Category Archives: Sea Kayaking

Phall if you but will, rise you must.




There was turtle.
Turtle was alone and swam in the deeps of the sea.
And none know what Turtle found there.
And turtle is silent.

Turtle grew tired.
Floating on the surface of the sea, he slept.
And turtle dreamed a great dream
and out of this dream came Bear and Raven.

Bear was solid and serious,
but Raven was wily and loved to laugh.
He’d laugh at the sun and the moon and the stars,
but most of all, he’d laugh at Bear.

Now Bear had been busy creating all things.
He created salmon and deer and birds and clams.
But Bear wanted to make things that loved.
Raven thought this was Bear’s funniest notion ever.

So Bear collected some things that he made – little frogs.
He taught them how to stand, to talk and to dream.
And he told them about love.
And they ran off into the world on Turtle’s back.

Now Raven had watched Bear closely,
he asked him, “Oh Bear, what is the secret of love?”
“Time,” said Bear. “Each little frog is meant for one other only.
So it is important that they run off together.”

“Oh,” said Raven, “You are wise Bear.”
But Raven was laughing under his wing.
Now when Bear had left on serious Bear business,
Raven shuffled the little frogs around.

Bear came back and sat down with the little frogs.
He taught them how to stand and talk and dream.
He told them about love and they ran off into the world.
Bear wondered why Raven was snickering.

Soon the little frogs were hopping around,
talking and running and dreaming like crazy.
And they hopped around looking for the other right little frog,
when that right little frog was not yet born or already dead or with another little frog.

And bear scratched his great furry head
and pondered long and hard
and wrote poems about the mystery of love.
But Raven laughed and laughing, flew off to join the little frogs.


Frog by Travis Neel


The Word Known to all Men

The summer of 2013 was supposed to be my kayaking summer. I made plans to prepare for a BCU 4 assessment in the Fall, to get through ACA training with Tim Mattson and company, to go on some long kayaking journeys, to amp up my involvement on the OOPS board, to help plan for and teach at SSTIKS.

Yet, instead of all that, I found myself  leading a project at work that entailed training 500 young students at three universities how to become application developers. My team and I were to spend two weeks at each of the universities, teaching two shifts of students for 8 hours a day.

Our first engagement was in Phoenix, Arizona. The temperature never got much below 110° F, day and night. We carried out our student engagement as hackathons, a kind of wild and wooly unschooling experience that is surprisingly effective way to enable students to teach themselves.

The students fell in love with the program and we fell in love with them. The days were grueling: we had two sets of 75 students per day, but the connection with them made it seem somehow lighter. In fact, there were three sets of students – those two we were leading in the hackathon and a third, which we had brought with us as mentors for the Arizona students. Also with us was an old friend and colleague of mine, Professor Tom, a college professor from California. Tom has a huge personality; he is a force of nature with an infectious enthusiasm and huge love for teaching.

Tom, a white, Celtic, Catholic guy from San Francisco, teaches at a college in a very tough part of the world. So tough, that it can be a nerve-wracking experience wandering through his campus at night. Tom has an amazing rapport with the students there, almost all of whom have had a rough time and are often mistrustful of those outside their community. He is the genuine thing and their mistrust melts away as they connect with him. Typically, after speaking for a few moments with a student, Tom will look at him and say, “You are now my student forever.” He means it. They know. That is all.

Did I mention that I love Tom? I do. He is that kind of person. Once you know him, you have to love him.

“What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross.”

– Ezra Pound, Pisan Cantos, LXXXI

All right. Have we seen a theme develop here? Love? There it is. That is the theme of this blog post.

Why love in a kayak blog?

We say we love kayaking, but what do we mean by that? Is love that which you cannot bear to be without? Well I abandoned my kayak love this summer for another, but I do not love it any less.

Glacier Point Apron, Yosemite

The Author, Glacier Point, Yosemite, Days of Yore.

Is love forever? I used to love to rock climb, but I no longer do it. In fact, I can’t. Too old and did not keep it up enough for my body to accept the considerable strains it places on one, at least at the level at which I was accustomed to climb. I love the memory of climbing, but I don’t think I love it any longer. There it is. Lost love.

Some love never leaves.  A child’s love. A parent’s Love. First love. New love. They remain deep within us but can become difficult to reach.  They must often be rediscovered, rewritten and renewed.

I began this blog a few years ago with that well-known quote from Dante’s Divine Comedy – Midway through Life’s journey, I found myself in a dark place . . .

And, come to think of it, I almost immediately referenced both climbing and kayaking, just as I have done now.

So how do you rediscover those things, which remain? How do you shine a light on those kernels of truth in our love? Must you enter a dark place first? Can a kayak take you there?

Lost in the Stars


One night during the Arizona hackathon we stopped the van, which we affectionately called the Great White Whale, in the middle of the desert at night. The task at hand was to see stars. We piled out of the van into the warm desert darkness and looked upward into swarms of stars. They seemed oddly close, as if a stern flick of the hand could swipe them from the sky like bright little gnats. At the same time, they were far and cold and distant – alien pinpricks in a void.

Of course they were neither gnats nor pinpricks, but rather impossibly huge balls of mostly hydrogen burning with such a flame that they were being converted into something new – Helium. Flame turning to inert gas and flaring light, and heat and radiation beyond what we can bear.
Moreover, these gnats, these pinpricks, these stars may no longer exist; they could have disappeared ten million years ago, and we’d be none the wiser, standing at that moment, there, in the desert.

But the light from those stars illuminated us and we felt ourselves taken up off that road, away from the tasks we were pursuing, to another place.

After some time looking up, I glanced down and saw, of all things, a beautiful creature, like a fox. The light of the stars glinted off the fox’s eyes as they pierced mine. At the same time, I felt the years slough off of me. Like an old snake shedding its skin and finding itself renewed, so I stood. Newborn. Can such a thing happen? Can there be a connection like that between a man and a creature like a fox? Yes. I know, for it happened to me. In that place, bathed in starlight.



Denise & Peatrick

On an early August day, Peatrick, Beatrice and I set out to explore the area between Arch Cape and Manzanita. Though only about six nautical miles in length, it is famous for its sea caves and we were looking forward to exploring them. The conditions were typical for August, a low swell, and though there was a long period, wave energy was negligible.

Peatrick and I have paddled together for years.  He has something of a reputation as a daredevil. This is not true actually.  Peatrick in not a daredevil, but rather an explorer.  He challenges the unknown places and boundaries in his self as well as on the  water.  He is an elegant paddler.

A short walk led down to a sandy beach. I geared up quickly and was ready to get going. I felt, indeed, I knew that today I was going to be invulnerable. Why? Because of the impossible, fox-like creature I had seen in the desert. You cannot encounter something like that without a change – for good or bad. Today was good and I was anxious to set out.

Just as I was ready to launch, Peatrick came running up, a look between humor and embarrassment on his face. It seems that he had forgotten his PFD and now, what should he do? It only took a few minutes for him to decide to launch anyway. Dangerous? Maybe, but on this day it was obvious that this was not a bad idea.


I launched first, and though conditions were low, I had to work hard to get outside the breakers. There was enough wave energy to push me back, even side-surf me a few times. Finally outside, Beatrice joined me, but where was Peatrick? Beatrice wandered off as is her wont, but I stuck around waiting for Peatrick, who I felt might be vulnerable without his PFD.

The day was glorious; the sunlight sparkled on the water and there was just enough ocean swell to bring the sea into your heart. Whilst on the waves, I thought about that beautiful fox-like creature I had met in the desert. Where was she now? I say she, for I know it is a she.


