Saturday, October 23, 2010

UPDATE: Alaska

Things are moving well towards next summers trip. The team has stabilized in terms of numbers, some are starting to spec new kayaks, and gear. As a group we are pretty excited. A few things need to occur for next summer to work. One of those is that I need to buy a new car. This has been pushed to the forefront because I got a new - or actually additional - job that will require my little home to go from a one car household, to a two car household. I have no qualms about paddling 350 miles in frigid Alaskan waters, but buying a car is daunting.

The reason that a car is need for Alaska is this. My team lives on the east coast of the United States. There will be - probably - five Seventeen foot kayaks going on the trip. They need to get to Alaska, and that is probably the biggest logistical challenge.

I looked into shipping kayaks, but that would cost almost as much as buying new ones, and then there is the fear of damage en route.

I looked into renting kayaks, and again, the cost would be around $1400 us. Plus, you don't know what you will have to paddle in, and I would rather this group get some time in the boats they will be paddling for the month.

A friend has an uncle who ships exotic sports cars from where I live to Seattle, Washington. He offered a ride for our boats. But then I would need to get the kayaks from Seattle to Bellingham Washington for the ferry to Skagway or Ketchikan Alaska. The ferry alone is over $600 per person. one way. And we would still need to get to the boats to Bellingham, and us to Seattle.

The fuel to drive all the way to Skagway will cost around $500, and while it will take more time it will give us control over the boats, so currently that is the plan.

two cars, five kayaks, a whole mess of food, and gear. and two or three drivers. I am honestly more worried about getting to the water than I am about anything that might occur on the water. But this isn't my first expedition, and I know that the things that you worry about are never the things that cause problems. It's the things you never think of, that create roadblocks. Only time will tell.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

What went wrong.

I first saw this video linked online, it is helmet cam footage of a very bad day paddling. the experience, though not the video, ends with a helicopter rescue. Though this is whitewater I think it has some valuable lessons for us. The kayakers paddle broke when trying to roll - which in and of itself is both incredible and unbelievably bad luck - but there were several mistakes made by this paddler that I think we can learn from.

I don't mean to embarrass this paddler, I got his permission to post the video, as he agreed there were lessons to be learned.

I think that the most valuable lesson here is this. Rarely do people die when they make a mistake. Most climbing deaths on Mt. Everest don't involve someone rappelling off the end of their rope. But what happens is this. You make a mistake and an hour, or a day, or a week later, that mistake has been compounded and amplified - usually by other mistakes - to a point where you suddenly realize that you made a life threatening error and now have to claw yourself out of the hole you have inadvertently dug.

All to often I hear this phrase, 'Of course it's safe, we have always done it this way, and no has ever gotten hurt!' But having done something over and over again and not having a problem doesn't make it safe, it means you didn't get caught.

So what is the one thing this paddler didn't do, that would have made this day paddle an inconvenience instead of almost the end of his life? You may think his luck turned bad when the paddle broke, but in fact his fate was -almost- sealed several hours before the video starts.

Thanks to ScottyB for letting me post this.

The Swim from ScottyB on Vimeo.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Head and hands

As Andrew C pointed out in the comments of the last post I neglected to discuss Gloves or head gear. This was on purpose as the previous post was exceptionally long. Before I delve into options for those two critical areas I wan't to tell a story.

The first time I paddled in Alaska I was a student with a famous outdoor/leadership school. We were camped on an island in Prince William Sound, and before we could really undertake big paddling days, each student had to perform a wet exit, and take part in an assisted rescue as both a rescuer, a rescuee and a rescuee in a double kayak. The water temperature was around 45º and so wetsuits were provided. We were instructed to roll out of the kayak, wet exit, and yell - paddler in the water. I did as Iw as told but when it came time to yell, my brain commanded my body, but almost no sound came out. As hard as I tried I couldn't make my vocal chords produce more than a grunt or a gasp. It turns out this is not unusual. This occurs because of something called the mammalian diving reflex. The Mammalian diving reflex exists in all aquatic mammals - seals, otters, dolphins and it's effects in these mammals helps them swim, and live longer in cold water as well as to dive to great depths. The reflex exists in humans but acts more as a way to keep us alive in a life threatening situation.

