Thursday, July 24, 2014

Black Belt Kayakers

I paddled today, actually for the first time since Alaska. It was lovely. In part because it was just nice to paddle, and even better that the boat didn't have 150 pounds of gear in it. In part because it was a beautiful day. But in part because I was paddling with family. Particularly my wife, who doesn't love paddling, it has been at least a couple of years since she has paddled with me.

As I was paddling something occurred to me. Everyone in the kayaks, from my 10 year old nephew, to his 13 year old sister, Their mother, my wife, son and myself are all trained in martial arts. Most of the people in the group were black belts. Here is something most people don't realize about the term Black Belt. When people hear that term, they immediately think expert. Something I found very interesting in the Dojo, was that isn't really what it means at all. It means you have learned the basic movements in whatever art you are studying, and now, with this knowledge you can really start to learn.

My wife is a 3rd degree black belt - A Sandan in GoJu Karate. I think she would have been higher, but she stopped testing for belts, which I will explain more about later. My niece is a 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and my Nephew a 1st. AJ, my stepson, is a Brown Belt, also in GoJu Karate, but was literally raised in a Dojo. He lost interest in his early teens, and stopped attending. My sister-in-law is a 4th degree black belt in Goju Karate and a 2nd degree in Tae Kwon Do. I am a lowly blue belt - two steps below black. I didn't lose interest. I still practice, and occasionally do Kata. I love to spar, and hit the bag. But I stopped because I was disenchanted with my Dojo. The teachers had great skill, but weren't great teachers, and as an educator that really bothered me. For years I have been saying (jokingly) that my wife, a psychologist, generally knows what I am thinking before I think it, and then, because she is also a martial artist can kick the crap out of me for thinking it. It is even more humbling to think my 13 year old niece could as well.

But here is the thing. They never would. If you spend enough time in a Dojo, you begin to realize that fights in the real world are to be avoided. You always lose, even if you are the victor. When some people reach brown belt they get an illness sometimes called 'brown belt-itis' A swelling of the ego, as they are starting to get fluent in their skills, and they start looking for fights. My son is at his core, a pacifist. He is very gentle, extremely loving, and will back down from any real fight. I weep for the person who backs him into a corner and forces him to act. It will not end well for that person. I know this from experience, when he was 10, on a beach in the Outer Banks, he knocked me on my ass with a punch to the chest. He is now 24. His lifetime in a Dojo inoculated him from brown belt-itis.

Today as I was paddling I was thinking about martial arts because of the group I was with. I have trained many martial artists to paddle, and I have known for quite some time that they make great paddlers. Many of the movements are the same, for example power comes from the core and the legs, the key is torso rotation. Martial artists are both comfortable translating their skills to the boats, and they are also skilled at following instructions to learn something physical. I of course, teach paddling as a martial art, and that technique came to me while in the Dojo, probably while doing my one millionth reverse punch.

Paddling, of course doesn't have a belt system of ranks, but we do have ranks of sorts. Certified by either ACA, BCU or Paddle Canada, we take classes and tests to illustrate and demonstrate our skill level. Some people wear these rankings as a matter of pride. I have never done a course like this, because I never had to. I was trained by the National Outdoor Leadership School to teach, and for everyone who has hired me, that has been enough. Most of the time, when talking to these people I am underwhelmed. Not so much with their skill level, but with the experience level, for example, these are the Prerequisites for the BCU Level 5 star sea kayak assessment, the highest offered.

Assessment Prerequisites:
Previous experience -
The candidate must provide documented logged evidence of a minimum of 24 varied,
quality, advanced sea kayak days in 3 different sea areas. This should include at least
one multi-day trip.
  • Recognised First aid award (minimum 16 hrs training including CPR) within the last 3 years
  • Relevant Leadership Training - 5 Star Leader Sea training within the last 3 years or ‘old’ style
    5 Star Sea Training within the last 3 years. Due to the nature of this award and its important remit for leadership it is required that candidates show 3 days (2 days and 2 nights) logged experience of training in leadership and personal skills, safety and rescue, and must include an overnight camp. It is also strongly recommended that further endorsed training be undertaken based on the candidates action plan in different sea areas and a variety of environmental conditions.
  • Relevant Safety Training: BCU Open Water Navigation & Tidal Planning Training or 2 days specific training on open water navigation tidal planning from a registered BCU 5 Star Leader Sea Provider.
  • Home Nation Registration (LR Form)
  • Aged 18 years or above. 
Now, when I look at this compared to myself, I have 24 days in 3 different sea areas all in one multi day trip, in just the last two months. Everything else on that list, not only have I done, but I teach them as well. It is important to understand, I am not knocking BCU at all. I think it is the premier program in the world - though I have very little exposure to Paddle Canada, but from what I have seen looks like a great program! - for kayak certification. I guess I never got BCU five star-itis. At some point, I won't get a job because I lack a certification, and then I will go get it, though I can't go right to 5 of course, I will have to work my way through the ranks. Part of the reason I don't like "certification hunting" is because when I was a Paramedic, it is all about certifications. ACLS, PALS, PHTLS, CPR, AED, etc, etc. I had a stack of cards saying I had passed tests, but none of them said how good of a medic I was.

