Friday, September 28, 2012


I have an affinity for finely crafted things. I don't have many possessions, but a lot of the things that I own are beautifully crafted. That isn't to say ornate, I like simple, functional design. For the past thirty years - maybe more - we have been pushed into mass produced, inexpensively made, poorly designed products. But I am starting to see this trend reversed.

I also very much like finely crafted films - this goes back to a life in the 90's when I worked in film and photography in New York. I left photography because I didn't like the effect that the digital revolution had on it. Digital took a lot of the craft out taking a still photograph. You had to know whether you had the image on film, you had to trust your gut. When I did my first kayaking trip in Alaska in 2000 I brought 100 rolls of slide film with me. I didn't see that film processed until weeks after returning home. Today I can take a picture and see on the spot if I got the shot. If I didn't I can keep taking photos until I do. As much as I hate the effect that digital had on photography I love the effect that digital had on film. Twenty years ago you needed a studio backing you and a crew of 100 to make a film. Now you need a handful of people and a camera and a computer. It is truly an amazing time, I can go kayaking with an HD camera mounted on my boat or myself, go home and edit the footage, then upload it to vimeo and show it to the world. In 1986 I worked at a studio called Rebo on west 17th street (I think it was 17th) and got to see one of the first HD cameras in the United States. It was massive, as big as a kitchen table, and had to be hooked up to a truck to work. That is the kind of change I am in favor of.

So it is wonderful now that I can see crafted short films about crafted projects. Perhaps you need a knife? I like that he makes reference to the ten thousand hours.

Made by Hand / No 2 The Knife Maker from Made by Hand on Vimeo.

There are recurring themes today about people whose careers didn't work out. They then chose to do something they loved. Like making a knife, or a bicycle. This resonates with me, as I changed careers myself. I would love to say that I make a living from PaddlingOtaku - maybe someday - but the important thing is I am happy. I am not going to a job that I despise. I do have the benefit of a wife who would rather I be happy than working a job I hate, which is something I am thankful for everyday.

There are also companies that choose to make something in an old fashioned way, because that is the way they have always done it. Their are easier ways to do things today, but some choose the more difficult path. I was once given a hard time at the end of a NOLS course by a senior instructor. He made a disparaging remark about me drinking a 'cheap' whiskey. I don't think he meant it to be hurtful, but because I respected him it cut pretty deeply. I respect a company that makes its own barrels, and will continue to drink their fine whiskey, as I have for close to thirty years.

The Birth of a Barrel from Travis Robertson on Vimeo.

I would very much like to see Werner Paddles make a short film - I would gladly do it for them - about the making of their paddles. I find them beautifully crafted, and they have an elegant feel that I have never felt in any other paddle. I have said before that I would like to have a custom made fiberglass boat, but I have neither the finances or the skills to do it myself. I am not sure where my craftsman like skill is - probably as a teacher which is what I think I am best at, but I feel that isn't quite the same.

There is something about pounding steel on an anvil. Its simplicity, its power. Taking a block of steel and heating it and turning it into something useful is a truly wonderful enterprise. Though as useful as an axe is, I would rather a sword.

The Birth Of A Tool. Part I. Axe Making (by John Neeman) from John Neeman Tools on Vimeo.

This one I have posted before but it is so wonderful I have to post it again. We are seeing an explosion in the cycling industry, as gas prices rise, and we get ever fatter from lack of exercise food seemingly designed to kill us. There is something about getting on a simple bicycle and going for a ride. I think the only thing more simple than going for a ride, is going for a paddle.

The Inverted Bike Shop from Show Love on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Notes on packing

As I concluded a nice three day trip to Cape lookout in eastern North Carolina I had some time to reflect on the prep for the trip. Prep for a trip like this for me is pretty simple. My gear is almost always the same and that makes it easy for me to slide gear into bags and then into my boat. But what I realized was that isn't the case if you haven't done this a couple of hundred times. I fielded many text messages, emails and event he occasional phone call before the trip as people were curious what to pack, and how to pack it. I've gone over my gear list before so I thought it would be a good time to talk about 'how' I pack, some of it may surprise you.

The first surprise is that I use fewer drybags than you would think. I have a 35 liter taper bag that gets all my clothes. the system I used to use for clothes was two 20 liter drybags. One full, the other half full. They would both start out as bags of clean dry clothes, and then over time one would become 'clothes that were wet', and the other 'clothes that are dry'. On long trips I put a white garbage bags in my taper bag for 'wet clothes' to help segregate them from the dry clothes.

I have a ten liter drybag with all my personal goodies. A book, a headlamp, toiletries, batteries, iPod, things like that.

A five liter drybag that is my deck bag. Compass, powerfood, chemical light stick, sunglasses, sunscreen. Any little odd or end that I may need while paddling.

