Category: Kayakery (page 1 of 2)

Inktober Day Sixteen: Wet

A quick and dirty sketch of myself rolling my kayak for the first time — loose and low quality because the reference material is fuzzy.

And therein lies a quick story:

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A couple of months back, I sold my dear old red kayak, Waterbender, and bought a fancy new sea kayak, the better to have longer and more long-distance adventures. Part of being safe in your boat is being able to recover yourself if a wave knocks you over, and so I made a commitment to learn to roll my boat. Paddling buddy R was generous enough to give me a couple of one-on-one lessons in return for dinner.

Things didn’t go well at first: learning to roll was terrifying for me. The combination of being upside down, with water rushing in towards my brain through my nose and ears, and having my legs trapped triggered a serious panic sensation, and I’d flail and gasp and thrash and wet exit every time, even with patient R holding my shoulders.

On R’s recommendation I borrowed her nose plugs, Paul’s swim goggles, and bought some swimmer’s ear plugs. I found a handicapped ramp at a local lake and used the railing to practice rolling myself back and forth manually. I could only manage an hour or so at a time, and then the repeated visits to the panicky place would just be too much.

But the noseplugs made a huge difference, as did the swim goggles. Once I could see what I was doing underwater, and once all my air wasn’t rushing out of my nose in an effort to keep the water out, I could slow down and actually think instead of just reacting. R suggested that I just try hanging upside down for a bit longer each time, and so I did, slowly building up my tolerance.

I watched videos in the meantime, studying body placement. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m a thinker-learner, not a doer-learner. Eventually I found a couple videos that showed some dry-land practice drills — which sounds goofy as heck, I know — that turned out to give me the lightbulb moment I needed to put it all together.

Winter was fast approaching, and I maybe had forty-five minutes of daylight each night at the lake. The water was getting progressively colder, which made me less eager to go dunk myself repeatedly. Finally, on the last good warm evening of the year, I was out with my buddy B, who caught my very first successful roll on camera. I rolled three times that night: the first one I popped right up like I’d been doing it my whole life, and on the last two I was able to reset after a failure, which is also a good skill to develop. None of them were pretty rolls, but this winter I’ll be able to polish my technique in swimming pool lessons.

Take that, anxiety!

Apostle Islands

About a month ago, my paddling buddy R. emailed me to invite me along on a kayaking trip to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in northern Wisconsin. This was a leap of faith on R’s part, because the last few years I’d been so busy with comics and other hobbies that I’d put her off on several other invitations. Fortunately for me, the stars aligned this year, and I spent the month of July training up for the trip.
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Located in the far western corner of Lake Superior (if you imagine it as a wolf’s head, they’re just below the point of the wolf’s nose), these 22 islands boast some of the most pristine wilderness in the Great Lakes region. And because they’re located in Lake Superior, preparation is paramount. the water there never gets much above 55F (even in mid-August, when we went) which means wetsuits at a bare minimum, and drysuits most of the year. I was fortunate to have a “farmer-jane” style suit I’d bought for a previous trip that I never got to take (see R’s leap of faith, above), and so I didn’t have to buy much new safety gear. I did elect to rent a longer, faster boat than my dear little Tsunami, because we were doing open-water crossings and I didn’t want to fall behind. It turned out to be a good choice, and the Scorpio I brought was speedy and a delight to paddle.

Day One
After driving through Chicago traffic and spending the night in Wausau, we arrived in Bayfield around 1pm and picked up our permits, then headed out to the lakeshore to put in. The weather shifted from overcast to bright and sunny, and we were super excited to get on the water. No sooner had we taken the lines off the boats and struggled into our neoprene when an impenetrable bank of fog rolled in and diminished visibility down to ten feet. We were crushed — but then we noticed the signs for the hiking trail and decided to have a walk along the shore, so we tied the boats back up, struggled out of the neoprene, and changed into our hiking clothes. This turned out to be a very wise choice, because we still got to see all the famous sea caves from above, watching other, braver (?) paddlers below weave in and out.

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The hike was great, and it was nice to stretch our legs after having been in the car for so long that day, and the day before. We got to see all sorts of neat plants like reindeer lichen, blue bead lily, and thimbleberry bushes, plus the gorgeous natural formations of the sea caves, and this natural land-bridge over a deep crevasse of a sea-cave (we’d paddle that same cave the next day).

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After a good 6 miles, we were ready for dinner, so we drove back to Little Sand Bay and made a gourmet dinner on our camp stoves: thai green coconut curry with fresh veg, brown rice, and dark chocolate cook-pudding. One of the perks of kayaking is that you don’t have to carry dehydrated space food, and we ate beautiful satisfying meals every night of the trip.

As we packed our mess kits away, the last of the fog lifted, and we still had time to take a sunset paddle:

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Day Two
Our adventure started in earnest as we returned to Myers Beach, scene of our previous defeat by Lake Superior fog. We put in at around 10am and paddled out to see the sea caves along the mainland.

