And o’er the wide sea, flying without wings,
The Furies - Aeschylus
Sunday dawned clear and cold upon Lumpy Waters. Actually, as I was sleeping at the time, I do not know how it dawned.
However it dawned, I was ready for another day at the Lumpy Waters Symposium. Friday had been fraught– mass carnage, swimmers in the water and a rescue requiring Coast Guard, the Netarts Fire Department and others. Still, it had been a great day. No one had gotten hurt. I had pushed myself in big conditions and had learned a great deal and we certainly had something to talk about over dinner.
Saturday, on the other hand, had been all too tame. Perhaps the coaches felt chastened by Friday’s events; for whatever reason, the day had been disappointing. I took Combat Rolls in the morning and Towing in the afternoon. The rolls class saw too many students crammed together in very mild locations. The towing was, well, towing. Good practice but hardly something to fuel fireside discussions in years to come.
Sunday, I hoped would be different. I had signed up for Advanced Rock Gardening & Cave Exploration led by Sean Morley and Jeff Laxier amongst others. Sean projects an intensity of personality, which finds expression in his ambitious and challenging courses. Jeff is an equally as experienced a paddler, but has an easy-going nature and a seemingly constant grin. Both are so competent that you feel comfortable pushing your limits with them knowing (hoping) that they’ll be with you through any jams you might get yourself into.
The Sunday rock-gardening class was to depart from Cascade Head and then continue north, up the coast for a few miles, visiting the caves, arches and other features along the way. Conditions for Sunday had been forecast as extremely mild; the 6’+ swell of Friday was expected to settle down to 2.5’. This would take some of the potential drama out of the day, but would open up more features for play and exploration.
The dawn broke cold and clear as we paddled up the Salmon River from the put in . . . Damn. Not again! Let me retry that.
We set out from Knight’s Park as a large group, at least twenty or so including the coaches. For those of you who have never paddled here, sorry, you’ve missed out on a stunning location. The Salmon River wends its last few miles between tree-covered hills forming the Cascade Head on the north bank and the lower marshy land on the south. As you round the last bend, just before breaking through to the sea, the marsh is replaced by wind-driven low dunes and the hills tumble-down to stone gates guarding the last approaches to the sea before the river gives up the ghost and melts into the endless Pacific.
Our class assembled on the dunes just at the sea’s mouth. The coaches performed a quick triage, dividing the group into three sections based both on student professed desire for challenge as well as their assessment of our abilities. I was childishly pleased to be placed in the most aggressive group. At first, the predicted swell seemed accurate; we passed through the initial breakers effortlessly. Once we made our way out past the shelter of the headlands though, it became apparent that conditions were quite a bit more interesting. There was a high swell, I’d say at least 6’, and a moderate breeze blowing from the north.
It was challenging paddling but fun. We decided to push all the way to the north and then work our way slowly back south to the put-in. I’d only been on this part of the coast once before, and that time it had been so fog-bound that I had seen almost nothing. On our way north, we passed a huge cave, but it looked difficult to enter due to swells and waves. We passed a beautiful crescent beach with a waterfall at its end and finally arrived at Two Arches rocks as our first destination.
Due to the increased swell, Two Arches presented a daunting challenge. The main arch, which we wanted to pass through, looked north. The wind-driven swell coming from the same direction meant that big sets would almost fill the arch with breaking waves. Also, due to the direction of the swell and the dynamics of the location, the waves would tend to break against the east side of the arch rather than just passing straight through. In order to get through safely, it was necessary to over correct, veer west, in anticipation of getting pushed east.
Sean passed through the arch first to assess the difficulty of the passage for students. He disappeared from view then popped out, giving Jeff, who had stayed back with the rest of us, the high sign to come through. The first student made it through without problems. I had set myself up to be next. When my turn came, I set off paddling, aiming my boat for the left (west) arch to avoid the wash back to the eastern side. I did not manage this correctly though, and when the surge hit me in the arch, I was pushed to the eastern wall. I am not sure if my boat made contact, but I paddled hard to avoid contact and to stay upright. Too hard, I almost went over but finally popped through the arch into heavy reflection and chaotic seas. I had made it!
The Furies Attack
Soon though I became aware that not all was well. I seemed to be hemorrhaging a mess of tangled yellow cord. What the . . . ? Looking down, I realized the obvious — my tow bag had come open. Clearly, I had not checked it after the previous day’s towing class. This was not good. The rope represented a danger, I was in a rough area and I was now holding up the class. The latter weighed heaviest on me. I fumbled with the tow line but could not quite manage to stow it. I had to continually brace to stay upright. Finally, I managed to cram it in the bag, but I was drifting close to the rock wall of the arch. I do not remember how it happened, but I went over.