My sleeping bag is in a waterproof compression stuff sack to get it as small as possible. My first aid kit is in a dry bag.  Five drybags, that is it. The following items are in their regular stuff sacks:

Tent (poles separate)
stove (inside my pot set)
Sleeping pad
Table - yes I pack a little table

If it is raining these items are going to get wet or be wet anyway. If they get wet in the boat and it isn't raining they will dry quickly in the sun. If you stuff the tent well, the waterproof floor will encapsulate the tent body and it stays dry on the inside. I am toying with putting the tarp and my tents fly in compression stuff sacks to make them smaller, but they will then also be hard (because they are compressed) which will make them harder to fill in spaces with)

The only thing that is left is food. For close to two decades I have been using a small gym duffel with a waterproof liner inside. I don't use the ziploc closure I just twist the top closed. I like the large opening for finding things inside it. Those liners are getting hard to find. I think I am going to switch to a dry duffel bag from NRS. I know many people that don't use drybags at all, just contractor grade trash bags inside stuff sacks. It works surprisingly well.

I should point out that the great Gordon Brown says to use lots of little bags instead of big bags. His reasoning is that you pack less air and more gear. He is right, but I am not organized enough to have many little bags. I prefer the big bag method, but by all means do what you think works best for you. All this gear fits in my two over sized mesh duffel bags. One for the bow, one for the stern. They are the last things into the boat, and the first thing out of the boat.

Here is all my gear waiting to get loaded into the car.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The new shape of down.

A big part of the life of a kayaker is that I spend a large part of my time in a wet environment. That may seem obvious but what isn't obvious is that it effects some of my gear choices. Add to the equation that I like to paddle in cold wet environments like Alaska - two days ago someone I was paddling with said "you don't have any desire to go the caribbean, paddle beach to beach and lay on a white sand beach?" my response was something like "never gonna happen."

One of those gear choices that was influenced by the cold and the wet was insulation. I use a wonderful primaloft jacket that is super light, incredibly warm and compressible. Before that I used fleece. A down jacket has never graced one of my dry bags. I use a synthetic sleeping bag in a waterproof compression stuff sack. I once had a dry bag leak and when I unpacked my bag the bottom half was soaked. I had to wring it out. I went to sleep that night in a clammy bag, and when I woke up in the morning it was dry. Try that with a down bag and you are flirting with hypothermia. Down doesn't insulate when wet, and is almost impossible to dry in the backcountry.

That's not to say that you can't use down if you're a paddler. When I did my NOLS instructor course Sarah - of Paddle North Fame - used a down bag. She was just incredibly careful with it. I am not that brave, or at least I haven't been in the past.

This week I had a conversation with a rep from Mountain Hardwear. He talked to me about Q shield, which is the MH version of Sierra Designs Dridown. I think though - and someone may correct my on this, I think calling it "Sierra designs" isn't fair because I would bet the process was invented by some scientist in a lab who will get exactly zero credit for something that could change the outdoor industry. It is also the same process as Liquipel.

I am going to destroy the science here - because I am not a scientist! - but it is something like this. A nano-coating is applied to the down that is completely hydrophobic. So, in theory, the feathers can't get wet.

The rep from MH handed me two water bottles. One half filled with water and untreated feathers. Frankly it looked like roadkill. The other bottle was filled half way with water and feathers treated with Q shield. As I shook the Q shield bottle the feathers would submerge and then pop to the top of the bottle when I stopped. There are a few feather floaties in the bottom of the bottle. This is an amazing display, but I want to see what this looks like in real life. I would love a beautiful lofty down bag that I have no concerns about getting wet. Or at least no more concerns than getting a synthetic bag wet. Sierra designs says that Dridown dries seven times faster than regular down - but seeing how regular down doesn't dry, I don't know what that means.

MH Q shield from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.

Sorry for the quality of the video, it was shot on my iPhone.

I suspect we are going to see nano coatings on everything in the future. In theory, could a drysuit by a thin film that slides over your body like that worn by a swimmer? The rep from MH said that the process wasn't suitable to jackets but worked very well for insulation. But still, in five years what will this technology look like? Will a nano coated hydrophobic kayak slide through the water faster?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Assisted Rescues

I don't normally teach assisted rescues. I didn't do a lesson for it on the blog, and they aren't included in the book. I formerly taught for the National Outdoor Leadership School and they were a big part of the curriculum. They are wonderful in big groups, when the group doesn't have a lot of experience.

Two weeks ago I spent some time with a superstar student. She is interested in going on the next expedition, and she made this decision with no real paddling experience. Essentially she responded to a challenge. In response to seeing one of the Paddle North Videos, she said 'I would love to do something like that." I said you can, we are planning another trip. What keeps you from going? She started to come up with reasons and realized they were all pretty weak excuses. She then dove in whole heartedly. She bought a kayak, and has been working pretty hard to get where she needs to be - skill wise - to do a trip like the inside passage trip. So we spent a day working on assisted rescues, balance drills and we also did paddle floats, and scrambles. To her credit she is the first person I have ever seen successfully complete a scramble on their first attempt, and her kayak - the perception essence - has fairly low primary stability.

