Thursday, October 9, 2014

Gales at the Gales

Last weekend found a group of 60 or so eager students and a couple dozen equally eager coaches in Munising, MI for the 4th annual Gales Storm Gathering, a grad school level symposium on how to handle sea kayaks in what we all hoped would be some larger conditions.  I coached at the GLSKS earlier in the summer but I was quite appropriately in the student category for this event, although I was forced to don my coaching helmet briefly on the last day but more on that later.  Our intrepid foursome of myself, the ManFromSnowyLegs, StripperDave, and the MalmuteWhisperer all gathered at a nice VRBO cabin in Christmas, MI with a great view of Grand Island and a nearshore forecast that promised to deliver those conditions that we all drove 6-7 hours to work and learn in.
The first day was the most benign as we eased up the east side of Grand Island toward the tip of the thumb.  The cliffs and indentations made for some fun rock gardening practice as well as some mini surfing at our lunch spot.  We also got a bit of a taste of what was to come the next couple days as we rounded the point and got a bit of the building NW wind, maybe 15 knots gusting to 20 or so.  Everyone seemed to be pushing it a bit, trying to improve, because at least three of us took a swim. StripperDave ventured in close to the rocks and his lovely strip boat which was based on the Impex Outer Island hull, and got a couple scrapes as it went over near the cliffs.  I dragged him out from the rocks and we did what we both thought was a pretty sweet T rescues.  We did a couple more simulated rescue scenarios on the way back and had an exercise with ‘the blind leading the blind’.  I was paired with Sharon Bustamante, the two Greenland sticks in the group.  The game was played with the lead paddler closing their eyes and the trailing one giving directions on which strokes to use to stay away from the cliffs.  It became apparent quickly that ‘two left sweeps’ was a lot more effective and specific than ‘turn right’.  A bit of towing ended the day and we headed back to the launch at Sand Point.  Some rescue practice pointed out that we needed to come out of our boats more often and that I was in need of an instructor update sooner rather than later.
Conditions continued to build through the night and Saturday morning was raining, miserable, and windy.  We got geared up and dragged ourselves down to Sydneys, our local HQ which played on the Australian theme.  Our very own Australian, the ManFromSnowyLegs, questioned the authenticity of most of the genre but we all agreed that with a nice room of our own upstairs, three squares with as much chow as we cared to eat including a nice sack lunch, and a keg of Keweenaw Pickaxe Blonde Ale on tap, that it was indeed a perfect spot to gather before and after the anticipated carnage.  After breakfast and our morning briefing we adjourned to the shores of beautiful Au Train Bay with it’s 40F temps and wind in our face either side of 20 knots.  That drove the rain nicely sideways and added to the ambiance. We all paddled up the river to work on the sweep pivot and power strokes to catch a wave and then studied the water we would be surfing. We collectively answered three questions put to us by Mr. Wikle and Mr. Stachovak.  We plotted the best route to break out, estimate the waves at 3’ or less, and agreed that the main danger would be from each other.  We were pretty much wrong on all three of them.  Most of us got pounded a bit on our ‘ideal’ route out, the waves were closer to four feet with the occasional three sisters set a bit larger, and we all pretty much avoided the danger of one another but a large sandbar about 50 yards out got our attention very quickly.

In the end all of we students/participants swam, just some sooner than others.  In my personal three involuntary inversions I managed to roll up twice and swam once.  Some did better than that, others not as well.  I did find that sandbar first however with a spectacular endo or pitchpole if you prefer, that landed me hull side up and forced me to bail.  One of my fellow students, Aaron from Loyola in Chicago, hit the same sandbar only he was able to pirouette his endo around 360 degrees and land the thing hull side down.  Bill Thompson from Downwind was taking pictures and captured the entire outstanding sequence. 