I began to talk to her – “See fox-like creature? See the beauty of this glorious day? See the sparkle of the sun on the sea? See the energy of the wave approach from somewhere deep and far, feel it lift the boat? Watch, fox-like creature, as the water rebounds from the cliff faces and creates such patterns as these”. I was actually speaking these things aloud, so it is good that there was no one nearby to witness my madness.


After a while, both Peatrick and Beatrice showed up, carried by the swell, the pattern of wind-generated waves, from the North. Mounting the waves, we rode them effortlessly south. We paddled towards Cape Falcon, content to be together on the beautiful sea, on such a glorious day, surrounded by the everyday magic of our coast.




“Pay close attention now to how I travel
Through this passage to the truth you long for,
So that you’ll learn to cross the ford alone.”

Paradiso, Canto II, 125

Sea Cave , Cape Falcon, OR

As we neared Cape Falcon, we could see the opening of the caves in the cliffs. From a distance, they seemed like mere niches in the rock or small alcoves. Coming closer, they open rather suddenly into imposing entrances with water surging into the broken yellow brown black of the basalt cliff.

All caves are problematic. The earth is solid, or so we think, and the idea of a hole in it is disturbing. How was it formed? How is it maintained? And more importantly, what is down there? Ogres, dragons, Hell itself?

I do not like caves on land; they are scary and unpleasant. One reason I loved climbing, was the exposure. I loved that empty feeling you get in the soles of your feet, when you are on a sheer face, a thousand feet above the ground with fields of vertical granite stretching in all directions; a feeling akin, it is clear now, to being on the open seas. I hate the claustrophobic feeling of worming into a small hole, to feel the immense weight of the earth above, to imagine a collapse or getting stuck, wedged in a small place. A horrible way to die. Trapped and inaccessible. Lonely.

But sea caves are different. Scary sometimes, to be sure, but the water flowing in and out gives you a sense that you can leave if you desire. And they are full of life, at least near the entrance; the shelter the cave gives makes them home to a plethora of starfish and gooseneck barnacles, anemones, snails and mollusks of all sorts.

In our Oregon setting, basaltic lava dominates everything. Our caves are often formed from weak point in the lava walls, where water has eroded and eaten away the basalt structure. Sometimes, the openings lead to lava tubes formed millennia ago when hot, liquid lava flowed through a more viscous matrix and created tunnels, thousands of feet, even miles in length.

Once inside, every cave is different but the same. The particular shape and form of the cavity causes the water to move uniquely, but it always moves, reflecting and refracting off the sides, hissing and moaning through cracks, steaming sometimes when the flowing water is atomized after being forced through a crack and expelled suddenly in a puff.

The backroom


I ventured gingerly forward into the first cave we approached and, paddling past the starfish encrusted entrance, I found myself in a deep room. It seemed almost circular – complete – like the inside of a stony igloo. As I paddled back, I saw that the back wall was actually broken and, during a low point in the surge, another room was revealed. Dare I try to make that back room? What would I find beyond that low ceiling, in the darkness?

At the back, the ceiling was cut away. If I could time the surge correctly and duck, I could make it through.

If I mistimed, if the surge increased, it could fill the room with water and smash me against the roof. Crazy.

Without thinking much or planning, I leaned forward and stroked hard just as a swell was starting to recede. Ducking, I made it under the low ceiling, but just barely, and moreover the sickening scrape crunch of the paddle against the roof let me know that this was a stupid move indeed.

I was through though. I rode up and down on the familiar swell, alone in this old place. Each time the swell receded a diffuse blue light would fill the cave from the light outside. On the rise though, blackness returned. Blue. Black. Blue. Black. Like the stuttering light of a film projector or a slow strobe – blink on, blink off.

I can’t remember how we first went out. I mean, I remember our first night out, but I do not remember how I asked her. It must have been me asking her – I think. I remember we had sushi. She was a vegetarian and had cucumber roll.
After dinner, we went to a playground and rode on swings.  She sat up on the swing, I leaned forward and we kissed for the first time. It was small revelation of softness and sweet resistance.

I am not sure we did more than that. I gave her some flowers the next day and a note, “Thank you for complicating my life.” She did not know how to interpret that.

I remember kissing and kissing and kissing some more. After such an evening, I remember that light-headed feeling as, intoxicated by love, I’d traipse back to my room in Lothlorien, the co-op I Lived in at UC Berkeley, floating. I remember Randy, my roommate, looking at me when I came into the room and how he smiled; we both knew that feeling.

“Can there be a moment more important than this? Can there be someone whom I love more than you?”  I asked.
“You are my sweetest dearest boy.  I will never love anyone more than you.” she said.


Ride the surge down to a sweet place. 


Long gone now.


If only.  No.


There is no return.

The sudden surge of a big set sets my boat spinning into a brighter blue light and back into a longer, deeper black.
Blue blue fades to black.


All is dark again.
I must leave.

I have to time things correctly, but to my surprise, going out is much easier than going in.  I wait for a deep surge and push off down into the space under the roof.  I ride the rising wave of the swell up effortlessly into the bright sun and see Beatrice, all smiles, waiting for me at the entrance.

“Yay Paul,” she says, characteristically accepting and applauding

Peatrick though is a bit stern; He looks displeased.   “Dude, are you nuts?  Are you trying to be more me than me?”  he says.


The beetling walls above us, though mostly dark grey basalt are not uniform in color or texture. At places where the original lava cracked, new flows have filled the spaces, creating dikes and intrusions. The grey-black basalt is often over-layered or intermingled with swaths of yellow sandstone lending a birthday cake, layered feel to the cliff faces.

Cliff2BWThe constant, driving winter rains have drawn black water stains, which weave into an icing of white streaks – melted guano from thousands of generations of Western Gull, Common Murre, Pelagic and Double-Crested Cormorant, Pigeon Guillemot & Tufted Puffin which call these walls their home.  The Ammonia smell of their waste is a constant a companion in these environs.

Often, when we approach a cliff face, the birds fly off en masse. It can be startling; you enter a sea cave, absorbed by the task of navigating in such a perilous place and all of a sudden a rush of wings and a squawking cry means that you have flushed a nesting guillemot who had been hunkered down on her roost.

Beatrice is a lover of birds and spends many evenings counting owls in the thick forests, which pour down our hillsides to the sea. She is able to identify the birds, which fly panic-stricken out of the caves we enter. She is in many ways birdlike herself, with her slight frame, light gait and constant, ever-present smile and laugh. She flits across the water and is as undaunted by the churning seas as a tern skimming the top of wind-driven waves.

Peatrick is nowhere to be seen, when Beatrice and I come to a new opening in the cliff face. Another cave. I enter. Inside, I find not one room, nor even one passage, but many. It is a game of mazes now, following the branching, flooded lava tubes around pillars, chamber into chambers, sometimes popping back out into our seas, sometimes branching deeper and deeper.

SnowstormTurnerSuddenly and unexpectedly, I come out of the darkness into a bright space.  The roof of the chamber I have entered has collapsed flooding it with light; the reflection off the water creates a blinding flurry of whiteness – the streets are covered with snow, the sky is full of swirling flakes, the street light casts its yellow flame through the blizzard.

I shuffle my feet, and though the world is snow, I am not cold, or more precisely, I do not feel anything – neither cold nor warmth.  I am gripped with numbness in this mad swirling snowflake universe.   The city of Cambridge is utterly silent save for the low rumble of snow-plows working off in the scaleless distance; they sound like distant waves breaking onto an unseen shore.