Hanging out under the kayak, I tried set up for my roll, but nothing was happening. I was close to the rock, but I do not think I was hitting it. I think it was a combination of the swell and the wind that was preventing me from floating up to get in position. I thrashed around a bit under water, then gave up. Again!! Why? It was fate. My own hubris had brought this on. I had been absurdly pleased with myself at Netarts. I had stayed up when almost all other had gone down. On the beach, today, I felt a proud when I had been chosen to go with the “good” group. And now here I was, thrashing around like a surf perch on a line. The Furies had caught me.
So I pulled the skirt and exited. This was different from my last swim in July on the Columbia River Bar. That occasion had been truly dangerous. This was just humiliating. I popped up and Sean, who was hovering nearby, helped me back into my boat. The conditions were rough, so he didn’t take the time to do a T-rescue, which left my boat flooded. Jeff Laxier also was present as we had been gone from the rest of the group for quite some time.
I tried to paddle out but I was having problems with the flooded boat; it was slow going paddling and bracing simultaneously. Sean, seeing my slow progress, clipped a tow line on me and we started back for the main group. Jeff added a contact tow and I started pumping like a hyperactive whale to bring some stability back to my boat. We rounded the corner back to the main group looking like a three-ring circus and rejoined the team with only my ego bruised.
Could I have rolled? Well, as my kids like to say, “Duh!” You can (almost) always roll. Nine times out of ten, there is no objective reason that you cannot, save your own moral failings. So there. A failed roll means you have not set up properly, or that you have tried to roll too soon or that you have given up.
In my case, with a weak “off-side,” the way I setup when I am poorly positioned or held down by wind or waves is to do a series of aggressive strokes under water so that I can float up in a good position. Sometimes this means having to actually reorient the boat. In cases where there is heavy wind and/or swells pushing my hull in the opposite direction, this can be difficult. The rock wall made this strategy tougher. Clearly, I need a roll for all conditions. When I am playing with rolls, I can do all sorts of exotic maneuvers. When I am in conditions, I only rely on the basic sweep. Time to translate this exotica in to a real-world rolling toolbox.
Also, just wondering here, but this was the second time (Columbia Bar being the first) that I’ve witnessed a rescue foiled by not dumping the water out of the boat. I know the logic– you’ve got to be quick so as to minimize the danger to all by just getting back in the boat and pumping later. The problem with this is that in conditions when you really need a quick rescue, paddling with a flooded boat is hard. Really hard. Moreover, the rescuee is often a dunderhead like myself and not a seasoned paddler a la our coaches. So I’d like to make a bold statement here - take the extra 30 seconds to dump the water. Else, you’ll often wind up with a second rescue and so increase the danger even more.
Anyway, by this time, both the wind and swell had increased and the coaches vetoed any more transiting of the arch. We began working our way south, stopping to explore features and learn new techniques.
Moving through tight features in heavy seas reinforced just how important boat control and timing is. Nothing like that grinding Captain Crunch sound of smashed barnacles and splintering gelcoat to let you know that you didn’t quite position your boat correctly for that last pour-over or that you mistimed the wave surge.
About half-way back, we came to the crescent beach we had passed earlier. I had seen this beach once before, on my previous fog-bound trip, when it had been pointed out as hazardous due to its heavy, dumping surf. I was a bit intimidated when Sean announced that we would land on this same beach for lunch. Sean explained that the ability to land through dumpy surf was an important skill for coastal explorations. He explained that the best way to handle this kind of landing was to come in close, pull the spray skirt and exit the boat just before entering the final beach smacking wave.
As usual, Sean went in first. I couldn’t see exactly how he rode in, but soon we could see him with his paddle raised on the beach. Jeff brought us near shore and then he and Sean coached us in back-paddling and doing our utmost to avoid surfing and to stay in control. When I got close, I pulled the spray skirt and while in the final break, slipped out of my kayak, following it into the shore.
Once on the beach, it was obvious that coming in while still in the boat would have been a very bad idea. The shore was very rocky, very steep and the waves basically came in, stood up and dumped hard on the strand. As I scrambled up to grab my boat, I saw that there was a couple of large rocks, like tiger teeth, right in the surf zone. These were all but invisible when coming in from the sea. I would have not have had the ability to maneuver around them coming in with this method. So a note of caution if you are not yet paddling at the level of Sean and Jeff.