I think that was why my wife stopped taking tests to advance her rank. She realized there was no point. She didn't need the rank for work - some actually do - She had no need to impress people. She continued to work out, and perfect her skill, but had no need to have her skill denoted by a stripe on a belt. My problem is that an ACA or BCU 1 star won't be enough. I will have no choice but to work my way up the ranks, in essence to match my experience. It will be time consuming, and expensive. I know I will learn things, we never stop learning, and for a couple of years I have been saying I want to take paddling instruction to push my skills. There are few people I want to work with though, and the two I do want to work with are both pretty far away. One, four hours, and the other in Scotland.

I like to think of certifications the way my Sensei described his black belt. He said to me once, "at the end of the day, it just holds up your pants"

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Delta Seventeen is the Best Expedition Kayak on the planet. Period.

I know.

That is a bold statement. But I have now put a ridiculous amount of miles under the hull of my seventeen. And it is true. I have paddled the Seawards, I have paddled the NDK's, and the Wilderness Systems boats. The P&H Cetus is a beautiful boat too. I came close to buying a Necky Looksha, but at the end of the day, I will stick with my Delta.

After literally thousands of miles, I still love this boat. Let us start with build quality. Beautifully finished, glossy and sexy. With great finishing touches - I would like some more outfitting options. Like a choice of seats, and such. I have made one repair to this boat, and it took me literally seconds - I replaced the hatch cover seals which Delta sent me at no cost. High quality gas pedal style foot braces,  have given me literally zero trouble. After six years and thousands of miles, I have yet to make a repair to my rudder, or rudder cables (and people say they are more prone to problems than skegs, but in the same amount of time I have repaired four skegs for friends or employers) and if you want it with a skeg you can have that too.

Thermoform plastic is a 21st century material, Fiberglass is very 20th century. Sorry folks, but that is how I see it. (the theme of this week at Paddling Otaku is 'drop the dogma' so lets just throw out the notion that fiberglass is the only way to go, because people say it is) Thermoform - when done right, like Delta does - gives me a stronger, lighter, and more forgiving material than fiberglass. Now someone will say "Oh, but you can't fix thermoform like you can fiberglass!" Nonsense. I repaired The Delta 15 after it got damaged from a forklift - yes, that is what it takes to crack one of these boats - and then it did the AGAP trip without issue.  I have done things to this boat where I was sure I had cracked it, and gotten nothing but scratches. I have slid this boat down rocky beaches to get away from bears - yes, a massive coastal brown bear in Alaska, literally had his front paws on my stern hatch, it did no damage - I have loaded it and unloaded it on rocks because it was my only choice for a campsite. It has been on the roof of my car for two round trips to Alaska. Drive the Alaskan highway and you will get hit with debris, I have the cracked windshield to prove it, but no damage to the boat.

For long trips, this boat is exceptionally easy to pack. Large openings, that close easily. No neoprene to fight with over the hatch covers. No day hatch,  with a  tiny opening and adding a bulkhead to the stern. I can put a gallon can of fuel - standing upright! so I don't have to worry about it leaking - in the bow compartment. I don't know of another boat that can do that. Behind the cockpit I can fit three 15 liter dry bags of food, side by side.

A metal locking ring behind the cockpit can also be used as a tie point for towing, and they put supports in the hull where the boat will be sitting in a roof rack. That is the kind of attention to detail I like.

You don't fit well in the seventeen? Well there is a very similar eighteen and sixteen. The sixteen performed amazingly in Alaska, and I will have a review coming up soon.

