The Breaking Point: A Trial by Wind on Nevada’s Pyramid Lake

Whether you are out for a few hours or on an expedition, conditions can change—rapidly, in some areas—creating a situation far beyond what you may have planned for.

In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, you can easily kayak and ski on the same day. Local events involving these two sports include age-group competition, but now that I’m well into my 69th year, winning prizes is not important. Such activity encourages fitness, and participating in these events provides me with enduring pleasure.

I had been resting all week, prior to the last ski race of the season, so I’d be fresh and strong for the competition, which would take place at the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area in California. Before leaving my home in the San Francisco Bay Area to head to the race, I loaded one of my kayaks on my car so I could break up the drive to Mammoth with a detour to Pyramid Lake. Located in the Nevada hills northeast of Reno, this lovely body of water is a perfect place to watch birds or enjoy a relaxing paddle.

The elevation of Pyramid Lake is 3,512 feet. Its general orientation is north to south, and it’s over 26 miles long and more than four miles wide at its narrowest. The lake’s main source of water is the Truckee River, which flows in after traveling 73 miles from Lake Tahoe. Aside from the evaporation from the lake’s surface, there is no outflow from Pyramid.

With plans to make a leisurely crossing of the southern part of the lake, I drove to the put-in at Sutcliffe, a small town on the west side of the lake’s south end. It was a balmy day in March without a cloud in the sky and not a breath of wind. There was snow on the high ground that rises to 8,000 feet around the lake. The kayak I had brought was the oldest in my fleet, but it was a very stable boat, ideal for sightseeing and bird watching.

After buying a liter of bottled water and a ham-and-cheese sandwich in the Sutcliffe store, I stowed my gear and launched onto the smooth blue water. My put-in was on a fine-pebble beach directly in front of the ranger office and Sutcliffe’s gas station. I planned to paddle due east to make the five-and-a-half-mile crossing to the Fremont Pyramid, the island after which the lake is named. Close to this island is a rock formation at least 40 feet high in the shape of a crouching Paiute woman with an open basket beside her. She is a famous icon in Native-American mythology called Stone Mother.

The still lake mirrored the high blue sky. Just off shore, an eared grebe floated motionlessly, connected like a Siamese twin to its reflection on the water.

I landed a few yards below the trio, two young men and a young woman. One of them said, “Must be nice out there on water like this.” I agreed and asked if they paddled. “I wish,” said the young woman. Then she added, “We’re ski instructors from Squaw on a two-day break.”

After unloading my gear, I fired up my stove and made a pot of tea. Washing down my sandwich with a hot, strong beverage added a notch to my sense of well being. I walked up a shallow gradient to enjoy a better view of the Stone Mother and sat in the sun to rest. In the distance to the southwest, over Jackass Peak, a long, low ridge of black clouds materialized, and I took note of it while glancing at my watch. It was approaching mid-day—time to head back to my truck.

By the time I was packed up and ready to leave, the distant cloud line had stretched across the sky from south to west and was closing in on the mountains toward which I’d be paddling. The lake’s surface was no longer a smooth blue mirror, but a wrinkled sheet with little waves popping up–hardly rough enough to be cause for concern.

I put my paddling jacket and PFD on, and as I called good-bye to the three campers, the woman walked over and looked across the lake. “Isn’t it getting rough out there?” she asked. I considered her question and gave the water a good look. It had changed a lot since morning, but there was nothing particularly threatening about it. The sky was cobalt, and the dark ridge of clouds was still far behind the mountains, which were well back from the lake. There was no more than a slight breeze as I pushed off from the beach, and I could clearly hear her anxious voice behind me call out, “Take care!” “Thanks,” I replied. “It doesn’t look too bad.”

Five minutes into the crossing, I had a good rhythm going, but there was a strengthening crosswind. Soon there was a bullying wind coming over my left bow. I dropped the rudder and put pressure on my left pedal to counter the oblique wind coming from the southwest. I relished the work ahead, knowing that in an hour or so, the kayak would be on my truck’s roof rack. I thought of the hotel room with its luxurious bathtub waiting for me, and I began to think about Italian for dinner.

Within a few minutes, the wind had become violent, and big, sloppy waves tossed the kayak and saturated me. The water was pretty cold, and I was soaked despite my paddling jacket and PFD. I didn’t notice that I was getting chilled because I was working hard and was entirely focused on reaching my truck. The sky above me was still blue, but the black cloud ridge ahead was much bigger, extending across the line of mountains in front of me. I could see curtains of rain etched against its darkness. The cloud was closing rapidly on Sutcliffe, so I glanced at my watch to estimate how close I was to my truck. I figured that I would reach the beach within another 15 minutes.

Streaks of lightning flicked across the mountains and three curtains of rain extended across the range. All my strength and sensibilities were engaged in the splendid workout—the weather’s and my own. Pumping my legs with each stroke, every part of me, from my feet to my hands, was in sync as I drove into the weather. It didn’t occur to me that I might not reach my truck. It was very untidy water, but I was enjoying it.

Suddenly, a loud “SNAP!” shot through the sound of the wind and rain. My left leg flew forward and my knee dropped abruptly. The cable on the right side of the rudder had broken. My left leg and foot took the cable to its full extension and jerked the rudder all the way around the stern of the boat, and there the rudder stayed, locked. I pushed on my right pedal, and it simply slid away from me on the track, its cable no longer attached to the rudder.

I was more frustrated than alarmed. The day was supposed to be one of rest, and I was suddenly faced with hard work to get back to the truck. I rose to the challenge willingly, but it wasn’t that simple. I had no balanced drive forward and no resistance at my feet to use to lock my knees in place. I spread my knees wide for better control, but the rudder was acting as a drogue, slowing me down and making my kayak hook to the left. The waves threw the kayak every which way. I had to make quick, powerful draw strokes across my bow to regain my heading every time the kayak was thrown off. Meanwhile, most of my strength was applied to long sweeping strokes on the left side of the boat to make forward progress. This overload of effort on one side was much more tiring than using uniform strokes.

Slowly, extremely slowly, I saw the truck growing closer. Lightning zigzagged along the mountains and seemed powerful enough to split rocks. The rain descended in ever-widening curtains and was saturating Sutcliffe. Soon it would reach me.

I felt the first twinge of fear and knew exactly what was causing it: I was running out of energy. Although I was completely soaked from head to waist, the sheer output of effort had been keeping me warm so far. But now the chill of the wind and the water was getting to me. I had to reach the truck before I got too cold and exhausted. But the waves and wind were forcing me off course. Instead of aiming for the truck, I decided to take a new heading that would minimize the effects of the locked rudder and the blast of the quartering wind. I realized that reaching the truck no longer mattered. All that mattered was to reach a beach–any beach. In spite of my efforts, it was soon obvious that I wasn’t closing in on the land at all but going backward. It took a while to sink in that I no longer had enough power to make forward progress; I had hit the wall.

I stared vacantly around at the upheaval of water that tossed and turned my kayak. I had no energy left. My blades rose and fell lamely. The wind would take me wherever it was going and there was nothing I could do about it.

An hour had passed since the cable had snapped, and in that time I may have progressed perhaps three-quarters of a mile. If the wind had its way, I’d hit a remote beach 15 miles to the north. If the remoteness of my position and my lack of emergency equipment didn’t undo me, hypothermia would. I had come within a quarter mile of my truck then realized my truck was looking smaller and smaller: I had lost half a mile.

All I could do was try to stay upright. I’m skilled at rolling but was certain that I wouldn’t have enough energy for it. So I sat there, tossed around by the water and despairing, realizing that I’d really blown it.

As I tried to accept the possibility of failure, I found myself going through memories of the hardest things I’d faced and survived. Their common denominator was that even though I would hit the wall and collapse, I’d come to, get up and go on to reach my goal, usually ahead of the field. I never gave in.

But I was almost 70 years old, and age had finally caught up with me. I was no longer that strong and that daring. I couldn’t get my kayak to face the way I needed to go, and I was being thrown north and east, well away from my truck. Anaho Island would have been the closest landing behind me, but I had drifted away from it. Untapped reserves, not so much of physical strength, but determination, kicked in. I was not willing to die out here. I would put up a fight.

With my rudder locked alongside the hull, it was hard, but somehow I started inching toward Anaho. After a while, I decided that the lee of the island on its north shore would be my goal. As I approached Anaho, I saw what looked like a white skiff with two men in it, one standing at either end. They were close in to the shore and must have been fishing. I thought, Thank God! They’ll be able to help me. All I had to do was get their attention.

I had only packed for a relaxing day trip in balmy weather. I had no flares with me and no signal horn—two things I always carry when out at sea. With luck, one of them might glance around and see me, but I would have to get closer for them to hear me yell.

Without foot bracing, I couldn’t put power or speed into my stroke. I matched a long sweep on the left with a weaker, shorter stroke on the right. I couldn’t tell if Anaho Island was getting closer, but the two men were still there, standing at either end of their boat. When I thought I was within range, I shouted. Sucking in a great lungful of air, my first long call for help sounded effective to me. I called again and again, taking a rest between each shout. There was no response. It took a while to believe they couldn’t hear me. The wind and water were apparently making more racket than my voice could penetrate. Having gained some relief by venting with my voice, I continued paddling, digging my right blade firmly into every wave on the weather side.

When I looked around for my fishermen again, their boat was gone; they had vanished. They must have returned to Sutcliffe, where my truck was waiting for me; there was no place else for them to go. I almost wept. By now I had closed the distance between me and the lee shore of Anaho, but as far as I could tell, there was no beach to land on—only boulders and a low cliff behind them. I pushed on to the north of the island.

The water in the lee of Anaho was calm and the island buffered the wind. Scanning the front of the boulders, trying to assess where the fishermen had been, something dawned on me. I realized that the long, low boat was actually a line of white foam slapping against the boulders. My two fishermen were two vertical shadows created by slashes on the rocks behind the foam. The undoing of this illusion sank deeply to a pit in my stomach. Yet this image of a boat with two men in it may have saved my life; it pulled me like a magnet toward Anaho and, without the drive to be rescued, I may not have kept going that long.

With no reasonable landing in sight, I closed in on the north shore of Anaho. I turned northeast and headed across the gap between Anaho and the shoreline where I’d had lunch several hours earlier. I aimed for the beach where the young ski instructor had called out for me to take care. I landed just as darkness fell, and dropped gratefully to my knees.

It had taken me five-and-a-half hours to cover the five miles back to this beach. I was so cold, my whole body shook like the leaves on an aspen tree. I knew I needed fuel, and lots of it. I took off my wet PFD and climbed the beach to gather firewood. In the dark, I couldn’t find any firewood and remembered that, when I stopped for lunch, the beach had been clear of any tinder.

I opened the rear hatch for my tea kit, fired up my stove and quickly made a brew. I remembered that I still had two bagels I’d bought a week ago. They were in my pack in a bag with a wire twist to keep the bag airtight. Soon I was shivering so badly that I had to exercise vigorously to stop it. I swung my arms and beat my flanks and shoulders. I slapped my face hard with both hands and jogged in place.

I snuggled down between some rocks to get some rest, but within seconds, the inevitable shivering returned. Without shelter, I wouldn’t be able to stay at the beach. Until that point, I hadn’t even looked at my broken cable. By the meager light of my stove, I turned the shredded wires over in my hands, knowing that unless I could jury-rig some repair, I’d be stuck. Predictably, the break was at the end of the cable where it clamps to the rudder. I peeled off the electrical tape that had protected the attachment for 15 years. The nut holding the U-turn in the cable was rusted tight. I pulled a length of steel cable toward me and threaded it behind the nut to make a U-turn back over itself. Ah, but how to hold it? My kingdom for my toolkit!

I considered retracting my rudder, but unless I repaired the cable, I would have no compression for my legs and therefore a loose and unstable fit. I had no desire to head back out without having a solid fit in the cockpit. Inspiration! The six-inch wire twist from the bagel bag could be the frapping to bind a loop in the end of the cable. I pulled about four inches of the rudder cable to make the U-turn and reset it farther forward on its slider to accommodate the shortened cable. I climbed into the boat to test my repair. The frapping didn’t hold; the pedal flew away from my foot, and I was back where I started. Working in the dark—in March at an elevation of well over 3,000 feet—my hands were frozen and fatigue was pulling me apart.

I remained in the boat with my hands clamped between my thighs to warm them. Sitting there thinking, it came to me: Get the stove out of the boat and set it beside the rudder to warm your fingers while working. The second time, the frapping was tighter and the last bit of wire was jammed between the two strands of cable that made the U-turn. After a successful test, I was soon launching off the beach. The storm had passed, and I paddled into what had become a star-lit, windless night.

The lights of Sutcliffe were almost six miles away, and the longer I stared at them the more inviting they became. I heard gulls calling, and soon I was gliding through a loose flock of them as they rested on the placid water. There was more than a half moon illuminating the lake and I made the crossing very smoothly, paddling without pause. The contrast with what I’d been through and what it was like to cross in the same water, now absolutely calm, was a moving experience. It had been my purgatory, but I had not given up; it had become my paradise. I paddled across free of any feelings of anxiety.

Landing as close to my truck as I could, I left the kayak on the beach and ran up to the truck, stripped off my wet clothing, toweled off and put on a down ski jacket. I sat inside with the heater on full blast until I felt warm enough to get the kayak onto the rack and drive back to Reno to settle into my hotel. By midnight, I was soaking in a steaming-hot bath in my room.

The next day, I didn’t make it to the start of the ski race. When I arrived at the race course in Mammoth, my chest started hurting. After a fitful night, I drove home and collapsed on my bed. Pneumonia kept me close to it for the next month. All because I set out alone on an easy half-day lake trip using a kayak with worn-out rigging, wearing insufficient clothing and carrying minimal food and no repair kit, flashlight, flare, horn or emergency shelter. I went without telling anyone where I was going. All because I wasn’t really going kayaking—I was just stopping off at Pyramid Lake to relax and fill in a few hours of idle time.

Paddling the Panhandle – Florida’s Apalachicola Bay

Since taking up residence in Apalachicola, a sleepy town of about 2,500 located 70 miles south of Tallahassee, I’ve read a boat-load of books and articles on this historic and enchanted coast where it’s a 100-mile drive between stop lights.

 

But nobody describes it better than photojournalist Richard Bickel in his book, The Last Great Bay: “Here, where the sweet waters of the Apalachicola River mix with the salt of the Gulf of Mexico behind a broken screen of barrier islands, a great cradle of life has evolved into one of the most remarkable ecosystems in North America, with the highest density of reptiles (including alligators) and sea life north of Mexico, many of whom are endangered. The Apalachicola drainage basin, and its cosmos of streams, bays, tidal creeks and marshes, act as breeding ground and nursery for thousands of animals that thrive in this ideal mix of fresh and salt water. To understand the vitality of these waters, witness the renowned Apalachicola Bay oyster. Reaching market size in as little as seven months—versus up to two years for its Chesapeake cousin—the robust bivalve is symbolic of the Bay’s life forces.”

 

Symbolic it may be, but on today’s fall excursion with my wife, Peggy, I’m muttering curses at the mollusk. An ebb tide has marooned us in a tangled maze of oyster beds as we paddle the bay to St. Vincent Island, the largest of the four barrier islands—including St. George, Little St. George and Dog—that separate Apalachicola Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. Extensive oyster beds, some of which are completely exposed at low tide, dot the bay in clumps of razor-sharp shells. (Warning: Always wear sturdy foot gear while kayaking these waters.)

 

An oysterman afloat in deeper water in his flat-bottom skiff looks on with apparent disdain as I carefully stand up in the kayak to find the best route out of the shallows. I spot a channel between one of the fingers of the oyster beds that will lead us to deeper water. As I push off to the grating sound of oyster shells gouging my hull, a big bull redfish roils the water in front of me.

 

Redfish, or red drum, love to laze in these channels or cuts and wait for the tide to bring food to them. Catching one of these beauties from a kayak on light spinning gear is an adrenaline-pumping experience that you won’t forget. One afternoon on a falling tide, I hooked a redfish that stripped 100 yards of four-pound-test line off my reel and towed my kayak around for more than 30 minutes. In the end, I had to crawl out of the kayak onto the finger of an oyster bar to land and release the 26-inch monster.