I like the assisted rescues because in a big group they are faster than the paddle float, it also gives other team members something to do. The key is body contact. One person - the assister - is holding the swimmers kayak. The more contact between the assisters body and the kayak the more stable it will be. She does a pretty nice assisted rescue, mine isn't bad either.

I think the important thing is to make a day like this fun. We certainly had a lot of fun messing around with boats, and rescues.

Assisted Rescue Fun from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Touring or Sea?

Recently after paddling I found myself running some errands. As it turned out my kayak was still on the roof of the trusty Yaris. It gets some funny looks as I drive around town. A big kayak on a little car. On this particular day as I was loading groceries into my car a woman came up to me and asked me if my kayak was a touring kayak or a sea kayak.

People get very much into distinctions in the names of kayaks, and I find people get equally confused by brand names - it's an ocean kayak, so you can use it in the ocean, right? I told the woman that there was really no difference between a touring kayak and a sea kayak, but it got me thinking. Was I right? is there a difference? So I looked around.

At Delta Kayaks website, under the products tab is a drop down menu that lists "sea kayaks" followed by sit on tops, and recreational kayaks. They have every sit in style of kayak listed as a sea kayak with the exception of a ten foot kayak. So according to Delta, 12 feet and up is a sea kayak, and the word touring is never used.

P&H breaks boats down by "expedition" "play" and "versatile" and there is a great deal of overlap in sizes.

Wilderness systems avoids the words sea kayak, but uses 'recreational', 'touring' and 'touring performance' with the differentiators being length. They also add 'expedition' which is boats 16 feet in length or greater - regardless of sit in, sit on, or materials.

I decided to try one more manufacturer, Valley kayaks doesn't use any of the above, preferring to break down by materials, with off shoots for 'greenland' and 'sports and fitness'.

I intentionally chose manufacturers from Canada, the US, and England to see if the difference was national.

The only place I could really find the touring kayak/sea kayak separation was on REI's website. They break it down by length. Sixteen feet and up is a sea kayak. I don't know if I agree with this. But at the end of the day I don't think it matters. I am just happy to go for a paddle.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The answer is in the bag

There is a piece of gear that very few people think of, and it really makes all the difference in the world, for both day trips, and on multi day trips - and it is really so simple.

It is an oversized mesh duffel bag, I use one similar (but bigger!) to this. Unfortunately REI no longer makes the exact one I use.

It makes going on day trips super easy, I grab my bag, and paddle (which is in its own bag), load the boat on the car and I am good to go. I know that everything I need is in the bag. PFD, spray skirt, bilge pump, paddle float, paddling shoes, my little deck bag with sun screen, a water additive, some power food like clif mojo bars, a throw bag, a water bladder, rain shell and rain hat. Not all of this will go on all my day trips, but if I want it, it's there. I can then put the bag back in my car, or in one of my storage compartments. In the winter I add my dry suit along with other paddle clothing options - dry suit isn't always the right option - Pogies, wool hat.

On one end of a bag I have a medium size quick dry pack towel, and on the other side a carabiner to hold my shoes so they can dry. Because the bags are mesh my wet gear is much more likely to dry out.

With all that gear, I don't have to make multiple trips to and from the car to the boat, and I know that everything I need is there. As convenient as this is, it is an actual life saver on multiday trips and expeditions, where I use two of them. All of the gear I carry - From tents to cook sets, to food to radios - fits inside two of these extra large duffels. One for the bow hatch, and one for the stern. When I load the boat in the morning one bag is situated at each hatch and it makes the packing process much faster. The last thing into the hatch is the bag - water resistant bottom, facing up, which tends to catch water that has gotten through the hatch covering. When I arrive at the beach The first thing out of the hatch is the bag. Shake any water off of it, start filling it from the hatch. I make two trips from the boat to where my tent will be pitched, and then a trip with the kayak itself.

This seems like common sense, but I have done so many trips where people make multiple trips from the beach to the tent site with arms full of gear

This is a video from a test pack for the inside passage - just to make sure everything fit. - the only things that aren't in the duffels are a black pelican case that held a camera (that case didn't end up going on the trip), the largest food bag and my paddle - yes, my paddle lives in a fleece 'cows, chickens and sheep' bag.

Packing from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.

There is one last piece of this puzzle that really makes it work. I bought a dry suit primarily because no matter what solution I tried, my feet and my bottom where always wet. I go to great lengths to protect the socks attached to my dry suit. When I am paddling I am wearing NRS desperado socks over them, but when I am putting on or taking off my drysuit I use this. I can stand on it, so I am not standing on rocks or sticks or in mud, and I can ball the drysuit - or anything I am wearing that is wet - into the pad. It has a draw string that pulls it closed like a big dumpling.