I think the only real competition for this boat is the NDK explorer, which is a great boat, is beautifully made, and has some incredible attention to detail. The angled rear bulkhead to help empty water out of the cockpit is genius. But it is heavy, and over $1000 more, but neither of those problems  is the deal killer for me. I need to do one thing on an expedition. Move a lot of gear and food. The bow of the Explorer holds 58 liters versus The Seventeens 83 liters. On the explorer add the day hatch to the stern compartment, and you have a total of 99 liters behind the cockpit. The Delta has 135 liters behind the cockpit. We won't even get into the fact that the Day hatch on the Explorer makes it more difficult to pack.

If you have a touring boat you think is better, lets go paddling. Prove me wrong.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Shokunin Mindset.

The Japanese word shokunin is defined by both Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan,’ but such a literal description does not fully express the deeper meaning.  The Japanese apprentice is taught that shokunin means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people.  This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.” – Tasio Odate

Kayaking is too frequently taught as dogma. I don't believe this is the best way to learn something. I work very hard at two things. Being the best teacher I can be, and doing the best forward stroke I can do. I don't think it can be taught by one method. I have used many over time, and I have learned to tailor lessons to the people in front of me. Not everyone learns the same way. Why should we teach them the same way, particularly something as difficult to teach as the forward stroke. 

Bruce Lee knew that fighting styles shouldn't be taught as dogma. He took this, and he took that and he combined them to create his on style of 'no style'. 

It is that combination of things teaching, and the forward stroke, that I feel is my Shokunin. It is my obligation, to not only continually refine my forward stroke, but to refine how I teach it. Don't get me wrong. I think I am a good paddler, but there are many who are better. I am great at expeditions, but there are many that are better. By I am obsessed by the forward stroke, and appalled by the little bit of attention it gets. 

I am continually drawn back to the film "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" because it is at once so inspiring and so humbling. Today I was struck by a sentence, spoken by the man who sells eel and octopus. That is all he does, is sell eel and octopus. Jiro's son goes to him - as he does all his fish vendors - because they are experts at their craft. Jiro is an expert at making Sushi, but he goes to people who are experts in fish. He knows he can't possibly know as much as they do, because they specialize in just one thing. The eel man said, "even at my age I am learning new techniques. even when you think you know it all, you are just fooling yourself, and you feel foolish."

I haven't held kayak paddle as long as this man has held octopus. I think I am at the point, after 20 years, where I am starting to get good. 

When you choose to do something, you have to choose to do it well. You have to say, Today I am going to be the best I can be. And you have to say it everyday. If you don't you are letting yourself down. But if you do this, you will excel, in whatever you do. If you are a brick layer, strive to be the best bricklayer.

too often I see people who fail, because they don't want to try. I work hard to be as good as I can be. If I know I can't compete I move onto something else, I am not saying I have to be the best, because I am certainly not, But I have to be MY best. Which is why I am no longer a paramedic.

every time I get into the cockpit, I am thinking about all the minutia. The feel of the boat, the feel of the water. The feel of the paddle. I am working to be the best paddler I can be, particularly as it relates to the forward stroke.

You may think that this level of attention is a little crazy. It's just paddling after all, but it makes a difference, at least to me. And the pay off is when I see a student start to get it. Or when I have that perfect day, and the paddle glides effortlessly through the water. That is when it is worth it.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Practical Minimalist.

For me, my minimalism started out of divorce. Shortly after I found myself alone in an apartment in lower manhattan - before I owned a kayak - While Desperate for an end to sadness, I discovered Feng Shui. I read that my environs affected my emotions, and the first step to happiness was an organized space. And the first step to an organized space, was decluttering. I threw out a lot. Honestly, I threw out, gave away, or sold most of what I owned, and it was freeing. I don't know if it was Feng Shui or not, but I definitely felt better.

Today - nearly 20 years later - I consider myself a practical minimalist. I have made up that term so let me explain what that is. The past year or so I have spent a lot of time at a couple of specific subreddits at the website reddit. Particularly r/minimalism and r/tinyhouses. I enjoy both because they both align with more simplified life. There is r/simpleliving as well, which I like, but it doesn't grab me as much. Here is the problem with r/minimalism. probably 50% of the posts relate to a lifestyle that isn't practical. I love the photos of the desks with just a macbook air on it claiming to be a 'workspace', but that isn't going to be me. I do too much video work to edit on a little screen, and my desk is always covered with a) the piece of gear I need to fix b)the piece of gear I just fixed c) the Gopro camera that is charging d)the materials from the class I am about to teach, or did just teach. Another popular post subject on r/minimalism is "everything I own fits in this 30 liter backpack". Which is invariably posted by someone who writes code for a living, and can do it with a macbook air at a cafe in Paris for his client in wherever. He doesn't need a desk, he sleeps in hostels and has one change of clothes and two pairs of underwear. This is a great lifestyle, and I wish I had it, but I love my wife and my dog, and I am not getting rid of them because my entire life doesn't fit in a back pack. And apparently to be a minimalist you really have to have a macbook air, apple should use this in marketing. But despite the fact that I don't live my life on a 13 inch screen most of my friends and acquaintances are fascinated by my lifestyle. A month ago if you came to my house and wanted to sit in the living room, you were either on the floor or a piece of folding camp furniture.