GladDayThat morning, my daughter was born.

I, a father? I do not understand.

Yet somehow, in a manner beyond any design, plan or control of my own, I am flooded by a deep chthonic love. What to do? How to comprehend this? I stand in the snow, close to tears.

“No matter what,” I vow, “I will be true to this love. I will do what it takes to provide and care for and to nurture this being that is love.”


I depart and wander through the streets. The storm flakes are huge, they swirl like a billion tropical butterflies blown by some miracle to Boston. It is so quiet that I hear the whisper of the snowflakes as they jostle each other before settling with a sigh on the bodies of their predecessors.  My feet kick up little flights of powder, which rise from each step like specks of sea-foam. I walk home, my tracks already obscure.

With a sigh, I slip back from the dazzling room into a dark tunnel. Beatrice is waiting. The tunnel is long. Far at the end, I glimpse a tiny half circle of light. The exit is there.

The tunnel is utterly black and though I can trace the wave form of the swell for a few feet, what happens in the blackness? Will this uniform roof betray me and bulge down? I do not hear anything like the crash of the wave against a feature, but you can never be sure. And even if the roof is true, what of the floor; can I depend on it? Will it stay true and provide my boat the depth it needs to pass through without disaster.

Beatrice and I discuss the way forward for a moment and then decide that the tunnel is the way we must take. I am somewhat grim, but she laughs.

I set out paddling and am swept into a deep blackness. I am acutely aware of the swell we are riding; I surrender to its motion and surf forward. I keep my head low and rudder with my paddle to track straight. The half circle of light grows until I see the open sea beyond. I am thrust forth into an arena of rock walls and boiling distorted clapotis. Beatrice emerges with a shout and we find Peatrick already there? How did he know where we would emerge? Another small mystery on this strange day.

Dear Reader. I have lived more than fifty years and maybe it seems to you at this point that it will take me at least that long to finish this story. I can almost hear your cry, “Enough already! Do you really have anything more to say?”
Do not worry. This journey is almost complete. Just one or two more stops on the way. Patience please.



The Fall

We have been paddling some hours now and though kayaking is a pleasure, sometimes the greater pleasure is to stop. How nice to get out of the cramped cockpit, away from all that blasted water and to free yourself, at least for a while, from the strangled confines of the dry-suit.

Beatrice, who lives on this part of the coast and paddles the area constantly, knows a take out where we can sit in the in the sun and enjoy our lunch. Soon we are at rest on the sand. Out of my kayak, I lay back expecting to relax, but find I cannot.

The clear blue sky above me seems empty. Where are the stars? Have they disappeared forever?  Reaching down, I grasp a handful of dry sand. So many grains, uncountable. They run through my fingers and are lost amongst a million, million others – so futile.

All day, I have been thinking of that fox-like creature. But what to make of it all?  How long can this connection last?  Might the fox already have bounded away to wherever such creatures go? Could this have been just a fluke of timing? Would I ever see such a creature again? Trying to subdue the rising tide of anxiety, I head out to sea.

Our plan is to continue along the coast, round the corner of Cape Falcon and then make our way to Manzanita. The final corner of the Cape juts out into the ocean like the broken prow of a ship. This prominence concentrates much of the wave energy and the features here are beset with angry wreaths of foam and the crash of sucking waves.

I paddle south, still dwelling on the bleak thoughts, which had beset me on the beach. Just ahead of me, two paths diverge under the grey-yellow cliffs. On the left a narrow passage to open seas. On the right, another cave or maybe a tunnel; from my vantage point, I cannot know its dénouement. Which way to take? All day I felt a certainty of purpose, but now, a rising tremolo of doubt. I stop to consider. The cave feels threatening, a black maw, like the open mouth of a panther.

A voice from afar murmured, “The cave is too dark, you are tired, it is dangerous.”

I remember the bright eyes of the fox-like creature. But – the darkness. What might I face?

Haeckel_CirripediaPutting thoughts of the Fox-like creature aside, I opt for the easier way; I will take the open passage and eschew the unknown peril of the cave. As I pause for a moment to plan my route through the arch, I realize that the way is not trivial. Swell flows through the arch from directly in front of me; I will have to plan carefully so that I am not carried out of control backwards. To make matters more complex, the entering water rebounds from features behind me forming a counter wave flowing back through the arch and rebounds against the incoming waves to creating a tohu and bohu of confusion.

Still, if I am careful.

I wait to try to time my passage with the pattern of the swell, but as I launch, I realize that I have made a mistake.

Almost immediately,

I am surfing down

the steep side of the incoming wave.

I am out of control.

I try to edge away from the incoming wall.


It does no good at all.

He was dud.


With a resounding hollow – tonnerronntuonn! - the nose of my kayak impacts the wall.

I hold steady for a moment of a moment then slowly,
like a late winter day, fall.

I try to roll too quickly in the turmoil under the arch and fail.



I lie still, upside down, under the boat. I feel the pulse of the ocean. A gentle rocking – a child – rock me gently. To stay here like this.  Forever.  Peaceful.

I set up, and roll easily.

Passing through the arch, I meet Beatrice.

“Can you look at my boat?”  I ask, “Is it OK?”  She looks at the bow and I see her grimace a bit.  “It is a bit chipped,” she says.  Peatrick comes up and looks carefully at the impact area.  “I dunno, dude,” he says.  “Might be a crack or something.”

As I stare forward, I see a thin white line arching across the bow just in front of the forward hatch.  It is a pressure crack caused by the impact of the blow.  I notice that the black seam, which binds the deck with the hull, is in tatters. My boat is broken.

Tears of shame and defeat well up in my eyes.  Worthless.  Finally after all this.  Worthless.  What a stupid thing to do.

I feel the gaze of the fox recede. Her eyes extinguished. She lopes off into the night. What have I done?

The stars fade and blackness descends on me.  Peatrick is voiceless, brought down by my foul mood.
We paddle in silence.

The Green Glow

Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true.

Beatrice is not so easily quelled.  She insists we visit one last feature.  Paddling around the corner, we see it – a tunnel shaped like a heart.

Reader, I can hear you already.   “This can’t be,” you’ll say.  “You are making this up in order to finish your blog post with a clever ending.  A tunnel shaped like a heart!  Give me a break.”

But dear reader, my dear friend, indeed, you whom I love most – you with whom I have shared these most intimate thoughts.  It is true.  There in front of us is a tunnel whose edges bow out at the top and then narrow, with a feminine curve, to the bottom. And at its apex  – a tongue of rock.  It is indeed a heart of stone or rather, a heart of air and light, for the rock only forms the outline of the heart rather than the heart itself.

And as the air and light and wind stream through the heart, I feel the black bile of despair ebb, never, perhaps, to disappear, but at least to be submerged by this light and held at bay.

As we near the tunnel  . . . of love.  I mean, what else can I call it? As we near the Tunnel of Love, Beatrice becomes more excited and animated, she seems to be waiting for something, or anticipating something, but she will not tell us what it is.

Passing through the heart, we come into a basalt chamber.  The water is . . .   Grey yellow walls surround us.  The water is  . . .  Purple and orange starfish adorn the water line; they creep sloth-like over the fields of barnacles and blue-black mussels.  The water . . . Gulls and murres cry and then swoop in grand circles from the walls.  The water.

“The Green Glow,” Beatrice says, laughing.

The water is a livid, living, glowing green.  Like the water bathing a nuclear pile. And the glow increases at the edge of the chamber.  Bright neon fading to pea green in the center fading to blue back at the outer-most edge.  We are floating on green light.