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Here’s R’s sister K and I exploring that crevasse of a sea cave. The cliffs must have been fifty feet high, and the cave narrowed down to a tiny point you could just stick the stern of your kayak into.

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The caves were tremendous, and were so spectacular that throughout the course of the morning, we would find ourselves spontaneously shouting “SEA CAVES!” and “WE GET TO BE HERE!” just out of pure joy. There were enormous caves big enough to house small buildings, some so tiny you could only fit a single-person kayak through, some dripping with sheets of the previous day’s rain, some covered in lichen and moss in a dozen colors. We squeezed our boats through stone arches and into caves so low that we tucked our paddles under our arms and pulled ourselves along with our hands on the ceilings, the water lit greenly from below by the sunlight spilling in between the sandstone pillars.
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After a good three or four hours playing our favorite game, which is called “I Bet I Can Fit My Boat Through That,” we stopped for lunch, and then completed our first of five open-water crossings out to Sand Island, leapfrogging each other the whole way to pass the time. We then paddled along the beach until we came to the campground, set up camp and ate dinner, then hiked the three-mile trail out to the Sand Island lighthouse. With our campsite on the east side of the island, and the lighthouse on the northernmost point, the hike was exactly the right plan to see the stunning sunset. Up that far north it just lingers on and on, painting the sky in unbelievable colors.

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We hiked back by headlamp, moving quickly over the boardwalks to avoid the terrible bugs, and made a pot of ginger tea with a camp stove on the beach to watch the stars come the rest of the way out. More stars than I have ever seen — even growing up as a kid in the country, I’ve never seen such deep sky — the Milky Way a ghostly trail across the heavens, the Pleiades meteor showers gifting us with streaks of light, the ISS tracking its unerring orbit.

Day Three
Sand Island is home to more sea caves, so we spent the morning exploring them for as long as we could. The Sand Island caves are much smaller than the ones on the mainland, but more intricate, with more little tunnels and secret chambers and tiny sculpted pillars. Plus these caves are much more difficult to reach, so there were far fewer other boats around, allowing us to play and dawdle and really enjoy fooling around in them.

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Bald eagles live all over the place up in Lake Superior, but we were startled to come across a single eagle, perched on top of a cliff — not in a tree, just on the cliff — some twenty feet above us. We got into a staring contest with the eagle, fully expecting it to fly away, but it never did. The eagle totally won.

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Sadly, we eventually ran out of sea caves, and began our second open-water crossing to York Island, where we stopped for lunch on some beautiful sunny rocks tailor-made for the purpose. One of the things that struck me most about the Apostles was how unbelievably clean the whole place was. The entire trip I never saw garbage of any kind, no visible pollution, just gorgeous unspoiled wilderness. Each of the campsites we stayed at was well-established, with ranger stations and vault toilets and bear-boxes, and even those were shockingly well-kept. It must be because it takes actual work to get out to the islands, and those who are willing to put forth the effort are also those with a healthy respect for the environment. Regardless, it was a real treat to see such beauty in such good care, and York Island was no exception.

Lunch finished, we made a third crossing to Raspberry Island, were we stopped for another quick break by the lighthouse for some gorp and a stretch before continuing on to Oak Island, where we lucked out and got the outlying campsite far away from all the other campers. true, it was a quarter-mile hike to the pit toilet, but the solitude was worth it. We set up camp, ate dinner, waited out a quick burst of wind and a few sprinkles under R’s mammoth tarp, then read books on the beach and watched the sun set in another spectacular display.

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Day Four

It was so difficult to get going on that last day, knowing we’d be heading back to civilization with all its troubles and worries and work, but there were still sights to be seen. We made our final open-water crossing back to the mainland and began working our way back to Little Sand Bay. R. had worried at the outset that since we’d be seeing the best of the sea caves on the first day that we’d find the remainder of the trip boring, but the coast had tons of beautiful rock formations for us to see, as well as loads of little rocks that we could sport and play around, practicing our steering and maneuverability.

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The remainder of the day came and went so quickly, but we still saw an abundance of eagles (juvenile and adult) and had a great time playing our way back to reality. As we pulled into the bay, K and I joked about distracting R and making a break for Isle Royale, but alas, reality called. We packed all our kit into our cars, loaded the boats, squelched out of our smelly wetsuits, and drove into Bayfield for a last look at Superior while we ate dinner.

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The Apostle Islands are such an amazing place. This felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I hope I get to return someday and see the outer islands as well as the inner ones we did this time. Huge thanks to R for planning the whole thing and keeping me and K safe from both drowning and bears.

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Pine Paddling, again

Last weekend, my buddy J and I returned to the Pine River, following the same big group of paddlers as last year. About 70 people showed up this time.

Despite the dire forecast of 60F and perpetual rain, we had absolutely stunning weather, the best kind of Michigan autumn: bright, bright blue skies, thin sunlight, and a deep green forest peppered with a spray of fiery-colored trees.