I recently moved, and everything my wife and I own fit in half a 14 foot U-Haul. I don't have a TV. I don't have a DVD collection. I didn't move a bed - I got a new Tuft & Needle discovered on r/minimalism - and I didn't have a couch.  I own about 20 books. I am constantly giving away gear, and books. If I am done with a book, and I think you might enjoy it, I am giving it to you. I am regularly selling old gear when I need to upgrade. I don't buy a piece of new gear unless I need it - not want it. If I have no use for a piece of gear, to me, it has no value. If you would enjoy it, I get pleasure out of giving it to you! I actually own dishes (okay, only 8 dishes and 6 bowls) and cook wear, but I am not buying a unitasker kitchen item.  I have a very small wardrobe and three pairs of shoes. I do one load of laundry per week - As a side note, if you live your life in the outdoors and most of your clothes are wicking/quick dry, your 'drier time' is very short.

I moved recently because I bought a house (This kicks me immediately out of the minimalist club!). My wife and I have been renting for years. Burned in the housing bubble we were hesitant to make the investment again. But we realized that we are going to be in our present location for at least 6 or 7 years, and a mortgage would be a few dollars more than our rent. Literally a few dollars. So we found a house we liked, in a neighborhood we liked and I moved the kayaks. We didn't move into a tiny house, even though I love the idea. We did move to a house that was smaller than our rental. My rental landlord, was flabbergasted to hear we were moving to something smaller. This smaller home will be easier to heat, and cool. And because we don't own much, it still looks and feels  roomy. At the moment we think we may retire to a tiny house. It would really only be about 700 Square feet smaller then what we are in now. My friends are amazed because we actually bought a couch. The living room in the rental was mostly empty.

This is what I consider a practical minimalist lifestyle. I have the things I need. If I don't need it, I don't own it. The important distinction here is need versus want. Most Americans buy what they want. I am not purging absolutely everything I own so that my life fits in a 40 liter backpack or dry bag, but I am also not buying things I don't need. When we moved I realized that for some reason we had 18 spoons. I got rid of 8 of them. If there are four people in my house for dinner, and we have dessert, I could need 10 spoons. Twice a year I have six people for dinner. I may end up washing a couple of spoons, but that's okay.

My house has a very uncluttered feel. In fact it feels very open. It is soothing. It is lovely.

This is one of the reasons I like expedition kayaking. Everything I need is in the boat. If it isn't there, I am living without. But even this is open to change. Because we were making the film on the last trip I had a lot of gear I didn't have before. Solar panels and Sherpa Batteries, and multiple cameras, and tiny tripods. I felt like I had more gear than I needed. But after thinking back through the trip, there are only a couple of things I had in my boat that didn't get used. The first is my first aid kit. I carry a large one on expeditions. I am not getting rid of that. The other was my fire starting kit. Despite the fact that AJ really got into making fires on this last trip, he only used one thing from my fire starting kit. The whole thing can be made much simpler. Certainly smaller than the pelican case it is in now.

Also on this trip Beth used my backup paddle as her primary paddle. The wiggle in the joint got noticeably worse, so when I got home, I put it on craigslist and sold it. I  decided on the trip to make my Kalliste my back up paddle, and I want to downgrade my primary paddle to the Werner Camano.

I am downgrading for a couple of reasons. The biggest, is weight. The Camano weighs less than the Killiste (and costs less). The other reason is, I am not sure the foam core in the blade is actually benefiting my paddling. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but if it isn't helping me, it is hurting me. So why not go back a step. It is simplifying, plain and simple. Much like the reason I don't use a bent shaft. It weighs more, costs more, and I don't think it is actually providing a benefit. I don't have to have it, just to prove I am a great kayaker. (and for the record, I have a long way to go before I consider myself a great kayaker)

For a long time I felt like people didn't take me seriously as an instructor because I didn't use a fiberglass boat. I came to learn my gear isn't dictating my skill level. It may however be dictating your perception of my skill level. And that is a level of crazy I am not interested in dealing with.