The walls of the chamber, which are solid above the water, are pierced below; the sun light entering, at just the right angle, ignites the green glow.

I sit in thought. My kayak had taken me to sources of joy and deep pain. In darkness I had found love, but love had brought me to a deep darkness. 

Now in this place filled with light, I feel lost again. Has my journey by kayak reached an end?





“By that hidden way
My guide and I did enter, to return
To the fair world: and heedless of repose
We climbed, he first, I following his steps,
Till on our view the beautiful lights of heav’n
Dawn, through a circular opening in the cave:
Thus issuing we again beheld the stars.”

Inferno, Canto XXXIV, 135


I look for my two companions and find that they are no longer by my side.

Beatrice sits still in her boat, the light of this place illuminating her ever-present smile till she becomes the smile. I look away and then back, but she is gone.

Peatrick is still nearby, but in a moment he turns. Quietly and quickly, he leaves the green light. I see him paddle away.  An explorer; a shade returning to dark water.

For the first time, I am alone.

The first thing I do is abandon my wounded boat.  I love it but no longer need it.

I slip out of the kayak.  It seems glad to be rid of me and rides high and empty in the water.

I let go of my paddle. That blue staff, which has supported me through wave and wind.

I discard the spray skirt and watch it slip away.  Next the PFD – I am glad to be rid of its bulk.  Next, of course, the dry-suit–that yoke of safety that burdens us so much.  I slip it off, wresting my head free from its suffocating embrace.  Next, my now soggy insulation.  Free at last to feel the liquid green wash over me.  Light and freedom.

Somewhere ahead, on the other side of the arch, the fox-like creature runs through a green field. The field is dotted with tiny flowers, sprinkled like stars in a grassy sky. I must find her. We are driven by love to pursue love.  We have no choice.

I dive into the glow under the arch.  I feel the cold grip me. I swim down lost in the brilliance of refracted light.  I cannot make out the path ahead.   I will swim in the green till I find my way.




Once upon a time, there were two little frogs.

The first little frog was just beginning to hop,
the second had been hopping for some time.

The first frog’s hops, though still tentative, were becoming higher and more powerful.

The second frog could not hop nearly so high as he used to and sometimes, could not hop at all.

One day, they began to hop together. To their surprise, they hopped higher than each could alone.

As they hopped, the first frog began to pull ahead;
she bounded over the world like a bird in flight.

The second frog’s hops, though powerful, were ponderous and slow, like a lumbering bear.

The night sky opens in song, incandescent fusion merges all into one, we are lost together, out here in the stars.







January Paddling Netarts

Icy January day at Netarts. I was still recovering from the flu. The world was deadly grey and the cold had sucked the light out of the sky.

For maximum effect, view full screen. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Golden Gate Sea Kayaking Symposium 2012


GGSKS 2012 The Golden Gate Sea Kayaking Symposium (GGSKS) is one of the great West Coast gatherings. Held every year in February in San Francisco Bay and the nearby Pacific , it is an event worth attending if at all possible. While Lumpy Waters here in Oregon focuses on waves and rough water, GGSKS makes the most of the tides and currents around the Golden Gate as well as the rocky coastline. Speaking of the Golden Gate, GGSKS is based at Horse Shoe Cove, literally in the shadow of North Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. There is no more beautiful setting for such an event anywhere.

Horseshoe Cove As is usual with like symposia, the most difficult decision to make is which, amongst the riches of classes available, to take. This year, after some dithering, I chose Greenland Skills and Rolling with Duane Strosaker and Helen Wilson,  Master Strokes and Paddling with Shawna Franklin and Leon Somme and finally Intermediate to Advanced Surfing with Rowan Gloag and his friends from The Hurricane Riders and the Neptune Rangers.

So for the second year and, despite the emphasis on rock gardening, I have yet to take a rock class at GGSKS. Next year will be different. Part of the reason I decided to pass on the rock classes was my delicate Illusion (pace, Sterling) as well as my carbon Novorca Aleut paddle, both of which fare poorly (at my skill level) in shallow, surging, rocky waters.

Before I dive into the classes, just a few more words on the setting. Did I mention that it is stunning? The event is based at the Marin Headlands in Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). Once an army base and home to the NIKE missile systems, it is now set aside from development. Thank you GGNRA for your foresight!

GGNRA Hostel

The Snoring Zone – GGNRA Hostel.

HQ for the event is the GGNRA youth hostel,  an ex army hospital, set in a Eucalyptus grove just up from Rodeo Beach. The spacious hostel is the venue for before and after paddling schmoozing, for the hearty meals (yes, a cliché, but apt none the less) as well as the snoring, I mean sleeping, facilities. Actually, this year I chose not to sleep in the barracks as the din from my 30 or so middle-aged bunkmates last year was extreme. I am lucky enough to have family in the region, so I have a free alternative for sleeping. I am not suggesting you avoid the hostel, the interaction with your fellow paddlers is one of the best parts of the event, but earplugs might be a wise investment.

I actually had arrived a week earlier and managed to get out a day or two myself on the Bay, so I was warmed up nicely for the event. Pulling into Horseshoe Cove Yacht Club on Friday morning, with my Illusion strapped to the roof of the car, I was greeted to the familiar sight of dozens of kayaks  being unloaded by a legion of my fellows in red, blue and yellow drysuits and the cream of the kayak coaching world milling about in organized confusion. Soon enough all the neck gaskets were in place, zippers zipped and the panoply of boats lined up neatly on the beach. The yacht club is set on a hill above the cove. Inside the Yacht club were the registration folks and against the wall, all the raffle items on display. Pride of place was held by a cool new P&H Delphin Surf custom colors.

Delphin P&H Surf

The Raffle kayak. A custom Delphin P&H Surf. Ahh, if only . . .

Directly in front of the yacht club, on a wooden walkway, about ten feet above the Beach, Sean Morley and Matt Palmariello, lead organizers of the event, assembled the coaches with the seventy or so attendees directly underneath.

Sean opened the event with a moment of silence for Eric Soares. For those of you who do not know him, Eric was the founder of the Tsunami Rangers, a legendary Kayaking Club from California. Eric and his friends pioneered a style of extreme rock and surf kayaking that looked insane but was . . well . . . , actually it was insane.  Despite that, Eric developed a methodology for assessment of conditions that let the insane become at least managed insanity. Eric was also a philosopher of life and a deep soul. He gave the keynote at last year’s GGSKS.   It was a revelatory moment for me. At the time, I was familiar with him only through his rock gardening videos (hmm – Rock Gardening may be the wrong term. How about Rock Gonzomoshpitupsideyourheadheewhackyiyoyioy!!!!!!  well,  perhaps rock gardening is a bit easier to say).

Eric Soares So when he got up to speak, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In fact, my first (mistaken) impression, early in his talk, was that he was bragging.  He talked a bit of his hairy adventures and then started in on how some of his friends had died kayaking.  I thought to myself, “He’s using the death of his friends for his own aggrandizement.” But slowly, then suddenly, I realized I was very, very wrong. I was becoming moved by his words and it seemed that mortality and life and beauty and especially friendship were the intertwined themes.

He spoke of his friends, their lives and deaths, some by kayak, most by the passing of the years.  He spoke of his own aging and his battle with a cranky heart.  And then when he began talking about the quality of the water in the rock and surf zones where he played, and how what looks to be the most terrifying aspect of it, the crashing waves and the billows of white spray, is  after all just foam, and that foam cannot hurt you, at that moment, I found myself with a lump in my throat — and it is there again now as I write these words — and I realized that I was in the presence of a beautiful man.  Rest in Peace.