The coaching from Keith Wikle and Jake Sachovak was both timely and specific, although Jakes analysis of my bow plant was a bit more detailed than Keith’s, “Nice endo Olson!”.  The common thread and a comment that I heard over and over was complimenting the quality of the coaches.  Jake pointed out to me that with longboats we need to be a bit further back on the wave to avoid that bow plant and give us a better chance to steer the boat with a stern rudder than if the bow was planted.  After all of us swam the coached suggested that we paddle back and forth in the soup a bit to get used to bracing, bouncing, and general chaos.  After going over twice and rolling up both times Jake also pointed out that, to use Scott Fairty’s  axiom, keep moving and even if you are doing the wrong thing, do it aggressively and with purpose.  No more involuntary inversions for the session after that gem, even though the waves were building and Keith made the observation that any learning was pretty much over and it became an afternoon of paddling out and attempting to head back in upright.  One nice feature of surfing with a Greenland stick, a trick I learned from Mike McDonald at an earlier Gales.  When you have a neutral stern rudder with an extended Greenland stick, you have immense leverage to help turn the boat.  I happened to be using a carbon fiber stick lent to me by none other than FivePieceRoy and it worked perfectly.

So far two days of excellent learning and as much fun as you can have when you’re sitting down, but the forecast indicated that wind and waves would be decreasing throughout Sunday.  When we arrived at Miner’s Castle Beach we discovered that this was not the case.  Surf was rolling in and the veer from west northwest to a southwest wind only funneled the wind up the channel between Miners Castle and Grand Island like a bellows on a blacksmith’s forge.  How strong it was blowing would not become apparent until we rounded Miners Castle point but to begin with we headed the other way toward the main Pictured Rocks area.  After paddling about 300 yards and having the group separated by 100 yards it was decided to head back into the lee of Grand Island, which reduced the fetch from about 30 miles to five or so.  The waves, clapotis, and tour boat wakes thrown in for good measure created that gigantic upside down egg carton paddle that we all talk about.  Heading back to the southwest brought us to Miner’s Castle point, which was perfect as it had relatively benign swells to play in on the lee side and 20 knots or so of wind and confused seas reflecting off the cliffs.  I played a bit in the wind and waves and then headed back to the lee where I was forced to put on my instructor helmet by Jeremy Vore who ‘didn’t like them odds’ of 6 paddlers and one instructors.  We then planned and executed our surf landings.  As StripperDave, the last guy to land pointed out,  it was like a Monty Python movie;  people would land and then fall over when the next wave nailed them.  That’s Dave’s head in the image below, photographic credit Sam Crowley.  The ManFromSnowyLegs was not nearly ready to be done and was out playing with Jake until the last dog died. 
I would have to say that this Gales, the third one I’ve attended, was the best by far.  Conditions were part of it, coaching a huge part, but it seemed like things just came together.  The gathering place at Sydney’s seemed to fit our needs perfectly and the paddling spots were within 30 minutes of the restaurant.  We also discovered a nice little brewpub a half blocks walk from Sydneys, an amenity that we partook of a couple three times over the weekend. In the case of southerly winds, a situation that occurred the first year, Manistique and Lake Michigan are about 45 minutes south.  As the MFSL and I can attest, it gets plenty big there.  Again, I can’t say enough about the coaching.  It’s a veteran group and they kicked collective ass.  If you are an intermediate paddler looking to gain some big water techniques and experience, this is the spot in the Great Lakes area.  We all agreed on the ride home that ‘next year in Munising’ would be something we would be looking forward to over our summer of paddling.

*photo credits to Bill Thompson of Downwind Sports, Sam Crowley of Sea Kayak Specialists, and yours truly*

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lucky, stupid, or a bit of both?

