Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review - Dark Skies Weather App

I hate the weatherman. I really do. I don't trust him. He lies to me regularly. In fact one of my favorite quips, while standing in the rain when it was supposed to be sunny is - "you know what meteorologist means in English? Liar."

I know it isn't their fault, as weather prediction technology has gotten better and better, the people trained to use it have ended up with too much information and not any more real ability to predict weather. I generally don't trust a weather prediction that is more than 48 hours out. Meaning I will only look into the next 48 hours to see what they are predicting and consider it reliable. Life was more simple when all they had at their disposal was barometric pressure readings, now they have radar that sees everything, and satellite imagery, and pressure variables, and lots and lots of computer modeling. At the end of the day they can't really predict the weather.

Over the years I have taken to using a VHF when paddling, I want to know what the weather is doing where the wind is coming from. That will tell me what is coming my way, usually. I also wear a watch with a barometer for very localized weather predicting. If I am paddling, and the pressure is dropping, bad weather is coming, and it is time to get off the water.

In the film 'three days of the condor' CIA analyst Robert Redford is a micro weather enthusiast. In the beginning of the film - to illustrate how smart he is - he predicts that it will start raining at something like 10:48. Slightly later when he is being chased by the baddies, it starts to rain and he checks his watch. Seeing this made me look into micro weather and at the time it didn't really exist. Now it does.

Yesterday I taught a GPS class in what the weatherman predicted would be rain all day. My boss was concerned I would be able to make the class happen because the rain would be too bad, I said I am making this class happen, and the only thing that would end it would be an electrical storm - which they were calling for at 2:00pm.

But I had with me, Dark Skies ($3.99 the app store) and I figured I would give it a chance. Right now as it is open on the table next to me, I see a black circle that says 39ยบ and rising. Around the circle it says Mostly cloudy.

Below that is a bar graph with the vertical access going from light to heavy, and left to right the next hour in 10 minute increments. Below it says "light rain starting in 20 minutes".

Yesterday teaching class I would move us under shelter or out into the open based on these instructions. It worked phenomenally well. The entire class got into the predictions this app was making, and it became a point of discussion. The next page - with a swipe to the right shows the next 24 hours, for both cloud cover and temperature, (as well as sunrise and sunset time). the next swipe to the right shows the week to come. There is also a weather map, and an alarm mode - that works like "notify me if...."

I am super impressed with this little app, and it is now my go to source for current weather.

Friday, March 28, 2014

10 essentials for sea kayaking

If you are active in the outdoors, you should be aware of the ten essentials list. What started as a list of ten items not to go into the outdoors without, has evolved and become ten 'systems' not to go into the outdoors without. Here is a great page with both the original and the new updated 'systems' version, along with some history.

But as I stated a few weeks ago, Sea kayaking is really the 'bastard step child' of the outdoor community. So I searched for a kayaking specific ten essentials and didn't find anything definitive, so I decided to make my own. I am going with the 'systems' concept. So here it is, Ten essential systems for Sea kayaking. Each item is going to have two sections. (a) You have to have this, and (b) It's good to have this.

#1 SAFETY - (a) This should be at a minimum a PFD with a whistle attached, a bilge pump and a paddle float. In section (b) I would add signaling device. Preferably one that makes light. Flare, Strobe, mirror. Then consider adding a throw rope and a short tow.

#2 NAVIGATION - (a) Map/Chart and compass. I keep a compass in the pocket of my PFD. (b) I am a fan of GPS. on long trips there is one in a waterproof case under my deck bungies. Put that chart in a waterproof case. And use it! Keep track of where you are.

#3 APPROPRIATE DRESS - (a) What ever is appropriate for the situation In the hot days of summer something to keep you cool, and in the cooler seasons wind/rain/insulation layers. (b) Paddle jacket or drysuit will change the way you paddle. I paddle all winter, and you can too!

#4 SELF CARE - (a) Sunscreen/hat/sunglasses (b) Lip balm. Good foot protection and foot care. While we are at it, how about good hand protection and hand care!

