Wednesday, November 30, 2005

adventures in homeownership

It's been a while, and here's why: I'm in love! And I've and have made perhaps the biggest commitment this life will ever see from me. She's 21 acres and full of potential. Some would day potential's all she's full of, except weeds & repair projects. But there's that eye of the beholder getting all starry. It's an island farm on the Columbia River. A 1920s house, half-renovated barn, beautiful chicken coop, back-to-back 2-car garages, and 400' of slough frontage in a cottonwood wetland from which one can paddle into the Columbia River. Keep it in mind next time you're out here looking for summer camping!

You know I, as a kayaker, appreciate moving water in its myriad forms. The latest being its effect coming out the nozzle of a pressure washer, and the hopes that today’s drainage project will actually flow in the desired direction. Thankfully it is raining so I can check.

The pressure washing got me carried away, as dynamic water often does. Intended target was the house. What a whole new attitude! Its no longer a dumpy old farm project, but an actual white house, kinda cute, at that. Then, power in my hands, I looked around. The concrete patio slab got blasted. The walkway to nowhere from the front door (discovered that it says 1940 on it). My crumpled but drivable car. The garage. The ladder. A plastic kids picnic table. Luckily there were no friends around that day, to get blasted or to try to stop me!

There’s been other exciting progress. There is plumbing, complete & new from the main valve to the repaired septic tank (and it even flows downhill now!). I could watch Justine’s new DVD This is the Sea Two while wallowing in a tub of hot water. Oh, the decadence! All the main floor bathroom fixtures are installed & working. Paint fumes emanate from the living room. New wires run upstairs to power lights & outlets, and 4 electric wall heaters are humming away. The garage doors have been saws-mosted* shorter in anticipation of today’s gravel.

*Saws-most? It was demoted from saws-all after meeting its match on a 4” cast iron drainpipe.

The snow sits on the Oregon hills across the river, and last night the frosty fog swirled around the legs of deer in the pasture. Best of all are the friends who’ve been coming by to be a part of it. Many, many thanks for the warm waters of friendship!

Friday, May 13, 2005

Simon films the big drop. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Survived: Anglesey sea kayak symposium

It’s over and Anglesey Sea & Surf Centre is quiet again. Was it real? A few signatures in my kayaking logbook and a lot of memories. Among the cacophony around the dinner table, we figured there were at least 10 countries represented at the symposium. Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, Iceland, UK, and US, among others.

The last day of symposium I went with Justine and Axel to film Sean Morley (who had paddled round the British Isles) playing in North Stack tidal race. The waves weren’t working well so we tucked around the corner to Parliament Cave. It had a minefield of rocks in its mouth, a west swell sloshing in, and a SE wind blowing across then howling down the cliffs to whip spray off the water.

Now, I like to play in rock gardens. And I’ve paddled with some talented and experienced paddlers in this kind of environment. But I have never seen anyone handle a boat and a wave through a rock garden like this guy. Especially not in an 18-foot racing-style Inuk kayak with a wing paddle. It’s the least manoeuvrable boat and the least supportive blade.

A swell crashes against a rock molar, bends around it and surges white up against the cliff, dwarfing a kayaker heading boldly into hungry pre-Cambrian jaws. He disappears behind the molar as the water drops, and my breath goes away with the wind. As the next swell splatters itself against the cliff, Sean shoots out smiling in front of a white tongue of water, but missing his hat.

In contrast, picture this paddler in her borrowed light blue Explorer LV in Penrhyn Mawr tide race that afternoon. The west swell pushes across the race and large waves break across each other in general mayhem. The little inside chute, however, sits at a different angle than the main flow, and takes the wind-swell directly against the current. This makes for the cleanest rides, but the chute is narrow, and surfing a few degrees out of alignment sends the kayak arcing into the eddy on one side or the other. If this arc is done with good velocity, the speed at which the rock in the eddy approaches ones bow is alarming. At one point I resort to the body drogue--lying down on the water to slow momentum. It works, but it’s a far cry from the birdlike grace Sean demonstrated that morning.

After the fun of symposium came a week of assessments, one for coaching and one for skills, both of which I passed, but there were moments I wasn’t sure I would. Five-star award is the British Canoe Union’s highest accomplishment for sea paddling skills and leadership. Because there’s none above it, they feel obligated to thoroughly test the candidates before passing them.

During the night paddle, I was asked to lead the group from T Bay to a nook in the rocks called Porth Diana. As we pushed off the beach into the wind, I noticed that behind us a distant aluminium plant chimney lined up perfectly with a triangle of lights on the roofline of a waterfront restaurant beside which the van was parked. Easy as a landing strip at an airport, I thought to myself.