Similarly, when I go back to New York - where I am from - I am very self conscious that my peers will think I am a failure because I don't have a high power job, making a lot of money. I have a friend who is a successful chef. I have a friend who is a photographer for the NY Times - and does many books. I always wonder what they think of my job teaching kayaking, and map & compass and things like that. The last time I was there, I met an old friend for lunch. She is a judge. An actual NYC Judge, and she makes a very good living. She asked if I was going back to Alaska this summer, I said I was. Then added that I wasn't making any money - projecting my own concerns on what I thought she was thinking - Her response was "You are living the dream!" So while I was concerned she was judging me for my simple job and lifestyle. She was actually envious of me and the things my lifestyle allows me to do. There is no way a chef, or a judge, can take off 5 weeks to go kayaking. I stopped worrying about it then.

So what do I want? Well, I am practical, and I am a minimalist. So my wants are both of those things. There is a list of places I want to paddle that I haven't. Cape Cod. Newfoundland. Norway and Patagonia. I do want to continue to shrink my personal possessions but it is getting more and more difficult. I simply don't own that much.

My goal, as a practical minimalist is a simple lifestyle. With very few worries and stressors. I want to enjoy my life, while having a minimal impact not he world around me. I want to have the time to enjoy little things. The swell rolling under my boat. The sound of rain hitting the water as I paddle through the ice. A good cup of coffee on a cold morning. Of course, I only have one coffee cup. So I won't stress over which one to use.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

From the Craftsman Series

A nice short film about a bread maker. Well, really a pizza maker, that makes bread. This appeals to me, for a couple of reasons. Someone who is passionate about what he does, and does it better than anyone. It also appeals to my minimalist side. there are few things as simple as bread and butter,  and yet this man is elevating it to an art form.

As an apprentice says to Jiro (in Jiro Dreams Of Sushi) - Always strive to elevate your craft. This man has done just that, and look at the results.

The 'Jiro Dreams of Sushi' of Bread & Butter: Razza Pizza Artiginale from SkeeterNYC on Vimeo.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

I want an iPad, and a mini drone.

Wait, I already have one. An iPad mini with retina display, and I love it. Having grown up watching star trek it really is something out of Science Fiction. But when I say I want an iPad, what I really mean is an iPad for kayaking. 

On the Inside Passage we had several rolled charts that we folded up to use every day, we also had a spiral bound book of maps - topo maps - also in a chart case. Then we had GPS with maps loaded. If I did it today I would have the GPS preloaded with satellite imagery. We also had a guidebook, in a ziplock bag. 

In Prince William Sound, we had charts and another spiral bound book. We had a GPS but I didn't preload it with waypoints or maps - because I am very familiar with PWS. But a life using an iPad has spoiled me. In my previous two posts I have talked about the encroachment of technology where I don't want it, and the spread of easy communication when I don't need it. To prove that I am a complex person, this is where I would be okay with technology encroaching a little. 

I want a tablet that is highly water resistant - I am okay putting it in a case for both complete water protection and impact resistance. No bigger than a standard iPad, so I can use it easily in the cockpit, or perched on top of my spray skirt. It should be miserly with power usage so that I don't have to worry about charging it. Maybe it has solar on the back, so every time I turn it over it charges. But what I really want is digital, zoomable mapping like on an electronic chart table on a ship. There is nothing like having to remove a map from a chart case, and refold it - because you have paddled over the fold - in rain and high wind in the cockpit of a kayak. I want to scroll with my fingers and zoom as need be. I want both Nautical information (like a chart) and Topographical information (like a map) on display at all times. But I would also like to be able switch to satellite imagery quickly and easily. 

It should have sensors for Barometric pressure, and temperature, and keep me alerted to localized weather - like the Dark Sky app. 

On the inside passage, Sarah and I got forced off the water one day by high winds. We found a camp site, but as we were checking it out, it had a huge, fresh, bear print on it. So we were forced back out onto the water. We knew we had to go around a point of land but had no idea really what was on the other side. Here I would have liked a mini drone. I would like to pull something out of a pocket no bigger than my hand, unfold it, and throw it into the air like a frisbee. Once in the air it flies autonomously. Sending live video to my mapping tablet. I can control its path from the tablet as well. But this would give me the ability to look around corners to see what is there. Or view the coast for a couple of miles ahead to see if there is a good beach. 