Within a few minutes, Peggy and I work our way clear of the maze of oyster bars (after I collect a couple dozen of the mollusks in the gunny sack I sometimes carry with me) and are into deeper water. In Apalachicola Bay, however, the word “deep” is a relative term. With the exception of the middle of the bay, where depths average about nine feet, the prime kayaking waters along the mainland marsh and river environment and the bay side of Apalachicola’s barrier islands rarely exceed a depth of three feet.

Peggy and I are exploring St. Vincent Island, a triangle-shaped National Wildlife Refuge four miles wide and nine miles long. For an introductory experience to the bay, St. Vincent can’t be beat because of the diversity of its coastline and its variety of flora and fauna. It’s also easy to access the island by crossing Indian Pass, a narrow 200-yard cut between the mainland and the island. Camping is not allowed on the refuge, but Indian Pass has a privately owned campground for RVs and tents as well as a small store. Another option is to launch from Indian Pass, paddle west along the bay side of the island and stay overnight at a primitive campsite on the western tip of Little St. George Island, which is separated from St. Vincent by half-mile-wide West Pass.

For this trip to St. Vincent, I have mapped out a route from Indian Pass along the bayside coast with a side excursion up Big Bayou, a lagoon that extends about three miles into the northwest corner of the island.Our first stop is an Indian midden located on a sandy beach where the island reaches into the bay in a curved little half-mile-long peninsula. Scattered along the beach are mounds of oyster shells, the dinnertime detritus of a lost civilization that a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service timeline on the island says dates back to 240 A.D. As we stroll along the beach, we come upon a number of shards of intricately decorated pottery. The midden is marked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signs that appeal to visitors to enjoy the site but not take any relics away.

At one point in its history, St. Vincent was developed by private landowners into a game preserve that included a variety of Asian and African wildlife. The Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the island in 1968 and rid it of its collection of exotic animals, with one notable exception: The island is still home to a large population of the huge sambar deer, with their big Mickey Mouse ears. A native of India, the sambar can reach 900 pounds, and seeing one of these giants is a treat. Catching a glimpse of one from the beach is unlikely, but sometimes you can see them from a trail system that borders a string of lakes at the western end of the island (more about this later).

 

Initially, the Fish and Wildlife Service established the refuge for waterfowl, but the island’s mission has been broadened to include the protection of a habitat for a range of endangered species, including the red wolf, Southern bald eagle, piping plover, wood stork, American alligator, eastern indigo snake and Atlantic loggerhead sea turtle. It’s also home to a large population of feral hogs.

 

Upon entering Big Bayou, we stick to the forested south side of the inlet. The north side is dominated by huge expanses of marsh grasses and needle-rushes and is less interesting; the south side borders a thick forest of pine, sable palms, magnolia and live oak. As we paddle west, the water becomes shallower, and the bellow of fleeing herons interrupts the silence as we nose around each point of land. Brown pelicans perch on the remains of decaying posts of some long-forgotten structure, and bitterns, egrets and shorebirds feed along the muddy banks. The fall air is thick with monarch butterflies, resting here on their journey across the Gulf to the mountains of central Mexico where they spend the winter. Overhead, ospreys soar on rising thermals, and a lone eagle coasts high above the beach.

 

Suddenly, the shallow water comes alive with spawning, torpedo-shaped mullet. All around us, the surface of the water boils, and the noise of their jumping makes me think of corks popping at some mass Lilliputian wine tasting. Nobody knows why mullet jump. Some biologists think they do it to clean their gills, and some think the ripples they create by jumping help orient them to each other so they can form schools. Others believe they just jump for fun, which is the explanation I prefer.

 

Seeing so many mullet makes me wish I knew how to throw one of the large cast nets that locals use to catch mullet. Unlike my wife, I’m quite partial to a big mess of fried mullet. But a monofilament mesh net that measures 12 feet in diameter wouldn’t fit in my kayak. And a few minutes later, I discover that it wouldn’t be such a good idea to leave the protection of a boat, no matter how small, to wade around in Big Bayou burdened by a cast net. Peggy spots it first. About 50 yards ahead, an alligator floats at the surface. It is completely motionless, its nose aimed at the bow of my boat.

Over Peggy’s objections, I quietly paddle closer to take a photograph. As I reach for the camera, I accidentally bump my paddle against the kayak. The alligator explodes forward like a bay skiff with a 150-horse engine going from a standstill to full throttle. I sit paralyzed as the head and most of the body of the eight-foot gator comes completely out of the water, propelled by its powerful tail. It lunges across the water in my direction, then dives and vanishes from sight about 20 yards in front of me.

 

As startled as we are, we realize that the alligator was most likely fleeing rather than feigning an attack. But the experience serves as a reminder that, despite its role as an often cuddly symbol of Florida tourism, the alligator is a powerful and dangerous predator. It’s hard to miss seeing alligators on any wilderness kayak trip in Florida, and it’s always a thrill to spot one sunning on a bank or floating like a bumpy log in the water. If a photo opportunity presents itself, just make sure to keep your distance-a full-grown alligator can move its 1,000-plus pounds at more than 30 miles an hour.

 

We backtrack out of Big Bayou, continue east for about a mile and then turn south down the broad base of St. Vincent’s triangle-shaped shoreline toward West Pass. Strong currents accompany the rising tide in the narrow pass, so we do a ferry-glide sprint across the half-mile span of deep water. Once out of the current, we turn toward the primitive campground on the eastern tip of Little St. George Island.

 

Like St. Vincent, Little St. George Island is completely undeveloped. As a part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve system, the island is jointly managed by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Primitive camping is permitted at either end of the island and at Cape St. George in the middle, but paddlers are asked to contact the Cape St. George State Preserve in Apalachicola before camping on the island. And when I say primitive, I mean it in the most literal sense of the word. There are no toilet facilities (cat holes are OK), no water and, of course, you must pack out all of your refuse.

 

St. George was once a continuous, 29-mile-long island. In 1954, the Army Corps of Engineers cut a channel just west of center to allow shrimp boats quicker access to the Gulf. Now, St. George Island is the larger (20 miles long) of the two islands while Little St. George Island includes the westernmost nine miles. Separating St. George Island from Little St. George is the pass known as Bob Sikes Cut. Unfortunately, you can’t launch near the pass from the road system on St. George Island unless you’re a property owner or guest at St. George Plantation, a ritzy private development that covers the entire west end of the island.

The unmarked campground at the western end of Little St. George closest to St. Vincent looks like it’s large enough to accommodate about four to six tents, but during our overnight stay, we are completely alone. The odds are that you will be too, if you come here, because this is one of the most underutilized campsites on the bay. Driftwood and deadwood fires are allowed but cutting live trees, of course, is not. We soon have a glowing bed of coals for steaming the oysters I had collected earlier.

 

My oyster-cooking technique is easy and avoids the need to shuck the oysters, a tricky and dangerous operation for someone who hasn’t tried it before-one slip of an oyster knife, and you have a nasty hand wound. I dig a three-foot by one-foot trench in the sand and build a small fire at the bottom (commercial barbeque charcoal is OK, too). When a bed of coals has formed, I spread them out, place the oysters on a folding backpacking grate that spans the trench and cover them with the wet gunnysack. When the steam causes the oysters to open, they are ready to eat. The only other accompaniment necessary for a gourmet feast is a squeeze bottle filled with a concoction of ketchup, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco sauce.

The nighttime breeze is just cool enough to make for pleasant sleeping, and the next morning dawns clear. Our last objective for this trip is an old lighthouse located about three miles down the coast from the campground. The abandoned lighthouse, dating from 1833, is located on the beach at Little St. George’s broad midsection, which is dominated by a forest of live oaks, native palms and pines. As a result of beach erosion, it is often surrounded by water at high tide. You can picnic at the lighthouse if you want to explore some of the sandy trails that meander across the little cape, but overnight camping is not allowed.

 

As you walk the trails, you may notice metal plates sticking out of some of the larger pine trees. They are remnants of a 19th-century turpentine industry. The brick chimney of an old home site serves as a reminder of the people who tended the lighthouse throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The island is also rich with wildlife, including several kinds of box turtles, raccoons, ospreys, great horned owls and a wide array of frogs, lizards, insects and shore birds. You’ll want to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes and cottonmouth water moccasins. I’ve never encountered either species, but I’m told they often come out to sun themselves on cool winter days.

 

The gulf side of Little St. George has some of the most pristine, sugar-sand beaches in the U.S., and beachcombers will find many beautiful shells here. It’s also a prime nesting area for the loggerhead turtle. Kayakers who can bear summer season mosquitoes and heat can join the volunteers who help protect turtle nests against marauding raccoons and other predators. (See “Accessing Apalachicola,” p. 46, about how to contact the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve or the Apalachicola Bay and River Keepers for information on participating.) On the bay side of the island, the ornate diamondback terrapin-what biologist Verle Barnes calls “one of the prettiest little turtles in the world”-swims the lagoons and basks in the mudflats.

After having lunch at the lighthouse, we telephone a friend (Apalachicola Bay has fairly good cell-phone coverage) to pick us up in his powerboat for a quick return to Indian Pass. For visitors, the entire round trip from Indian Pass-along the bay side of St. Vincent, across West Pass to Little St. George, up the gulf side of Little St. George to the lighthouse and back to Indian Pass-is no more than 25 miles and can easily be completed in two days.

Another great side trip, which you can take in place of or in addition to the paddle to the Cape St. George lighthouse, is to explore the chain of four interconnected lakes at the eastern end of St. Vincent Island. About midway along the broad end of the island is a collection of shelters used by hunters during the deer and pig hunts that are permitted on the refuge in the fall. Near these shelters is a tidal creek that connects with the lakes. The creek is too small and winding for large touring kayaks but can easily be navigated by smaller, recreational kayaks. Touring kayakers can leave their boats on the beach and explore the lakes along a system of trails that is not marked but is easy to navigate if you stick to the high ground. The island is also laced by a network of sand roads, formerly used by loggers. The roads are numbered and lettered (numbered roads run north-south and lettered roads run east-west), and frequent signage makes it relatively easy to navigate the island.

On previous trips, we have explored many of these roads by foot. Early morning and evening are the best times for viewing wildlife, especially for catching a glimpse of the huge sambar deer as they feed along the fringes of the lakes. These bodies of water, which increase and decrease in size according to the amount of rainfall they receive, are also home to resident and migratory birds, including wood ducks and bald eagles. The sambar deer is elusive, but the island’s wild pigs, raccoons, ghost crabs and terrapins are seen frequently. The lake system is also home to a large alligator population.

St. George is a prototypical north Florida beach community with concrete block cottages from the 1950s, condos from the ’60s and ’70s and new multi-million-dollar homes. However, the east end of the island is protected by the St. George Island State Park-eight miles and nearly 2,000 acres of beaches, dunes and pine woods. Visitors can access four miles of beach and bay along the park’s main drive; the last four miles are accessible only by foot and boat. The park has two boat ramps for reaching Apalachicola Bay and a beautiful network of coves, sloughs and marshes. The park also has 60 campsites with electric and water hookups connected to the park’s road system and a primitive campsite at Gap Point, which has space for more than a dozen tents. The primitive camp is accessible only by boat or trail. Again, take your own water and dig your own latrines.

 

The bay side of the park is a less strenuous alternative to a St. Vincent/Little St. George excursion and makes a good conditioning trip. There is a public boat launch at a campsite located less than a mile west of the park entrance exclusively reserved for organized youth groups. Kayakers can launch from the site and explore a small bay, slough and island, then spend the night at the Gap Point campground about a mile away. In keeping with my experiences on Little St. George, I have been completely alone the three times I’ve camped there. But park officials say it is a good idea to call ahead for a reservation.

 

Protecting the little bay from St. George Sound is Goose Island, a 50-acre oasis of pine trees, tidal inlets and eagle nests about 500 yards from the boat-launch area. The island is surrounded by a necklace of oyster beds and some great fishing spots. The authoritative guide to fishing these waters is John B. Spohrer’s Fish St. George Island, Florida-a must-buy paperback if you are interested in dropping a hook. You can purchase it at most tackle shops and bookstores in Apalachicola.

 

“The oyster beds are the basis for the rich chain of marine life that supports a thriving resident population of redfish, trout and flounder plus regular yearly visits by tarpon, cobia and Spanish mackerel, among others,” Spohrer writes. “If Jack Nicklaus designed fishing courses, this would be his. The course plays like this: Mullet, crabs and other bait find shelter and copious food in the shallow waters between the bars. When the tide starts going out, it washes these tidbits out into the deeper water just beyond the bars. When the food washes out, they eat it, hooks and all.”

 

The smallest island in the chain of barrier islands that ring Apalachicola Bay is Dog Island, which is located across East Pass about a half mile from “big” St. George. It is home to 100 or so weathered vacation homes, but much of the island is being preserved in its natural state through the efforts of the Nature Conservancy and the Barrier Island Trust. The seven-mile-long island is accessible by ferry from the mainland.The shoreline matches that found on St. George.

As beautiful as Apalachicola Bay is, no trip here is complete without visiting the great Apalachicola River and its tributaries of creeks and marshes. The Apalachicola River is the only river in Florida that has its source in snow-fed streams. These streams originate in the Appalachian foothills and the Piedmont Plateau of Georgia and North Carolina, some 500 miles to the north.

 

The estuarine area that fringes the northern end of the bay offers a range of kayaking experiences through meandering creeks and sloughs, such as Owl Creek. These creeks are lined with some of the largest stands of cypress and tupelo trees in the world. When the trees flower each spring, beekeepers from miles around bring their hives into the swamp by boat and collect up to 350,000 pounds of the rare tupelo honey each season. Tupelo honey is prized because it never crystallizes and has a unique piquant flavor. The river environment is also home to more species of freshwater fish than are found in the entire state of California.

The river drainage basin has the highest diversity of reptiles and amphibians in the United States and Canada, including more than 40 species of amphibians and 80 species of reptiles. In addition to the indigo snake and loggerhead turtle, among the rare species are the southern dusky salamander, the gopher frog, and Barbour’s map turtle. More than 50 species of mammal are also found within the Apalachicola basin, including opossum, bats, rabbits, foxes, weasels, black bears, mink, bobcats, coyotes, deer, feral pigs, bottlenose dolphin and the West Indian manatee. Bird species thrive in countless numbers. The state has recently published a paddling guide to this estuary, including both one-day and multi-day trips (see “Accessing Apalachicola,” p. 46, for details).

Visitors should also reserve an afternoon for exploring the town of Apalachicola, a funky mix of commercial oyster- and shrimp-processing plants along the river with an old-fashioned downtown of shops and restaurants and an oak-shaded historic district of Florida-vernacular houses. Don’t miss the Gorrie Museum, which documents the accomplishments of John Gorrie, a medical doctor who invented the world’s first ice-making machine in the 1850s as a treatment for yellow fever victims. Gorrie died unknown, thanks to the mass media manipulations of Boston ice merchants who were afraid the invention would drive them out of business.

So, when is a good time to kayak Apalachicola? The Florida panhandle has mild, comfortable winters and summers that range from warm to hot, but are always humid. The average summer temperatures reach well above 85°F, with winter temperatures averaging 55°F. Precipitation for the panhandle area typically exceeds 60 inches per year. August and September are the peak months of the hurricane season, which lasts from June 1 through November 30. For kayakers wishing to avoid the humid Gulf Coast summers, the best times of year to paddle are the fall and spring, specifically October, November, April and May.

 

As a former Alaska jingoist, I can still dredge up superlative-packed stories about kayaking the panhandle of Alaska as quickly as I can filet a silver salmon. But in Apalachicola, I have found a kayaker’s dream amidst the last remnants of the old Florida-a Florida before Disney. When old Walt first eyed Florida for his east-coast version of Disneyland, he dispatched an exploratory mission to the St. Joe Company, the largest landowner in Florida, whose paper mill 20 miles down the road from Apalachicola was the economic lifeblood of the region for generations. St. Joe corporate officers reportedly refused to meet with Disney because “we don’t do business with carnival people.” I like that kind of isolationist fervor.