After Eric’s memorial, Sean kicked of the preceding in regal fashion, welcoming us and introducing the coaches. As I said, it was veritable who’s who of sea kayaking. I will not repeat the entire roster, which is available on-line, but there were a lot of heavy hitters. I’ve mentioned the folks who I signed up with already, amongst the others were Gordon Brown, Nigel Dennis, Reg lake, Jeff Laxier etc. etc. With all the horsepower gathered in this location, a sudden tsunami would have set our sport back decades.

Duane Strosaker

Coach Duane Strosaker. Duane is a firm advocate of getting plenty of potassium in your diet.

Opening formalities past, I trotted with my fellow Greenlanders over to the station that Duane and Helen had set up. They divided the class up along lines of experience with Greenland techniques. I was paired up with Mark Boyd, a great guy who paddles with the Neptune Rangers. It turned out the at Mark and I, as well as my old friend Steve Hufstadter, paddled in the same classes for the entire symposium. The continuity was nice.

Mark and I started out the day with Helen. Now, this is not the first time I have had a class with Helen. In fact, this might be class number three or four, truthfully, I have lost count. For those who do not know, Helen, along with Dubside, Turner Wilson and Alison Sigethy, is one of our discipline’s truly great rolling instructors. If you get a chance, take a class with one of these folks.

Actual X-Ray of the author.

The first thing Helen had me work on was my balance brace. Now as everyone knows, I cannot do a balance brace. It is not for lack of skill or lack of trying, it is just that my body is not right for this move. I believe it has something to do with the ratio of my femur length to my shoulder width. I have actually had this checked out by doctors [see image]. In any case, it is outside of my control and something to which  I am resigned. I told Helen this of course, but Helen is a bit slow, or perhaps hard of hearing, so she basically ignored me. So what could I do? I had to humor her, after all, she is engaged to Mark Tozer, who is like a BCU 5 guy, pretty strong, and British (i.e. He probably gets drunk and beats people up).

Anyway, Helen told me to recline in the boat, arch my back hard, keep my shoulder flat and slip my left hand under the gunwale. “Be sure to push hard with your knee,” she said. I reclined a bit, just to humor her, noblesse oblige and all that. Helen fiddled a bit with my arm and pushed under my back to accentuate the arc.

“Helen, Helen Helen. Poor, dear little Helen. This won’t work. You are wasting both of our time,” I thought to myself, chuckling a bit, anticipating Helen’s coming humiliation as a failed coach.

I was in the brace position, but that was just because she was holding me up.  I glanced over to her and saw she was quite some distance away. Hmm. That’s odd she must have really long arms or perhaps she is holding me up with her paddle?  But, No! I was locked into a really solid balance brace. I cannot do this. Hmm.  I guess I can. Drat that Helen!  I’ll get even with her someday!


Helen Wilson

Helen does the impossible while Mark Boyd looks on

I wish I could say that I had other such dramatic breakthroughs with all my other rolls. I didn’t really, but I came out of the morning much more solid on my existing rolls, especially my  “off-side” rolls. While the balance brace is very cool, the off-side is critical for safety in surf and rocks. By the end of our session, I was doing continuous “off-side” rolls , three, four, five time in rapid succession without pausing. It felt good.

After lunch, we switched off, Mark and I with Duane and the rest of the group with Helen. It was great as usual working with Duane – he is really an excellent Greenland paddler, veteran of many long crossings and epic battles with assorted sharks and the like. He is also a darn nice guy – and a pleasure to be with. He essentially told Mark and I that we were already pretty good Greenland paddlers, it was nice to hear it coming from him. Still, I picked up some techniques – especially Duane’s aggressive back paddling style.




Day 2
 saw Steve, Mark and I join up with Shawna Franklin and Leon Somme for their Master Strokes class.  Shawna and Leon are another power couple I have seen at many kayak symposia but from whom I had not yet taken a class. Like Mark and Helen, they announced at GGSKS that they were getting married.  I guess Spring was in the air this year.

We began with strokes practice in Horseshoe Bay, working on rudders and prys as well as combing strokes.  I have had such training before, but they are excellent teachers and we all benefitted.  They were assisted by Greg Berman, another Neptune Ranger and a well-known sea kayaker.  Greg does the most excellent turn combining extreme edging and braces.  I tried, with some glimmering of success to master the turn. Leon and Shawna also introduced us to flying kayak mounts, essentially running your boat forward into the water , leaping onto the back deck and then quickly cowboying up and into the seat.  It is fun, not hard to do and looks really cool (though a fail would be equally spectacular but in an embarrassing way).  Beyond the fun, this is a great technique for getting out through dumping surf.

Leon Somme

Coach Leon Somme.  Leon is a tough but fair coach. Note Leon is not rescuing this kayaker, rather, he is holding him under water.Leon explained he was “learnin’ him,” for slouching during his forward stroke.

After lunch, it was out into the Bay first for game of follow the leader along the rocky shoreline and then, out into the Yellow Bluffs tidal race.  Yellow Bluffs is a perennial favorite place for the coaches to take their charges at GGSKS.  Depending on tide , wind and current, the race can be gentle and forgiving or pretty hairy.  Like many tidal rips, it changes character rapidly and the dynamic water can be daunting to paddle in.  Also, fun.

Coach Shawna Franklin. After an unfortunate incident during a “Learnin'” session with fiancée Leon, Shawna can no longer sit and stand upright nor hold a paddle. That has not kept her off the water though.  Shawna, you are an inspiration!

We arrived at Yellow Bluff on the ebb.   This was only my second time there, so I cannot say whether this day’s conditions were much bigger or smaller than normal. I can say that it was pretty exciting.  In tide rips, waves can come from every which way.  You have to position yourself to catch a ride on the wave, while at the same time watching for breaking waves coming at you from an odd quarter.  Good bracing skills are a must.  The hardest skill in many races on the ebb, is staying up front.  Unless you can maintain a position on the foremost waves, you loose your momentum and get sucked back and out. You must catch and surf almost every wave.  It is hard but a great skill builder.  Have fun.

My greatest “Learnin'” from day 2 was just what excellent coaches Shawna and Leon are.  If you can find the time and resources to take one of their classes at Body Boat Blade, do so!





Day 3.

Rowan Gloag

Rowan Gloag.   Little known fact – Rowan is an avid “birder.” Here he is on the Kiribati Atoll working on his Life List. It was winter when this picture was snapped, hence the heavy parka.

The third and final day, I chose  Advanced Surfing with Rowan Gloag.  Rowan, for those who do not know him, is one of the leaders of The Hurricane Riders, a group of long-boat surfers from up in British Columbia.  They specialize in tidal races and surf and seem to have a special affinity for Skookumchuk.  Definitely check out their videos, they are both inspiring and beautiful.

Bolinas Poem

Time in Bolinas is so very small
The clock on the courthouse ain’t working at all
And the Mayor of Bolinas is digging for clams
But folks in Bolinas
They don’t give a damn.
– John Stewart


The day’s class was to be held at the surf break just off the town of Bolinas.  If you have never heard of Bolinas, don’t worry.  It is a beautiful little coastal town known both for its laid-back uber-Marin attitude and also its secretiveness.  There are no road signs pointing to Bolinas for the simple reason that the residents tear them down as fast as the Department of Transportation can put them up.  At this point, they may have simply stopped trying, so if you don’t know where it is, too bad.  (Actually, Google maps may just end their self-imposed Shangri-La bliss).