For the first time all summer I’ve been able to both camp on an island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and also get off my ass and write a blog post about it.  I pretty much had to write this post as a confession of poor judgment, bad luck, good luck, of maybe just a bit of stupidity.  You can read the story and decide.  It turned out well but easily could have been a very problematic day on Outer Island, due in part to a phenomenon that I’ve never seen in decades 0on the big lake. 
We had a nice little trip, 50 miles or so, scheduled over five days.  Ironwood the first night, two nights on Outer to let us run up to the lighthouse on the north end at our leisure, and then Manitou on the way back.  It was a different trio than the normal Fall trip that I’ve been on since 2000 with most of the original principals scattered from Scotland to a raft on the Grand Canyon.  There was no drop in either quality or conviviality however, with long time paddle buddies the ManFromSnowyLegs and the BessemerConvivialist rounding out this fall trio.  Weather was perfect as we launched from Red Cliff but that quickly changed as it easily can on Superior in the fall.  About halfway up Manitou Island we saw small marauding bands of rain squalls moving from west to east.  We crossed from Manitou to Ironwood just before the storm indicated in that radar image hit.  We were the little blue dot and were very happy that we successfully scrambled to get up tents and tarps before the deluge. Wednesday morning was beautiful and we did a quick crossing to Cat and then Outer with a nice quartering tail breeze that made the 8 miles or so a pleasant two hour dawdle on a lovely day.  Once again as it had on Tuesday, the sky clouded up and thunder began to rumble.  This one missed us to the south but we saw the most spectacular chain lightning that any of us had witnessed in years simply hammering the Upper Michigan shore 25 miles away. Before the storm hit we could actually make out the ski flying hill at Copper Peak just north of Bessemer thirty miles distant.  There are far, far worse ways to spend an evening than sitting in camp, drinking beer, and watching an outstanding lightning show.  We all agreed on that before we went to bed.  We also agreed that given the forecast for Friday that predicted 15-25 knot northwesterly winds gusting to 35 knots, that we would abandon Outer and find an island camp situated closer in to avoid any dozen plus mile slogs into wind and waves. 

I was awakened shortly after midnight by the MFSL informing me that my boat was gone.  He had heard waves breaking on shore and got up to check on things.  Unlike Meatloaf’s famous song, in this case two out of three (boats) was bad.  Two foot waves with an incredibly long wave length were breaking and rolling well up the beach.  There was not a breath of wind and there hadn’t even been a breeze when we went to bed.  While we had all dragged our boats up we had not tied them up and mine was at roughly a 45 degree angle to the shore.  ‘Was’ being the operant phrase at this point. Luckily the MFSL spotted a white line gently bobbing about a hundred yards offshore and I verified it with the headlamp.  I had closed all hatches and put the cockpit cover on and the boat had slipped off the beach, cleanly making its escape to its comfortable spot just outside the break.  My buddy was halfway geared up to paddle out and retrieve the boat so my only contribution to the recovery effort was to assist in the launch and landing.  The BessemerConvivialist provided strong moral support as she listened to this fairly muffled and incomprehensible back and forth from her sleeping bag.  The boat was rescued, all three were lashed up to a fallen White Pine, and we crawled back to our sleeping bags. 
The morning brought constant thunder and lightning beginning around 8am with a NE wind blowing and the waves jumping up to three to five feet in the channel between Outer and Stockton.  The nearshore forecast said waves two feet or less but we remembered that 20 miles from Red Cliff and 25 or so to Saxon Harbor did not really quality as ‘within five miles of shore’.  We got on the water around one pm, thanks to prudent counsel from the BessemerConvivialist who reminded me that I promised not to drag her out in 'uncomfortable' conditions, and paddled back to Oak Island and spent two nights on the spit.  We had great fun in the large following seas with minimal wind thanks to the BC's insistence we wait for the wind to ratchet down a bit.  Saturday morning was perfect bluebird weather and we headed back to Red Cliff in time for a 11:30 date with a Whitefish basket and pint of South Shore Nut Brown at Morty’s Pub in Bayfield.
Lessons learned?  As the masthead on this thing reads, good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.  I am fairly certain that I will never crawl into the tent again without my boat tied to the shore.  The Outer campsite had moved about 150yds north after a storm knocked down a bunch of trees at the original site. The beach is narrower and the NPS even built a lovely set of steps from a big cedar log to get up the bank.  The vegetation was nonexistent right up to the base of the steps, a dead giveaway about how high the waves reached  but with the nearshore forecast and personal observation indicating a calm night I guess I ignored the potential.  Once again Gitchee Gumee proved that she was the boss.  We pondered over coffee the next morning just where the hell the swells had come from with no wind to drive them and speculated it was that storm we were watching the evening  before.  It was only when we got back on the weekend that I read about a seiche, our normally tiny mini tide, that had reached up to five feet in the Sault due to the storms and quickly changing wind directions.  That was just about the time that it hit.
The other good question would be what would we have done if the boat had decided to head north or go visit Ontonagon instead of bobbing docilely 100 yards offshore?  This could have been a very real possibility had not the MFSL awoken when he did.  I would not have woken up and the BC wasn’t going anywhere, seiche excitement be damned.  ‘When at sea the number is three’  is a good adage.  I’m sure a search for the kayak would have ensued the next morning.  Had the kayak not been located, an embarrassing radio  call to the Coast Guard would have been needed since there is zero cell coverage on Outer.  We saw exactly one sailboat off Ironwood the whole time we were in the outer ring of islands.  A couple hundred bucks to the shuttle boat service would have been the only option  since neither the BC nor MFSL wanted me on their back deck for twenty miles. 