This may sound unreal, but I think it is only a few years away. For under a thousand dollars I could buy a drone today for my GoPro. A little more money and I could have an image steadying gimbal on it as well. 

So while I am against the idea of communication encroaching on the wilderness world, there are areas that I think could use improvement. It is time for digital mapping to go from ships, to kayaks. You know kayak fisherman - the largest segment of the paddling world now - would love all these features. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Gear Review: Spot Connect

On this trip we chose to use a SPOT Connect personal locator beacon. On the inside Passage Sarah had an original spot device. The connect was a little different. The reason I chose it, was that I didn’t choose it. It was given to me by someone who didn’t need it. I spent a couple of hours buying a usage plan, and setting it up. 

When you get your new spot connect, you need to go their website to register the device and then pick out a plan. I chose the most basic plan, which was $99. I then downloaded the spot software to my iPhone 5c. The original spot that we used on the IP has three buttons, okay, help, and sos - The Spot connect has only a power button and an SOS button. To do everything else you need to use an App on your phone. Our primary usage was the “okay” feature. Essentially telling our friends and family that we were all right, and where we were. When you go to their website, you create a contact list of people, and then you create message groups, then you apply contacts from your list to the message groups. Then when it is time to send an okay message, on the app you select the message you want to send - okay - and the message group you want to get the message to. Then hit send. 

The spot connect then gets a GPS fix and sends the message along with location info to satellites, which relay the message to SPOT, who then send out the message. It sends the message to the satellites 3 times - it only sends the actual message once, but sends it to the satellites three times to ensure delivery. It waits 500 seconds between sending the messages, which if you can do math is over 8 minutes. Spot recommends allowing the device to run through the three message cycle, which can take up to 20 minutes. 

The real beauty of the connect is also the real reason it pairs with your smart phone. It has the ability to send custom text messages - one way - to the people on your list. This is a nice feature, but I chose not to use it, primarily because I didn’t want to spend more money. The more text messages you prepay the cheaper they get. And if you don’t prepay you can send 5 text messages for free, before being charged one dollar per. 

I didn’t like that I had to keep two devices handy in case of emergencies- though in a real life or death emergency all i needed was the spot connect and I could hit the SOS button. I took to keeping them both in a small pelican case along with a pair of extra batteries for the SPOT. The Spot is waterproof, but my phone is not, so that was always a concern. I also think the spot connect should have all three buttons - okay, help, and SOS - so that if I am not sending text messages I don’t need to worry about my phone. 

In general the spot connect worked fine, but I didn’t like having to use my phone, that paired with the long wait time to send all three messages make this device one of my least favorite tools we used on the trip. If I have a choice in the future, I won’t be using this product. 

It seems that every outdoor company, over time, makes their gear more complicated, with more features - so they can then charge more money. I used the Spot Gen 1 and Gen 2 in the past and they worked really well, but I don't need this ever more complex product line in something that I am only using in case something bad happens. I like the idea of one of the ACR PLB's that just does one thing really well. I wish spot would make something similar. A smaller device, with one or two buttons, that when something really bad happens will get word to the appropriate people quickly and reliably. That is what I want in a Personal Locator Beacon. 

Which brings us to something else that I want. If you are a cyclist you probably know Planet Bike. They make Bike Lights, like this one. Since both Beth and AJ are avid cyclist - both having ridden cross country - they had these bike lights. I asked them to bring them along as emergency signaling devices. AJ chose to connect his to the back of his PFD. These little lights are tiny, ridiculously bright, and inexpensive. They also have several flashing modes, and the battery lasts 50 to 100 hours. 

It is time for Planet Bike to get into the kayak business, because there is no light in the paddling world that works as well as this. With the exception of the C - strobe - which I have used and is a great product! but the battery last 4 to 10 hours is double the size and weight of the planet bike light. I stopped using my C - strobe when it leaked and corroded. - Here are the changes Planet Bike should make. Make it more rounded. Make it water proof instead of water resistant. And what I really want, which even the C - strobe doesn't do, is to have it automatically turn on when submerged. This is what EPIRB's do, so it isn't hard. 

The paddling world is severely under served, and this would be a great first step. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Gear Review: Goal Zero Sherpa 50 & Nomad 13

The star of the AGAP show was without a doubt our goal zero devices, of which we had many. I had two sherpa 50 battery packs, one of which had an ac inverter attached to it. I also had a nomad 13 solar panel. These were purchased specifically with charging my cameras in mind. I had one sherpa to charge GoPro batteries via USB. I had another sherpa - the one with the AC inverter - to charge Nikon DSLR batteries, which I could only charge with a standard wall plug charger. I also used the Sherpa to charge my iPhone, which I needed to run the SPOT connect - which is a separate, and depressing review. 