 

From the river to the sea, the Apalachicola area of northwest Florida encompasses what environmentalists and naturalists agree is one of the most pristine, resource-rich marine systems left in the Lower 48 states. At more than 200 square miles, Apalachicola Bay offers kayakers a diversity of experiences that will satisfy novice and experienced kayakers alike. Beginners will like the shallow, protected waters and sugar-sand beaches, while veterans will appreciate one of the last true wilderness kayaking experiences in U.S. coastal waters.

Entrapments and Exits

Jammed in the cockpit and starting to suck in water, I was on the verge of blacking out. Fortunately, two good Samaritans watching from the road rushed down to the shoreline to help me.

In the wake of a 960-millibar low-pressure system passing southern Vancouver Island, an intense westerly winter wind kicked up a mean chop off the Victoria, B.C., waterfront. I was eager to take advantage of the churning water and clear skies to refine my rough-water paddling technique.

 

The duration and intensity of the gusty winds made paddling more difficult than I had anticipated. Although the bay was wide enough to provide a safe, secure catch-basin for me if I were forced to do a wet exit, paddle and boat control grew increasingly trying, so I decided to surf in and wait for the wind speed to drop.

 

A blast of wind pushed me dangerously close to a shallow lee-shore headland at the edge of the pebbled beach lining the bay. Unable to turn into the wind to move back into the middle of the bay, I tried riding in to shore on the back of a four-foot wind-wave. I had taken aim at a relatively navigable section of the shoals around the point, when the stern of my kayak was suddenly and steeply lifted by an unusually large wave. Before I could lean back, the bow buried deep into the trough and hit the rocky bottom. The force of the impact broke the foot bar and drove my legs and hips deep into the cockpit.

 

When I found myself hanging upside down, I felt a moment of relief because I was wearing my surf helmet, but then I discovered that being twisted in the cockpit threw off my set-up for rolling. Out of air, I released the spray skirt and attempted a wet exit but was unable to extricate myself from the cockpit. I was both surprised and annoyed that I couldn’t exert enough leverage to push myself out of the cockpit. The waves pushed me into a narrow, shallow surge channel where I didn’t have enough space to try to roll or scull to the surface for air.

 

Panicking, I let go of my paddle to push off the rocks while desperately trying to pull myself up for air in the lull between the back-and-forth surging of the cold sea. Jammed in the cockpit and starting to suck in water, I was on the verge of blacking out. Fortunately, two good Samaritans watching the storm from the road above the beach rushed down to the shoreline to help me.

That was almost 20 years ago, but I can still recall the sense of helplessness and despair I felt the moment I realized I was trapped in my kayak.

Entrapment Defined
Entrapment is a hazard more commonly associated with whitewater kayaking than with sea kayaking. A whitewater kayak, pinned against an obstruction in the river, could be folded by the force of the current. The collapse of the kayak puts a vice-like grip on the paddler’s legs. Most whitewater kayaks manufactured today have foam pillars to prevent collapsing and large keyhole cockpits that let kayakers eject quickly by simply pulling up their knees.

 

Coastal kayakers aren’t likely to be caught in a collapsed hull, but there are a number of other situations that prevent a quick and safe wet exit. A capsized paddler who is stuck in the cockpit and unable to roll or get to the surface for air is at serious risk of drowning. There are a variety of causes of entrapment in sea kayaks: forces of nature, medical or disability complications, ignorance of technique, spray skirts that can’t be released, inexperience and entanglement with gear. Entrapment is also caused by equipment failure, forgotten procedures and simple panic or lack of preparation. Even experienced paddlers, especially those with closed-cockpit kayaks, have to be wary of circumstances that might lead to risk of entrapment.

 

The causes of entrapment are usually easy to identify after the fact but often catch paddlers by surprise. There are ways to prevent potential problems and ways to prepare and practice for self-rescue in the event of an entrapment. Over the past few years, there have been a number of entrapment incidents. Some simply caused embarrassment; others were frightening, life-threatening close calls. For some, the substantial stress of an entrapment led to abandoning sea kayaking as a sport. In a few cases, there have been fatalities. Entrapment may not be common, but it is a matter worthy of our awareness and preparedness.

Novice Kayakers
Entry-level paddlers are particularly vulnerable to the untoward aftermath of capsizing. Unfortunately, an unreasonable fear of suddenly submerging and subsequently getting stuck in a kayak may actually prevent new paddlers from even practicing wet exits. Other novices-most often, those who have had no training in kayaking-may head out without even thinking about the consequences of capsizing or the procedure necessary to exit safely while inverted.

 

The initial stages of a capsize can be very disconcerting. Cold water can cause a painful “ice-cream headache” or, even worse, induce a gasp reflex that draws water into the lungs. Dizziness, disorientation, darkness, stinging eyes and cold, numb hands can make it rather difficult to go through the routine of releasing the spray skirt and curling out of the cockpit. Experienced paddlers learn to exhale slowly through their noses to prevent water from going up their nostrils while inverted. By keeping water out of their sinuses, they can typically remain upside down and relaxed significantly longer.

 

Lorne was a newcomer to sea kayaking (only first names will be used for those who have contributed their stories; names are not included for those preferring anonymity). An avid outdoorsman, he picked up an older, well-worn kayak at a garage sale. It came with a narrow-bladed paddle, a PFD and a spray skirt. He convinced a friend who was a paddler to give him a lesson at a local lake. Lorne snugged the neoprene skirt tightly around the small, wide-flanged cockpit rim while his friend issued firm directions to remain at the shore while he retrieved some items from the parking lot. Impatient with waiting, Lorne ventured out into deeper water. Without the sandy bottom to brace against, he found the boat to be very tippy. While turning the kayak back toward shore, he started to capsize. He did not know how to brace with the paddle and flailed away at the water. As his head went under, he was totally unprepared for the sting of water rushing into his nostrils.

 

Lorne responded as many would: with instant panic. He let go of the paddle and tried desperately to find some way to release himself from the confines of the cockpit. He tried pushing himself out with his arms, but it was as if bungee cords kept pulling him back into the seat. A strong man, he pushed with his legs but could not counter the hold of the spray skirt. He then remembered the grab loop on the spray skirt and, at the last possible moment, freed the skirt from the cockpit rim, permitting him to get out of the kayak. Lorne hasn’t been in a kayak since.

 

It is important that new paddlers practice wet exits in a safe, stress-free environment, with experienced and reliable help close by and ready to assist. The basics can initially be demonstrated and practiced in kayaks on shore or at the side of a pool, but they must be followed up with doing wet exits in the water. Sit-on-top kayaks (especially those with seat belts or knee straps), decked kayaks, doubles, folders and even sit-in hybrids or recreational kayaks all require wet-exit practice until novice paddlers are comfortable and adept at getting out of the kayak and maintaining control of the boat and paddle.

 

Some individuals can lose their composure with something as simple as placing their face in the water, so it is essential to progress to the in-water exit with someone standing alongside to assist. The first wet-exit practice sessions can be done without a spray skirt or paddle. Nose clips and facemasks are useful aids, although they should ultimately be put aside in the interest of practicing more realistic scenarios. The wet exit is a basic skill that must be mastered both physically and psychologically to effectively cope with the problems associated with entrapment.

 

A clean wet exit should be easy to perform and should only take a few seconds. Let the kayak come to a full rest upside down, tuck forward, release the spray skirt by pulling the grab loop forward and away from the deck, and push yourself out, keeping a grip on the paddle shaft and maintaining contact with the kayak.

Spray Skirt Fit
The improper fit of a spray skirt can lead to entrapment. Given the variety of cockpit configurations, sizes (widths and lengths), rim widths and boat materials (plastic, fiberglass, etc.), the chance for mismatch is high. Aside from proper sizing, spray skirts designed for use on plastic kayaks present a dangerous hazard when used on a fiberglass rim where they grip tenaciously. Whenever you try a new or different combination of spray skirt and kayak, make sure you can release your spray skirt with one hand. (See “Spray Skirts-In Search of the Perfect Fit,” SK, Fall ’92.) To release a tight-fitting spray skirt, you must pull the grab loop forward toward the bow of the kayak until the bungee clears the coaming flange, then away from the deck and back to release the spray skirt. If the bungee is under a lot of tension, this maneuver can require a lot of strength. Some skirts have a latex coating or a rubber rand to create a tighter seal, and both tend to be more difficult to release. These types of spray skirts are typically used by experienced kayakers who paddle in challenging conditions and have the training and strength to release a tight-fitting spray skirt, even when they are cold and tired.
Novice paddlers can use a loose-fitting nylon skirt for their initial year. It will make wet exits easier. While it may not be well-suited to more challenging conditions as the paddler becomes more competent, it can serve as a backup to a neoprene skirt or a neoprene/nylon hybrid and as an option when warm weather makes a neoprene skirt uncomfortably hot.

Incorrect Technique
Suzie was a competent paddler who had practiced doing wet exits. She had been suffering from a recent inner-ear infection when she attended a three-day sea-kayak skills upgrade workshop. During initial wet-exit practice, she rolled over and experienced a sudden and violent dizziness. In her struggle, she leaned back instead of tucking forward, slipped off the pedals and further pushed herself into the cockpit. Her class partner exited from her kayak into the deep water to assist her but was unable to exert enough leverage to help tuck her forward and release the spray skirt or right the kayak. An instructor came alongside Suzie’s capsized kayak and performed a “Hand of God” rescue (see SK, June ’00), which involves reaching underwater to pull a capsized paddler back to the surface. In this case, the instructor pulled Suzie up by the shoulder straps of her PFD. It should be noted that it would have been easier for Suzie’s partner to help if the practice had taken place in shallow water where she could have been standing next to Suzie’s kayak.

Skirt-Related Incidents
Frank, a proficient paddler, was trying out a friend’s new boat one winter. He was alone in shallow water wearing neoprene gloves and a cap and had decided to use his own neoprene skirt, which provided a tight but manageable fit on the borrowed boat. He capsized to try a wet exit. He was unable to locate the grab loop, which was located much farther forward than it would have been on his own boat. Running out of air, Frank was rather dismayed at the prospect of dying in such shallow water so close to shore. He managed to keep from panicking, and although he had let go of his paddle, he was able to swim his head to the surface, get a gulp of air, and thus gain more time to work his way out of trouble. He released the skirt by grabbing a fold of material near the edge of the coaming on one side, where the flatter curve of the coaming makes it easier to pull the bungee from the coaming flange.

 

The turbulence of the surf zone can make it difficult to release your spray skirt. Ron, a paddler with solid intermediate skills, was attempting to land along one of Oregon’s coastal beaches where extensive surf zones are common. He had minimal surf experience and was capsized by a large wave that ripped the paddle from his hands and dislodged him from his foot and knee braces and seat. Pinned on the back deck by the force of the wave, he was unable to reach forward to pull the grab loop on his spray skirt. Ron remained pinned for some time. He stayed calm and waited until the turbulence diminished so he could work his hands forward along the coaming to release the spray skirt. His experience highlights the need to not panic-and to grab a big gulp of air as you go over. Secondary release loops sewn to the side of the spray skirt would allow a quicker release in similar situations. (See “New Gear,” p. 52 and “Preventive Measures,” p. 54.)

Release Alternatives
Both Frank and Ron were able to avoid panic. Frank dog-paddled to the surface, where he gained enough air and therefore time to work out a solution: an alternate method for removing his spray skirt. Sometimes it can be difficult to bunch up enough of the skirt’s material when it is wet and slippery. Depending on the fit and material of your spray skirt, you can try using friction to roll the spray-skirt material edge either toward or away from your torso enough to create a fold. The best place to try this is near your hips where the spray deck is narrower. Gather the wrinkle that forms, pinch it between your thumb and fingers, then pull outward and off the coaming. On a tight-fitting skirt, place your fingers under the coaming if the recess allows this, then pinch the skirt’s material as above, with your thumb on top of the rim, trapping the material. You may need to use your other hand to reach across for leverage to pull the skirt off (tuck your paddle under your arm if it isn’t connected by a tether). With a non-recessed coaming built high off the deck, you may be able to pry the skirt out from the underside of the coaming with your fingers. If you have a skirt that uses an adjustable bungee-usually protruding from the rear of the skirt-you should be able to reach back and use this as an alternative grab loop.

Depending on the arrangement of your spray skirt, paddling apparel and PFD, you may be able to reach down through the waist tube of the spray skirt to release the skirt. If you wear your PFD on the outside of your spray skirt, you will need to slip your hand under the bottom edge of the PFD, reach up over the top of the skirt’s tube and then slip your hand downward through the tunnel. Lift the spray deck’s underside and push it out beyond the lip. You may need your other hand to help peel it from the coaming.

It may also be possible to slip out of the spray-skirt waist tube, leaving the spray skirt attached to the kayak. This can be very easy to do with zippered models-just unzip and slip out. If the spray skirt has suspenders, you have to release them. A rescue knife can be employed to cut an opening in the spray deck to provide something to grasp, but most paddlers.

Gloves
Your sense of touch plays an important role in finding the grab loop. Wearing paddling gloves during the off-season or in cold climates can pose challenges with locating the spray skirt’s grab loop. The layer of neoprene robs the wearer of the tactile sensitivity required to find the thin webbing release found on many spray skirts. Trying to remove gloves after a capsize eats up valuable time. Many gloves have hook-and-loop straps around the wrist, so it may be difficult to remove a glove and leave enough time to hunt down the skirt’s stock grab loop.

 

In one incident, a victim who nearly drowned and was subsequently hospitalized indicated she was lucky to be alive only because her paddling partners reached her in time to provide assistance-the thick neoprene gloves she was wearing made it impossible for her to release herself in a timely manner. They had unexpectedly deprived her of her sense of touch, leaving her helpless.

 

In another case, an east-coast paddler by the name of Chris was trying out a friend’s new composite boat and using a borrowed spray skirt. Chris and several other experienced paddlers were playing in refracted waves, all wearing neoprene gloves and hoods. Upon capsize, Chris gave up on his roll and attempted to find the grab loop. On his own skirt, the grab loop was to the front and fitted with a carabiner that not only made it easier to locate by touch but also made the strap hang away from the boat where it was easy to find. On the borrowed skirt, the release was a plain nylon strap offset to the right. Chris reached forward to where he would have found the grab loop on his own boat and grabbed at the foredeck bungee cords instead. He tried pushing the skirt out with his knees a few times, but the skirt did not release the way it would have on his plastic boat. He continued to grope about for the grab loop but couldn’t locate it, as the neoprene gloves gave him almost no sense of touch in his fingers. Help was a long time coming in the shoaling waters, so Chris continued to keep calm and used the skirt’s mesh pocket as a handle to release the spray skirt.

 

In another case, a group of advanced west-coast paddlers were paddling among the rock gardens off the California coast, where the average swell was running five to seven feet that day. One of the paddlers, Patrick, was ambushed by a five-foot breaker that dragged his plastic boat completely over a boulder, dumping him upside down on the other side and headfirst into a bed of thick bull kelp. Relieved that he had not injured himself, Patrick tried to set up for a roll but found that the kelp prevented him from moving his paddle into a set-up position. Unable to roll and aware that his partners could not offer quick assistance, he attempted a wet exit but couldn’t find the grab loop. The loop was brightly colored, but Patrick’s sunglasses and the densely packed kelp stalks obscured his vision. He couldn’t remove the sunglasses without first taking the time to unbuckle and remove his helmet. When he reached though the kelp hoping to find the grab loop, he couldn’t feel it. Not only did his neoprene paddling gloves compromise his sense of touch, his hands were cold to the point of being numb.

 

Patrick’s Kevlar-reinforced whitewater spray skirt had a thick rubber rand around the edge, preventing him from simply forcing his way out of the boat. Running out of options and air, he knew he had to fight off the urge to panic. He had practiced Eskimo rolls and wet exits with his eyes closed, just in case of a capsize in the dark, which gave him the confidence to stay calm and maintain his concentration. But he had never anticipated the need to wet exit without having any feeling in his hands. Patrick ran his hand around the edge of the coaming until he reached the point where the grab loop was supposed to be, then closed his hand and pulled-just hoping he would have the grab loop in his grasp. He felt resistance to his pulling, and a moment later the spray skirt popped. He pushed out of the boat and clawed through the kelp to the surface.