The top half of the river is a bit slower, and this year’s water level was lower than last year, so we had a nice, calm 22-mile paddle the first day. There are these amazing sand cliffs everywhere, sometimes as tall as 60-70 feet.

The bottom half, on the other hand, is some of the only whitewater in the entire state. As I mentioned, the river was slower than last year, but we still had a nice wild ride on Sunday. It was especially gratifying because this was the first time I’ve really been able to think, rather than just react, on moving water. I was able to see and feel how the current was moving my boat, and use the current to my advantage rather than fighting against it. It was really wonderful to feel myself level up on paddling again.

And fortunately for me, I had the financial wherewithal to buy a proper sleeping bag this summer, so there wasn’t a repeat of last year’s unfortunate incident. I had a lovely, toasty-warm night’s sleep, and had a great time with friends R and K and J. I sure hope to do it again next year — maybe then I’ll take the time off of work and do all four days of the paddle. Looking forward to it already.

(All photos courtesy of fellow paddler Eric Stallsmith. Thanks, Eric!)

Pre-Fourth paddling

Work generously gifted us with a four-day weekend, which I spent mostly doing a comics intensive, trying to get caught up, and a little ahead on my page count, so that I can spend a week getting caught up on digital corrections. I allowed myself one day of vacation, and spent it out on Lake Michigan with paddling buddy R.

It was a beautiful day, slightly overcast, but just right in temperature and humidity, about 85F, and a little cooler out on the lake. The week’s heat had made the water beautifully warm, and getting wet was a treat rather than a hindrance. I’d never done any deep-water paddling before, and was more than a little worried about the trip, but R is on her way to her safety certificate, and we had the full compliment of safety gear, so I felt comfortable giving it a shot. We put in at Deerlick park, just south of South Haven, and paddled up the coast. The waves were about as large as I felt I could handle — 1-3 foot swells with minimal whitecapping. It was like being on a rollercoaster: three feet up, three feet down, and several of the waves pulled an unintended yelp out of me. Things never got to a point where I felt I couldn’t handle myself, and I kept my seat the entire time, but if they’d gotten any more serious, I’d have headed for shore immediately.

We made our way up the coast, stopping briefly for lunch, and came to the clay cliffs north of the city, these weird wonderful river-sculpted gray cliffs that look like something out of a lunar landscape. Our buddies R&S were camping there on the beach, along with a bunch of their friends, and were dipping hunks of freshly-caught steelhead into batter, preparing them to go in a deep fryer. Now that’s living.

Back in our kayaks, we headed back towards the South Haven lighthouse, arriving just as the sun was setting. It was a bit dodgy, as tons of boats were all headed out to watch the fireworks, including the beautiful replica sloop, the Friends Good Will, flying the 1812 American flag and a long green pennant. The sunset was spectacular: long thin horizontal bands of clouds alternating molten orange and purple stretched from north to south along the western horizion, the sky to the east gone pink in harmony.

As a result of last year’s lackluster fireworks, the mayor got together a bunch of donors and promised an impressive show. We moved further south, far out of range of both city and citizen arsenals, and past the outer ring of boats, where we bobbed gently on water as flat and calm as Lake Michigan ever offers. The show definitely delivered, and lasted at least its promised 25 minutes. We could hear the synchronizing music — a mix of movie themes and such — coming from the boats around us, but I thought the music actually detracted from the show. Seeing the lights reflected in the water was a real treat.

After the show we found our way back to the park, and then spent two hours crawling back east along M-43. If we do this next year we’re taking county roads, I swear. All told we got at least ten good miles paddled, the first five against steep swells. I’m surprised my arms still work at all this morning, but so far, I’m only a little stiff, and hardly even sore. I really hope to do this kind of all-day paddle again; the sunset alone was worth the trip.

Flirting with hypothermia

Yesterday, my friend R and her sister and I all went out winter kayaking. We picked a relatively shallow lake to make rescues easy on the off-chance one of us flipped, but thankfully we all stayed warm and dry.

The day was a stunning one — stark blue skies traced with thin cirrus clouds and contrails and nothing else. Hundreds of wildfowl were out on the lake with us: ducks, geese, and swans kept lifting off in advance of our boats. The water was mostly clear until we got past the portage point on the little creek we were following, at which point we had to smash through a good half-inch of lake ice to keep going. It felt a little wrong, at first, breaking up such a clear, still, beautiful surface, but once we realized it wasn’t going to do any damage or have any real consequences (the lake froze tight again that evening) we had a lot of fun in the destruction. The ice was thick enough in places that you could ease your boat up on to a shelf of it, and it’d take the weight for just a split second before it gave out and cracked off in huge plates six and eight feet long. The noise was like smashing plate-glass windows with a hammer; sometimes you’d hear these weird zipping noises that sounded like hitting a miked-up slinky, like what the sound engineers did to make the blaster sounds for Star Wars.

