Wednesday, February 28, 2007

All the Best, Challengers!

At 7:00 am this coming Saturday, those in the Watertribe's Everglades Challenge will launch their boats at Fort Desoto outside of Tampa and begin the race to Key Largo. It's a race, but it's also a personal challenge to see what you can do. Obviously anyone entering the race wants to finish, but mostly people seem to be in it to learn how to travel in a self-powered fashion, all the while being comfortably, graceful and of course to do all this with the highest speed possible.

There are a couple of bloggers listed on the side bar on the right who I know have entered, specifically Sandybottom and Kiwibird. Have a great race, girls! Fair winds, helpful currents, no equipment hassles and, of course, have some fun along the way!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Aaaahh... Paddling Again!

The weather was right and the lake was ice-free - a wonderful change - so today I paddled.

As I mentioned previously, Lake Chatuge is actually a flooded valley, so it has the typical meandering shoreline those lakes often have. Since I had paddled into North Carolina the last time I was here, today I headed south. There was a rising north-west wind, but I decided to head down-wind anyway thinking it would provide some fun heading homeward.

Most of the lake's southern shore has been built-up compared with the northern section of the lake. It's definitely cottage country, if you can call some of the mansions 'cottages'. Perhaps they are only in the sense that they are 'seasonal use' homes. Relatively few people seem to live here all year around. Instead many people drive up from Atlanta to escape the summer heat of the city.

I paddled under the bridge that carries route 76 eastward where the lake again breaks into two sections. The hills in this picture are part of the Appalachian Trial route which I wrote about a few weeks ago. I headed westward towards them for about another few kilometers before turning around.

The wind had really picked up as I knew it would, making the return trip a fun slog into the waves. Just the thing after waiting for nearly two months to get out on the water and warm up my paddle muscles for another season on the water.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Tuumasi's Qajaq School

The kayak in the picture above is in the collection at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Québec, across the river from Ottawa. I have not seen this boat personally, but when I lived in Kangirsuq in the 1970's I was lucky enough for meet the builder, Tuumasi Kudluk. He was an interesting Elder, a story-teller, artist and craftsman. One winter he began building another qajaq much like the one in the picture and I spent many afternoons with him in his workshop watching him at work, sitting in a pile of wood shavings, his eyes sparkling. I can still see him drilling holes in the frame, threading the braided caribou sinew lashings and tightening the various parts of the frame.

I wish I had paid greater attention at the time and taken pictures of him at work, but I didn't. I had no idea at the time that I was a witness to the changes that have since taken place. I assumed he and others like him would continue to build qajait. I was wrong. He probably built the last one. My only pictures of him were taken when I made some 8 mm movies of a fishing trip his son-in-law and I made up river one August afternoon. Tuumasi went with us to go hiking. Even as an old man, he loved being out on the land, taking in all that Nature had to offer. He would often be gone for several days at a time when he returned to his 'home' on the land.

My wish is for a place in Nunavik where young people could learn to buildtheir own traditional kayaks, to paddle them and take pride in celebrating and extending this kayaking heritage through a number of events. So far it hasn't happened, but it will. I have recently become aware of a whole network of bloggers in the Canadian arctic. These people beginning to be aware of each other and little seeds will grow. I am getting excited by the potential I feel out there as these people become aware of their cousins in Greenland and elsewhere where kayak building, paddling and competition is enjoying an amazing revival with a modern twist.

Wouldn't you love to see Tuumasi's boat in the picture being reproduced, perhaps with a canvas or nylon skin so it would last longer with less maintenance? Wouldn't you like to see them evolve to meet the needs of modern paddling goals? Don't you think it's time these boats 'lived' again! I do. I'm thinking of building one of these boats myself. It's on my 'to-do-list'!

Photo with kind permission of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Ottawa, Canada.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Year 'Round Paddling

Lake Chatuge, seen in the picture is one of the many lakes created by the Tennessee Valley Authority years ago. This was a huge hydro-electric project which began in the state of Tennessee, but actually encompasses several surrounding states as well. The near shore of the lake rests in Georgia and the far shore and mountains in the distance are in North Carolina. Tennessee lies miles away to the left of the lake.

The shorelines reveal the true nature of the lake. It's not a natural lake, but rather a reservoir, created for holding water until it's needed by the power system it feeds. At the moment, the wide shores reveal the lake has been lowered over the winter months. Beginning in March, the sluice gates which empty the lake will be closed and the water level will rise once again in preparation for next year's draw-down. As a result people using the lake often use floating dock systems similar to those seen in tidal areas.

The weather is still cold, rainy and blustery, but before I head further south, I want to get out for my first paddle in February 2007, making it the first year I have ever paddled every month for a full year. I know others manage this feat with ease, even many folks living in Canada, but the goal had eluded me until now.

Update: I'm reminded by a reader that I have paddled each month of the past year already as I was in Florida at Sweetwater last February! I'm still going for a paddle on the lake in the picture however! Thanks EB.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Kayak Radio!

Now that I've spent two solid days driving away from winter, I had some time to listen to the radio. It's been a strange experience as I am not accustomed to radio, American style. Here's what I've discovered.

Firstly, it's all music, all the time. Now and then you can pick up Public Radio which has some 'news' and other 'programs' where there is discussion and interviews, but generally the signal is so weak a passing truck can knock them off the air. The music you hear has two messages. The first is that you're in love with the most wonderful creature on the planet. The second message is you just got ditched by the creature. Makes you wonder, or at least, it made me wonder who listens to this stuff all day and what's happening in their heads... Scary stuff! No wonder the next biggest radio category offers spiritual help to the distraught!