Rowan and The Riders are past masters of surf; he challenged us to try to more than just point our boats forward and go ballistic.  He assembled us on the beach to try to master a basic surf maneuver- the cut-back.  He had us all in our boat on the sand and . . .  You know what?  Rather than trying to explain it, let’s just watch Rowan demonstrate in this video.  The Blog isn’t over, no leaving when the video is done.

OK. Thanks Rowan.

Needless to say, I didn’t look anything like that. Moreover, because the swell was rather small, I had trouble even catching rides. This was interesting and quite instructive. Turns out, the problem is that I don’t know how to surf.

But wait . . Your blogs . . . all that stuff about giant waves . . . you were lying?

Catching a wave off the Oregon Coast.

No, hold on there and let me explain. Here in Oregon the swell is big and the beaches are steep. That means the waves tend to rear up quickly and then dump violently. It is not hard to get in front of our Oregon waves. You basically paddle out into the surf zone, turn around and then, “Look here comes one. Ahhhh!” Bang! “Woah.Did I survive ? Yes! Hey, I rock. I’m a surfer!” [see diagram-left]

The surf off of Bolinas.

Off of Bolinas that day, not only was the swell gentle, but the angle of the beach was rather shallow. That meant that the waves come in and begin to spill rather than dump. It was much harder getting on the waves, it took timing, and once on them, it took skill to maintain position. That is called “surfing.” I had a hard time at it.

Matt Palmariello & Sean Morley.   Photo by Paul Kuthe

Well all things come to an end, even GGSKS. It was another great learning experience, great coaches, great classes, excellent companions. We all owe Sean and Matt a debt of gratitude.

Eric’s death was felt by all, but the aura of gentleness and love which he left behind, meant that his was a soft absence that brought as much joy in his memory as it did pain at his loss.  May we all be remembered in such a fashion.

Jon Turk ‘s keynote was eerie and somewhat disturbing.  Steve Wilson, the kayaking troubadour rocked the house. (but what happened to my flag?)

Oh, one final thing. Remember that boat I mentioned earlier, the P&H custom surf kayak? I won it at the raffle. Way! I drove back to Portland happy with two boats strapped to the top of the old Subaru.

SSTIKS: A kayak symposium with a touch of Greenland

SSTIKS June 15-17,  2012 SSTIKS logoSouth Sound Traditional Inuit  Kayaking Symposium (SSTIKS) is a wonderful event held every year in the early summer at Twanoh State Park in Washington; it is the largest kayaking event on the West Coast devoted to paddling with traditional Inuit1 paddles, skin-on-frame boats, rolling and rope gymnastics.  It is an event sponsored by Qajaq USA, the American arm of  Qaannat Kattuffiat (The Greenland Kayaking Association).  If any of these interest you, it will be worth your while to attend.

So what is it that makes this event wonderful?

SSTIKS has a family feel.  2012 was my third year attending.  As in previous years, when I pulled in the Twanoh parking lot on Friday for the first of three days of continuous kayaking (or qajaqing) activities, I felt that I was coming home. Some of the family feel comes from the closeness engendered by shared passion for skills and technology at the fringe of the sea kayaking movement – “Aren’t these Greenland sticks just so much better than euro-paddles?”  (Safe answer at SSTIKS -“Yes!”).

Isabella at SSTIKS

Isabella at SSTIKS 2011. Photo by Andrew Elizega

Of course, the thriving kid’s track can’t help but generate a familial culture because, well, the event is full of actual families.  This is truly wonderful.  As usual, I brought my now ten-year old daughter, Isabella, and she had a great time, running around with the other kids, finding crabs, learning Greenland rope techniques from Dave Sides and Dubside himself (How cool is that?!)  and even doing a bit of kayaking.

SSTIKS Kid’s track. Photo by Melissa Bienvenue Woods

All the folks leading the kid’s track, deserves high praise.  Having a kid’s program is something that organizers at other kayak events should seriously consider.

Many SSTIKS people have a true love for Inuit culture.  This is reflected in the many beautifully crafted skin boats, the careful following of rolling traditions and harpoon skills as well as the respectful use of Inuit terms for rolls and rope maneuvers. Respect for tradition often leads to respect for each other and so it is at SSTIKS .

Yummy Salmon BBQ at SSTIKS.

SSTIKS meals are communal at lunch and dinner and many are potluck. I forget every year and have to scramble to the local convenience start to find some eggs for a quick devilled egg contribution. Beyond all this, the closeness and affection of the folks who put on SSTIKS is apparent and rubs off on all participants.

All right. Reading the above paragraphs again, I realize that it makes SSTIKS sound a bit like a 1970’s sensitivity training session.  It is not.  It is all about kayaking with a stress put on high quality education from some of the greatest instructors out there.  I’ve mentioned a few of these instructors above, but there were also quite a few more this year — Helen Wilson, Mark Tozer,  Mark Whittaker and a host of others.  See here for the full roster.

Mark Tozer, SSTIKS 2012

Over three days, I attended forward strokes with Tim Mattson and Pat Welle, maneuvering with Mark Tozer and Ginny Callahan and rolling from Helen Wilson, Dubside and a host of others.  In the past, Maligiaq Padilla, has taught rolling and other Greenlandic arts.  He wasn’t present this year which is a shame.

So do you have to be a Greenland fanatic to attend?  Not at all.  SSTIKS is a great way to get acquainted with traditional paddling.  There are introductory classes and an arsenal of paddles and even boats to borrow.  You’ll find that while Greenland strokes do differ, it is still, after all,  just paddling;  learning to wield the blade properly is not so arduous a task.  There are more similarities between strokes done with Greenland paddle and those done with a Euro paddle, but there are real differences.  At the risk of being shot down by paddling gurus, some of the major points of difference are paddle angle, a lower (but not low) angle stroke is the norm in Greenland, especially for long-distance touring, and the stroke can continue a bit farther back at the hips before the release. Also important in Greenland paddling is the paddle cant at the attack. If the paddle is drawn through the water at the wrong angle, the stroke generates more bubbles than thrust.  Mastering the basics is easy, developing a beautiful stroke is a many year endeavor.

Helen Wilson demos a beautiful balance brace. Photo by Melissa Bienvenue Woods

 I have always said that my roll sucks, and it is still true, but in a different way.  At this point in my kayaking career, I can pretty much roll up whenever I need to in real conditions. This has not always been the case, as those (paltry few) who have been following my blog can attest. But the art and discipline of Greenland rolling is so much more than just rolling up. Greenland rolling was developed by the traditional people of the polar regions as a basic survival technique.  Hunters in frigid arctic waters had no choice; it was roll or die.  Moreover, the capsize that necessitated the roll usually occurred during hunting expeditions.  More often than not, the hunter was encumbered by lines, harpoons and lances.  In such situations,  you had to learn to roll with one hand, with your arms crossed or with no arms at all.  You had to be able to roll up from various constrained positions and across both your front and rear decks.

Last year, I came out of SSTIKS with what I hoped was a bombproof  Kinnguffikpaarlallugu on both sides.  I hit respectable Siukkut pallortillugu , and managed  to learn Paatip kallua tuermillugu illuinnarmik, as well as numerous Innaqatsineq, and Tallitpaarlatsillugitpaateqarluni.

This year, I worked on solidifying my Kingumut naatillugu.  I even tried to get a start on the elusive Assammik masikkut.  I actually managed to pull the roll off once, but only under the active tutelage of Adriam Worah and Roy Nakano, who taught me the progression through a paddleless static brace to a prayer roll .  My thanks to both of them.  It never came again , but at least I know I can do it!