Speaking of skill, it was instructive to watch Jeff come in. Jeff anchored our group and came in last after we were all on the beach. He also back-paddled so as to avoid surfing and, like us, he pulled his spray skirt before entering the final break. Unlike us, he did not roll out of his boat, rather, he got up out of the seat and sat on the deck just behind the coaming. Due to his high perch, and skill in putting himself just at the right spot on the wave he was able to come under his own power and in control. At the last second, he put his feet down and the boat just went forward under its own steam. Jeff waltzed in, dignity intact. It would not be easy though, so one more skill towards which to aspire.
Even for us neophytes though, this method worked well (though it all looked a bit undignified with folks rolling out of their boat and flailing in through the dump). One of our empty boats came in on exactly the wrong part of the wave, rose up to the crest and was smashed hard. When we went to recover it, we discovered that the deck seam had cracked like a ripe water melon and the forward compartment was flooded. Luckily the boater had float bags and Sean had a comprehensive repair kit, so the kayak was made sea-worthy. Moral – carry a good repair kit, float bags are cheap insurance as well.
A quick snack on the beach was followed by a re-launch. The beach was very steep and composed of more pebbles than sand. The best way to get back in the water and through the heavy dumping surf, was via a seal-launch. I had never done this before and it was interesting and rather fun. We set up on the steep embankment just above the surf zone. We got into our kayaks, sealed the sprayskirts and, when the surge charged up the beach, we pushed off into the surf, the idea being to treat the heavy dump something like a pour-over and use momentum and timing to carry us over the hazard. In our cases, we launched with a bit of a boost provided by Sean and Jeff . It worked well and we shot out past the shore break, then paddled like hell till we were out of the danger zone.
Despite its great size, we entered one at a time, backwards, while the rest of the class remained in the mouth. It is considered safer to enter Sea Caves in this fashion so that if an unexpected high swell hits and you are driven back far into the depths of the cave , you are less likely to yourself , stuck unable to turn around in a grim place. We each took turns working our way as far back as we dared. There was no real danger for us, as the swell entering the cave was minor, still it was unnerving. I later spoke to Patrick and “Danger” Bill who told me that they had ventured all the way back, a “quarter-mile” according to Patrick, and that the cave terminates at a dark beach in some cleft in the hills. They did not mention if Gollum was living there muttering darkly to himself, but that is the mental image I am left with. Let me know what you find there if you go.
With the cave behind us, it was just a short paddle back to the Salmon River mouth. Now that the swell had kicked up, we spent a few minutes playing in the breakers before paddling up river to our put-in at Knight’s Park.
Another great day with lots of learning – reinforcements about the necessity of a beyond bullet-proof rolls, pointers towards rock-garden techniques, cool (but risky) techniques for coming in on dumpy waves and a bit of Moria sea-caving. Despite my brush with the Furies, I packed up for the drive back to Portland, very satisfied.
Some thoughts on Lumpy Waters
Holding an open kayaking training event on the Oregon coast is a daunting undertaking. At the best of times, we have icy water, heavy seas and rapidly changing conditions. Despite this, Alder Creek and the folks who manage Lumpy Waters manage to bring together almost 100 paddlers with a wide range of skills and experience and put them through an array of ambitious classes with very few incidents. Obviously, in 2011, there was a close call, but despite this the over-all record is excellent.
In my experiences with Lumpy Waters, you could not find a better bunch of coaches anywhere. Many of them are from the Northwest, they know the conditions and the environment. Moreover, they know us and can translate that knowledge into instruction. Other coaches are drawn from around the United States and abroad, they bring with them a wealth of teaching styles and traditions which enrich our already vibrant kayak culture.
What is an acceptable level of risk at an event such as this? Risk is not an unavoidable part of sea-kayaking, it is an essential component. There are plenty of past-times where the danger-level is quite low – tennis, golf and checkers come to mind as examples. Sealing yourself into a puny boat and launching into the Pacific, however, is not. To deny this is to deny the obvious. That said, danger is still something we try to manage. We want to be near it, to brush against it, but not fall too deeply in its grasp. So we sign up for events like Lumpy and pay a rather paltry sum to very skilled folks to bring us into contact with something thrilling and daring and authentic and profound.
We count on the coaches to try to square the circle – to make the inherently dangerous safe. They try and we all weigh in when the sword swings too close. If at times, that brush with danger is a bit too real, well, there’s plenty of other places to kayak. There is no shortage of stunningly, achingly, beautiful flat water kayaking in the Pacific Northwest. And of course, there’s always checkers. I’m already looking forward to Lumpy Waters 2012.