#5 EXTRA CLOTHING - (a) a small dry bag with a change of clothes appropriate to the season (b) a slightly larger dry bag with a change of clothes for those that didn't bring extra clothing, and ended up wet

#6 NUTRITION - (a) depending on the length of your trip, power food, gels, drink additives whatever you like. Water and plenty of it, and an easy delivery method! (b) More of the same, when a good day turns bad, a lack of calories can make a bad situation worse. It will impair your judgement. Pack extra food.

#7 FIRE - (a) a minimum of a fire source, a disposable lighter, or better a storm lighter (b) A fire starting kit, I use a small pelican case with a swiss army knife, flint/magnesium and tinder.

#8 COMMUNICATION - (a) As simple as the whistle in your PFD (b) Cell phone in a waterproof case (and turned off when not in use! we kayak to get away from the world!) VHF (I saw a photo of a reader recently on a day paddle wearing a VHF on his PFD. Good for you Mark! Awesome for weather updates, and communication with nearby vessels, or contacting The Coast Guard if need be. More than a day trip? consider a SPOT or a Satellite phone.

#9 FIRST AID KIT (a) a good first aid kit in a dry bag that you can get to from your cockpit (b) consider a Wilderness First Aid course or the longer Wilderness First Responder course.

#9 ILLUMINATION (a) Headlamp. The flashlight has gone the way of the Dodo. Try paddling with a flashlight in your hand. (b) a backup headlamp with extra batteries.

#10 A PLAN - (a) even on day trips, tell someone where your going. (b) Do a float plan and leave it with someone, or on the refrigerator in the kitchen where everyone will see it. I know a place where you can download one for free!

#11 KNOWLEDGE - Get instruction from a qualified instructor or school, Knowledge is the single most important aspect of being safe in any environment.

What did I forget? Let me know!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Minimalist Kayakers Manifesto

There are a couple of 'agendas' I have been trying to push with this website. The first and most important is that people need to seek kayak instruction. Yes, you can buy a kayak, a paddle and pfd and go paddling and have a good time, but it is so much better when you actually know what you are doing. The second, is that it doesn't take an amazing amount of skill to camp from your kayak, and it is in fact easier than backpacking, and more adventurous (unless your form of backpacking is ultralight in the winter, in the mountains and solo.)

A third agenda is that you can do this, and be a minimalist. Now, don't let that word 'minimalist' scare you. It really just means simple. Keep things simple. I like kayak camping because of its simplicity. I like that for the month I was on the inside passage I had two changes of clothes. That all the food I was going to eat was already in the boat. That we lived by the cycle of tides and sun. This is what I mean by simple. I wasn't distracted by phone, or email, or television. There was no office chatter, and no gossip.

Yes, there is gear involved. But here are some guidelines to be a minimalist kayaker on an expedition, or a day paddle.

Find out what works for you, and stick with it. I update gear when it is at the end of its life, or newer tech has so surpassed the performance of what I am using that it would be silly not to upgrade. A good example of this is sleeping bags. My sleeping bag is coming to the end of its life, and it has performed well. But as it comes to the end of its life I am starting to look at treated down. Down sleeping bags have been exceedingly rare in use with kayakers, but for the first time paddlers - myself included - are looking at them for paddling. Technology has caught up.  When I do upgrade, the older piece of gear goes away. If it still has some life in it, it gets handed to a friend who is just starting out, or sold.

This also means that I am never wondering what gear to pack or what to wear. I have summer paddling clothes, and I have winter paddling clothes. The only question is when do I switch between the two. I have a bilge pump and a paddle float and I always pack them and they are always in the same place.

Don't be a slave to technology. I love GPS. I carry one on long trips - a Garmin Dakota 20 that is probably 5 years old - and I use it when appropriate, as a check for map and compass. Not only doesn't it replace map and compass, but I am also not lusting after a much newer one. At the end of the day (or the paddling trip) all GPS's do the same thing. The ability to make a waypoint, and get distance and direction to the waypoint. Adding maps are nice - which my dakota does - but is far from necessary. I don't need one that takes pictures, geotags video, knows if it is being held sideways or vertically or anything else.