 

After that incident, Patrick used a couple of electrical ties to attach a Whiffle-ball to the end of his grab loop to serve as a locator device. He now practices while wearing paddling gloves to make the conditions more realistic. The loss of sensation in your hands can be attributed to thick gloves and numbness from cold water or prolonged exposure to wind. Pogies, fingerless gloves or thin neoprene “blister” gloves can provide the required protection from cold and may preserve some tactile sensitivity. Regardless of what you might wear on your hands, a solid contact point on the release loop is essential for cold-water paddling.

Trapped Grab Loops
Many of us have experienced a very common problem: unintentionally securing the spray skirt with its grab loop tucked under, hanging useless inside the cockpit. Most of the time, the problem is noticed and corrected before leaving the shore. A trapped grab loop is an accident waiting to happen. Ensuring your spray skirt grab loop is fully exposed and free from entanglement should be part of everyone’s pre-launch ritual. Rushing to attach the spray skirt prior to launching through surf and simple forgetfulness are common causes for leaving the grab loop trapped under the spray skirt. Although entirely preventable, it does happen, and because it is such an easy mistake to make, all paddlers should practice alternative methods for releasing their spray skirts without using the grab loop.

 

In an informal rescue practice session held half a mile off the California coastline, Stephen had borrowed a river kayak that was tight for his large frame, as his kayak was in for repairs. He capsized to practice rolling but failed to roll up. He banged on the hull, indicating his need for a bow rescue. His spotter set his bow alongside and Stephen started to pull himself up on it, but accidentally pushed his spotter’s boat away in the process. Out of air, Stephen reached for his skirt’s grab loop, which had inadvertently been tucked under the tight rubber rand. With his thighs wedged tightly in the kayak’s knee braces and the footpegs not adjusted properly for his height, he couldn’t even try a forced exit. Stephen banged vigorously on his hull and another paddler presented a bow for Stephen to pull himself up on.

 

Gear Failure
A number of paddlers told of wet exits that went awry because of gear failure. Spray-skirt materials are often weakened through repeated use, exposure to UV damage and the effects of salt crystallization. Saltwater and sunlight aren’t the only environments rough on gear. Rescue practice in swimming pools and the chlorine in the pool water can be especially hard on spray skirts. Savvy paddlers typically use a second skirt for pool practice sessions to keep from weakening the skirt they use when paddling. It is also important to practice good in-season care of your gear, drying it between uses and keeping it free from mildew. As a preventive measure, paddlers should ensure that their gear, including spray skirt, is rinsed with fresh water after every trip (see “Gear Preparedness: Paddling at the Drop of a Hat,” SK, Oct. ’01) and inspect their equipment for wear or weakness.

 

A few years ago, I went with two friends on a remote off-season paddle, battling snow and a building gale on a long crossing. One of my partners needed to retrieve a piece of gear from his cockpit before conditions deteriorated further. When he tried to pop off the spray deck, the release loop on his aged skirt tore off completely. He was shocked by the failure of this critical piece of his spray skirt and concerned by the complication this could present in the event that he needed to wet exit. Realizing his predicament was a serious one, we all stayed very close to one another for the rest of the crossing.

 

Two paddlers, Rich and Bill, were paddling on Lake Michigan in the fall. Though the air temperature was hovering at 20°F, the men were feeling warm from exertion in their dry suits and pogies. While they were crossing over a sandbar, breaking waves capsized Rich. Taken by surprise, he decided to wet exit. He pulled on his grab loop, but it tore off in his hand. He started to peel the spray deck off without the loop, but the spray skirt was iced to the cockpit rim! With a feeling of desperation, he peeled the skirt’s rubber rand back a few inches at a time with numb fingers. Rich was finally able to exit. Bill estimated that it took over a minute to make that wet exit.

New Gear
It is easy to imagine that well-used gear may fail, but it is less obvious to expect that new gear may cause entrapment. During a course held in the Pacific Northwest, students were learning rescues and exits and practicing paddling in the fast-moving water of Deception Pass. One of the students flipped over and was unable to right herself. She was using a new neoprene skirt that was still very tight, requiring the release loop to be pulled forward, then out and back. She attempted to release the skirt a number of times, without success. A new compass had just been installed on the front deck, which did not allow enough distance to pull the loop forward to release the skirt off the front lip of the coaming. The rubber rand was so new and so snug, pulling it straight up and back did not work. The lead instructor immediately recognized the telltale signs of a capsized paddler in distress. He quickly came alongside the overturned kayak, reached underwater and did a successful “Hand of God” rescue before the student ran out of air.

 

Any time you modify your kayak or add new gear to it, practice wet exits and reentry drills in a controlled setting. Have an able partner standing by to assist you. Any deck gear items, including deck bags, mounting apparatus, sail masts and items such as strapped-on gear or photographic equipment and cases, can all interfere with a smooth wet exit.

You can incorporate a backup release device. A strap anchored to the underside of the foredeck and set over the coaming before the spray skirt is attached will work effectively as an auxiliary release even on a tight spray skirt. (See “Easy On, Easy Off,” a review of the Kayak Safe release strap, SK, Oct. ’96.) Of course, you have to make sure the strap is draped over the coaming before attaching the spray skirt.

 

There are skirts that come with straps that run across the spray-skirt deck and are sewn to the bungee or rand. Some manufacturers will accommodate this customization upon request. The straps won’t release the skirt as efficiently as a front-release strap because you’ll have to work the bungee free from the front of the coaming, but a good tug is all that is required to start the spray deck curling back over the coaming.

 

Footwear
There were many incidents brought to our attention that involved paddlers getting snagged on footpegs. Shoelaces and sandal straps both have the potential to snag foot braces. Recent offerings in footwear designed specifically for paddlesports have addressed this problem by covering or eliminating straps and laces. Think through your choice of footwear and test them in the kayak while on dry land for entanglement dangers. Shoelaces create a potential danger by forming loops that can catch around a rudder pedal. Sandals, especially those with only two or three straps, can let a footpeg slip between the foot-bed and sole of the foot. Footpegs can also hook between one of the top straps and the top of your foot. Sandals that cover more of the foot are less likely to catch in this manner. Some tour company trip coordinators, having experienced problems with clients exiting their kayaks, inspect and restrict what kind of footwear their clients can wear while paddling.

 

Some types of boots have ankle draw cords that are frequently responsible for entrapment problems. Some class instructors request that students cut off the excess cordage to remove the loop and relocate the knot to minimize exposure.

 

If you find yourself snagged by your footwear, try slipping back into the cockpit to release the tension on the snag and coax it free. If that doesn’t work, try to pry off the snagged shoe by using your other foot to push the heel off and free yourself.

 

Paddlers who use a bulkhead foot brace or a sea sock have less of a concern with potential footwear entrapment. In the case of my entrapment in the opening story, the foot-bar in my kayak was designed to pivot back toward the paddler during a wet exit in the event of a foot getting lodged behind it. Unfortunately, the impact forced it forward, jamming me in the cockpit. Following that incident, I removed the original bulkhead, fabricated a new one and installed it closer to the foot-bar to reduce the chances of my being pushed forward of the bar.

 

A few years ago, Orval, an avid paddler, was teaching his daughter Maggie how to do a wet exit. They were practicing in a small lake. Maggie is a tall girl and a strong swimmer. She began her wet exit even before the kayak was completely upside down, but the ankle draw cord of one of the booties she was wearing got caught on a footpeg. Orval lifted her to the surface and, with the help of Maggie’s mom, managed to get her free. Maggie continued to pursue the sport, but no one in the family takes it for granted that gravity alone will provide for a graceful exit.

 

Surfing invariably places a paddler at greater risk for entrapment. In one case, Bill, a reasonably experienced whitewater and sea kayaker, was surfing along the Pacific Rim National Park. He was working his way through some moderately large dumping waves near the outer break when he high-braced into a breaking wave and broke the shaft of his wooden paddle. The force of the wave shifted Bill’s seat and foot positioning sufficiently enough to shove him toward the bow. A loop in one of the laces of his running shoes caught fast on the foot brace. When he released the spray skirt, he realized he was trapped. After an inordinately long time under the water, Bill was finally able to pry off the offending shoe with his free foot and pop to the surface. Back on shore, he breathed deeply, happy to be alive. It was 15 years before Bill returned to the surf zone, and only after he received further training and a pair of reef booties.

New Gear
Other Entrapment Experiences

 

There have been a number of incidents involving a miscellany of things leading to entrapment. Wallets in back pockets have caught on seats (the individuals obviously weren’t planning on getting wet!), wetsuit kneepads have snagged on thigh braces and dry-suit pockets have hooked on rudder-cable adjusters. Tethered emergency bailout packs stored in the cockpit and pullout foam bulkhead spacers have caused entanglement, and gear located behind seats has come loose during wet exits. Sewn stops on the ends of webbing and loose fitting or poorly adjusted PFDs have caught on the deck, and pant-leg draw cords have snared on pedals.

I was conducting a sea kayak surf course for a local club in the spring. After the session was over, I tried out my spouse’s recently acquired kayak. When I tried to lean forward to surf on a wave, something held me firmly back. A bit unnerved, I called a student over to inspect the rear deck. The knotted end of a PFD draw cord had entangled on the back deck. It would have prevented my doing a wet exit. The student dislodged the snag, and I promptly returned to shore to study the problem and make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

 

Another paddler was escorting a novice when seas grew to four or five feet. The new paddler wisely elected to walk back along the shoreline to the put-in, while the experienced paddler towed the empty kayak the few miles back. Seas continued to build until the paddler found himself towing the empty kayak through heavy surf. An eight-foot wave reared unexpectedly in the impact zone, causing the kayak to tumble and the towline to wrap around the kayak and the paddler’s arms. He had just enough flexibility left to release the skirt and bail out.

 

In one particularly frightening incident, a paddler reported he was having some fun doing a little solo surf practice in his sea kayak. It was no surprise to him when he capsized. He missed his roll and decided to bail out. After releasing the grab loop, he attempted a wet exit but was unable to get out of the cockpit. It became quickly apparent that the carabiner of his PFD’s integral tow belt had somehow clipped itself onto his kayak’s perimeter deck line. In the turbulence of the surf zone, it was very difficult for him to unclip the carabiner. It became a desperate, life-threatening situation. He was finally able to unclip himself during a lull in the breaking waves. You can eliminate this type of entanglement by removing deck lines that run along the sides of the cockpit. They aren’t necessary, since you have the cockpit coaming to hang on to if you are in the water alongside the middle of the kayak.

 

In another case, Steve, a very experienced paddler, had just outfitted the cockpit of his Greenland-style kayak with neoprene bracing. It made for a tight fit, requiring him to squeeze his thighs under the coaming. During rolling practice, Steve capsized and somehow was unable to get his knees into the normal position for rolling. Low on air, he attempted to bail out, but the friction created between his wetsuit and the new neoprene padding prevented him from slipping out. On the verge of panic, Steve managed to pry one leg out with his hands, then the other. After trying to achieve a looser fit by thinning the neoprene padding, he eventually chose to replace the neoprene outfitting with the more common minicell foam that had less grip when it was wet, yet provided good contact between his legs and the boat. Reconfiguring your cockpit, outfitting it for better boat control, installing interior cargo nets and inner cockpit bags or knee tubes/thigh braces, changing seats and back rests, adding heel pads to the inner hull and adding pumps are all worthwhile modifications, but the potential for entrapment must be considered. Make sure your modifications do not inhibit you from being able to perform a wet exit smoothly.

Preventive Measures
If the spray-skirt manufacturer hasn’t already added a toggle or clear tube section to the grab loop, it is a good idea to modify it yourself. The normal webbing loop for releasing the spray skirt can be difficult to find when you are underwater, disoriented and anxious. Paddlers have employed a number of modifications to make the release easier to find by touch, including golf Whiffle balls (like the one used by Patrick), dowels, beads and large knots. A carabiner clipped into the webbing loop has the advantage of hanging down in front of the paddler when the kayak is inverted. (A locking carabiner is recommended because it is less likely to inadvertently snag the paddler or become detached.) Even wrapping the webbing loop tightly with brightly colored electrical tape is an easy solution that makes the loop more visible and solid to the touch.

 

Most of these modifications also make it less likely that the strap will get tucked accidentally under the skirt, causing a dangerous situation. Since you might not be able to see the loop in murky or aerated water, you should be able to locate and pull your release handle by touch alone even when you are wearing thick gloves or have cold hands.

 

Backup Methods
It’s not a bad idea to have at least one or two backup methods that get your head to the surface where you can get some air. Rolling, of course, is a good solution to a capsize, but if you are doing a wet exit, it is usually because you are unable to roll. If you carry an inflated paddle float or, better yet, a rigid paddle float under the bungees on the back deck within easy reach, you can pull it out and use it to roll up or just get your face above the water (See “Please Remain Seated,” SK, Summer ’90). The BackUp rescue aid (www.roll-aid.com) is a CO2-inflated float that you can rapidly deploy to pull yourself up to the surface with minimal effort. There are also breathing tubes and air-supply devices on the market, but these work best for a calm and well-practiced kayaker.

 

Developing the ability to scull your way to the surface with your paddle, even if only partially, is an invaluable skill. (See “Vertical Storm Roll,” SK, Dec. ’01.) By extending your paddle and sweeping out sideways and back to the stern, you can gain tremendous leverage and perhaps a breath of air while you reevaluate possible solutions to your entrapment situation. Developing the ability to swim to the surface on either side of the kayak is a skill that you can add to your survival strategies, and it doesn’t rely on having extra equipment.

 

It is also prudent to paddle with a partner (or partners) who exhibits a good level of awareness and can maneuver quickly to your aid if necessary. The “Hand of God” rescue is a technique that can be used if a capsized paddler fails to wet exit. If you don’t have the strength to right the capsized paddler, bringing the paddler up for air is enough. Then you can help pry the skirt loose, if that is the problem. Never assume that someone who has capsized is just hanging around upside down for the fun of it. They may be entrapped or suffering from some other complication. Start moving toward the capsized kayak as soon as you see it go over. Knowledge of CPR and other aquatic lifesaving skills is always an asset wherever you are.

 

Common Sense
Entrapment is a serious situation. There have been fatalities where the victims were found still seated in their kayaks, spray skirts in place. A capsized paddler who can’t get to the surface may be able to go a minute and a half on a lung-full of air at best. Add panic and attempts to struggle free from an entrapment, and it doesn’t take long for CO2 levels to build quickly and oxygen supplies to deplete.

 

Deployed beneath the paddle float, the Counterbalance holds more than 10 pounds o water, enough weight at the end of a paddle-float outrigger to keep the outrigger from lifting during reentry.

Most sea kayakers are familiar with paddle-float rescues—setting a paddle across the aft deck as an outrigger and supporting the outboard end with a float.
If you have practiced paddle-float reentries, you may have experienced getting flipped to the opposite side of the outrigger during a reentry. The outrigger and paddle float can provide a lot of stability for a reentry, but only as long as you keep your weight to the outrigger side of the kayak. That’s not always easy to do if you are at the tail end of the reentry maneuver. When you are twisting around to get in the cockpit, your weight is nearly centered over the kayak. If the waves are bouncing you around, you could shift your weight a bit too far from the outrigger side. When that happens, the paddle float and paddle can quickly rise out of the water, taking the extra margin of stability with them. Suddenly you are back in the water.

It would be impractical to set a second outrigger on the opposite side of the kayak. To get stability on both sides of a kayak with a single outrigger, you need buoyancy and weight at the end of the outrigger. The idea of adding weight to the outrigger is not a new one. When Matt Broze first developed the paddle-float outrigger in 1981, he used water containers as floats and partially filled them with water to give them some weight.
North Water Rescue’s foam paddle float can now be equipped with the Counterbalance, attached by a strap and a buckle. The bag is pleated and expands as water flows in. A stiff fabric flap at the mouth of the bag acts as a valve to let water in quickly and prevent it from easily flowing back out. With a load of water in it, the bag adds 10 to 12 pounds to the end of the outrigger. A mesh panel on the top of the bag drains the water quickly when you flip the paddle and float over.