The other 2 blokes had their turns at leading. At one point, we changed plans because the sea was too rough for our group. Up a more protected part of the coast, we passed some offshore rocks, and pulled into a cobble beach beside a haunted house—a rambling stone affair silhouetted on a rocky headland. Rowland our assessor asked the candidates to locate on a map where we were.

While he consulted with another person, I looked at my map, identified the offshore rocks we’d passed, noted the proximity of the coast road, and saw that the angle of the cove allowed a straight view of the lights of Porth Diana. Satisfied, I lay back on my kayak and looked at the stars. Cassiopeia. Leo. Familiar patterns in an unfamiliar landscape. Rowland finished quizzing the blokes and walked over to my kayak with its bow resting on the cobbles and stern lifting with the breathing sea.

I pointed up and said, “Well, the Big Dipper aims at Polaris, which is the north star. So that means,” I sat up and put my finger on the map. “We’re here.” Fortunately, two things were true in that moment: Rowland had a sense of humor, and I was right.

Fate has a way of humbling the confident, however. Chris led us somewhere else, and I was supposed to take us back to the launch. Remember the landing lights of the restaurant and the aluminium chimney. I knew we were in T Bay. I saw the chimney. I heard waves on rocks and manoeuvred narrowly around them in the dark. But I couldn’t find the restaurant next to which was parked the rather large and conspicuous van and trailer. The closer to the sandy beach we got, the more slowly I paddled, searching for some recognizable detail among the yellow street lights. Everyone slowed with me.

With my stomach in my throat and the beach approaching ominously, I thought I’d failed the night navigation. Finally, floating 10 feet off the beach, I had to admit, “Well, we’re in the right bay, but I don’t see the van and restaurant. Hmm. Let’s land here and I’ll have a look about.” Just as I said that, my eyes caught it—the van and trailer directly in front of me parked next to a darkened restaurant. Ah, some beacons are more reliable for navigation than others.

The final day of assessment tested skills in a nominal tide race off Rhoscolyn Head. Performing seals, my assessor called the drill. Roll over. Capsize, exit the boat, re-enter and roll up. Scramble. Put the skirt on a boat full of water and roll it again. Up to this point everything went smoothly. But with a cockpit full of water and hatches full of gear (we were prepared to camp out), I couldn’t get the boat to capsize. I could set boat sideways and hang my head in the water. I could balance brace with my back on the water and my head up looking around. I could flick the boat right-side-up from there with my hips. But I couldn’t get the dang thing upside down. I tried several times before the Man with the Red Pen conceded that no matter what happened, I could still get up even if I couldn’t get fully upside down with a swamped, loaded kayak.

I also had to demonstrate a T rescue, which Rowland in his wisdom set up thus: one symposium client who’d been the squeaky wheel all week wanted to show off his roll in the waves. Rowland was happy to encourage him to do so at this moment, and as he went confidently over, Rowland suggested I watch him. He didn’t come up. Not with his boat, anyway. With excuses aplenty. But he did give me the opportunity to demonstrate my rescue and gave Rowland and others the pleasure of watching him being rescued by one of those female types he’d been so condescending to all week.

Then I was to have someone else raft up with him while he fussed with his skirt and I towed them up current, down wind and down swell. That would call for a long tow line so they didn’t surf into me. Rowland kept pace off to the side. We’d be moving along nicely, then the line would go taut, and with an “Ooof!” I’d stop dead while he glided ahead chuckling.

“Now capsize, release your tow, and roll up,” Roland said. I did. “Reattach tow and continue.” I did. Did I mention that my boat was still full of water throughout this circus? I got the raft to a calm place behind a rock and unhooked the line. As I stashed my tow, Rowland the Torturer suggested that I just might have a fist-sized hole under the seat in my kayak and that I should find a nice slippery rock to pull it out upon and fix it.

So I did a bit of rock gardening in the slightly surging waters, made a graceful enough exit onto wet, seaweed draped rocks, finally dumped out the cockpit full of water, then pulled the loaded boat up, thankful it wasn’t mine, and that there was seaweed to ease the slide. Clear of the surging water on a narrow ledge up against a wall, I pulled out the repair kit and a towel. Wiped off the hull, slapped on some “gaffer tape” (duct tape in American).

“It’s got to stay on through everything else we do and be there when we get to the beach,” Rowland reminded me. A few more wipes, a few more slabs of tape for good measure. That patch stayed on through the rock-slide launch, the paddle home, and the next day’s tide race playing before I remembered to remove it. But before I jump ahead, the launch off the rocks was a moment of glory I’d like to share.