Spend more, less frequently. I buy beautifully made gear. I use it for a long time. I replace it when it is dead. I like things that are well crafted, and made with care. My four primary pieces of gear are proof of this. I swear by Delta Kayaks, Werner Paddles, Astral PFD's and Kokatat paddle clothing. Yes, I spent $400 on my paddle. Here is the history of my paddle purchases. I bought a $60 paddle with my first boat and used it for a year. I bought (actually received as a gift from my girlfriend - now wife) a  carbon Werner Camano, I used it for nine years, and it is still my back up paddle. My current Werner Kalliste is five years old, and it probably has another five years in it. My Werner paddle was made by hand in Sultan Washington, and you can have it when you can pry it from my cold dead fingers.

When buying gear, plan for 'the big trip'. Don't buy gear thinking, 'oh before I do that big trip I have always wanted to do, I will upgrade to a better.....' Because you know what? It will become the thing that keeps you from doing the big trip. I bought my Delta knowing in the next few years I would do the Inside Passage. When it was time to do the passage, I had a suitable boat. When my tent died I bought a four season tent, knowing it was way more tent than I would need 99% of the time. But I also knew I wouldn't have to buy another tent for the Inside Passage. Which also means when it is time for this summers trip to Prince William Sound I don't have to worry about boat or tent, or anything else.

Don't Buy "gee-gaws" or anything else that is unnecessary. A gee-gaw is that super cool, keychain headlamp bottle opener. Buy things that you actually need, that serve a purpose. Things that improve safety or quality of life. If you are packing a headlamp, you don't also need an 800 lumen flashlight - no one needs an 800 lumen flashlight! Think about what you are buying, and packing. If you think you might need it, don't bring it. Bring the things you know you will need.

Don't buy something just because it is the latest and greatest, buy it because you know the purpose it serves and why it serves you well.  There is a whole new wave of ultra-light free standing tents on the market. They are amazingly light. But you know what? They don't suit the kind of weather I paddle in. So while I can admire the beauty of the design, they serve no purpose for me. I upgraded from the Hero 3 to the 3+ because I needed the extended battery life. It served a purpose that will directly benefit me on extended trips.

Minimalism can apply to your paddling as well.  Much like Bruce Lee taught with Jeet Kun Do, I try and break everything down to its simplest movements. If I am doing more than is needed I am wasting energy. A good indicator of wasted energy is noise. IS your paddle making a lot of noise as it enters and leaves the water? You are wasting energy. I should be smooth and fluid and simple.

As I write this, I am sitting in a room without furniture. When my son moved out, he took our couch and coffee table, and we never felt the need to replace them. But I am sitting comfortably on the floor, next to a warm fire. I have everything I need. I don't own a lot or material possessions, and I do consider myself a possession minimalist. But I have the things I need to do the things I love. I don't have a quiver of boats, but I have one boat that I love that I use a lot. I try and extend the rules above to the rest of my life, and it is really very easy. The fewer possessions I have, the happier I generally am. I am pretty frequently trimming the amount of clothes I own, and I give away a lot of books and other possessions.

We have been trained to believe that happiness is possession based, and it simply isn't true. You don't have to have much, if what you have suits your needs, serves a purpose, and performs well.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

It's time to switch your km's to n.m.

A couple of days ago I found myself on r/kayaking (the kayaking specific sub-reddit. It is unfortunately very recreational kayaking, and very little touring kayaking. There is r/seakayaking but it gets very little traffic and most of it is me.) and someone posted an awesome photo of a sea arch.  It was titled "kayaked over 10kms for this, So Perfect"

I did the math - actually google did the math - and "10kms" is 6.2 miles. Now I am going to get a little nit picky, because I am a bit of a navigation geek, and I should point out I teach a lot of navigation classes. I have read the history of the compass, as well as the history of longitude - a great little book, aptly titled "longitude". I taught myself to use a sextant, even though it is impossible to use a sextant in a kayak. So here comes the nit picking.