The 10 to 12 pounds of water the bag captures at the end of the paddle translates into 50 to 60 foot-pounds of resistance when five feet out from the center of the kayak. That’s a lot of leverage. I had to lean well out of the cockpit away from the outrigger to get the bag to rise out of the water. An accidental capsize by leaning away from the outrigger seems quite unlikely when the Counterbalance is deployed.
The standard procedure for setting a paddle-float outrigger is to stick one blade of the paddle under deck lines or bungee cords aft of the cockpit opening. With an unfeathered paddle, the outboard blade of the outrigged paddle (and the paddle float attached to it) is flat on the water.

With a feathered paddle, the blade on deck is flat, and the outboard blade—and the float and Counterbalance attached to it—is at an angle. If you attach the paddle float to the outboard paddle blade before setting up the paddle as an outrigger, the bag will fill up while it is face down in the water. You can quickly fill the bag by pulling the paddle toward the kayak so the mouth of the bag scoops in water. When the outboard blade and the paddle float twist as the outrigger is set up, the bag hangs at an angle from the float but still has its full load of water and is no less effective than when it is rigged with an unfeathered paddle.
When you are finished with the paddle-float outrigger, just flip the paddle and the float over.
The Counterbalance will drain completely, and you can remove the float from your paddle and re-stow it.
A strap at the mouth of the Counterbalance can be tightened to draw the mouth tight against the paddle float. This will keep the Counterbalance from filling with water inadvertently or from acting as a drogue if the paddle float winds up trailing behind you at the end of a tether.

The Counterbalance doesn’t add much time to the paddle-float self-rescue and virtually eliminates capsizing to the side opposite the outrigger. While this feature should make any paddle float more effective, it is not currently designed for use with inflatable paddle floats. The Counterbalance is available as an optional attachment for North Water Rescue’s foam paddle float.
The Counterbalance by itself is priced at $42 U.S.; with paddle float, the price is $82 U.S.
Visit North Water’s web site for a list of U.S. and Canadian retailers.
North Water Rescue & Paddling Equipment, (604) 264-0827
northwater@northwater.com, www.northwater.com

Armor PDA Case by Otter Box

In our February 2000 issue, we did an article on the various things a personal desk accessory (PDA) can do to make itself useful on kayak trips. There are programs available for tide tables, navigation, note taking and games, in addition to the PDA’s built-in features. The big drawback to using a PDA aboard a kayak is its lack of waterproofing. A splash of water, and it’s bye-bye data.

This year, Otter Box introduced Armor, a watertight case for PDAs. Otter Box is best known for making small watertight plastic cases. Their cases have O-ring seals and sturdy latches and hinges. The PDA Armor is constructed in the same way, but it has a lid with a small, soft plastic window. The window is attached to the inside of the lid by means of a gasket that presses the perimeter of the window into a recess molded in the lid. To provide good contact with the PDA screen, the windows are molded to fit the contours of the faces of a variety of PDAs.

The lid has a rubber holder for a PDA stylus. (Take along a spare stylus or two. Small, untethered and black, they are easy to lose.) The window lets you use all of the PDA’s functions: both the push buttons and on-screen touch operations.

I made some errors using the Graffiti script, the set of stylus strokes for writing with the stylus. Since the contact with the PDA screen is “softened” by the Armor window, the strokes were best recognized by the PDA if I kept them large and a little less sloppy. The on-screen touch-type keyboard worked well, in spite of the small contact points for the keyboard.

The box is waterproof. With the case strapped on deck, I did a rolling and self-rescue session without having any sign of moisture inside the case. Good thing. The plastic case also protects the PDA from getting crushed, so you don’t have to worry so much about damage while you’re roughing it.
The case is as compact as it can be, but it does not fit in your palm as comfortably as a bare PDA.
A stretchy neoprene strap with Velcro attachments provides a solid grip on the box, even if your fingers aren’t long enough to wrap around the case. The strap can get quite soggy, so be careful not to get your hands dripping wet on it if you intend to open the case and handle the PDA.
The Armor case has plenty of buoyancy, more than enough to float a PDA. The bright yellow of the case I used is very visible (other colors include blue, green and black). The Armor case has an attachment point for a tether should you need to clip the case to the deck rigging.
Because I often combine writing and kayaking, my PDA has become part of my standard kayaking equipment. This review, as a matter of fact, began on the water. My notes were written on my PDA and were keyed in afterward using a PDA portable keyboard (which I keep with spare batteries and a PDA backup unit in a series 2000 Otter Box).
I have to admit I feel a bit odd taking a computer, albeit a very small one, out into the wilderness. But there are times when it make sense to go out into the natural world and bring a bit of the digital world along with me.
The Armor PDA Case is available directly from the manufacturer or from kayaking equipment retailers for $49.95.

Early Greenland Kayaks Return To The Water

Dutch whalers, plying the waters adjacent to Greenland in the late 1600s, brought back not only a wealth of whale oil and furs, but many artifacts acquired from the Greenlanders. Along with hunting equipment, skins and ivory, the whalers brought back kayaks. Several of them still exist, souvenirs from a grand period of Dutch seafaring; ethnological treasures that offer a valuable glimpse into 300-year-old kayak forms from Greenland.

Dutch proficiency in whaling led them to dominate the industry by the end of the 1600s. Their whaling grounds were primarily in the vicinity of Spitzbergen Island, east of Greenland. In his book, The Arctic Whalers (Ferguson Brown & Son, 1937), Basil Lubbock writes: “Between 1699 and 1708, the Dutch sent out 1,652 whalers and killed 8,537 whales.…”

Diminishing yields quickly followed the prosperity. Lubbock continues: “By the year 1720, the Greenland whale had been chased away from the coast of Spitzbergen and even from the whaling banks.…” Finn Gad, in The History of Greenland, Vol. 2 (University of Toronto Press, 1973), writes: “The decline may have resulted from over-exploitation or migration of the whales….” He also suggests that lack of shipping activity due to Dutch involvement in wars may have played a part. As a result, the Dutch concentrated their efforts in Davis Strait on the west side of Greenland.

Little is known about the histories of 11 Greenland kayaks thought to have been brought back by Dutch whalers between 1600 and 1800. Whaling histories, while numerous, rarely make mention of souvenirs picked up on a voyage. Gert Nooter explores the origins of 10 of these kayaks in his work, Old Kayaks in the Netherlands (E.J. Brill, 1971), a study that seeks to accurately identify each kayak’s history using historical records and comparisons with ethnological texts. No definite conclusions are drawn as to the kayaks’ respective histories. The only certain answer is that they are all from Greenland—and most likely the Davis Strait side.

The Brielle Kayak
One of the kayaks in Nooter’s study is the Brielle (pronounced “BREE-luh”), named after the city in whose town-hall attic it had been until 1883. It is now in the collection of the Rijksmuseum voor Volkerkunde, in Leiden. Nooter writes, “…it is evident that the kayak had been in the attic in Brielle for many years, but no documents have been found indicating just how long this was.” He notes that Brielle was not a prominent whaling town.

In 1998, I visited the Rijksmuseum to study and survey the Brielle kayak. Its condition was poor. The hull was slightly collapsed, and the keel was no longer straight, appearing as if it had been suspended from the ends while heeled 90 degrees. Despite its state, the kayak’s form restored very well on paper. Areas in good condition were used to fair collapsed areas of the hull, and the yawing curve was eliminated to restore the kayak’s symmetry.

The Brielle kayak is a very narrow kayak with distinctly long, raked ends—particularly the stern. The beam is 15 1/4″ and the length is 17′ 11 1/8″, making it very extreme in terms of length-to-width ratios. The hull shape is very boxy—nearly vertical slab—sides and a flat bottom. Its cross-section shape is often equated with great stability, although just how stable can a 15 1/4″-wide kayak be?

The Hindeloopen Kayak
The same year, I visited the museum de Hidde Nij-land Stichting in the old town hall in Hindeloopen. (The train drops you off in a small gravel parking lot. Look for the steeple in the distance and start walking.) This museum has displays representing local history and artifacts, including a small representation of Hindeloopen’s whaling past-a kayak. In his book, Nooter refers to this as the Hindeloopen kayak.

The Hindeloopen kayak is also in poor condition. It exhibits hull-collapse along much of the keel, and the shrinking sealskin has crushed the ribs significantly. While Nooter’s photographs show it suspended from a ceiling, it was in a glass case when I saw it and was well supported along the keel to prevent further damage. Its dimensions are also quite extreme by modern standards: 18′ 8″ long with a maximum breadth of 15 5/8″ and an overall depth of 8″ (omitting the height of the coaming).

The design of the Hindeloopen is quite different from the Brielle. The former has low ends, a fairly short bow and a gradually inclining stern of low height. The cross sections are also considerably different: The Hindeloopen kayak is structurally hard-chined, but its hull shape is multi-chined because of the gunwale’s lower edge protruding into the skin, and the breadth between its chines is proportionately narrower than the Brielle’s.

Both of these kayaks exhibited evidence of deck lines at the bow, but the deck lines were missing. Ivory pieces may or may not have been present. Unlike the Hindeloopen, the Brielle kayak has another pair of holes through the gunwales and skin-covering toward the stern, evidence of another deck line.

Three of the kayaks in Nooter’s study, the Hindeloopen among them, were painted with a white wave pattern along the waterline and a very dark blue/green elsewhere. The illustration below depicts the paint scheme. Similar paint patterns were applied throughout the Netherlands and were used on Dutch ships during the 17th and 18th centuries. The National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam has a pinnace model from around 1650 with the same wavy white waterline painted onto it.

Structural Changes Over Time
The common element these kayaks share is perhaps best expressed in a comparison to more modern West Greenland kayaks. The two older kayaks, like many kayaks from the general period, are more symmetrical fore and aft. They don’t exhibit the pinched bow plan (or “hollow sheer”) that later kayaks generally have, and are instead more cigar-shaped or full-volume in the stern and bow.

Proportionally, the earlier kayaks have a much greater length-to-width ratio, being roughly 1 1/2′ to 2′ longer and 3″ to 4″ narrower. Their cockpits are generally situated farther forward than those of more recent kayaks, which most likely moved aft in an effort to “trim” the kayak’s balance with an augmented hunting kit that included rifles. The greater breadth of more recent Greenlandish kayaks is largely the result of needing more deck space for rifles and more stability for their use. (For a scale drawing of a modern West Greenland kayak, see SK, Fall 1987, pg. 17.)

Another feature that sets these kayaks apart from their modern counterparts is the fairly simple deck-line arrangements—each has four simple straps just ahead of the cockpit, one of which is the harpoon holder to the right of the cockpit coaming (missing on the Brielle kayak). Immediately behind the cockpits of these two kayaks are a pair of deck lines, connected by an ivory piece on the Hindeloopen, but plain on the Brielle.

The Hindeloopen kayak was painted with a white wave pattern along the waterline and a very dark blue/green elsewhere. The design was not an original feature of the kayak, but a popular pattern in the Netherlands applied after the kayak was collected.

Replicating History
With their extreme differences, the Hindeloopen and the Brielle were prime candidates for replication. Through reconstructing and using them in varying sea conditions, I hoped to gain a deeper understanding of each. I started with the Hindeloopen and, needless to say, had to lengthen the cockpit opening to ensure a fit. The cockpit of the original is 16 3/4″ long, and my replica’s is 19″ long. (I am 5′ 8 1/2″ tall and weigh 125 pounds.) To maintain a snug fit, I did not adjust the overall depth that was clearly the original’s ideal. The cockpit opening of the Brielle replica had to be similarly adjusted: 14 3/4″ long on the original and 19 1/4″ on the replica. (No other dimensions were adjusted beyond my conjectural reconstruction of the damaged original.)

In my construction of the kayak replicas, I borrowed heavily from H.C. Petersen’s Instruction in Kayak Building (Atuakkiorfik, 2001 reprinted edition) and also relied on the chapter “Old Greenland Kayaks” in Petersen’s Skinboats of Greenland (National Museum of Denmark, 1986) and my own observations of the kayaks. My view was limited to what I could observe through the cockpit opening (a view entirely obscured in the case of the Hindeloopen). Having seen and studied other old kayaks was of considerable help in building the replicas.

Differences in construction between older (roughly 1600-1800) and more modern (1800-2000) Greenland kayaks are few, though significant. Lashings binding the lower edges of the gunwales together appear throughout the kayak’s hull in older examples, anchored to the gunwale’s lower edges. In more recent Greenlandish kayaks, such ties appear only at the ends, if at all. Deck beams and ribs are more closely spaced—about every 8 to 10 inches. Aft deck stringers were either missing or never installed in the older kayaks. Petersen describes their gunwales as going to the very ends of the kayak, instead of being extended via a stem-post (or plank) as in more recent kayaks.

Some material substitutions had to be made in creating the replicas: I used tarred nylon seining twine for the lashings in the Hindeloopen replica, and split black plastic crate-strapping material to simulate the baleen lashings in the Brielle kayak. Both kayak replicas were covered with nylon cloth instead of sealskin. I sealed the fabric with hand-tinted oil-based polyurethane.

Launching the Hindeloopen
The launching of the Hindeloopen replica was a profound experience—I returned a 300-year-old form to the water, and it reciprocated by taking me back 300 years in kayak history. It was like nothing I’d ever paddled before. It was tiny and seemingly very far below me because of the low deck. The fit was snug and comfortable and gave me excellent heeling control. Its expected instability proved to be very manageable and even comfortable in a short time. I’d be hard-pressed to recommend the type to anyone, as the patience and perseverance I’d acquired from paddling other tippy kayaks has certainly given me an advantage in learning to paddle these two narrow replicas. The stability curves featured in typical Sea Kayaker kayak reviews would only barely appear in the positive range for this kayak, if at all.

The overall performance was very pleasing. It tracked very well, even in high winds, yet turned easily. These seemingly contradictory qualities may be explained by a combination of having a low freeboard, a moderate rocker, and a fairly distinct keel. It’s a very wet ride, however; it is inevitable that a kayak that makes you feel so much a part of the water would also more or less soak you.

The Hindeloopen kayak had a paddle associated with it, which was reconstructed for use with the kayak replica. The blades are quite parallel and they make a quick transition into the shaft, the bone-edging (hardwood on my replica) acting as a bit of a shoulder. The tips of the original paddle are whale bone, mortised to the wooden blades.

A powerful stroke in a 22″- wide kayak is phenomenally powerful in a 15 5/8″ kayak. The acceleration is astonishing, especially with the replica paddle; the pull of its narrow blades so finely tuned to the kayak’s resistance. Cruising speed is not only easily maintained but is substantial. Greenland kayak champion Maligiaq Padilla paddled this replica in 1999 and remarked very favorably as to how fast it was—the fastest he’d ever been in.

I took this replica to the surf for trials and found it to be very capable getting through breakers. Its low buoyancy made for an especially wet ride, and I found it best to be capsized when meeting the breaking 5′ waves. Its acceleration was very handy, and its maneuverability gave me little to worry about. Surfing back in, I found it very prone to submarining and pitchpoling—I would have preferred broaching. When it did broach and surf sideways, I found the kayak firmly attached to me, whereas in bigger kayaks, I’ve experienced the sensation of being pulled out as the larger hulls are yanked away from me. The Hindeloopen has such a small overall surface area, much of it fairly rounded, that it is quite at home in waves and wind.

Launching the Brielle
Having had such a favorable experience with the Hindeloopen replica, I became very interested in paddling the Brielle replica, which I launched a few months later. The Brielle’s hull shape is quite different from the Hindeloopen’s, although it performed very similarly. Its tracking was equally superb, except it seemed to turn more easily, giving a feeling of being on the water, rather than in it. This sensation is clearly because of its more squared-off cross sections. The Brielle’s box-like cross sections give feelings of initial stability, but it is delicate: This “box” is only 12 3/4″ wide at the bottom and therefore isn’t of significant help. It appears to have more initial stability than the Hindeloopen replica but is about equal with its secondary stability.