I was wearing completely waterproof gloves which, while ridiculously expensive, turned out to be one of my wisest paddling purchases. I was able to reach down into the freezing water and fish out big hunks of ice with no discomfort. I even made a little ice-dolmen at one point, stacking slices of frozen lake into a neat little tower. The little floes made the most oddly musical sounds as you paddled through them, like the world’s biggest rocks-glass. Ducks and geese stood on the ice and watched our paddles skid comically across the surface until we finally reached more open water.

We got pretty far on our excursion, but we eventually had to turn around because the exit point we’d intended to use was behind a good fifty yards of ice. We’d broken through about twenty feet, and while not particularly rough going, it wasn’t exactly fast, and we didn’t have enough daylight left to make it a practical pursuit. So instead we played Russian Icebreakers all the way home. And then I pulled out my audiobook of Endurance and listened to Simon Prebble tell Shackleton’s frozen story.

Pine Paddlin’

Two weekends ago, I went on a really amazing trip down the Pine River. It was my first time paddling on really fast water; the Kalamazoo river’s pretty much a beer float unless it’s rained heavily the week before, and I’d been hearing for months about how great the Pine was, so I was really looking forward to it. Anyway, every autumn this big group of paddlers gets together at this campground near Wellston and paddles two or three of the nearby rivers. It was bucketing down rain on Friday, so we elected not to leave after work, but to get up early on Saturday morning and drive up for the 8am launch.

Only problem is, Wellston is three hours north. Which means me and paddling buddies J and R got up at 4am. To be on the road by 5am. Yeah, we’re a little stupid when it comes to paddling.

So we roll into the campground just as the 8am convoy was forming, and fortunately for us everyone was a little slow getting moving. We had just enough time to pitch our tents and get things set for our evening return. After some minor issues with staging we were on the river by about 9:45, and had an awesome 4 hour trip down to Dobson Bridge. The river was definitely faster water than I was used to, but I didn’t see anything that really made me feel I was at risk — until we got right in front of the bridge, where there were some really sweet Class II rapids. As soon as J and R and I shot through, we shouted “AGAIN!” like little kids, and tried to get our boats turned around so we could take them again. No luck; the river was fast enough that we’d get close to the top, but the instant we missed a stroke, we’d get turned around and sent back downstream. It was a bit like trying to swing at a big brother who’s got his hand on your forehead.

Most of the fifty-or-so paddlers pulled out at the campground, just a short trip away from Dobson bridge, but R was keen to keep going, so while I caught a quick nap in my tent, she organized with another couple paddlers for a shuttle, and then we were off for another 3 hour paddle down to Low Bridge.

That part of the river was AMAZING, and I was so glad that R talked me into giving it a shot, despite having slept like crap the night before and surviving a 4am wakeup call. Class I the whole way with lots of exciting Class II rapids, and the previous day’s rain kept our minds in the present moment — most of the river was so tricky that we couldn’t even hold a conversation for fear of getting dumped. Tall dunes fenced us in, topped with maples just beginning to turn orange, and though we hardly saw any wildlife other than the occasional pissy kingfisher, the gorgeous, unspoiled forest views totally made up for it.

It was pretty damp all day, and alternated between sun and medium-heavy rain. We got dumped on as we ate our lunch, and despite my usual aversion towards schmancy yuppie gear, I was really, really glad I’d spent the money on waterproof pants and a paddling jacket, though my old wool pendleton shirt did well for all but the worst of it.

At the end of the trip, my arms felt like noodles, and I was so glad to have set up the tent before leaving. Eight of us all piled into the shuttle, a minivan with four seats and a monster homemade roof-rack, on which we managed to pile two canoes and four kayaks — Getting out was a bit of a clown-car experience. Back at the campground we got changed and headed over to the potluck and bonfire, where we fell on the buffet like ravenous wolves and had a great time passing around J’s bottle of spiced rum. Loaded with booze and good humor, J became the instant hit of the weekend, and I’m pretty sure that R and I won’t be allowed back without bringing him along.

Unfortunately, this is where the day started to go south. I’m still pretty broke from this summer’s big vacation, so rather than buying my own sleeping bag and pad, I borrowed Paul’s, the same one he’s been using since he was in Boy Scouts. We’d unrolled it the week before to air it out, and it looked just fine, but as soon as I crawled inside, the zipper burst like a sausage. The temperature was dropping fast — it was already down around 40F — and since it was a mummy bag, I was hosed. There was no way to get the bag shut all the way, and no matter how I lay, I still had a good eight inches of exposed body. The pad didn’t help any because I’d paddled for about eight hours, my shoulders hurt too much to lie on them. After about two hours of misery, I finally gave up and tried to sleep in the backseat of my car. It being a VW Golf, this was only marginally better. My legs were cramped and aching all night, but at least I was warm. I may have dozed off for about fifteen minutes in there somewhere, but I doubt I got more sleep than that. I kept shifting around in the bag all night, and eventually tried propping my feet clumsily against the window. I was parked right near the bathrooms, and I can only imagine what people must’ve thought as they walked past in the middle of the night, the kayaks on my car swaying back and forth as I tossed and turned, bumping my feet against the window. It must’ve looked like the most clumsy, awkward backseat sex ever. Yeah, dignity. I remember that.