First, paddling 6.2 miles isn't that far. I applaud anyone who gets in kayak, sets their sights on a goal and accomplishes it. But if you are traveling 2 miles an hour, that is only 3 hours in the cockpit. That isn't really that much time.

Second, If you are starting look at distances, and set goals you are going to do much better if you choose not to use Kilometers. Now I like the metric system as much as anyone but kilometers just aren't meant for use in a boat. And you shouldn't be using statute miles either.

You should be using Nautical Miles, here is why:

One nautical mile travelled in an hour, is referred to as one Knot. And the origin of the name knot, is this:

Until the mid-19th century, vessel speed at sea was measured using a chip log. This consisted of a wooden panel, attached by line to a reel, and weighted on one edge to float perpendicularly to the water surface and thus present substantial resistance to the water moving around it. The chip log was "cast" over the stern of the moving vessel and the line allowed to pay out.[5] Knots placed at a distance of 47 feet 3 inches (14.4018 m) passed through a sailor's fingers, while another sailor used a 30-second sand-glass (28-second sand-glass is the currently accepted timing) to time the operation.[6] The knot count would be reported and used in the sailing master's dead reckoning and navigation. This method gives a value for the knot of 20.25 in/s, or 1.85166 km/h. The difference from the modern definition is less than 0.02%.

So why would you possibly want or need to use a measuring system from the 1800's? Because if you are using a chart, that is the system they are using, so why would you want to use something like kilometers, on a chart designed for nautical miles. You are making work for yourself. Of course, we are used to thinking in terms of kilometers or miles, and it will take a little while to get used to it.

For reference, a kilometer is .62 statute miles, and .54 nautical miles. That is right, a kilometer is pretty close to half a nautical mile.

But that still doesn't tell me why I should be using nautical miles? Well, here is the reason. Because one nautical mile is equal to one minute of latitude. Which means you can measure a distance on your chart, and then determine the length of that distance - either with string or dividers - right on the side of the chart. It makes life super easy.

I think it is important to set goals and paddle towards them. But you should be able to measure the distance when you are looking back.

Friday, March 21, 2014

For me, it starts with a Pile

I am usually a list maker. But for a trip of this size and duration, a list won't do it. Too many little things get left behind. So I generally start with a pile.

I pick a spot, this time it will be in my office, and as I think about a piece of gear that I need to remember, it gets added to the pile. That started this week, and it is more difficult than you might think.

I don't put paddling gear in the pile. I am going to be paddling right up to about a week before departure, and so that gear will live in my car. But I will add camping gear, first aid, cooking, video and power, and boy do we have a lot of power gear on this trip.

I started with the Goal Zero Sherpa 50, and have added a largish solar panel, and believe it or not another sherpa 50. The sherpa is pretty much a large battery - though one of them has an AC inverter on it - but it is designed to charge from a wall outlet, or a solar panel. So far it has been pretty impressive, charging my DSLR in about the same time as the wall adapter, and only using 20% of its battery o do so. The real test will be how quickly it charges from the sun. Particularly since I have figured out a way to do this not he back of my boat while it will still be in a waterproof housing - I know this will effect efficiency but I need to protect the unit.

There are a handful of little things I need to purchase still. But they really are little things. Flares, some chemical light sticks, and a new OR Seattle sombrero. In the scheme of things that isn't much. Food will be done about a week before we leave, and "freshies' will be purchased in Anchorage. But the bags I use to pack the food are in the pile.

In about a month I will pack all the clothes that are going - once I don't need my drysuit to do my daily paddles. and that will get added to the pile. Whenever I plan these trips I feel like I won't need to buy much gear, but there is always a list of little things. Things that I missed last time, or just wanted. Three of us will be sharing my tent, which is nice because the parts will be spread out. But of course it is bad because three of us are sharing a tent. But it will go on the pile.