The Brielle replica proved to be very capable in wind and waves. It handled them well from all points, despite being a wet ride. It tracks easily in crosswinds and corrects very easily, especially with edged turns. The Hindeloopen replica seemed to track better in wind, most likely because of its lower profile. It doesn’t edge as well but corrects very easily.

Both replicas provided many valuable contrasting and complimentary insights on their designs. The original kayaks’ respective paddlers surely prized the agility and speed of their crafts. These forms combine the beautiful and critical mix of swiftness and grace in calm conditions and the ability to endure under the paddler’s control in rough conditions. They are easily controlled and don’t seem to work against me in rougher conditions. Dainty as these kayaks may seem at 25 pounds each, I am far from finding the limits of their seaworthiness.

Inspiration from the Past
That kayaks like these were used around coastal Greenland for subsistence—likely year-round—speaks convincingly of their high degree of development and capability. It is fortunate that these kayaks have been preserved in museums. Although many questions that remain about these kayaks will remain unanswered-even after study, documentation, replication and extensive sea trials-they can offer many insights about early design, evolution and construction. Whatever the appeal is, be it historical, aesthetic, technical or cultural, there is much to admire and appreciate in these kayaks.

 

Overboard with Electronics

Not even kayaking is immune from the electronics explosion of the late twentieth century. Now we can dispense with the large, bulky paper charts that we slowly mangle into illegibility as we fold and stuff them into our waterproof chart holders.

Today’s chart-plotting software allows you to view one or several nautical charts at once on any scale you wish, and then produce a high-quality paper printout of the desired segment.

When planning trips, chart-plotting software makes it easy to quickly plot and evaluate specific paddling routes in terms of distance specific paddling routes in terms of distance traveled and overall feasibility. With a handheld marine Global Positioning System (GPS) in combination with tide and current software, you’ll have tools that are useful for planning and undertaking kayaking trips.

To test whether the software and hardware that is designed for use with larger vessels can be useful when scaled down to the smaller size and speed of flotsam, jetsam and kayaks, I chose a difficult paddling route in Washington State’s San Juan Islands that would expose me to strong currents and long, exposed crossings.

I paddled nine nautical miles, from Washington Park on Fidalgo Island to Doe Bay on Orcas Island. There were two crossings: three nautical miles across Bellingham Channel, and about five nautical miles across Rosario Strait.

The currents in this area average two knots, and can peak at over four knots near Strawberry Island-faster than the comfortable cruising speed of most paddlers.

I needed to follow precise routes to make landfall in the right spots and to avoid shipping and ferry lanes. To add to the complexity of the route, the currents in Bellingham Channel have a strong component perpendicular to the desired direction of travel, making for challenging paddling.

The software I tested was Nobeltec’s Chart View Planner for Windows 3.1, 95, and 98, which includes basic charts, tides and current software and GPS-interface software. (ChartView is not available for Macintosh, Linux, or Windows NT platforms.) For the money, this program provides everything a kayaker needs to get started, and has very little in the way of unneces-sary features that add to the cost.

An example of an unneces-sary feature would be real-time position plotting on a laptop using data from an attached GPS: It’s not very practical for kayakers to run a laptop computer while underway-I don’t recommend trying it!

I tested the software on two systems: a speedy Pentium 11 desktop with a 35OMhz processor, a 6.4 gigabyte (Gb) hard drive and 64 megabytes (Nfb) of RAM (a dual-boot system that uses Windows 95 and Linux), and a not-so-speedy Sony VAIO PCG-CLX laptop with a Pentium 266Mhz processor, 4.3Gb hard drive and 64 Mb of RAM that uses Windows 98 only. The desktop computer is equivalent in speed to the low-end range of computers being sold today, while the laptop is equivalent to the low-end computers of last year.

I found little difference in speed between the two systems, and both machines had no trouble running the program at its most memory- and CPU-intensive settings. The minimum system requirements are quite modest: a recommended Intel 386 processor, 8Mb RAM and 4Mb of hard-drive space.

Installation on both machines was simple. The program comes, quaintly, on several floppy disks instead of a CD-ROM disk. The hard-drive space taken up is less than ten megabytes, which should barely even dent the hard-drive space of most users. Installing full-blown nautical charts, however, will take up considerably more disk space.

My installation of the entire set of NOAA nautical charts for Washington State (not in-cluded with the program) used up 11OMb, which is a sizeable chunk of space, but not that significant in this era of 25-plus Gb hard drives. The charts can also be read directly from the CD-ROM with some loss in speed.

Two other programs are installed automatically during in-stallation: Tides and Currents Lite and GPS-C. Tides and Currents Lite provides a worldwide database of tide and current stations that seamlessly integrates with the chart-viewing program.

GPS-C provides an easy-to-use mechanism for transferring data, way points and routes between the chart-viewing pro-gram and a hand-held GPS that is connected by way of an after-market serial cable adapter.

Chart View Planner comes with a set of planning charts for North America. These charts have detailed outlines of the coastlines, with very rudimentary navigational data-prima-rily the names of major landmarks-and no bathymetric data.

I found myself taken aback by the lack of detail in these charts, compared to the nautical charts with which I am most familiar. However, since these charts can be used with tide and current calculations, they are still quite useful for kayakers.

Probably the single most useful function of this program is the ability to quickly plan a complex route with multiple legs and evaluate both the length of each leg and the total distance traveled. While a pair of dividers on a paper chart serves this purpose adequately at a fraction of the cost, Chart View Planner adds much more functionality, such as instant range and bearing calculations, and multiple routes that can be saved to disk and accessed at a later date.

I really like the “save route” feature, since I usually spend a lot of time planning complex trips that I might like to do sometime in the future. With Chart View Planner, I can instantly recall any trip from a previous session and quickly adapt it to fit the limitations of time and distance for the trip participants.

The planning charts are not suitable for actual navigation on the water; full-blown nautical charts with all aids to navigation and bathymetrics are a necessity when it comes down to getting into the kayak and going on a trip. Fortunately, Chart View Planner is designed to integrate with digitized versions of NOAA charts.

When downloaded onto your computer, you will find that the computer screen view of these charts provides the same level of detail as a paper chart. The electronic NOAA charts must be purchased separately from Chart View Planner. Electronic charts are generally cheaper than paper charts, especially if you need a large number of charts to cover a wide area. For this review, Ievaluated aCD-ROMproducedbyMaptech (www.maptech.com) that contains all of the NOAA charts for Washington State, including the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound-approximately sixty charts in all. This CD-ROM retails for $199; a great value, considering that the paper equivalent would probably cost at least twice as much. Chart View Planner also reads most other digitized nautical chart formats available world-wide.

When combined with digitized NOAA charts, the Chart View Planner becomes a truly remarkable program. The visual quality is equal to a paper chart, and in some cases better, since zooming in beyond the normal scale results in little loss of quality. The program automatically calculates the latitude and longitude of any point on the screen. This makes it easy to plan routes and trips, and to mark way points for possible upload to a GPS. The route creation function was very quick and easy to use. In five minutes I planned a four-day trip that covered @ miles and uploaded the entire route to a GPS. I also uploaded several other significant way points, such as a reef to avoid and shipping lane bound-aries. It would have taken an hour or more to do this the old-fashioned way with a paper chart and dividers, and by entering the way points manually into the GPS. In addition, the way-points uploaded by the Chart View Planner are much more accurate in location than visually identifying latitudes and longitudes on a map.

Chart View Planner’s Tides and Currents Lite software, a trial version of Tides and Currents, calculates tides and currents at thousands of locations in North America and other parts of the world. This data is integrated into the chart view, displayed as a colored bar for tides and colored arrows pointing in the direction of the current. The current arrows are scaled to represent the current strength. The tides and currents can be animated to show how they vary at a selected location over a period of hours, days or weeks. It also has a useful table and graphical view of the currents at a single location that can simultaneously display daily and weekly graphs. Nighttime hours in the graph are shaded, so it is very easy to know which currents you will encounter during the day. I particularly liked the graphing and shading features, since the currents in my paddling region are strong and I usually have to plan for or around them.

Tides and Currents Lite retains almost all of the functionality of the original. The difference is that it is limited to work for one year from the date of installation of the Chart View Planner, and does not allow custom charts to be printed (a minor feature). After one year, the user may upgrade to the full version of Tides and Currents for $89.95. While this may leave a bad taste in some users’ mouths who do not like “crippleware,” the Chart View Planner is outstand-ing, bug-free software at a great price, and I think that the inclusion of a free year’s worth of Tides and Currents is generous and that the upgrade is well worth the money.

The software described in this review is all quite useful at home, but since you can’t take your PC with you when you paddle, how useful is it when on the water? One feature of the Chart View that works well on the water is its ability to make excellent print-outs. It is convenient to have charts in a small, manageable size with a customized, zoomed-in view of the paddle trip. I used a relatively modest color printer to produce 8″ x 11″ full-color charts of my paddle trip. I also printed out graphs of currents and tides at relevant locations. I sprayed my printouts with a waterproofing agent used for topo maps and happily put them into my water-proof chart holder, replacing the bulky and expensive paper chart that covers much unnecessary area. Of course, these printouts are not officially recommended to replace up-to-date nautical charts for navigation, but this is a calculated risk that I was willing to take.

If you wish, you can have your printed charts show previ-ously plotted routes and any marks or notes you made earlier. It is easy to choose which routes or marks are printed, keeping clutter on the map to a minimum. Using Tides and Currents Lite software, you can print tide and current graphs for a single day, a month, or three months (text-only). I liked the monthly view-it is graphical, and shows the peak currents, daylight hours, sunrise and sunset, and the phase of the moon. In this calendar-like view, each day relevant to the trip is easy to cut out with scissors and paste onto the printed paper chart for a complete, customized, at-a-glance view of the entire trip. An upgrade to the full version of Tides and Currents will allow printing of custom graphs in user-defined rows and columns, and enough data to calculate tides until the year 2100.

Chart View Planner is also bundled with GPS-interface soft-ware. You’ll need to buy a serial cable that connects your computer to your GPS unit. I tested this feature with a Garniin 12 GPS, and I was impressed with the transparency of the interface even for the casual user. Using the GPS Setup Wizard, setup is fairly simple: After selecting the appropriate model, you are given specific instructions for configuring the settings on the GPS unit. Transfer of routes and way points is done through the Transfer Wizard, which is also very easy to use. Tracks recorded by the GPS during the paddle trip can be downloaded for review after the trip.

For the money, Chart View Planner is an outstanding value for a kayaker who undertakes frequent trips of a moderately complex nature, especially if currents are a consideration. The program is easy to use, has good documentation, and is well-thought-out for planning trips. The printing capabilities are quite good, and printed charts and tide or current graphs are suitable for use onthe water during the trip. Finally, the addition of separately pur-chased digitized nautical charts has the potential to completely replace large, expensive paper nautical charts. I’ll print out custom charts whenever possible, although I would recommend this only for navigators who are already experienced with using traditional navigational methods (e.g. paper charts, dividers, compass, etc.). All kayakers should become familiar with non-electronic naviga-tional methods, since to rely solely upon electronics in a salt-water environment is to invite disaster. For experienced navigators however, electronics can be an effective aid to saving time or enhancing navigation.

Nobeltec’s Chart View Planner for Windows 3.1, 95 and 98 retails for $129, including basic charts, tides and current software and GPS-interface software. Nobeltec Nautical Software, PMB 132,14657 S.W. Teal Blvd., Beaverton, OR 97007,(800) 946-2877 or (503) 5792414, www.tides.com

Hand-held Global Positioning System (GPS) units have become very tempting electronic devices for touring kayakers. GPS units cost as little as $100, although the less expensive units have a limited number of features. More full-featured units cost around $150, and fancier chart-plotting units cost around $400. Although I do not con-sider a hand-held GPS to be as essential for navigation as a chart and compass, it can be quite useful for kayakers as an enhance-ment to traditional navigation.

GPS units communicate with a global network of positioning satellites to determine the exact position of the unit on the surface of the earth in latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. Another standard feature of all GPSs is the ability to mark a waypoint or landmark in latitude and longitude, and then to give you direc-fions on navigating to that waypoint from your current position. For instance, if you are stuck on an island in fog, you could use the GPS to navigate through the fog to the precise location of the put-in, provided that you entered the put-in as a waypoint. All units have memory that allows the storage of multiple waypoints, and some units have built-in waypoints that include cities, roads and marine-navigafion aids such as buoys and lighthouses.

Most GPS units have a variety of meth-ods that can aid you in navigating to a waypoint, and many also include a track plotter that records your path. All units in this review include a route function, which allows multiple waypoints to be linked together to define a path. As vou travel along a path, the GPS gives navigational directions to the next point along your route, and automatically switches to the next waypoint as you pass successive waypoints. Most units allow you to store multiple routes in the same manner as waypoints. Finally, some units in this review, like the Lowrance Global Map, have a built-in chart plotter that shows the outline of land on the track plotter as a default, and that can use optional up-grade memory chips for specific, detailed chart information.

A device that calculates an exact posi-fion is extremely valuable information for mariners of any sort, and explicit naviga-tional directions to multiple waypoints is an extraordinary asset. Just imagine mari-ners prior to the 20th century who relied upon sextants to determine latitude and clocks to determine longitude, or native peoples who accurately navigated to dis-tant points by watching the heavens or by singing songs that contained navigational information. Still, kayakers tend to stay closer to land than most other mariners, and we travel at slower speeds. It is not a given that a GPS is necessarily useful for kayakers, and I designed my test trip to ascertain whether a GPS was well-suited to kayaking requirements.


Selective Availability

Selective Availability is the deliberate error introduced to the global positioiiing system bv the U.S, Departmeiit of Defense for security reasons. When SA is turned on (almost always the case), the maximum horizontal accuricv of a handheld unit is 50 to 100 meters. With SA turned off, most handheld receivers will get a horizontal accuracv of 20 to 30 meters, If a minimum of four satellites are being tracked, the resulting three-dimensional fix will give altitude data as well, but the accuracy is two to three times worse than the horizontal data. It can be quite amusing to have a displayed altitiide of 100+ ft when paddling at sea level. Selective availability will be eliminated sometime before 2OO5, when a second civilian GPS frequency is turned on. Using Chart View Planner, I planned and uploaded a route to Doe Island from Washington Park that had five waypoints. The first leg was a crossing of Bellingham Channel, where the flood currents set at roughly a 60-degree angle to the direction of desired travel. This requires paddling at a ferry angle, because the drift of the current hinders getting around Reef Point. I found the track plotting page of the GPS to be quite useful here, since the planned route was plotted next to the real-time track of my position. With this information, it is very easy to see if you are drifting above or below the desired route, and then adjust your ferry angle. Of course, you can also do this without fancy electronics if suitable range and bearing objects are visible; but sometimes visibility is poor, and some-times there simply are no objects suitable for sighting range and bearing. Under such circumstances, it would be hard for a kayaker to get any concise information without a GPS, although you can use dead reckoning to conduct the ferry if the cur-rent velocity is known to you. David Burch describes this method in Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation.

In making the Bellingham Channel crossing–and others later–I realized that one distinct problem with using a GPS for navigating to a waypoint is that it calculates speed and course of travel ” over the bottom,” as opposed to through the water. If you are paddling at three knots into a three-knotcurrent,theGPSwillshowyour speed as zero knots. The reported speed and courseareacombinationof thekayak’s forward movement and of the current ac-ing on the kayak. Most of the GPS naviga-tional screens give directions based on the relative difference between the absolute speed and course over the bottom and the location of the desired waypoint. For this to be useful at all, a ferrying kayaker must mentally do a geometric subtraction of the current vector from the GPS vector to ar-rive at a proper course vector. This is sim-ply not feasible for most people and, thus, we arrive at a fundamental limitation of using a GPS while kayaking in currents. However, the track-plotting function re-ally helps to visually eliminate this problem and, of course, you won’t encounter this problem if you are paddling on a lake or someplace where there are no currents.