So dawn comes, and I drag my sorry ass out of the car and head over to build the fire and make breakfast. Everyone else popped up fresh as daisies, and here I was running on three hours of sleep in two days. Things were not looking good until the campers next door offered me coffee. It was kinda weak for my taste, but I dumped in some of the powdered starbucks stuff (shut up, it’s good) I brought with me and then it was extra good. I was about to head home and leave R and J to keep paddling, but aparrently I was making the dog face well enough that some other folks took more pity on me, and soon I had even more coffee. Three cups later and I felt human (and stupid) enough to sign up for one more day of paddling.

So off we go to put in at Dobson and do that amazing stretch of river again. This time the sun shone down on us and it was a beautiful blue-sky day. Soon we did away with our extra layers and had a grand old time of it. Doing the same section twice was a great idea; the second time through I was able to see what I’d done wrong and make corrections, thinking instead of just reacting. I feel like I really levelled up in both ruddering and edging that trip. Being such a clumsy, accident-prone person, it’s an amazing, gratifying experience to feel myself actually becoming physically competent at something. I’m the type that usually trips over cracks in the linoleum, the one that’s usually wearing evidence of everything I ate for lunch, who can’t make it through the day without acquiring a new bruise from whacking into a desk-edge — and here I managed thirty miles over fast water without falling in once. Does wonders for the confidence, it does.

I wish we could’ve done that stretch a third time, and if the weather and the day hadn’t both been turning on us, I think we might’ve. Alas, we loaded the boats on the car and headed for home, gassed up on rapids and sleep-deprivation and sunshine. I am so going back next year.

Stars and fish and beaver and cranes

Feeling so much better today. Went kayaking right after work with R., and had the most lovely time. We arrived at Barton Lake just before sunset, and paddled all through the golden hour on water so still that it seemed a shame to dip your paddle in. We made it upstream on Portage Creek as far as the bridge at 22nd street, and saw fishes great and small, cranes, herons, and an absolutely enormous beaver, all in the fading light under the barest slender crescent of first-quarter moon. It was such a gorgeous night, not a cloud in the sky, that we lay back in our kayaks and just watched the stars come out. We were far enough away from the city lights that we could clearly see the Milky Way; the sky at its darkest with the moon long gone. Satellites and airplanes and shooting stars, with Venus and Jupiter so huge in the sky that they seemed artificial.

When I got home, all de-stressed and happy and stinking of swamp mud, I found that Paul had spent the evening cleaning the house and running errands so that I could have most of the day on Saturday to relax and make comics. Ladies, you might think you have the best husband, but I’m sorry to tell you that mine is the bestest in all the land. And people wonder why I don’t care about flowers or cards or Valentine’s Day.

Closer to home

Man, the Kalamazoo River oil spill is just heartbreaking. Nearly a million gallons of crude, dumped right in my back yard, gives me new respect for the horror the Gulf Coast’s been going through. Terrible pictures of oil-slicked Canada geese and muskrats are everywhere, and the beautiful river I’d been hoping to kayak tonight is ruined all over again.

Poor Kalamazoo River. It’s been the dumping grounds for all sorts of heinous shit for as long as western settlers have been here. Things were finally looking up — after years and years of Superfund cleanup and local efforts, the river was clean enough to sport and play in, again. Festivals, like Kanoe the Kazoo, sprang up in an effort to lure residents, long taught to avoid the smelly watershed, back to the rejuvenated river. And now it’s all gone, those years of effort will have to start all over again, thanks to one company’s negligence.

The summer-long Kalamazoo Water Festival — sponsored by the watershed council — couldn’t be more timely. Maybe the last few events of the year will be turned into volunteer cleanup parties. God knows we’ll need it.

I confess that I’m kind of scared to volunteer, myself, though this is kind of thing is right up my alley. But something’s got to be done, and we can’t count on the folks who made this mess to clean it up.

And we’re back!

Paul and I returned on early Wednesday morning from a beautiful wonderful awe-filled trip to Seattle and Olympic National Park. I’d have liked to’ve had a post up sooner, but between all the catching up required during the return to real life and processing through the three gigs of pictures I took, I haven’t had a chance to sit down and blog yet.

But! Tonight we had another lovely night of kayaking; we explored Hogset and Gourdneck lakes tonight and found the noodly little passages that connect them to all the other lakes in the area. We ran out of time with the sunset fast approaching, but that just means we’ll have more adventures soon. We also found a huge stand of delectable blackberry bushes, their fruit hanging low and enticing all the way down to the water, with the last berries submerged. Each fruit was the size of the top joint on your thumb, and since they were growning on state land, we each helped ourselves to a lovely purple-stainy handful.

More soon…

A midsummer night’s moon

Last night, Paul and I took our kayaks out to Sugarloaf lake to watch the sunset and moonrise. It had been a gorgeous day, the edge was finally coming off the heat and humidity, and we both needed a break after a long, hectic and sometimes frustrating week. What a break it was.