As we get closer to the departure date, the pile will grow. Then we will start packing the boats. Test packing to be precise. I think when I did the Inside trip I had already done packing practice, but I have fewer concerns this time. In part because the trip is shorter and in part because there may be a boat change coming. Details on that as we get closer. But right now, we are 64 days out!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Someday, we will learn (is any plastic safe?)

Several years ago the world went a little crazy with the scare that BPA (Bisphenol-a) was leaching out  of our water bottles and into our bodies. At the time that this occurred I worked for a major outdoor retailer, and it was my job to train staff in all manner of products. Because I was already set up as a trainer, It fell to me to educate staff in every aspect of the BPA scare and what it meant to people active in the outdoors. I got access to a tremendous amount of information. From the bottle companies. From the FDA, and even from the chemists who had done the tests on the bottles. I literally read the reports generated by the labs, and I while I generally only understood the overview sections, it was fascinating.

The effects of BPA were originally listed as pretty broad, but they finally settled on something similar to this.

Bisphenol-a is an endocrine disruptor - a substance which interferes with the production, secretion, transport, action, function and elimination of natural hormones. BPA can imitate our body's own hormones in a way that could be hazardous for health. Babies and young children are said to be especially sensitive to the effects of BPA.

I learned more about BPA than I ever wanted to learn, and I learned more mis-information from people than I thought was possible.

For example, I learned that for a product to have BPA in it, it has to be both hard, and transparent polycarbonate plastic. The softer white water bottles don't have - and never had - BPA. And Hard non-transparent bottles and other items like plates or mugs didn't have BPA.

I learned that the amount of BPA that leaches out of your plastic water bottle is microscopically small at room temperature. But if you put boiling water in a bottle the amount leached from the plastic increased dramatically. So don't sterilize your bottle - which is recommended for baby bottles - and don't put your bottle in the dishwasher - which you should never do anyway because they aren't dishwasher safe.

A 7 in a recycle triangle on the bottom of the container doesn't mean it contains BPA, it means it may contain BPA as there are several #7 plastics that have no BPA.

I also learned that as adults we shouldn't be worried about BPA in bottles, because there is so little leaching out (unless we are drinking tea or coffee out of it) but there is still plenty to be worried about. They still use BPA to line food cans, and the more acidic the food is, the more BPA is leached out of the liner. I stopped buying canned tomatoes. The thing you should really be worried about is this.... Register receipts. Register receipts have a massive amount of BPA on them, and unlike a bottle it is 'unbonded' BPA. In a water bottle it is bonded to the plastic and needs something to remove it and allow it to leach - like heat, or something acidic. Which means when you get handed a register receipt you are being handed a large amount of unbonded BPA which comes off on your hands and then ends up getting ingested, because our hands end up touching our faces and lips. I rarely take a receipt from someone.

And finally, I suspected that the entire BPA scare was started by Coca-Cola - putting on my tinfoil paddling hat now - because Nalgene had run an AD campaign saying "use a multi use bottle, because it is better for you and the environment than using a one time use bottle - or using a one time use water bottle multiple times, which is really not a good idea. And here is why!" Coke was concerned about a loss of revenue in the lucrative water market, and took it out on Nalgene and camelbak. I don't know if it is true, but it is a great story.

Our culture of fear - as I have called it before - that absolutely needs something to be afraid of and something to do about it, jumped all over this. People were panicked about their water bottles, but they didn't care about their food containers, or their register receipts.

So I trained staff in what they needed to know about BPA. We pulled all BPA plastic from our store, and eventually replaced it with non-BPA Tritan plastic. Then we saw "BPA FREE" stickers appear on everything with any kind of plastic in it, confusing people more. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of BPA plastic bottles were recalled, with most going in landfills.

Then we saw a small explosion in non-plastic water bottles. Both stainless steel, and glass bottles starting arriving, they were expensive, heavy, and breakable.

It took about a year for the outdoor world to stabilize, but finally we had safe bottles to drink from again, and most of them were still plastic. Some people went to the new plastics. Some went with glass or metal. Some went back to the older HDPE bottles. These people I felt bad for, because I remembered that the reason we switched to polycarbonate bottles was that something was leaching out of the HDPE bottles.