Still, the limitation of the GPS when used with strong currents is quite a boon when proper planning and foresight al-low for the current direction to directly coincide with the course. This is because you can learn your exact speed over the bottom, and even perhaps feel a little bit like Greg Barton when the GPS indicates that you are travelling at over six knots while paddling leisurely. The rest of my test trip from Reef Point to Doe Island did exactly that. However, this does raise an inherent problem when using a GPS to measure absolute speed. Since the normal kayak cruising speed is quite low, it is problematic for a GPS to measure kayak speed: As the measured position drifts as a result of selective availability (see sidebar), GPS calculates a speed that can often ch a significant fraction of a knot. I find that this can affect the accuracy when traveling at three knots or less, and that different GPS units coped with this problem differently.

Significant currents notwithstanding, a GPS is a very handy tool for navigating to specific point. I did not test this when addling in fog or at night, but I did try to imagine such conditions. I concluded that GPS could add a large margin of safety when navigating in low-visibility conditons; however, this is no excuse to ignore classic navigational techniques, because Murphy’s Law certainly applies when electronics are used in close proximity to salt water (see sidebar).

I tested four models of hand-held GPSS: the Garmin 12, the Magellan 320 and 300, and the Lowrance Globalmap 12. The Garmin and the Magellan 320 are the most common class of hand-held GPS units, the industry-standard features such as substantial waypoint and route storage, multiple styles of navigation screens, a small footprint, and price in the $200 range. The Magellan 300, with limited features, is less-expensive alternative; the Lowrance has a built-in chart plotter and complete features. Each model has a 12-channel parallel receiver that greatly decreases the amount of time that it takes for the unit to acquire a fix from the network of satellites: It usually takes less than one minute. Of the models reviewed, I would recommend the Garmin and the Magellan 320 for use in kayaking.

By now you can see that it is very easy to go overboard using marine electronics — not to mention the expense. However, these items have left the realm of mere gadgetry to become products that are truly useful for kayakers, especially when PCs and GPSs are integrated. While I would not advise that these electronics be used in lieu of chart and compass navigational skills, they can augment them significantly. In addition, learning to use these electronics can be a lot of fun, because mastering them rewards you with incredibly detailed information in much less time than with traditional navigational methods. If you follow in my footsteps and go totally over-board using marine electronics, be sure to take a moment to reflect upon the miracles of the digital age and on what Ferdinand Magellan might have thought about accurate digital charts and a chart-plotting GPS on his circumnavigation of the world in the sixteenth century.

Garmin 12

This unit is a recent model in a line of hand-held GPSs that has been around for a while, and it shows, because the software interface is very well done. This unit was the easiest to use of all the models tested and, in general, most of its features and operations are slightly more intuitive. Its multiple buttons are easier to understand and to use intuitively, so I was not as apt to press the wrong button as I was with the other units. The Garmin generally uses fewer navigational screens to present the same essential navigational information; each screen tends to display more of what you need than the screens on the other units. An example of this is the track-plotter page, which also conveniently dis-plays course and speed at the bottom, and range and bearing to desired waypoint at the top. I really liked this feature, since I used this page most often while kayaking. I also liked the route summary page, which neatly summarizes the current range and bearing to each waypoint on the route. I found that this unit was generally accurate at calculating speed, even when paddling at around one knot. The Garmin does, however, suffer from a lower resolution display than the Magellan 320 or the Lowrance, and its back light is the weakest of the four, although it is still readable. Also, it has a built-in database of major and minor cities that appear in the track plotter and that can be navigated to, but it does not have any information on nautical-navigational aids that would be of benefit to kayakers. Battery life is in the 1225 hour range, and the Garmin can hold an impressive 500 user-defined waypoints and 20 routes. Price: $149. Garmin International, Inc., 1200 E. 151st St., Olathe, KS 66062, (913) 397-8200, www.garmin.com

Waterproofing Your GPS I found that by putting my CPS unit inside my waterproof chart holder, it was both dry and visible. Most manufacturers claim that their units are waterproof, but I am skeptical, I think this means that they would do fine against the odd droplet or two that finds Its way Into my chart holder. While it was possible to read the display and operate the buttons from this position, I had to stop paddling and lean forward each time I wanted to consult the GPS. I later learned to prop the GPS up at an angle such that the display was more face-on; then I could more easily consult the display without interrupting my paddling. The smaller GPS units obscured an acceptable amount of chart area, In my opinion, and this could be further reduced by printing out custom charts using the Chart View Planner.

Magellan 320

This unit is the newest generation of hand-held GPSS, and it has the most features. It features a high-resolution screen that aids viewing, and a very impressive built-in database of worldwide cities and nautical-navigational aids. The default nav-aids data-base seems very complete, and it can be augmented by download-ing from an optional DataSend CD-ROM ($39.99) that can be purchased from Magellan. This GPS also has very complete features, including a large number of customizable screens. This makes it a little harder to learn how to use; it is not quite as intuitive as the Garmin. However, once you learn how to operate it, this unit would be very useful for kayaking. Like the Garmin, it has memory for 500 user-defined waypoints and 20 routes, and the battery life is in the 1225 hour range. One drawback is that the unit comes with position averaging as a method for coping with selective availability; this is done automatically at seemingly random timeswhen theunitis stationary. However, since kayakers travel quite slowly, it often thought I was stationary when I was really underway, resulting in my speed being recorded at zero knots. I found this to be very disconcerting, and I could not find a way to change or turn off the position-averaging setting. When not doing position averaging, the 320’s speed measurements tended to agree with the Garmin. I often wished that the track plotter would display speed, although perhaps I am a little speed obsessed, since this information is not that crucial for kayaking or navigating -unless you are doing dead reckoning, in which case you are not allowed to use a GPS. Price: $198. Magellan, 960 Overland Court, San Dimas, CA 91773, (909) 394-5000, www.magellangps.com

Magellan 300

At $99, this unit is substantially cheaper than the others, yet it lacks the features of other GPS units. Its memory holds 100 waypoints, and one route with up to ten waypoints. It has three navigation screens, but it does not have a track plotter page. Additionally, it does not have any built-in waypoints, and it cannot be interfaced with a PC, so all waypoints have to be entered manually. The text and graphics use thin lines and a blocky font, which makes the display harder to read than the other units; I had considerable difficulty reading the display when it was secured inside a water-proof map case on the foredeck of my kayak. However, it does function fine for navigating between waypoints, even if the inter-face is not as polished as the more expensive units. I think it would be useful primarily as an emergency backup navigation aid in poor visibility, although the small memory might require pro-gramming in waypoints on the spot, and the lack of a track plotter would make navigation in currents more difficult. I would recom-mend this unit for those who want the backup of GPS navigation, but who don’t plan to use a GPS regularly enough to justify the extra expense for advanced features. Magellan, 960 Overland Court, San Dimas, CA 91773, (909) 394-5000, www.magellangps.com

Lowrance GlobalMap 12

The Lowrance GPS, at 7.84″ high by 3.38″ wide, by 2.81″ deep and 20 ounces (with battery pack), is much larger and heavier than the other three GPS units. In fact, it is large enough that I would consider it unsuitable to have on deck in a kayak, though I am certain that some people might disagree. For those people, the Lowrance provides both advanced and refined features. It combines the complete features and built-in database of the Magellan 320 with the intuitive feel and complete screens of the Garmin. It does take significantly more time to learn its use and to customize the display, but once this is done, I found it to be the easiest to use with the most essential information on the fewest screens. The Lowrance also has a beautiful high-resolution display that is easy to read at a distance and in bright sunlight. While the chart-plotting capability is very nice to have, I do not consider this to be essential navigation information for kayaking, since paddlers who are concerned about navigation ought to have a physical chart on top of their deck. The chart plotter can be augmented by downloading detailed information onto an in-cluded lMb flash-memory chip, and special chart memory chips can be purchased and plugged into the back. I wasn’t able to test the quality of the add-on flash memory charts, so I don’t know if they are really useful. It is a nice feature, though, for those who mightbe interested in it, although I suspect that such folks would be relatively few and far between. It comes complete with a DC power adapter, PC interface cable and database CD-ROM, which is nice. Price: $449. Lowrance Electronics, 12000 E. Skelly Dr., Tulsa, OK 74128, (918)437-6881, www.lowrance.com

Paddling the BC’s Outside Passage

Standing on the porch of Jody Simmons’ house in Vancouver, BC, I look out over the chaos. Freshly seam-sealed tarps and tents are draped over the clothesline, boxes of white gas are stacked next to the house, and miscellaneous stoves, pots, water bags, water filters, cans of bear spray, ropes, pulleys, books and marine radios are piled on the lawn. Four kayaks—three singles and a double—are lined up on one side of the yard, surrounded by sponges, pumps, paddles, towlines, flares, strobes and an EPIRB.

Robyn Irvine holds a jar of peanut butter upside-down; its contents ooze into a clear plastic bag. “Alice, how much can we eat in four months?” she asks, and looks at me with a grin, eyeing the dozens of jars on the picnic table beside her. Jody stands on a big blue tarp amongst hundreds of food bags that are lined up in neat rows, as well organized as the columns of numbers in her expedition accounting book. We will be mailing three one-month food rations, weighing 250 pounds each, to re-supply points at Klemtu, Port Hardy and Nootka Sound. The deck is littered with long strips of white paper where Kris Maddox hunches over a stack of charts, cutting off the margins. Buffy Lundine is sitting against the side of the house, her knees pulled up to her chin, the portable phone pressed to her ear.

I look over the clothing list one more time. Kris, the artist of the group, has doodled all over it: striped socks, a poodle skirt, a bikini and a fleece cap with earflaps and a pom-pom. Everything I’ll be wearing, including a dry suit and a sundress, fits into two small dry bags.

As I make the final checkmarks on the lists stacked in my hand, I feel a mix of anxiety and excitement work its way from the pit of my stomach up into my chest and throat. My parents had always told me that I could do anything that I wanted to, but I’m not sure that I fully believed it until now. I’ll be a member of the first all-woman team to sea kayak from Alaska to Vancouver along the exposed Outside Passage.

All in our early twenties, we came together in the final six months before our take-off as an eclectic mix of hometown buddies, co-workers in the outdoor industry and newfound friends. As it turns out, we all come from families of sisters. We have made the decision to make this journey without a designated expedition leader and, instead, to be committed to listening to the most conservative voice in every situation.

Packed up, we pile into Buffy’s van, driving north, away from the phones, faxes, sponsors and media that helped bring this whole thing together. It’s a relief, but we are also leaving behind the friends, boyfriends, family and strangers, whose support inspired and energized us. After three days of driving and ferries, we arrive in Port Simpson, BC, near the border of Alaska, in the evening. We settle in for the night on a little beach beside the dirt road. The sun lights the snow-capped mountains to the east on fire while the full moon rises up behind them.

We awaken to bright sunshine the next morning, and begin the arduous task of packing a month’s worth of supplies inside our boats. We wrestle our gear into our boats. Even when every hint of space is crammed full, there are still a few things that won’t fit. The bag of fresh vegetables must be left behind, but we somehow manage to squeeze in a backpacking guitar and a bag of wine.

We climb into our kayaks; they sit low and heavy in the water. We plan to paddle north to the B.C.-Alaska border so that we can stake a claim to having paddled the entire West Coast. As we gather speed, our momentum steadies our rhythm. The swell rises and falls beneath my boat—residual energy rolling in from storms on the open Pacific. We are still nestled in the protection of the outer islands, which break up the ocean’s waves on their long, sandy beaches and tall, rocky cliffs. In a few days, we will be traveling southwest, paddling in the turbulent zone where the sea collides with the land.

After only six miles of paddling, we near the imaginary line of the border at Father Point, and decide to pull off for the day. We spend our first night near Father Point on Mother’s Day. An eagle perches on a tree above us as Jody and Kris make dinner. Buffy is kneading bread dough for tomorrow’s lunch in a large, sooty pot. I sit on the 50-foot-wide cobble beach and stretch, watching the tide creep toward us. I’m exhausted. Not from the day’s short paddle, but from everything else that it took to get to this point. I feel sheepish, but I ask anyway, “What do you guys think of taking tomorrow off?” Robyn pauses for a moment, then gives her whole-hearted approval, and the rest of the group follows suit.
After the day of rest, we paddle southwest the next morning. In the afternoon, we settle in on a cobble beach on Burnt Cliff Island. Jody, Kris and I paddle over to a nearby island to fetch water from a meandering stream. We paddle up the stream through the lush, green forest until we can no longer taste salt in the water. When we get back to the beach, the 25-foot tide begins its retreat. Within a couple of hours, the ebbing sea reveals a sharp drop just beyond the island, followed by seemingly endless mudflats that almost reach the island across from us. It will be impossible to leave the island at any time other than high tide.

We pull out the tide tables and find out that the next high is at three in the morning. We could wait for the afternoon tide the next day, but by then the winds are bound to have picked up. Instead, we head to bed early and get up in the middle of the night. I strap on my headlamp and stuff my sleeping bag with cold hands. We paddle south into a light drizzle and a steady headwind. Paddling in the front of the double, I gradually realize that I haven’t dressed warmly enough. I snug my fleece hat over my ears and fasten my pogies onto my paddle. A chill sets in to my spine and my hands become numb. I twist from side to side with every stroke against the wind, trying to warm up.

The sky turns from black to purple to pink to white. After several hours, we pull off for a break. We round a point toward a muddy pull-out just wide enough to squeeze our kayaks into side-by-side. Dozens of bald eagles are perched on the rocks to our left, some hopping around each other, others sitting still, their smooth white heads twisting to watch us. We glide past them slowly at eye-level, only 30 feet away, but they do not fly off. As the bow of the double rubs into the sand on the beach, my hands are stiff and curled around the shaft of the paddle. I climb out and swing my arms in circles as I walk around on the flat, muddy beach. Kris pulls out a stove and pot and heats up some water. We fill up our mugs with instant potatoes and cheese. Swallowing spoonfuls of the hot, gooey mash, I finally begin to warm up.

Several days later, we decide to head north for a day to explore the Stephens Group. It will be our first day on the outside, and we figure it will be a good warm-up, because it has lots of pull-out options, rather than immediately heading south past Porcher’s long, smooth shoreline. We edge our way up along the western shore, paddling against a light headwind as we round a series of points. We take a quick break in the protection of a south-facing, muddy bay on Perry Island. When we get back into the boats and paddle out of the bay, the waves have darkened and swelled. We decide to exit the bay through a tight gap between Perry and a house-sized island. Jody heads through first, with Robyn and Buffy following her in the double. Now it’s my turn to paddle into the gap. The waves stand up and crash over my deck as I inch my way through the constriction between the two islands and out the other side. The sea on the north side is alive and rolling. The wind belts in from the northwest and I stare out at the open ocean ahead and to the left. I focus on keeping my boat heading straight into the whitecaps as my bow smacks down between each of the waves. Kris edges up beside me and I glance over at her and yell, “I’m not comfortable here.” I call over to the others to wait while Kris and I paddle up beside them. We rise and fall with our bows pointed into the breaking waves and discuss our options. The waves are too big to turn around in comfortably and, even if we did turn around, it would be difficult to take the waves from behind and sneak back through the gap. I do not want to go forward, because we will expose ourselves to even bigger swells if we round the next point. The mouth of Stephens Passage, on the north side of Perry Island, lies about a mile to our right, and appears to be the best option. It would be nearly impossible to take the waves broadside, so we ferry to the right and work our way into the protection of the passage. It’s a slow process. I paddle gently, my feet staying light on the foot pedals as I adjust the angle of my boat. I try not to gain any forward ground, and the land to the right gradually grows nearer. Within a few hundred feet of shore, the water settles and we turn our boats east and head into the passage. After the riotous waves, the calm of the channel is almost surreal. We find a shell beach with enough room to lay out our bivy sacks. There are no creeks nearby, but we have enough water in our bags to last us a few days.

We sit around in the occasional glints of afternoon sun, but no one says much. I am happy that the group listened to my discomfort, but the silence is heavy, and conveys a discomfort with the day’s paddle. Finally, Kris starts talking. We had paddled out onto rough water almost blindly, without a back-up plan. Our first real day on the outside and we were sent scurrying. We were so driven to keep exploring that we didn’t think about what the water was like beyond the gap. It’s a good wake-up call for all of us, a reminder that we must always stay alert along the outside; there is little room for mistakes out here.