It is triggered automatically by a pair of cranial nerves and immediately causes bradycardia or a slowed heart rate. It also causes peripheral vasoconstriction which means blood vessels in your extremities constrict to keep more warm oxygenated blood flowing to your core and your brain. First your fingers and toes, then your hands and feet, and finally your arms and legs. There is oxygen stored in your muscle mass that makes it possible for you to continue using the effected limbs even after blood flow has been cut off. Interestingly seals have significantly much more oxygen stored in their muscles extending the time that they can go without oxygen.

I suspect that the loss of quality speech when immersed in 48º water is due to the vasoconstriction, but importantly there is a way to short circuit the MDR if you are going to practice rescues in cold water. Simply splashing water on your face will trigger it, but thereby you are in control of it, and not the environment - it's not as jarring when it happens if you trigger it first.

Andrew C also mentioned ice cream headache when he goes paddling, this is caused by cold water - or ice cream, or a slushie - touching the roof of his mouth. This causes your brain to think it is being rapidly cooled, and to prevent that it causes massive vasodilation to warm the brain - causing the headache. So Andrew, close your mouth! I am kidding it can probably occur in really cold water just by submerging your head.

So what can you do to keep the head warm? The best option - particularly for whitewater paddlers as they tend to be submerged more than us sea kayakers is a skull cap. It works well under a helmet and works even when wet.

When I am doing a multiday paddle I pack three different pieces of head gear. A ball cap to keep the sun out of my eyes, and to protect my follicley challenged scalp. A wool hat which will insulate when wet or dry, and dries very quickly, I like this on because it is so thin, and warm. And a rain hat.

Also on that first trip to Alaska I debated spending $50.00 on this rain hat. It looked very good, but it was a lot of money for a hat. So I didn't bring it. Someone else on the trip did bring the very same hat, and it worked really well for them, and I could have really used it. I learned a valuable lesson. Don't let an expensive trip get ruined because you had cheap or inappropriate clothing or gear. If you have spent $4000.00 to go paddling in Alaska what difference is another $50 going to make. But the difference of having a good rain hat - in a state that rains all the time - will be huge. I came back from Alaska and immediately bought that hat, and now it is the first thing that goes in a dry bag when I am headed someplace wet.

Gloves I think are even easier. I use a pair of NRS fingerless gloves (that are no longer made!) that I use in one of two occasions. If the backs of my hands are getting sunburned I put them on. If I am planning a long day - 20+ miles - I put them on. This I do to protect the bit of skin between thumb and index finger. I don't get calluses or blisters paddling long days, and if you are it is caused by one thing. Your holding your paddle too tightly. I also have a pair of thick neoprene gloves that I hate. They are all warm and cushy when dry, but when wet or even damp they are impossible to put on, and if you get the first one on, the second is even harder. I generally bring them to loan to people who have forgotten or lost gloves. I am a big fan of pogies. They protect your hands, from wind and water and cold, yet they give you full contact with the paddle shaft. They also allow you to do things with your bare hands that you couldn't do gloved and then quickly return your hands to a warm dry environment. And if you don't need them you can easily slide them to the center of the paddle where they are out of the way, yet handy if you decide you need them.

Three hats, three pairs of gloves. Simple, relatively easy to pack.