Two days ago, I got an email with a link it. My only thought was, Here we go again:

This video, which isn't particularly well done. Claims - no, I am going to say that it says, because I absolutely believe it - That all plastic has the same leaching properties as BPA laden polycarbonate. That they all have 'estrogenic' effects. That the tritan plastic that replaced the unsafe plastic was never tested by the FDA - in fact most things aren't tested by the FDA.

I think we are a year to 18 months away - depending on how much traction this gets - from another plastic purge. I think this time we will see no recovery from the plastic bottle makers unless they switch to glass or stainless steel.

I think that plastic is great for paddling in, but I don't think we should be eating from it. I have also talked before about how upsetting it is for plastic to get used once - as in a plastic fork, or food container - and then get thrown away. It has a usable life of under ten minutes, from the moment they hand you your food, to the moment you throw away the container. Then it spends decades decomposing. I try to use very little plastic, but if the changes occur the way I think they will, the work will be done for me. I don't think it will be available, at least not in this country. I suspect the bottle makers will shift their marketing to the third world, the way they did with tobacco.

Perhaps in a year I won't be the only one drinking out of one of these.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A new view of the world

I tend to avoid the news. Every once in a while I will pop over to or the and see if anything important is happening. I don't own a TV, so I don't get interrupted by news commercials. My commute - usually spent listening to NPR - is 3 to 5 minutes long depending on traffic lights. So sometimes I will hear a major news story there. Other times it sneaks into my very selective twitter or reddit feeds.

The reason I try and avoid the news is that it is generally depressing, and always questionable reporting. Many years ago I had a significant other that worked for ABC news in New York, and I learned - or realized - at that time that television news is still television, and driven by ratings and sponsors which affects credibility. Much of the news available today is affected in such manner. I generally take any reporting I see with a large grain of salt. And it is always depressing.

I am really sorry that Leonardo Decaprio is upset he didn't win an Oscar, but it isn't news. The remainder of the web this week is talking about a murder trial, a rickshaw murder, Bill Gates and the like. And oh yes, there was an article floating around - no pun intended - about 25 years later there is still oil in Prince William Sound and talking about specific locations that I will be paddling in a few months.

What is news is the Ukraine. But here is the problem with that. If the person the news source is talking to is Russian, then "85% of the population want the Russian troops there to keep the area safe" and if the speaker is Ukrainian, then it is an act of war. And our news sources aren't telling us which is the truth - because maybe they both are (or they don't know either!)

This isn't me keeping my head in the sand either, I like to think of it as controlling the message. Your mental state is controlled information entering into it. If all you hear is bad news, you are going to be unhappy. If you are surrounded by a puppy every day (as I am currently) you are going to be in much better spirits - even though you are sleep deprived.

Which is why I was pleased to stumble across this video.

This is a drone shooting with a Hero 3, and it is truly stunning footage. Hundreds of dolphins (they say thousands which looks like a slight exaggeration) Grey whales and a humpback or two. Drones are in the news a lot and are generally a source of concern. Are we being spied on? or worse is my car about to be blown up by a hellfire missile! This is a different kind of drone. For $600 or $700 dollars you can have a remote controlled drone shooting video. This is an incredible view of our natural world.

Another interesting piece of video that has been floating around the web is this. It dramatically changes our view of impacts of living creatures on the world around them.

I saw this for the first time a few months ago as a TED talk. But that talk has been turned into this video about the broad reaching affect of reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park. It is fascinating how the wolves create a ripple effect with impacts on all manner of species, and even the ecology of the park.

If you don't believe the humans could effect the planets climate look at the effect that a small number of wolves had on a local ecosystem. They literally changed the course of rivers. What effect do you think several billion people have?

Well, we are going to see the effects. In three months I head to Alaska to see the changes made to glaciers, and the impacts of an oil spill 30 years ago. Follow us here, and then when we return there will be a film about the trip. In the mean time, look for some good news.