We launched the boats just as the sun was disappearing behind the trees — did some exploring in the gloaming, poking around in reedbeds on water so still and quiet that it seemed a shame to dip your paddle in in and break the mirror-smooth surface. There was no wind at all, and I could turn around and see my wake’s turbulence crisscrossing Paul’s in perfect symmetry. The lake was as warm as bathwater, and as the air temperature dipped, a soft white mist began to creep over the edges, giving the night an even more beautiful feel.

We were impatient for the moon to rise, and while we sat in our kayaks listening to the powerboaters motor home and slapping mosquitoes, our buddy R came zooming across the length of the lake toward us, a little green lightstick strapped to her bow. Kayak rave!

No sooner did R arrive than we all turned around and saw the enormous, pumpkin-orange moon rising through the trees. It’s a stunning, breathtaking thing to be out on perfectly still water, without a breath of wind, and watch a giant full moon break the horizon, reflected perfectly in the water. It’s like going to a kayak-in movie.

Once the moon was up, we had more light to see by, and so we slowly took the passage between the two lakes, taking our time and watching the show. There was a father swan in front of us, who kept making this very Angry Swan Noise at us. We tried to give it a berth, tacking away from him, but he kept running along the surface in parallel with us, honking and making that bizarre little frustrated chirp. Finally, through the dark, we noticed his mate and their cygnets trying to make a getaway in the exact same direction we were going. So we turned around and the swans left us alone. Good thing, too — those things can put up one heck of a fight.

On our way back, we frustrated the beavers, instead. There were at least two of them out, and again, though we kept trying to cut around them, we were treated to a few angry tail-slaps.

We took our time getting back once we were out of the passage, and put the boats on the car at about 11pm, under the moon gone all butter-yellow. It may have just been a paddle on an ordinary lake we’ve visited several times before, but it was an incredibly beautiful experience, and exactly what I needed this week.

Powah Owt

Just back from an absolutely lovely weekend at Paul’s parents’ cottage on Lake Michigan. The ride over there was a bit interesting, in that we drove through a storm so severe that it threatened to take the kayaks right clean off the car, so we spent about a half-hour hiding under a bridge until it passed.

When we got there, we discovered how hard-hit the coast was — there were really huge trees tipped over and snapped off all over the place. Trees you couldn’t put your arms around, snapped in half, halfway up their trunks. Limbs down everywhere. As you might imagine, there was no power anywhere. The cottage was unscathed — good news, considering that last year it took a direct tree-limb hit to the roof.

Fortunately for us, the cottage without power isn’t all that different from the cottage with power. The water still ran, so we had a working sink, a flush toilet and (cold) showers, which was a blessing. My only concern was for the pair of gorgeous 16-oz porterhouse steaks that I’d brought along — no power meant no refrigeration or stove, and they were already fully defrosted. Paul’s folks are resourceful and wise, and in addition to the standard oil lamps, candles and flashlights, a little snooping turned up a small charcoal grill and some briquettes. I had to light a wood fire to get the damp briquettes going, but eventually we roasted dinner up right, and let me tell you, necessity does more than just breed invention, it also cooks much better steaks than in an electric stove. Paired with a good bottle of table red and some sweet potatoes we wrapped in foil and roasted on the dying embers, the steaks made a meal fit for kings, and boy was the dog happy with the bones. The only bummer was that rather than night-insects, we got to fall asleep to the constant hum of our neighbors’ gas generators.

The following morning we stress-tested the kayaks in the post-storm waves. It was so much fun having some actual swells to sport and play in. We paddled a good couple of miles, took a nap and read for a bit, then came back down to do a long sunset paddle. The sea (it’s not a lake, seriously guys) had calmed down to nearly glass-smooth — practically no waves at all — and the sky put on the most amazing, gorgeous show for us, complete with high, bright first-quarter moon. Simply breathtaking. Sunday’s paddle got cut a bit short due to what looked like an oncoming storm (turned out to be nothing, after all), but we also got in some rescue practice in moving water, which is a good thing, considering we’re going to be sea kayaking for real in a few weeks.

How lucky and blessed we were to spend a weekend reading and soaking up nature, without any electronic distractions. Considering how much time I’ve spent online (for both work and play) in the last month, it was the best possible vacation.

Tweetle beetle puddle paddle battle

Paddled a good two and a half hours on Thursday night on Sugarloaf lake. Paul and my coworker J. each got to launch their boats on their maiden voyage, and they both had a great time. R. brought along a new friend and showed us how she learned to roll last week at the symposium (I’m so jealous!). The swans were out with their fluffy grey cygnets, we briefly saw the beaver, and this time we found his lodge. We also saw a raccoon go for a swim — a long one, which is a little odd, but not unheard of. Oh, and the bugs were finally out in force, after a very cold spring. Midges and skeeters and dancing waterbugs, oh my.