When I first got the Sherpa in my hand I was amazed how small it was. In photos it looks pretty big, but it is actually only 6 x 4 x 1.5 inches. 

Beth had her own goal zero products, but they were smaller devices than what I was carrying. She had a Guide 10 power pack (primarily to charge her kindle and her phone (as a secondary point and shoot camera) She also had two Nomad 7 solar panels. 

When we got ashore, after setting up camp, we would both break out solar panels (if there was sun!) to charge batteries (sherpa and Guide 10) and then at night we would use the batteries to charge devices. 

I started the trip with both sherpas fully charged. I used them to charge the above devices - as well as an iPod nano - Using this system I found that my sherpas never dropped below 60% charged. I was supremely impressed with both how much the sherpa 50 could charge, and how effectively the large Nomad 13 panel charged both the sherpa batteries as well as devices directly. One particularly sunny day - with both Sherpas fully charged, I plugged a go pro with a fully drained battery into the nomad 13 directly. The first impressive thing was that the light on the GoPro - indicating it was charging - came on less than a second after unfolding the panels and placing it in the sun. The second impressive fact was that the fully drained battery charged in about the same amount of time as plugging it into a USB port. That shows me the efficiency of the panel. We did keep track of the position of the sun, and made sure our panels were directly facing the sun. A benefit of being in Alaska in June is that if it isn’t raining, you get a lot of sun, as it doesn’t set until close to 11pm and rises around 4:30am (and it never really gets dark, just sort of ‘dusky’) 

The only bad experience I had with my set up was that I was keeping the solar panel and sherpa in a clear map case, on my back deck. I tested this in North Carolina. With the panel deployed inside the bag and the sherpa connected to it, I could charge the battery while paddling. In NC it worked perfectly - though granted it isn’t ideal to operate the panel through the plastic map case, as it will decrease the amount of light hitting the panel. - When I tried it in Alaska the Sherpa over heated and turned itself off, as well as turning on a fan which I can only assume drained the battery. I didn’t try it again, as I never needed too. 

The only problem beth had with her system was the relative capacity of the guide ten battery. A fully charged guide ten only got her kindle between 15 and 20% charged - because of the relative sizes of the batteries in each device. 

Not actually a problem, but I found the directions to the sherpa too simple. Nothing said where the power switch - which has multiple settings - should be set to charge the device. I soon found out that simply plugging in the panel to the sherpa - without turning on the sherpa - will charge the device, I would have loved a video made by Goal Zero explaining usage and best practices. 

Not only do I highly recommend these devices, I will probably be buying another nomad 13 panel to pair with my second sherpa. 

Now here is your bonus:

I generally add to my gear set an iPod Nano. I use it to listen to audio books when I go to sleep. First, this thing is tiny. Measuring about 1.5 inches square, and a 1/4 inch thick. Besides being tiny, and weighing nothing, the battery lasts forever. A full charge gets me around 24 hours of playing time. This is the kind of little device that can have an amazing impact on your level of enjoyment. Though I do only use one earbud so I can hear if a bear is in camp. 

Now here is the down side of all this power. As I said we used the iPhone to run the Spot Connect, as well as a point and shoot camera. This meant we couldn’t help but turn on our phones, and then couldn’t beat the temptation to see if we had cell service. The last time I had been in Prince William Sound was in 2008 or 2009. At that time I am not aware that there was any cell service. Because we were turning on our phones to do various things, we would always look and see if we had cell service, and were constantly surprised as to how often we had not only cell service, but strong coverage. A number of times we were able to make phone calls. 

This sounds like a good thing. It does add a measure of safety, but it takes away the separation that we experience on a trip like this. And that separation is one of the reasons that I enjoy trips like this. There is something to be said for that level of deprivation. When you separate from the phone, you get more in tune with the world around you. On this trip I found myself not getting in tune with the tides. Which is something I tend to enjoy. So the moral of the story is, bring your iPod Nano with you for some music or a book, but leave the iPhone turned off. The time away will do you good. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

So much to say, so much to do....

Well... We are back.

