Ratcheting up my kayak skills

There are people who think kayaking is meandering around a lake at a tranquil pace, quiet enough to photograph birds and visit with fish that bob to the surface. It’s a lovely image.

So how did my kayaking experience become worrying about being whisked out to sea while a guy behind me yelled, “Paddle! Paddle! Harder! Paddle!” as I fought a ripping current to reach shore?

Meet Mark and Steve. They’re EMS kayak instructors. While they’re probably capable of taking it easy and coddling students who worry about tippy boats, deep water and currents, when dealing with fellow employees and kayakers seeking to build on and test their skills, we learned it’s more their style to say, “How much sand have you eaten today? You really need to learn how to land that boat in the surf.”

Mark and Steve, waiting for the rest of us to catch up

Fun to them is not necessarily taking it easy. It’s more like looking for challenges where others might see danger. These are guys who were stoked to paddle the Irish Sea off Wales early last spring. Not a placid, tranquil place to be in a little plastic boat. There aren’t too many people into kayaking to that degree (subzero).

The weekend we went to the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine near Fort Popham, fun was about finding “interesting” currents that offered a multitude of lessons for me and three other students. That’s one thing the Kennebec has in spades: interesting water flow. It’s a 150-mile-long ribbon of opportunity with rocky islands filtering its output to the Gulf of Maine. Its depth varies tremendously here, shallow inlets quickly giving way to a channel deep enough for battleships, the tidal flow twisting around rocks seen and submerged. Especially interesting is the tidal part: the deep Gulf accepts the Kennebec’s input for several hours, the 8-foot tides creating current flowing out at upwards of 5 knots, then ripping back in with the same velocity.

our group launching from Popham beach, the fort in the background

I’m a sailor and feel comfortable in just about any watercraft, but I learned that kayakers are much closer to the water, in a position to interact with it in ways that other boaters don’t even think about. In the course of two solid days on the water, we were taught to lean into waves, how to cross eddy lines and when to bail out. And more.

At Popham Beach, the Kennebec has created a huge sandbar that stretches from a point on the beach toward Wood Island, which means there are some interesting waves breaking on the sand. We tooled over toward the beach and took turns trying to land kayaks upright through the surf, an instructor named Galen playing traffic cop on the beach. He’d wave a paddle and yell for us to dig in hard for forward momentum, then abruptly yell at us to change tactics and backpaddle as hard as possible so a breaking wave could pass beneath the boat.

As a newbie I had my eyes glued on him rather than the waves, feeling the boat lift and fall as I tried to follow his instruction. The last thing I remember before the boat pivoted hard left and dumped me in the surf was Galen saying, “You’re doing fine, you’re fine.” There was the momentary feeling of being trapped in a washing machine, remembering how to find and pull the spray skirt free, and thinking ok, I’m not going to drown in 2 feet of water after all.

Next we launched back through the surf — always a fun exercise as you try to balance while straddling the boat, not sit on the spray skirt, paddle enough to clear the waves, then pull the heavy elastic of the skirt around the cockpit while hoping you don’t get broadsided. We rounded the point and with well-washed confidence in our abilities, practiced surfing on breaking waves by leaning into them. That was pretty cool.

we took a little breather on an island straight out of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds movie

After a snack, about three hours into it, the tide was falling hard. We crossed the Kennebec channel again and learned to read eddy lines at Bird Crap Island. Out of sight of Popham Beach on the far side of the island, a standing wave forms at peak tide. According to Mark, it was pretty minor when we were there, but given the right wind and tidal conditions it could get up to 3 or 4 feet and be really fun (for him!). We sat in the calm water inside the eddy line, tight against the smelly island.

Mark, Galen and Steve cavorted in the waves, effortlessly backing downstream to hang out on the wave, the water rushing below their boats as they sat still on the surface. (Note: Steve, the serious one of the instructors, wore a pink helmet with bunny ears. No joke.) It looked cool to the novices, but not everyone wanted to try it and risk being turned upside-down in  the outgoing tide. I rode through it bow-first, whitewater style, then scrambled back across the current to the shelter of the island. I wanted to keep a little energy in my tank because I was aware that we’d have to paddle a distance against the current and wind to get back to the beach.

I was right. By the time we landed, stripped out of wetsuits (which were too hot anyway), carried boats to the cars, unloaded gear, etc. I was completely beat. Some credit must go to the sun for sapping our energy, but seriously, this kayaking stuff is a pretty good workout, like a 6-hour pilates class (with a rinse and spin cycle thrown in!).

Over dinner in the campground that night, Mark outlined the next day’s objective: checking out more interesting water patterns that just happened to occur about 6 miles upriver. We were down to just four paddlers: myself, Jody and Mark and Steve the instructors, so Jody and I were easily convinced that it would be a leisurely paddle. Was it the beer or the blueberry pie coma that made us that dumb?? Duh! We should’a known!

The upstream paddle from Popham was quite nice, with seals making appearances and a spectacular bald eagle sighting on an island very close to us. We were with the current but working against a little bit of a breeze. This time it wasn’t the furious paddling and intensity of learning new techniques that was tough, it was finding the stamina to keep paddling, and paddling, and paddling … for hours … the day after burning all of our energy and upper torso muscles on intense techniques.

Jody got this once-in-a-lifetime photo of an eagle on a branch just above the river

The interesting current Mark wanted to see is a place where the depth of the river changes abruptly and the current is hemmed in on the east side by a sheer rock island. That’s a perfect scenario for something fun. But this is where kayaking and mountain biking, downhill skiing and other sports diverge: it’s a pretty subtle thing. This was not a “Wahooooo!” moment when you’re suddenly in midair and your ride is in danger of flying out from under you. It’s not grazing the edge of a cliff and pulling back with a little chill running down your spine. It’s a little more cerebral than most of my outdoor pursuits, a study of the forces of nature and how to interact with them. Or maybe I’ve gotten complacent about my regular activities and am not using my brain when I do them anymore?

Here, the current pulled in a “J” shape around the bottom of the rocky island, creating a serious little rip back toward the main flow (as it was rising tide). It was a bit of a battle to cross the eddy line and find calm water, so rotating a 17-foot kayak without getting swept upstream sideways (just embarrassing, no quite so dangerous here) required some muscle. The objective was to jump into the strong current and ride it around the end of the island. Using his GPS, Jody clocked the ride at 6 knots, which is pretty quick for a small craft.

On the way back, there was a slight headwind, and the current was not awful, but it was the miles that got to me. Like most women, my upper body doesn’t get this sort of workout enough. So I focused on the scenery for motivation. The rocky islands we passed were layered with long strands of seaweed at the bottom, white-bleached rocks in the middle, and scraggly oaks and pines on top. On a mooring outside one island home there was a small fishing boat with a DIY paint job and a woman’s name (Salida?) scrawled on the stern.

no complaints about the scenery on this Kennebec River paddle

Then I found myself focused on Fort Popham from across the ripping current, just 75 yards from the beach and the opportunity to rest … with Steve behind me, offering his gentle encouragement to “Paddle! Paddle! Paddle! Faster!”

Photo credit: Jody Mancini

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One Response to “Ratcheting up my kayak skills”

  1. Mark Flemming Says:

    Brilliant!!! Thanks

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