the wood grain and the exotic rocky greens and tans and pinks of Carmen Island in the background.

Due to some last-minute cancellations, we had space for a Mexican guide-in-training to join us. I met David earlier this winter. He had worked just two days for Villas de Loreto before he joined us for a skill-building day for Mexican guides, and he quickly distinguished himself with his enthusiasm and skill. That day I told Villas they had a keeper.

He proved me right during this last trip. For sheer strength and speed, nobody in our group could touch him. Even in a heavier, slower boat, David could out-sprint any of us, including AJ. For personality, he was a winner. When not helping in the kitchen, he was studying his English, and involving guests in the process. Pre-dinner time turned into informal Spanish/English language classes, at times turning riotous as surprising things were slowly communicated, then verified. Like David’s other job as a body builder and dancer, alongside his role as father of a 2-year old. All at the ripe old age of 21.

David was an asset, too, in encouraging us to visit the old salt pond village on Carmen Island. Two of his friends caretake the place now, which is used occasionally used as a resort. From the 1920s till about 30 years ago, the salt works provided an economic basis more important to Loreto than fishing is today, according to David. Narrow gauge rails carried salt to a barge, which brought it to a ship waiting offshore in the narrow bay. A rusty, barnacled shipwreck lies there still.

The village is a study in irony and juxtaposition. In front of the mechanical repair shop, with its sign intact, sit two tractors filled with dirt and made into cactus planters. One has a flat tire. The old school house is now filled with plastic kayaks for resort users. Turkey vultures pose atop rusty metal poles that once held basketball hoops.

Walls of some buildings were constructed of stone, with coral in the gaps. Other buildings are composed entirely of mortared coral blocks, like lumpy white bricks. In front of a crumbling wall, an orange desert mallow blooms. At the base of a distant hill lies a cemetery where, David tells us, most of the graves belong to children who didn’t make it on this harsh island with its minimal medical care. While he was camping on a nearby point, he thought he saw their ghosts wandering along the sandy beach. He lingers a moment longer than the rest of us in the tiny whitewashed church, the only one of the old buildings apparently kept up, and crosses himself before leaving, perhaps thinking of the children.

The sea gods treated us to a tailwind one day. Our motley little fleet of mismatched kayaks bobbed along down the swell. All together we were ten boats and eleven people: Two wooden Pygmy kayaks; two plastic Tempests, a red, and a yellow; AJ’s yellow and lime fiberglass Tempest, Jim’s orange and yellow Assategue, and four geriatric but willing Seda boats rented from Villas de Loreto, including the Beluga, a white double. Paddles were about as matched as boats, and included a couple of Greenland sticks among the spectrum of big-bladed tools. Paddling styles varied, but increased in efficiency throughout the week. A warmth grew inside as I looked frequently over our crew. From the lead, I monitored our speed and spread, looked for signs of struggle in the rear, assessed the peripheral awareness of one drifting off towards the horizon, and visited with Julie, in front of me in the Beluga. Island silhouettes parted sea from sky, Monserrate to the south and Santa Catalina off to the east. The white marine fossil layer of Carmen’s southern tip glided quickly past the subtle hues of Sierra la Giganta’s steep slopes to the west, and all was well with the world.

Such is the guiding life. My trips in the Sea of Cortez are over for the season, and I head north slowly, hoping to savor some waves along the way. For those who are interested, the Second Annual Sea of Cortez Open Water Expedition is shaping up to be an 8-day adventure about the second week of March 2005, with an eight-mile crossing on the route.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

In the Stars

Loreto, Mexico

Baja kayak trips. It's about the improbable landscape where desert touches ocean. It's about the colorful burst of fish around a rock, brushed with dancing sunlight. Or the miniscule leaf of a palo verde tree. But it's also about the people whom fate has brought together for the week.

When Frank and Katie first met, he thought she was too tomboy, and she plain didn't like him. That was in Georgia almost 60 years ago. This week in Baja, on a desert island, they celebrated 55 years of marriage. Demonstrating respect and tender affection for each other, and a healthy sense of fun, they were a brisk breeze of inspiration to this independent kayak guide.

Lee died in the hospital once, but came back determined to enjoy life. Whatever he and his wife Suzy wanted to do, they would, before it was too late for real. This kayak trip was evidence.

Simon, from the UK via Uganda, was trying to decide what to do next in life, and came close to cancelling his Australia plans to travel slowly up the Baja because he'd fallen in love... with the desert.

All in all, it was an uninhibited group of individuals. The Heavenly Body Exercise demonstrated this well. Not quite what you think, this exercise is a 3-D interactive model of the solar system designed to illustrate the phenomena we see in space in a down-to-earth way.

Venus the Godess of Love (Lee) boogeyed down with fleet-footed Murcury (Dick) around Her Tremendous Radiance, Karen the sun. Simon spun on his tilted axis 365 times per orbit, closely attended by Mark, who'd earned his position by dropping his drawers at us from the lighthouse tower the night before.

The solar system stumbled along in its free-form way when from the far reaches of space came a passing comet, James, from another kayak camp seeking cell phone reception. He had a close brush with Jupiter, the large, gaseous one, played by Linda the Petite, before a dinner call shattered the fine balance of physics with a greater gravity.