Translations here ;-)

Of course in any large event such as SSTIKS, there are many excellent classes that you just cannot take.  Don Beal led a number of folks in paddle carving, there were courses introducing skin on frame kayaks as well as paddling with traditional paddles.  There were courses on harpoon throwing by Henry Romer, towing and rescues as well a lots and lots of rolling.

The Great Wedding of Palo Race. Photo by Melissa Bienvenue Woods

A clever host always saves the best treat for last. So have I . For nothing can top the thrill of the Wedding of Palo relay race, the last formal SSTIKS event. Modeled after the action of the movie of the same name shot in the arctic in the 30’s by explorer Knud Rasmussen, the race has four legs -the forward sprint, the backward sprint, the seal tow, and the escape with the bride

Isabella and I formed part of the Killer Penguins team, along with Emily Balthazar, Sean Dillon, Warren Stevens and Deborah Swartz. We had stiff competition from the seemingly infinite number of kids of the Doornink clan, whose Dad, John Doornink, was the 2012 Chair of STIKKS. And of course there was a motley crew of other kayakers including Tim Mattson, Pat Welle, Joanne Barta and other neer-do-wells, but they were no threat to the Penguins.

The forward and backward sprint are pretty self-explanatory. The seal tow consists of a “seal,” on our team Isabella, who hangs on the bak of the kayak imitating a dead seal to be brought to the bride’s house. The last leg, the bride carry, sees a bride, hopefully the lightest member of the team, carried sitting back to back behind the paddler/groom

The 2012 race was dramatic – Isabella was the perfect penguin, Emily Balthazar decided that the bride would be best represented by screaming shrilly for the entirety of her ride.  Poor Sean was a bit deaf for few days but was gallant groom none-the-less.

But without doubt, the most beautiful and moving moment of the race was when the elfin and delicate figure of Tim Mattson sailed by on the back of groom Joanne’s kayak.  Such grace and poetry were truly something to behold. It was a special moment.

Tim Mattson. A beautiful blushing bride!          Photo by Melissa Bienvenue Woods

After a last SSTIKS lunch I collected a reluctant Isabella and we headed back to Portland. On the drive back home, I felt energized. I had learned a great deal and solidified core skills.  The event was well run and a pleasure to attend.  I sometmes end my musings on our paddling sport with a statement as to how lucky we are.  I cannot think of a better way to end this piece either.  Not only do we in the Northwest have  some of the best kayakers in the world as our companions, we also have a series of great events to choose from — OOPTIKS, SSTIKS, Lumpy Waters, GGSKS to name just a few.  Paddle on!


  1. A note on nomenclature. The term Inuit used in the SSTIKS acronym and throughout this article can be confusing.  It is often understood as referring specifically to the native people s of Greenland.  While that may have once been the case, the word is now the preferred term to describe the distinct, but culturally and geographically linked native cultures throughout the circumpolar region.  For more on this follow this link. []

Eulachon: A Ghost Story

A Windstorm in the Sierra – John Muir

“Most people like to look at mountain rivers, and bear them in mind; but few care to look at the wind, though far more beautiful and sublime, and though they become at times about as visible as flowing water.”

The Mountains of California, by John Muir (1894)


There are a number of folk etymologies for the word, Oregon. Two of the most intriguing are centered on the Columbia River, that great waterway that sits on the northern edge of our state but resides so much at the center of our identity.

The Eulachon in Meriwether Lewis’ journal.

One is that the word Oregon is a corruption of the the Native American Chinookan word Eulachon or  candlefish (Thaleichthys pacificus )  which migrated up the Columbia and our other rivers, in great quantities.1  I say “our rivers” though at those times, before the fish and the native peoples who relied on them were decimated, they were not our rivers at all. They were in fact, most decidedly, their rivers; they used them as highways, routes for trade, marriage and war, source of food and sustenance, keeper of myth and meaning. Now, for better or for worse, they are our rivers and like everything else in this land, have been touched and changed profoundly.

Eulachon Squeezeoil Woman. ca.1884

The Eulachon was called the candlefish because the oil content in the dried fish was so high that, when lit, they burned like candles. That oil was health and energy, full of fatty acids and raw power. It was plentiful but precious; it was poured over many other dishes to give them savor and it provided the inner fires to thrive during cold, northern winters.

The Eulachon were dipped in boxes and nets, caught in weirs, rakes and traps and then dried on racks. During a potlatch, a particularly rich family might  pour a massive red cedar box of eulachon oil on the fire, the billowing black clouds representing the careless plenty of their life.

Another etymon for Oregon is said to come from a corruption of the French word ouragan. Ouragan, meaning hurricane in French, was the name French traders and trappers supposedly gave to the Columbia River, down which they sailed as the vanguard of European invasion, in search of furs, gold and new land.  And hurricane is still an appropriate name; despite the changes wrought to the River and it environs, the wind persists.

A group of five of us set out on a Saturday in mid-December to try to catch a wind run from Viento Park, to Cascade Locks. Cascade Locks, is named after the old canal and  locks which enabled boats to bypass Cascade Rapids, now inundated by Bonneville Dam.  Parts of the old locks still remain in the Maritime Park.

This is to be a one-way run with the wind at our backs; paddling against the wind and the current be at best onerous and at worst, if the wind kicked up, impossible.  We leave two of the cars at the Locks and drive up to Viento Park to our launch.

The forecast for the day is for 16 MPH winds from the East, but the weather on the river has a dynamic of its own and we know that this can easily rise by a factor of two or more on the water.  Driving the ten or so miles down to the put in, we can see just how variable the winds affect on the river is. Sheltered areas are  calm, but the more exposed locations are already showing fields of whitecaps.

At the put in, the wind is blowing steadily and it is cold.  We walk the 1/4 mile down to the water’s edge through dried and dead leaves crumbling over grey river stones.  There is no one on the river.   We set out paddling for a small Island, a quarter-mile or so down river of the launch.

We reach the small islet without incident and begin the crossing to the northern, Washington, shore about a mile distant.

Anticipating wind, I have left behind the Sterling Illusion in favor of the NDK Explorer, feeling that it will be advantageous to have a longer boat on a wind run.   As we cross, leaving the sheltering shore, the wind starts to build and the waves kick-up.  With the wind at my back I feel like I am starting to sail. The seas are cresting with long waves and many whitecaps.  The Explorer is fast.  I  struggle to hold it back and stay with the rest of the group.

As we pass into the center of the river, the power of the wind moves off the water and into my body.  I feel the it begin to take hold, pushing the boat forward so that it careens down the waves, almost out of control. Like an ocean wave breaking.   Slide, brace.  Tail slip, slide.  Fast. What if I went over? Wait.

Wind Mountain

Looking back, I see the rest of the team, clawing with their paddles, scraping forward across the grey water. Behind them looms Wind Mountain, crouched on the Washington shore.

On a time, this mountain was a sacred site. And even now, its talus gouged face is sill pockmarked with the pits in which young native men spent sleepless days and nights on vision quests seeking their spirit guardians which would define their life’s journey.  None pursue vison quests now, but the pits remain,  degrading under the relentless but slow force of gravity induced talus shift and the somewhat quicker erosion caused by the legions of hikers from amongst us who have come after.

Maybe its just a trick of geography, but when we paddle into sight of the Mountain, the wind, already strong, seems to redouble in force.  Tumbling like a cascade down the broken talus, it comes screaming at us.  Damn.   You better brace now boy.

It is so cold now and I am lost in a field of waves.  The wind bores into the paddle and runs shivering into my veins. My fingers bright and red as salmon roe; hard as stones.