As I set about to drop the boat back into the water, the swells predictably got bigger. I scrambled out from beside the boat so I didn’t get squished by the waves, pulled it back up the rock a smidge, and paused to watch for a few waves. The tide was rising, and I didn’t know if the swell was now coming over some rocks that had previously protected me and I would just have to take my knocks, or if this was a large set I could wait out. I saw a moment of opportunity, and took it. I scrambled down, set the boat in the foamy water, straddled it, and paddled out backwards while inserting my feet into the boat and sideslipping to avoid a rock. A surge lifted me up over a shallow spot and I rode it in reverse out of the rocky zone without a scratch or splash, then put on the spray deck in calm, deep water. Whew. Who’d have believed that all those years of playing with waves and rocks and balance would ever pay off in an official kind of way?

Maybe one knows that one’s found ones calling when a lifetime of play becomes pertinent. Of course, no matter how proficient one gets, there are always the inspirational others with more experience, more style, or more guts. Always new places to see. That’s the beauty of it, and I’m leaving here thankful for the years behind, and for the years ahead.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Sweet Oregon surf. And... sunshine? Posted by Picasa

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Unplanned Road Adventures

A few miles inland from the Baja Pacific coast lies a broad, windblown mesa. Highway 1 shoots across it in a straight line north, passing a military checkpoint. Six or seven scattered half-built concrete houses huddle in a forgotten community near the checkpoint. Pulled off in front of the houses sits a blue truck with 5 kayaks on top, the hood up, and one forlorn traveler sitting against the tire in the shade.

You may recognize this traveler from some previous adventures. It is me. As is usually the case, I am trying to convince myself that things aren't as bad as they seem.I was innocently driving up the hill from El Rosario, pushed the clutch to shift into 5th, and nothing happened. The clutch wouldn't depress. I coasted onto the dirt road in front of the huddle of hollow gray houses, and tried to think clearly.

Fluid? Check.
Fuses? Well, I guess that had been the problem with my reverse lights. Otherwise, Check.
Connections under the hood? Check.
Well, hmmm. Maybe I just need to push harder. CRACK! I break the rod which the pedal pushes through the firewall into the master cylinder. Now I know I'm sunk.I drink some water, eat some food, and try to think more clearly. Whatever the original problem is, I know I can't fix the secondary one myself.

So I look up "clutch" in my Spanish-English dictionary. "Embrague" This enables me to 1) curse at it in the appropriate language (as in `pinche embrague'), which cements it in my mind so I can 2) talk to a mechanic if I can find one.

I crawl underneath and discover that the hydraulic hose which is supposed to connect into the transmission doesn't connect to anything. Problem. Armed with information, but fearing a lack of locally available parts, I wander the potholed dirt streets to a house with laundry fluttering on a line in the wind. After some introduction, the occupants determine that I speak enough Spanish for them to be able to help me. Carla, a woman about my age, offers to drive me to the mehanics down in El Rosario, when her mother suggests the telephone. There is no phone book, so Carla calls the operator, who connects her. "What's the problem," she asks me."El embrague," I confidently declare.She looks puzzled but repeats it into the phone, then shrugs, says "I don't know either," and looks at me again.

"The thing to shift the gears," I say, miming the action. She relays this information and then repeats, "Oh, el clutch!"The mechanics say they'll be there right away. I walk back to my truck to wait.Mexican hospitality exists in inverse proportions to Mexican punctuality. An hour or so later, Carla drives up and says get in, we'll go look for them. I ride down the hill with her and learn a few things about the neighborhood. The houses on the mesa were built after some horrible flooding on the river by El Rosario, but people gave up and moved back to their homes in town when the floods were not so persistant as they feared. Land is cheap, and there are no building codes, so a house only really costs the materials and your labor to stack the cinder blocks. Easy come, easy go. Carla lives on the mesa with her parents, her husband and their 2-year old daughter, her brother, sister-in-law and their son, and a young man with a drooling smile and a crooked shock of short black hair, whose connection I never did figure out. The men work in seafood processing or at the gas station in town.

We follow a dirt road maze until it ends at a pile of overturned dusty cars, and Carla says we're here. If this were not omen enough, we find that the mechanics, Andre and Andre, one big and one skinny, are working on the pickup they intended to drive to see me.It's not as bad as it looks, I remind myself. Their shop was typical of rural Baja: a dirt yard with oil stains on the ground. Some shops have trees from whose branches hang whole engines. Some have holes in the ground for getting under vehicles. This one just has a handful of tools tossed in the back of a white truck, and two creative, determined and greasy men named Andre.

They get the truck running and follow us up to my lonely rig on the mesa. Under the dash, I show skinny Andre the broken rod. He uses my tools, which are much more comprehensive than his, and takes apart a few things that were never meant to be taken apart, much less reused. Eventually he pulls out two pieces of rod, one end plastic and one end metal. Big Andre turns them over in his hand and butts them together, saying to me "Chickle," as in Chicklets gum. I groan and shake my head. "Duck tape?" I offer. He laughs and nods.Skinny Andre climbs acrobatically out of my truck and says some things to Carla to tell me, but she doesn't know anything about cars and tells him to tell me himself. He says the rod is the problem and he's going to go work on it. I say, no, wait, there's more underneath, and show him the hydraulic line. He agrees that that is a problem as well.