Today, Paul and I went down to Long Lake and took a really excellent workshop with my coworker K., who’s one of the primary reasons I got into this goofy sport in the first place. We learned better turning control — edging into sweep strokes and bow rudders and hanging draw strokes (which are totally cool; you make the boat go sideways while you’re moving. Not turn the boat — just make it go sideways. Awesome.) and then did a bunch of rescues. One thing I’m looking forward to now that the water’s nice and warm is just goofing around with the boat. Learning how far over I can edge it without going in, bracing when I do get too far over, self-rescuing (I’m getting pretty good at a cowboy scramble, for what it’s worth — though it sounds like something you should order at Denny’s, not do with a kayak) and just generally getting more comfortable with it. It’s a very stable boat, which is both a blessing and a curse, and figuring out the secondary stability’s a bit tricky — but the process sure is a lot of fun.

Kayak Petting Zoo

Lee’s had a huge boat demo today, and Paul went shopping for a kayak. We test drove all sorts of models, from plastic canoes to little twirly creek boats to 18′ fiberglass touring boats that’ll set you back four grand (and that’s before you get to the kevlar option). After trying many many boats, Paul finally settled on a Pungo 140, with an additional bow bulkhead that Lee’s will install. And hey James! You and Paul can be boat buddies now.

Even after padding in all sorts of spendy fancy boats, it turns out that I’m really happy with my Tsunami. It’s a good little boat, with excellent stability (it *is* kind of a pain in the ass to edge it, but I’ll take that in favor of having a solid seat in the water — for now anyway), it’s roomy enough for my backside, and it’s a joy to paddle. I had some real fun in it on Thursday night, threading it through a couple of tight strainers, and getting a feel for what the boat could really do. Of all the boats I test-drove, I really enjoyed the P&H Cetus the most — but between its cost and the extra fussing I’d have to give a ‘glass boat, I strongly doubt I’ll be trading in my big red plastic tank anytime soon.

I also looked in the mirror today and discovered that my wobbly bingo wings were gone, in favor of nice tight muscle. Nothing sculpted or defined — my arms are still big and roundish — but they’re on their way. And that’s a darn good feeling.

The heron tree

Paddled the same stretch of the Kalamazoo River again tonight — another beautiful evening filled with wildlife sightings, including another bald eagle.

We did see something really amazing, though — The Heron Tree. It’s something that the guy who owns the D-avenue put-in had told us about. It’s hidden on the far side of an island, which is why me missed it last time. It’s this tall thin tree in which at least thirteen great blue herons have nested, with another dozen or so nests scattered in nearby trees. It’s just amazing to see such huge birds way up in the treetops, holding their strange grunting conversation between themselves. The nests are these loose piles of sticks that don’t seem capable of holding hatchlings up, let alone a five-foot bird with a six-foot wingspan.

We had fun investigating some close places, and the water was so high and fast that we all got hung up a couple times, but we eventually all got untangled and back to the take-out. Good times.

Grump.

Both my paddling partners had to bail out tonight, and so I decided to join a couple other friends out at this big ritzy lake on the northeast side of town. It took me literally an hour and a half to find the public access park, driving around and around in circles, hindered by bad directions from both google maps and some local residents. By the time I got there, they were packing up to leave. So I drove home and put a sad, dry boat away till Sunday, when I’ve got another lesson.

Grump.

Sat! Ur! Day!

It was the firstmFarmer’s market of the season, and it was so wonderful to see all my favorite folks again. While I was scoring hand-rolled tamales, fresh chicken wings, cheese samples and wee baby deer-tongue lettuces, I dropped off an entire winter’s worth of egg cartons and plastic grocery bags with two of my favorite vendors, who will happily recycle them.

Then I was off to transplant my seedlings at my sponsor-greenhouse — almost all of them survived! Man, I hope I can find homes for all of them.

Then it was back home, where I cleaned the living crap out of the house, then cleaned the living crap out of the backyard (including figuring out why the damn fishpond pump quit [Answer: a pound of muck caught in the filter]) got the tiny lettuces in before the rain hit, went shopping for the week, and got my wonderful birthday present from Paul: a kayak rack installed on the top of my car. No more kayaks flying off the car in traffic! And Paul, bless his heart, vacuumed about fifteen pounds of swamp dirt and dog hair and spilled coffee out of my car while I did all the aforementioned. He is a good, good man.

And now, we are ordering Martini’s pizza, which I am going to eat until my head falls off. A true story by Jane, The End.

Of river poet search naivete

Paddled a beautiful section of the Kalamazoo river tonight. We originally put in at D avenue — there’s a very kind gentleman who makes his land accessible to the public, with hand-lettered signs saying “Welcome canoes, kayaks and boats” and “Parking $1.00 per car / put-ins $1.00 per boat / Please be honest” We had a nice chat with him before getting our boats in the water.

The original plan was to paddle upstream until our arms gave out, then have a nice leisurely float back downstream.