But wait, there is one more thing. I am a big fan of wool socks. They are my favorite choice because they insulate when wet, and dry quickly. Also important they don't get as stinky as synthetics do. I generally figure out how many pairs I want for a trip based on the length of the trip. Then I add a pair to that number. This additional pair goes inside my sleeping bag. AND NEVER COMES OUT! This assures that I get to sleep in warm, dry, clean socks. Which while feels nice serves an important purpose. If your feet are wet all day long and don't get a chance to dry out at night you are at risk for getting trench foot. A painful - and all too frequently trip ending - malady. Sleep warm and dry.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


It's that time of year when the weather starts to change and the water gets colder. It is the time of year that a lot paddlers start to put their boats away for the season. But it is without a doubt my favorite time to paddle a kayak. In part because there are fewer people on the water, and I can have it to myself without fears of a power boat captained by a 'had a few too many' skipper racing past me way to close for comfort and much faster than necessary. The people on the water are what I like to call 'professionals', some others may call us 'die hards'.

The people that venture out onto the water when the weather turns colder have probably put a bit more time and thought into what they are wearing, as well as what they will be doing. There is a bigger level of commitment when the water temperature drops. If you are paddling and have a bad day and the water temperature is 80º you really don't have much to worry about. But if the water temperature is 50º or even 40º you are in a completely different situation. Those of you paddling in more northern climates know what I am talking about.

There are two different temperatures that we need to look at when we plan what we are going to wear. The air temperature, and the water temperature. We need to meet a happy medium somewhere in between the two. If for example you have a 70º air temperature and a 48º water temperature - common in the summer in Alaska - and you are dressed for the water temperature you will be sweating in the cockpit, but if you are dressed for the air temp, and end up in the water you are going to have a very bad day.

I have two different types of outerwear systems that I use for paddling, and two different types of next to skin layers that I use under the outerwear systems. The temperatures listed below are examples to explain the way I think when I plan for cold air/water paddles. Nothing is written in stone. If you are active in the outdoors, you should have a lot of what I mention here already.

Fall - Air temperature 65º/Water temperature 60º

Outerwear: Waterproof Breathable kayaking anorak with gaskets at the wrists, and a rand at the waist. WPB pants with gaskets at the ankles and a rand at the waist.

Small neoprene booties with nothing under them.

The waterproof layers on the outside are going to trap a lot of heat, so a thin layer underneath is all that is needed to keep me warm. All the options for the base layers will quickly wick moisture away from my skin to help keep me dry. You may get a little moisture inside the clothes - you may be a little wet - but that's okay, because the synthetics will insulate you when wet, and the WPB layers will help keep you warm.

The booties are going to fill with water when you get in and out of your kayak, but they work like a wetsuit. Your body will warm the water, thereby keeping you warm.

Late Fall: Air temperature 55º/Water temperature 60º
Outerwear is the same as above, it's the base layers I am going to change. Midweight synthetic long underwear, top and bottom. You just need a little more insulation to keep the warmth up. Some people go the wetsuit route, but I really don't like it. It doesn't really perform that well when you are dry - as it is designed to warm a thin layer of water next to your skin.

Winter: Air Temperature below 50º/Water temperature anywhere below 60º
Drysuit. That simple. Can you use a dry top and pants like listed above? Sure, just bump up the base layers to heavyweight/expedition weight - but be careful, you don't want to end up in the water. With a drysuit I actually use a midweight baselayer as well, sometimes even a lightweight because it traps so much body heat. My drysuit has thin booties that I put my neoprene booties over in part to protect the drysuit, but mainly because I like the contact I get with my foot pegs. For a very long time I scoffed at the drysuit as extravagant and unnecessary. I really purchased it because of the little booties I wear. I love the feel they offer, the contact with the kayak. I tried many ways to make them work through the winter, and I couldn't pull it off. That combined with a constantly wet bottom, spurred me to make the investment. It paid for itself almost immediately by extending my paddling season right into brutal winter - if the water isn't frozen I can still paddle. It's 34º and snowing? Guess what, I am still going paddling.