The trip was ultimately very successful. I have a very short look at some of the video, and I am pretty happy. I have a lot of viewing and editing to do. I have spent the last two days dealing with gear. Gear that worked wonderfully, and gear that didn't. I have many gear reviews to write, and since I am an unsponsored slug  - almost completely, with one notable exception - My reviews will be truthful, and unbiased.

It was interesting doing a trip like this with two relative novices. I was able to ask gear questions of them, and with their limited experience it was very telling.

We saw a ridiculous amount of wildlife. Both on the drive - if you have never driven the Alaskan highway between Tok and Dawson Creek, make it happen, it is incredible. We saw So many bears, Bison, Ram, Moose, Caribou, and believe it or not, a Wolf - And on the paddle, Whales, seals, sea lions, Sea otters, a ridiculous number of bald eagles. I didn't manage to see an Orca (I guess I am going to have to paddle with GeckoPaddler!), which was really the only major marine mammal I haven't seen in Alaska, but we did mange to see the Rare PWS porpoise.

It was an incredible trip, and I have a lot of work to do. Many posts coming.

But, that is all for now.

I will be posting some pictures to both Instagram, and Facebook, so check us out there.

And if you are wondering what we found in terms of the state of the glaciers, we were amazed.

That is all I am going to say.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

....Aaaaannnnddddd.... GO!

As I type this I am at the National Outdoor Leadership Schools, Palmer Alaska location. When I was a NOLS instructor this was where I worked courses out of, and they were nice enough to allow us to spend the night, and finish prepping gear. Tomorrow morning we will head to Whittier, Alaska and hit the water with the goal of photographing at least six glaciers - though we have photos from 12 glaciers from 1957 we will see how many we can actually match.

The last six days have been whirlwind to say the least. We departed North Carolina on Sunday the 25th and moved pretty much non-stop to get here - if you’re counting, that means we have done 4400 miles in six days. We really have only done two long days, The last two nights of the drive. Most of the drive is pretty boring. It is really just about keeping the entire team fueled and moving. But once you hit Dawson creek and get on the Alaskan Highway proper it starts to get very interesting. You go from highways to two lane roads, with very few services, but what really changes is the wild life. We saw a massive amount of bison, we lost count of how many black bears we saw. We saw Elk, Porcupines, rams, foxes, and a moose. It was really pretty incredible. It was also weird that I had driven most of the road in the past - when I paddled the inside passage - and by myself. So I was constantly feeling like I was just vaguely remembering things, which I was. I was also constantly wondering how I did this drive by myself. 

My companions are getting along wonderfully. The first is an old - but younger than me - friend, named Beth. Beth and I met through work, but she quickly became a paddling student of mine, and then a friend - which is generally what happens with my paddling students. She almost did the inside trip with me, but wasn’t able to make it happen. As she has just finished her Masters program the timing for this trip was excellent. She has her masters in exercise physiology so it will be nice to have someone with us that knows about exercise and the human body. 

The other person joining us on this trip is a young man named AJ. Two years out of college, he has spent the past few years working, and gaining experience in the outdoors. He has an even more extensive knowledge of martial arts than I do - though he would never admit that. He too is a paddling student of mine. He also happens to be my step son. 

They are both 24, both very physical, and excellent - if relatively novice - paddlers. They also share something else. They have both ridden bicycles across the United States from coast to coast. AJ did it with a charity called journey of hope. Beth did it with a charity called bike and build. This tells me that if nothing else, they know how to persevere through a lousy situation. And since the next four days are calling for rain, they may get to prove that. . 

The biggest issue I am having at this point is guilt. In 2006 when we moved to North Carolina, I left a week after we moved to come here - Palmer Alaska - to work a course for NOLS. It is amazing that my wife was okay with me doing that. This time, I feel very guilty about being here with her there. We are again moving - the coincidence is amazing - and she is forced to do the bulk of the work for our coming house purchase, and again I am going kayaking. I should point out, she has never tried to make me feel guilty. I have done that all on my own. ( and it isn't really guilt, it is a sadness that I am not supporting her, as much as she is supporting me.) So as I prepare to do this trip, I also realize this will be the last trip I do like this. Certainly I will paddle in the future, but no more five week trips for this guy. She has been extremely supportive, and has always been happy for me to do the things I want/need to do. I think it is time for me to dial it back a notch. 

So tomorrow it begins again, and for the last time - at least at this scale. I am excited to get it underway, make it happen and get home to move and edit a movie!

Super big thanks to all the kickstarted supporters, My employer for allowing me to go and do this again. And of course, my amazing wife. I miss you, and I will be home soon.