The next day is calm, and we easily make our way down to a beach on the south end of Porcher Island, where we camp for the night.The next morning, I awaken to the thumping of the rain fly against the side of the tent. Wind sends surges of raindrops hammering against the roof. I pull on my fleece and rain gear before unzipping the vestibule and stepping out. The wind whips across the water, turning it a frothy white. I stand for a moment, feeling the cold raindrops pelt onto my cheeks, then I duck my head down and wander over to the others.

They are serving up mochas, huddled underneath a tarp in the shelter of a boulder that stands twice my height. A pot of cold, charcoal-scented oatmeal sits neglected beside the stove, for which Buffy takes the blame. We pull out the chart of Banks Island, which we should reach in a few days.

We discuss whether to paddle the outside of Banks Island, or to go with the safer inland channel. There are no bays to offer protection from wind, swell and fog, and no beaches for a soft surf along the entire 35 nautical miles of the western shoreline, which is exposed to the constant pounding of surf. Numerous boomers here lurk beneath the surface, making navigation both difficult and dangerous. This is not a mountain climb, in which some members can head for the top while others wait back at camp. The only way that we will paddle the outside of Banks is if everyone agrees that we can pull it off safely. Kris is adamant that we can make it down the outside, while Buffy and Jody are unsure whether the possible consequences are worth the risks this early in the trip. Without coming to a resolution about Banks Island, we put the debate aside for a while.

The wind continues to billow the tarp, and pebble-sized rain drops drive horizontally underneath it. We hunker down with hot drinks and chat about everything from our families to our futures to boys. It’s Robyn’s birthday, and we stealthily bake a chocolate cake right in front of her, without her noticing. Kris cooks up a dinner of sautéed bull kelp and dehydrated vegetables over rice, while Jody and I sneak off down the beach in the pelting rain. We find a bright-yellow construction helmet that has washed up to use for Robyn’s birthday hat, and wrap a chunk of blue fishing rope around it, then style it up with a smattering of colorful wildflowers and seashells. Robyn grins as we present her with the colorful gift. As we finish our dinner, we realize that it is midnight and that we have lost track of time under the northern sun. Before heading off to sleep, we divide the cake and polish it off.
By morning, all that’s left of the storm are tangles of olive-colored kelp strewn down the beach, the rolling crash of a three-foot swell and the occasional gust of wind whipping through my hair. There is a palpable sense of excitement in the air as we prepare to get back onto the water. Buffy and I dance down the beach popping the bull kelp heads before we pack up our gear. The tide is low, so we boost the kayaks onto our shoulders and carry them 500 feet to the water’s edge. One by one, we launch into the surf and wait out beyond the break, then we turn south, and paddle out past Gochien Island.
Two days later, camped on Squall Island, we still haven’t come to an agreement about which route we should paddle around Banks Island. The afternoon wind builds to 30 knots, and we look out from the protection of our bay to see a 40-foot fishing boat struggling and heaving its way north through the dark, crashing sea. After two days of being pinned here by the wind, we look at the chart one more time and listen to the weather forecast. In order to paddle the outside route safely, we will need a day and a half of good weather, but the report doesn’t offer much hope. After hours of discussion, we finally decide to stick to the inside. To allay our sense of disappointment, we decide to give ourselves a different challenge: We will paddle the entire 35 nautical miles along Banks Island in a single day.

The next morning we hop onto the water and head south, keeping a steady forward pace all morning. Around noon, I hear a soft “puff” sound in the distance. I pause and hear another. I scan the horizon. A six-foot, black fin emerges a couple hundred feet ahead of us. Orcas. A smaller fin appears briefly, then a calf surfaces behind it. I hold my breath and wait to hear them again. They rise again the same distance away, this time to the right of us. The pod is quickly heading north, surfacing now and then as it moves into the distance.

The water stays calm and there’s a light northwest wind as we make our way past Banks to the southern tip of Pitt Island. When gales begin blowing the next morning, we realize that we made the right choice of routes.

Five weeks into the trip, we arise at 5:00 on the northern end of Price Island. It’s another surprisingly dry, warm day. I awake to the unzipping of Jody’s bivy sack beside me on the beach. I didn’t hear my watch’s alarm. The crackling of the weather radio breaks the morning silence and we all reach for our pens and logbooks, to record the daily forecast. Robyn imitates the smooth, sexy voice of the computerized woman who gives the ocean buoy reports, and we all chime in, laughing. The weather should be good, and Buffy is soon at the stove, firing up hot drinks and a pot of Cream of Wheat.

I unfold my fleece shell that was tucked under my head as a pillow the night before, and slip it on. Cringing slightly at the cold, I slide my feet into my dew-covered sandals that are lying beside me in the sand. Now it’s time for the grand schlep of lugging dry bags, tarps and food to the water. The tide is creeping up the beach, and we carefully gauge where we set our gear so that the boats will be floating as soon as we are ready to climb into them. We have no assigned tasks, just a common goal of being on the water by seven.

As I walk back up the beach, I notice a commotion around the stove. Buffy is laughing and Robyn is vigorously stirring the pot while Jody dumps water in. It seems that Buffy thought that she should cook up an entire pound of Cream of Wheat for breakfast, when we usually use just a cup. I walk over and peer into the mass of white lumps in the pot. We officially ban Buffy from any breakfast responsibilities, after her creations that Robyn has dubbed “scorchmeal” and “cream of lump.” After chewing on our porridge, we pack up the rest of the gear and head to the water. One by one, we drift away from shore. Robyn brushes her teeth while drifting in her kayak, and Jody floats nearby, putting on sunscreen. As soon as we are all out, we point our bows southward and begin to paddle.

My boat rises and falls on the swell, the water undulating like mercury in the gray morning light. Every now and then, the others disappear from view as I sink into a deep trough. The black nylon cover on the seat has a damp, stiff, familiar feel and the paddle sits comfortably in the callused crooks of my sun-baked thumbs as my body twists from side to side propelling the boat forward. A rhinoceros auklet—a small bird with a bulge on its beak that makes it look like a wise old man with a set of spectacles resting on his nose—skitters along the water’s surface as I approach it. We’re paddling a mile offshore, to avoid the threat of boomers and shoals. As the hours pass, we make our way ever closer to the south, to the protection of the myriad rocks and islands at the south end of Price that will dissipate the eight-foot swell into calm.

As the wind scours the water’s surface, I look back over my right shoulder and notice a darkening on the western horizon. Still an hour from the protection of the southern end of Price, I attempt to pull more water past me with every stroke. Jody has seen it too: “Let’s get going, that looks nasty.” The white lips of the waves slap the stern and rush beneath me. Wisps of hair blow across my face and the whistling of the wind gets louder. I forget about the dampness and my calluses, as I keep my eyes fixed on the sheltering land to the south. Now and then, waves exploding into millions of white shards on the shoreline 800 feet to my left capture my attention. Wave after wave, larger and larger, pushes underneath me, trying to pick me up and send me into the frothy water and rocks. I am forced to paddle backwards now and then to slow my kayak and avoid the shoreward momentum of the seas.

As I paddle hard, between wave sets I catch glimpses of the other boats beside me. Robyn shouts from ahead, “Let’s pick up the pace!” The waves stand even taller as we approach the shallows between the rocks, shoals and tiny islands. I search for a break in the crashing waves through which we can sneak behind a shoal. From behind me, Kris shouts, “Head in behind that rock!” Waves slosh over my spray deck and I taste salt as they splash up into my face. Back paddle, paddle hard forward, back paddle again as the boat rises up and leans down the wave. Finally, I can feel my boat become steady as I glide in behind a rock covered with rockweed and barnacles. Tucked into the protection of the shoals, the ocean calms, and the rise and fall become subtle. The wind pushes gently at our backs, nudging us eastward past McGuiness Island and the other small islands at the southern tip of Price.

Five weeks later, within a day’s paddle of the Brooks Peninsula, Robyn’s forearms are beginning to scream. Each of us has suffered through aching backs, sore arms and cramping butt muscles, but nothing has been as painful as this. In the last few miles of the paddle, Kris and I both offer to tow her or switch her into the double, but she firmly and persistently paddles on. Forearms are one thing you cannot do without on a sea kayak trip. We land at Restless Bight and wait a day for gales to blow over, a day for Robyn’s arms to rest. To the south, the mountainous Brooks Peninsula juts nine miles out from Vancouver Island. Fishermen we met two weeks earlier told us stories of cats-paws swirling out of the sky there and whipping water into the sky, capsizing fishing boats.

The next morning, I am paddling the double with Robyn in the front. We’ll be paddling the final 17 nautical miles to the northeast side of the Brooks Peninsula. Robyn attempts a few strokes, but soon stows the paddle blade under the bungie in front of her. The double is a beast at the best of times, and paddling it alone is a challenge. I engage my whole body with every stroke. Within a half-hour, as we round Lawn Point, the swell stands up to form nine-foot waves and troughs. We keep our eyes focused ahead, vigilant for waves that might threaten to break. Jody’s and Buffy’s singles are getting farther and farther ahead, while Kris paddles alongside Robyn and me. The double feels solid and steady beneath me as the waves roll underneath it, and Kris is having fun playing beside us in the giant swell. We try to keep up to the other two, but it’s futile. They are barely within shouting distance now. I cannot understand why they have gone so far ahead. They must be less comfortable than Kris, Robyn and I, but I cannot understand why we have become so spread out, especially when Robyn is unable to paddle. We continue inching our way around the point. Jody and Buffy have paused around the point, where the swell has settled out. Robyn and I slide in beside Jody and Buffy. They look at us with concern, and Jody says, “I think we should pick up the pace.” I am surprised, and don’t understand the need to hurry. Over the past few months, our travel style has melded, and there are now very few instances when we disagree on the water.

We paddle another six miles alongshore to a lunch spot on Heater Point. The black pebble beach is too hot to walk on in bare feet. We sit on giant driftwood logs in the sun, and try to figure out why we got so spread out and what was going through each person’s head. Jody and Buffy were not comfortable in the steep swell. We all have had moments when we weren’t comfortable. I had made the group turn back the first time we hit big seas at Dolly Island. Kris didn’t want to paddle on a windy day when the route was laced with cliffs. Jody had had a bad feeling about the fog at Cape Caution, and Robyn was uncomfortable on a windy crossing from the West Kinahan Islands. On this occasion, I couldn’t go any faster and, like Robyn and Kris, I was not overly concerned with the sea state. The lack of cohesion was a good reminder for all of us that it’s easy to get spread out and lose touch on the water. With that in mind, we launch and paddle onward to the Brooks.

We awaken the next morning to a big blue-sky high-pressure system that is centered just south of us, sending a northwest wind of up to 35 knots barreling in across the water. Our campsite is in a little bay protected from the wind, so we laze around for the day in the hot sunshine and watch the white-capping sea through binoculars. The Brooks Peninsula is a square chunk of mountainous land that juts nine nautical miles out into the sea. The chart gives no guarantee of safe pull-outs for the 19 nautical miles around it. The gale warning continues for another five days and, while we wait to paddle the most challenging section of the journey, Robyn’s arms have a chance to heal.

At last, on August 2, the gale warning is lifted, but we wait for the tail end of the wind to settle out as we load our gear and climb into our kayaks. It’s 4:00, and we plan to paddle ten miles to a potential pull-out at the tip of the peninsula to camp for the night.
Around 7:00, we approach the end of the Brooks Peninsula. The water is as calm as an inland lake, and I have never before seen so many birds. Cormorants are gathered on a rock and chatter loudly amongst themselves. Seagulls fly ten feet over my head and gather in groups on the water. Rhinoceros auklets wiggle along the surface of the water, their little legs kicking. They try to stay away from us, and dive when we get within 15 feet. Puffins, with their white masks and broad, bright-yellow beaks, swim around, and sea otters and seals pop up nearby.

As we approach the pull-out spot, Jody suggests that we re-think our plan. If the wind picks up in the morning, we will be trapped at the tip of the Brooks. If we keep paddling, we will be traveling and landing in the dark. We are divided as to what to do. I’m not keen to surf-land at night, but I don’t like the thought of being held up any longer on our route. We are drifting toward land and must make up our minds quickly. We decide to push on to the southeast section of the peninsula.

We munch on fruit bars and bread for dinner. Darkness sets in, and we strap on our headlamps. I stare at the chart on my deck, at the peninsula ahead and to my left, trying to discern the shadows of land from each other. A beach on the chart looks promising, so we paddle toward it. We can hear the rush of water on steep gravel as the swell surges in and out. Buffy looks over at me: “It’s too steep, let’s keep going.” Our paddles set off swirls of glowing green light, and my boat’s bow wake glows. We sneak along near shore, looking for the next possible landing. We find a shallow bay with a reef blocking its entrance, protecting it from the swell. Just off the beach, we pause with our headlamps focused on shore as Kris lands her kayak through the small surf. We each follow behind her. It’s now nearly midnight and we’re ravenous, so we heat up instant potatoes and cheese before crawling into our bivy sacks for the night.

Jody is nauseated the next morning, but she insists that we get on the water and make our way to our next re-supply spot. In the front of the double, she puts in an effort to paddle, often resting her head on the deck. By evening, when we reach a pull-out near Kyuquot, she’s still ill. The next morning, we paddle to a Red Cross station in Kyuquot. By now she is unable to hold down any food. The nurse practitioner diagnoses a combination of stress, exhaustion and the flu, and she takes all of us into her home for three days while Jody recovers. When we finally leave Kyuquot, we crank for two days down a steep-walled, rainy inlet to reach our food pick-up in Nootka Sound. Somewhat exhausted, and with many miles to go, we head into the fourth month of paddling. Ahead of us is Estevan Point, with its shoaled coastline and storybook white lighthouse. As we approach the point, a dark fog bank thickens on the horizon, so we sneak our way to shore on a path that the keepers have cleared through the boulder-strewn shallows. The tide rises as we pay a visit to the lighthouse keepers, eat lunch and gather handfuls of huckleberries.

After a couple of hours, the fog creeps away. The tide has swallowed our pathway, and we are forced to dodge rocks through the swell on the way back out. We paddle a mile offshore to avoid the near-shore rocks and shoals. Within twenty minutes, seemingly out of nowhere, the thick fog engulfs us and removes all visual bearings. Buffy wants to turn back, but Robyn and I are not so sure. “We can’t go back now, our pathway is gone and there’s no way to pick our way to shore in the fog.” At this point, there is no conservative option. The option to turn back is as daunting as it is to go on. The moan of the foghorn and the swell crashing over the shoals to our left break the silence. We rise up and down on the swell, straining our eyes to see some form of land.

We decide to continue south around the point for the next few miles, and then head east to get protection from the swell. We will be forced to rely on a compass to guide us. Kris takes a look at the chart and pulls out her compass. I hesitate to paddle too forcefully, not wanting to move too quickly into the fog. At the same time, I want to reach the reassurance that being on solid ground gives me. After what seems like hours, treetops begin to emerge from the white as we make our way to a pull-out on the south side of the point. Dealing with a day like today would have seemed impossible a month or two ago, but today it feels only slightly more difficult than any other day out on the water.

Throughout the last month, we paddle in sunshine, each day bringing us closer to Vancouver. On August 19, I watch the sun sink straight into the water for the last time, before we head into the shelter of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Washington’s Cape Flattery mellows the swell. We watch the waxing moon in the sky.

Two weeks later, under a full moon, we sit on Bowen Island staring at the city lights just nine miles away.

The next morning, on September 5, we approach Vancouver’s Ambleside Beach. We paddle close beside one another. By now, our kayaking and navigational skills have merged. It no longer feels like we are just five separate individuals. It is almost as though our minds have melded and we have become extensions of a single entity. In the 119 days and 1,140 miles we have been traveling, there have been many moments when we were challenged and came through for each other—as sisters do. Our family and friends stand waiting for us on the beach, calling out to us as we take our last strokes—together.