I primarily am talking about dressing for immersion, meaning you are planning on getting wet. All of these systems will work when your wet, and still keep you warm. But can you do this another way effectively. Why cant you replace the WPB paddling jacket and pants with regular hard shell outerwear, and replace the neoprene booties with high rubber boots -an Alaskan staple. You can, as long as you don't top your boots getting into our kayak, or roll your kayak once you are paddling you will be fine. BUT, if you do wet exit you have to get ashore and get into dry clothes.

It is important to keep a couple of things in mind. There is nothing wrong with being wet, as long as you are warm and wet. There is also nothing wrong with being a little cold, as long as you are dry and cold. But be very wary of being cold and wet. Cold and wet will kill you.

When expedition paddling it is good to have paddling clothes - clothes that will be damp either from water or sweat - and land clothes - clothes that will be warm and dry. I start all my trips with clothes in two twenty liter dry bags of different colors. One is paddling clothes, and one is land clothes. Eventually I start to think of the two bags differently. Paddling clothes becomes wet clothes. And land clothes become dry clothes. On a long trip something will usually get inadvertently wet. a pair of socks, a T shirt. Once it's wet, it goes in the paddling/wet clothes dry bag.

It only takes a little planning to paddle warm and safe in the winter. If done well, you can paddle all year.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Update: Low and High Brace turn

I get a surprising number of hits from people doing google searches for the low and high brace turn. There seems to be a great deal of interest in this stroke, which while fun, really isn't that useful - at least compared to strokes like the forward and the sweep. Recently over at kayak yak there was a post with video showing the talented teachers of body boat blade doing the low brace turn - they also showed an edging video that I have commented on in the past - But they do the Low brace turn differently than I do, so I did some research.

My go to book for kayak information is Gordon Brown's 'Sea Kayak: A Manual for intermediate and Advanced Kayakers'. In Gordon's book he talks about the Low brace turn, and he does it the way I do - or probably more accurately, I do it the way he does.

My other go to book is 'Sea kayaking Illustrated' which makes no mention of the stroke whatsoever.

The body boat and blade folks teach a much more passive version of the stroke than the way I perform it. They talk about using the blade for psychological support, and allowing the blade to gently slice over the water, allowing a more confident edge turn. Whereas I teach a much more aggressive stroke with the blade biting the water at a much higher angle. My method turns the kayak because of the blade interaction with the water, and the BBB version is supporting the kayak while it turns - the paddle isn't initiating the turn, just supporting it.

I like to think of the two versions of this stroke as a passive version, and an active version. I don't think one is right or wrong, but they are different, and I think you should take the time to play with both and see which works better for you, which is what I did earlier this week. Below is video of both versions. First a left then right 'passive' low brace. Followed by a left and right 'active' high brace. They are really two very different strokes, and I feel that both are useful in very different situations.

updated low and high brace turn from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.

Monday, October 4, 2010


After reading about the BCU five star training that Simon Willis did, I couldn't help but give a couple of the things he mentioned a try. In particular the balance drill that he had to do. I will confess of the three things I was interested in trying, I only tried two of them. I was not able to stand up in the cockpit of my kayak. I am sure with practice I will be able to accomplish it, but on this particular day I didn't have it in me. I was successful at sitting on the back deck of my kayak, and turning 360º and then getting back into my kayak, though I will say it took me 2 minutes and 24 seconds. I envisioned it being much easier. I am curious how fast the people in his training did it? I am going to work on being able to do it faster. The third balance drill that he mentioned was this. Also sitting on the back deck, and rolling the kayak 360º under you. So you are sitting on the top, then the side, then the bottom, then the other side, then the top. I didn't even try this, as I wasn't sure what to do with my paddle. Perhaps Simon can offer some guidance. I should point out that I am very interested in doing a BCU assessment and I am only a few hours from a highly skilled east coast BCU five star instructor, but I just have had an opportunity to make it happen. Some day.

I shot video of the drill, but sped it up 500% so it isn't quite so painful to watch.

balance drill from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.