While he's prodding about at things, big Andre and I discuss all the "American" words that have been adopted into Mexican automotive lexicon. Among others, there are clutch, wipers, hood, auto partes, and my favorite, mofle (muffler). Skinny Andre says that they needed to go look for parts, and would return in five minutes. "Dos horas," ammends big Andre. Carla smirks and nods. "Ensenada?" I ask about the location of parts. I considered contacting a friend in the states to bring me down the necessary bits over the weekend, but that seemed excessive and I lacked long distance phone access. I considered hitchhiking to Ensenada for parts myself, but that seemed intimidating."No," says skinny Andre, "Here in El Rosario.""OK, I'll be here," I say cheerfully."Five minutes," says Skinny."Two hours," says Big. And they leave.I go with Carla back to her house, chuckling together about estimations of time in Mexico. "Andre's right," she says, "It'll be two hours. That's what five minutes means." She says she'd known the pair of them all her life.

I pass the time with the family, switching TV channels between a melodramatic hospital soap and soccer. When the soap is over, news of the failing Pope. I find I can understand most of the Spanish. In fact, this is turning into a day of Spanish immersion, beginning at surf camp this morning with Jorge and Jandro's visit, and now incorporating family, automotive, and entertainment contexts. Carla's daughter wakes up and entertains herself and us for a half an hour by playing with mashed potatoes, and even ingesting some.

Eventually when we look out the window, the mechanics are back at my truck, and we walk over. Mexican punctuality also exists in inverse proportions to Mexican ingenuity. The Andres have a complete rod, welded in the middle, and now made entirely of metal, including the eye on the end. I am impressed. The other fitting doesn't work, and they have to work on it overnight. Meanwhile they think it best to move the truck away from the highway especially if I am going to sleep in it.

There is no way their little truck could drag my loaded one over the rough ground, so they intend to drive my truck by starting it in gear. Except that if the clutch isn't depressed, the engine won't start, and the clutch is still broken. No problem for these guys. Little Andre the stunt man gets behind the wheel. Big Andre pulls a rubber covering off a bolt and holds a cresent wrench under the open hood. I am supposed to close the hood when the truck starts moving (after Andre removes all body parts) so Stunt Man can see where he's going. With a few chugs and a few shouts, my truck is on its way, lumbering through the potholes to Carla's house.

I watch a colorful sunset over the mesa with silhouettes of vehicles gliding along Hwy 1 and stopping at the checkpoint. Somehow the experience of traveling feels very foreign to me right now, that on-the-road feeling I was expecting to live with for a few days. I am suddenly here, part of a community, and not part of a flow. Strangely, I don't feel anxious at all. Unplanned adventures can even be pleasant once one looses the expectation to stick to one's original plan.

I eat refried beans and quesadillas with Carla, greet the others as they come home from work, and crawl into my truck out front to read and sleep. The morning's sunrise is as spectacular as it is flat. Soon the sea fog threatens from the west, and a cold wind heralds its arrival. While waiting for Andre and Andre, I putter with the rod they created, and accidently assemble it into the truck. The clips are one-way, so once I stick it through the firewall and into the master cylinder, it's stuck. So I put it on the pedal mechanism, and find it's stuck there as well. Thankfully, I had stuck it in the right way.

Skinny Andre arrives animated with having thought about the clutch all night, wondering how to reassemble it and how to make the hose stick. I solved the first problem already, which he is happy about. He solves the second, and swears by it. "That will last, but fix the rod better when you cross over," he says, "because it may fall off the pedal."

We still need to fix the wiring so I could start the truck, however. The sensor doesn't fit over the welded rod. Big Andre hot wires it again, and I ride while Skinny Andre drives my truck to the electricians. He chatters merrily all the way down the hill. I think he is relieved to have conquered the clutch. We could tell we were at the electricians by the red aluminium Tecate cans resting in gregarious piles in the corners of the yard. "He tips `em back," says Andre. In about 30 seconds, the electrician clips two wires, and the truck will start in gear, out of gear, or anytime you turn the key.

"How much?" I ask. Skinny Andre says, "A hundred for the electrician, and a hundred for each of us."
"Pesos?" I clarify.
So, after 19 hours of El Rosario mesa hospitality and about $30 of auto repair, I am on my way again.

Just so you don't think the saga ends here, the next chapter, were it to be written, would bring to life a night and morning, a few days later, in Eugene, OR where I wait in a nearby sports bar and a Salvation Army outlet while the entire clutch is replaced in a much less creative, more expensive manner. Now it should last for at least another five months!