Now. The wind rips the crest from the top of the waves and it blows as a horizontal rain across the storming river. The wind is my partner and I must cede to it. Slippery as an eel, the Explorer digs its nose in the oily waters and tries to broach. As I slide out of alignment with the waves, water comes surging over my bow and pools in the lap of my tuilik. Brace hard. Edge. Sweep. Stern rudder. Paddle! Extend. Slide.

And the wave crests now become flags.  The wind shear rips away the foam and it sails in long tendrils over the storm-tossed murk of the Columbia.
How can I paddle through this?

Wind Mountain

I came to a place mute of all light,
that bellows like a tempestuous sea, buffeted by warring winds.
The hellish storm that never ceases drives the spirits with its force, whirling and striking, it molests them.

 Dante, Inferno: Canto V


I feel my blood congeal like black pudding.   And the water too is black.  Slip, brace, slide.  I realize with a start that the river stinks of fish.  The  splash on my tuilik is thick and scented of fish.

 ta-máh-no-u! ta-máh-no-u! hyas wind, mesachie wind ta chuck  e-éh  mam’-ook is’-ic pa’-pa ten-as, skoo’-kum, mem’-a-loost

It is eulachon oil.  A miracle.  נס גדול היה שם Oil to feed the multitudes.

Thick oil drips over me. The eulachon are pressed and I slip through a chasm.  And I see my friends have  stopped paddling.  One is raging in the oil. And one is mired is old fish guts blown up by the wind.  And one is no longer paddling, but crying. And the wind is walking on the water.

The wind reaches its crescendo and strips away the color from the water and it runs clear at last and I see every fish that has ever swum down  from the source  to the sea.  Coho Salmon, Sockeye Salmon, Chinook, Sturgeon, Squawfish, Black Crappie, White Crappie, Mountain Whitefish, Burbot, Smelt, Lamprey, Carp, Tench, Mountain sucker,Prickly Sculpin, Channel Catfish, Bullhead, Three-spine Stickleback, Longnose Dace, Cutthroat Trout.

Goggle eyed, they glare.  Why are you here?

How can this happen? It cannot.  Not oil now but blood.  Cold cough from ages dead now. Phthisis and tubercles and pox.  The wind comes up and my blade cuts through the river of blood.  Longhouses full of the dying.  Gone in a cough. Out, damned spot! Out, I say!

I wash my hands of this.

Through the horizontal rain we reach the far shore; we find there is no shelter and the wind is if anything stronger. In shallow waters, the wind-driven waves rise up.  There are many small islands, but battered by the storm,  we are still in a bad spot. There are tears in my eyes and they stream down my face washing away the glutinous oil and smoking, black blood.

We duck behind the islands seeking shelter.  I look up to see Jay,  still in mid-current. He sails by, out of control.  Dan’s eyes are wide.  Could he roll if he capsized?  probably not.  This is not good.   Wake up!  This is now.  I feel some of the cold drain from my veins.  Are the others OK? Dennis paddles up to me.  It is good to see him.

Between the roaring of the wind and the driving rain, we have to shout to be heard.
“I ain’t no pussy,” he shouts, “but we need to get the hell out of here!”

“The blood”  I scream.  “Did you see the blood?”

“What the hell are you talking about? This wind is dangerous. We gotta bug out of here.”

“Yes,” I say. “You are right.”

It takes a while to collect the others. I am still shivering when we leave the river. We’ll have to hitch to our cars.  It’s going to be a long afternoon.

Hauling the boats up to the road, the last thing I see is Wind Mountain.  The trees are in motion.  The wind flows like water and the trees sway.


  1. Habitat loss and degradation threaten eulachon, particularly in the Columbia River basin. Hydroelectric dams block access to historical eulachon spawning grounds and affect the quality of spawning substrates through flow management, altered delivery of coarse sediments, and siltation. The release of fine sediments from behind a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sediment retention structure on the Toutle River has been negatively correlated with Cowlitz River eulachon returns 3 to 4 years later and is thus implicated in harming eulachon in this river system, though the exact cause of the effect is undetermined. Dredging activities in the Cowlitz and Columbia rivers during spawning runs may entrain and kill fish or otherwise result in decreased spawning success.

    Eulachon have been shown to carry high levels of chemical pollutants, and although it has not been demonstrated that high contaminant loads in eulachon result in increased mortality or reduced reproductive success, such effects have been shown in other fish species. Eulachon harvest has been curtailed significantly in response to population declines. However, existing regulatory mechanisms may be inadequate to recover eulachon stocks. []

Lumpy Waters 2011 – Pt.3 (in which the author gets his comeuppance).

And o’er the wide sea, flying without wings,
Swift as a sail I pressed upon his track . . .

The Furies - Aeschylus

[Read Lumpy Waters P t. 2 -A Near Disaster at Netarts -Here]


Sunday dawned clear and cold upon Lumpy Waters.  Actually, as I was sleeping at the time, I do not know how it dawned.

Cascade Head photo by Ben Amstutz via

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.

Cascade Head Sea Cave. Photo by Dave White. Thanks to Jason Self

Continuing our paddle back towards the Salmon River put-in, there was one more treat awaiting us: the big sea cave we had passed on our way out.  Even though the swell and wind had risen through the day, the conditions at the sea cave were now better.  It was sheltered by large rock buttresses and when you turned into the approach to the mouth, the swell flattened and the wind diminished.  This was a huge cave; think 40′ roof and hundreds of yards long.

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.




Fall to Winter

        Many years ago, when I was living in California, a friend of mine had a little cabin in Forest Knolls, in a redwood forest in the hills, an hour or so north of San Francisco. I’m sure those cabins have been replaced by condos, but at the time, the area was full of quirky little shacks inhabited by even quirkier people.

Once, on a visit, he asked me if I wanted to see the Mother Tree. We set off, walking and in a half hour or so, came to her. She was a huge, old redwood, obviously hundreds (thousands?) of years old. She dwarfed the other trees, which were all second-growth. It was startling, in fact, to realize just how puny the other redwoods looked; spindly little striplings compared to the mother tree. She was, in fact, the sole survivor out of her impossibly huge brethren who had all been logged, probably 50 years before my visit. What saved her was not the kindness of the timber companies, rather it was her own deformity. While redwoods are known for their immense height and straight lines, Mother Tree was malformed, maybe even hideous in tree terms. She looked like an oversize candelabra, her trunk split into many individual trunklets, a Siamese tree quintuplet. Hideous and unlovely, of no commercial value, she was spared by the loggers. She sat, the last of the great trees of that forest. I walked back to the cabin feeling a sense of loss and grief. That was a lifetime ago.

The drive from Portland to the coast is about two hours. You enter the forests, as soon as you climb out of the Willamette Valley and into the Coast Range. These are not the original forests that once covered the hills. Those have been logged so many times, clear-cut and burned, that almost nothing of that biome remains. You know this is true, but it is hidden. You only see it when you pass through the new cuts. There, amidst the charnel wreck of tree limbs and brush pile from the recent cull, you see the stumps of the vanished first trees; impossibly huge remnants, the cuffs of the Douglas firs, Red Cedar, Western Hemlock and Sitka spruce, of the original forest.

There is nothing left to do at the put in. Carry down to the water’s edge. Slide in your boat. Lean back, hook the lip of the spray skirt behind you; lean forward, stretch it to the bow coaming. Run your fingers around the edge to make sure you are sealed in tight. The beach break is clean and that moment, when the wave first raises your boat so that the paddle bites water instead of sand, is always good.