I hereby swear to tie the boat up.  When I think back, I’ve actually witnessed a couple close calls with boats over the years.  One was at the GLSKS when a large wind sucked a bunch of boats that we thought were securely up on the beach into Grand Marais Bay.  The other was a day on Sand Island at the north camp when we actually pulled the boats up on the berm and Gitchee Gumee proceeded to erode the berm from a yard behind our sterns pretty much up to amidships.  This is also illustrates the ‘one little thing’ aspect of sea kayaking.  Life jacket, spare skirt and paddle, pump & float, dressed for immersion, radio, etc., etc., would have all been moot with no boat.  Fortunately most situations that end really badly are when errors tend to compile and make it impossible to back off or recover.  Thanks mainly to my good buddy the ManFromSnowyLegs,  the possibility of compounding errors was nipped in the bud. I would encourage paddlers to think like good pool players, two or three shots ahead, as wey practice our sport.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Fun With Ice

The ice is finally out, or at least in the distance, in our little corner of the Lake Superior paddling world.  My ‘go to’ launch for short trips and fitness paddling is the north side of the coal dock in Washburn, WI.  It’s a nice scenic jaunt out to Houghton Point with a couple stacks and a couple small caves along the way.  The above photo was the first Saturday in May, two weeks ago.  The image below was taken a week ago Saturday.  Although the launch area is clear, ice can be seen on the horizon and mini icebergs are still floating around in the bay.  Water temp seems to be at an even 34F pretty much all over the lake.  The sat photo would seem to indicate that we are one of the few areas on the lake still ‘blessed’ with a fair amount of ice.  Saxon Harbor is still frozen in and it appears that the area from Duluth Harbor to Port Wing still has plenty.

I can’t complain however since the ice is gone a full week ahead of last year.  The ice and snow have wreaked havoc with a number of different things however.  The county crews are out replacing signs that were blasted over by the snowplow wake.  Many homes were damaged when the wind pushed the ice up on the land in inexorably inland.   In a more minor disaster, the hop trellis in my yard collapsed (gasp!) due to the weight of ice and snow on top of it.  Also, the Madeline Island ferry has been delayed and cancelled due to the ice pack that refuses to melt being pushed  around the lake by the wind. 

I had planned on padding somewhere on Saturday but everyone seemed to be busy.  Until I  got  a text from ChrisG  saying that not only was it too nice to work but that there was a pretty big iceberg floating between Bayfield and Madeline Island.  Our three man group was launched within the hour.  The icebergs are a result of a big northeast blow early in the season.  It piled up plates of 8” ice and stacked them like cordwood along the area of Friendly Valley Rd and Bayview beach.  We are fairly certain that they are what are floating around in the bay and west channel at this time.  

It felt good to get in the Explorer for the first time with the intention of paddling more than a couple miles.  It seemed like it took a long time to get to the ice but of course perspective on the  water, especially with your ass literally on the water, can be tricky.  Our guess is that this berg was about 100’ x 60’ and at least 8-10 feet high in the highest spot.  Like most icebergs 70% of it was under water and the super clear ice with the sun refracting though it made the base look like we were in the Caribbean.  A quick hand in the water dispelled that fantasy very quickly however.  We paddled around it a few times, ChrisG blasted up on it and ate his sandwich, and we got some good pictures of the beast.  This is yet another one of those Lake Superior ‘you don’t see this every day’ experiences. 

Next weekend is Memorial Day and the annual wood splitting festival on Saturday morning at Camp O.  the plan is to sneak up to Saxon Harbor and check out the progress of the melt.  Many of the Gales participants from last Fall remember our launch and paddle up to the Montreal River.  This year that could be the absolutely last place that there is ice on the big lake.  Unless we get a south blow and then all bets are off.  Fingers are crossed for one more ice paddle, a rarity on Memorial  Day weekend.