Well, it turned out that between the rain-heavy river current, the wind blowing in our faces, and my still-primitive kayaking skills, the river kicked my butt in ten minutes flat. I was paddling as fast and as hard as I could, and was just barely holding still, the swift current turning my boat closer and closer to shore. I was pretty afraid that the current was going to sweep me away before i could do anything about it.

So we put back in, threw both kayaks on top of R’s car, and drove upstream aways to another park. We put back in and floated back down to the original put-in. Ironically, the river narrowed drastically just before where we put in, and was the fastest part of the whole trip! If I’d just been strong enough to paddle that first 100 yards, I could’ve easily made it as far upstream as I felt like going. Still, it was a good idea to play it safe, because I’d never done that part of the river and R had only done it once.

The trip downstream was a lovely one. We saw some pretty impressive wildlife, on top of all the usual ducks and geese: a small herd of whitetail, at least a dozen great blue herons, something that was probably a river otter, and at the very, very end, a mature bald eagle. What a treat! This kayaking stuff is awesome.

Sugarloaves

Went kayaking again tonight, out at the Sugarloaf Lakes south of town. I went out with my new friend R, who I met through one of the pool sessions and who’s a great paddling buddy. There aren’t many other women to whom I can say — without a trace of irony — “Hey! I just found out about this really awesome swamp nearby! Wanna go check it out?” and have her say “Awesome! Let’s go tonight!”

So we had a great couple of hours on a glass-still lake. The Sugarloaves are a treat to paddle because they’re so clear and shallow; the water’s as transparent as air. We saw some wildlife I’ve never seen before: an American Bittern and a huge beaver. I’ve only seen live beavers one other time, and that was in Kitchener, Ontario, and they were surrounded by birch trees they’d gnawed down to make their lodges and dam — so I was really surprised to see one trucking along in the swamp, far from any trees. At first we thought it was just an enormous muskrat, but then it slapped its huge tail on the water as it submerged. It must have weighed at least thirty pounds, and made quite a wake as it swam away.

While we were in one of the shallow, hidden cattail coves we surprised an enormous snapping turtle. He hunkered down under the water, pressing his huge shell — the size of a chair seat — into the mud. Heading into the narrow passage, I saw the same mama Canada goose I’d spotted the last time I was out, her long neck snaked protectively over her nest in the exact same position I’d seen her in two weeks ago.

We also found a noodly little passage that went nowhere but was fun to navigate — by the end R had taken her paddle apart and was poling her boat like a gondolier, and I was pulling myself along by grabbing handfuls of dead cattail stalks on either side. On the way back we rounded a turn and surprised a pair of sandhill cranes standing on a little patch of ground not fifteen feet from us, all toasted-cheddar-brown in their spring plumage. We got really quiet and paddled carefully, and they stayed where they were, arching their long necks and cocking their lipstick-red heads at us until we moved out of sight.

We pulled in as dark was gathering, under the light of a half-moon so bright it cast shadows. What a great way to spend the day.

Kayak Navy

I think I’ve started something. In the last three weeks I’ve convinced three other people to buy kayaks. We’re gonna have a flotilla, come spring.

Went down to the kayak shop today so that J could put his boat on layaway and Paul could sit in a bunch of other boats to find one that fits him. He found one that he liked a lot — ironically, the same one he test-drove a few months ago. When the weather warms up he’s going to see if he can borrow it again for another test drive.

When I walked in, the owner of the shop was telling Paul about two creek trips that I had already plotted out with Google maps, and said they were both really fun runs.

I’m currently pricing out dry-tops and wetsuits so that I can get out as early as the end of March.

C’monnnnn, spring.

Skiing tomorrow, maybe twice — but I so cannot wait for paddling.

Ottawa Marsh

This morning, I spent five hours kayaking in the Ottawa Marsh. Saw lots of Great Egrets, kingfishers, ducks of all sorts, and three juvenile bald eagles. Had no idea they have so much white on them when they’re that age.

View Larger Map

I hooked up with a group of like-minded folks I met on the Internets and was very glad to be along for the paddle. We put in at 126th and Old Allegan road and pretty much went from one end of the marsh to the other and back again. There wasn’t very much open water, and I had a couple of times where I got hung up on sunken logs because my kayak was too long. Made it through with some creative paddling — even went through one logjam backwards!

One of the highlights of the trip was maneuvering our way through some tight fits in a shallow maze of trees that looked like something out of a Brian Froud book. At one point we were flanked right and left by trees that had been toppled over into the water, their huge root systems still intact and forming a narrow passage between them Two ten-foot walls of dirt and exposed roots. And the best part was that the trees were still alive, though half-submerged. All the branches that were above water still had green leaves on them, turning autumn colors. There was also a tree that had tipped over — but as it fell, its enormous root system folded on itself, forming an inverted-V of earth large enough to paddle through. Amazing.

I wasn’t brave enough to risk any of my own electronics on the trip, but some of the other paddlers took some photos, so I’m hoping to post some of them soon.

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