Secondly, there are the ads. Most of the radio stations tell you they have hours of "ad-free listening", but of course, that's a crock. Most all the ads are spoken by someone so breathless, so enervated and so anxious, I would have taken them to the principal's office on suspicion of drug abuse! Then after the rapid-fire appeal for your money, another voice would come on to deliver , this time at extreme high-speed, another message much like the fine print on your insurance that basically tells you not to believe a word of what you just heard.

So. Kayak Radio. Here's what I going to produce while I'm away. It won't actually be radio because I don't have the facilities, yet. But it will be a CD which I can play on my car radio. I will tape the sounds of myself launching, paddling, exclaiming the quiet beauty and the sudden alligator attacks and so on. On the drive home, I'll have something a bit more soothing to listen to. With several adventures planned for this summer, I will add new stories. Hopefully each will provide me with an interesting dimension to my trip which I will savor on my car radio while I'm headed someplace new.

Of course, I'm not the first to think of doing this. There are a number of pod-cast sites on the web now that specialize in the world of kayaking. One of the best is from England by fellow blogger Simon Willis. I highly recommend a visit to his blog site as well.

So that's the beginning of Kayak Radio. All kayak, all the time, for those who can't be in the water 24/7!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Lost in Hudson River Fog...

Photo from: dep/fgw/goospic15.htm

I'm on the road, first on I-91 and now on I-81. Maybe I'll return by I-75 as I enjoyed that route last year. We'll see where the invitations come from! LOL.

There is no doubt in my mind that the worse day a person can have paddling will always be better than driving south in unsettled winter weather. The piles of snow at home slowly disappeared by the southern part of Vermont, but by New York state, they were replaced by rain, snow, sleet and fog. None of these were bad in themselves, but the combination was nasty. I much prefer cold, clean snow like I have at home.

My sister posted some pictures of her house. Snow!

Oh well, it won't last long and the warm beaches await... somewhere!

•  •  •

On another topic, the one about the important things in life, have a look at this Guide to Life. It's priceless!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Get the Couch Ready...

You just have to know it's time to head south when your week includes things like...

• Returning my new birthday present paddle when I discovered the loom was already bent before I even opened it.

• My new kayaking scene jigsaw puzzle is finished in only 2 months even though on the box said "2-4 years".

• I got trapped for several hours on the escalator on my way to the local Paddle Shop when the power went out.

• While preparing food for one of my summer expeditions the other day, I discovered an error on the Kool-Aid box. 8 cups of water does not fit into those little packages. Not even close.

• When someone asked why I hadn't phoned 9-11 for help when I got lost while skiing the other day, I had to admit I'd cheaped out and bought a phone with no 11 key.

• I discovered I can't take M&M's on kayaking trips again. At at my age, they're just getting too hard to peel.

• But the final straw was getting fired from my part-time job at the Paddle Shop, all because I'd failed to print labels for the Nalgene bottles. Hellllooooo!!!.... Nalgene bottles won't fit in their printer!!

So all I have to do now is track the incoming storm paths and decide if it's to be I-95, I-81 or I-75. I kind of like the latter as it's got the longest Canadian section. As well, I have a place to stay in London, Ontario the first night, but then it might be best to head south more directly. Tomorrow is decision day... So get the couch ready in case I suddenly drop in!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Getting Dumped On...

As much as I have enjoyed the skiing this winter - compared with last winter when we had almost no snow, it's been incredible - it's time to face it, I've been dumped on by enough snow! I spent most of last weekend pulling snow drifts off the house roof. The snow is almost too deep to go skiing or showshoeing. I think it's time to get a paddle in my hands and put some liquid water below me. I need to get back into my kayak! I need to hear the gurgle of water along a hull. I need to head south!

Last year about this time, I discovered that the west coast of Florida provides some interesting kayaking possibilities with abundant wildlife, mangrove tunnels, open coastal areas and so on. During the month or so I was to there, I only scratched the surface. There's much more to explore.

So, I'll be spending the beginning of this week sorting through my seemingly endless piles of kayaking stuff figuring out what I ought to take south. One of my objectives will be photography. I will take a telephoto lens to better capture wildlife and I also have a new waterproof video mini-lens for my video camera. I hope to get some on-the-water- action shots so I can post some footage of what it's actually like paddling in various places in Florida.

I am becoming more and more aware of the impact we voyaging kayakers have creating a negative environmental impact on our planet when we travel. It's something which has to concern each of us. With that in mind, I intend to buy some carbon offsets to compensate for my travel to and from Florida. I'll be using this CO/2 calculator to see what my cost will be and will then send off the money on my return. Fortunately my car gets excellent mileage so it won't set me back that much, but I believe it's important to know travel does include an environmental cost each time we set out. Why not think about doing something similar when you head out on your next trip?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Stick to it!

Thanks to a little reference to it made on Kristen's blog the other day, I discovered the missing piece to the puzzle of making TITS style videos as I paddle. The missing piece is the suction cup device and attached extension arm which allows you to place the camera wherever you want on your boat. Up until now I had been using a mini-tripod and hooking it under the deck bungies, but this was a really make-shift arrangement.

The new device is sold by Sticky Pod. There are several different styles, some with three and others with four suction cups. Extension arms of various lengths are available so the camera need not remain at deck level. The company claims they will remain attached at up to 40 mph which suggests that I am pretty safe heading into not just wickedly fast tide-rips, but some serious white water stuff as well!

I've ordered one and will be trying it out on my upcoming Florida paddling trip in a couple of weeks. I'll post a report - and some videos - when I return, if not sooner.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Return to Igloolik

The wind rolled me right over in my tent that night forcing me out to re-bury the lines and the fly. With little in the way of a wind-block, I was at times hard-pressed to find shelter for cooking as well. In the end, I paddled whenever the wind died and returned to shore when in picked up again.

My forced shore time saw me walking miles of beach and tundra. In the above picture I came across another Thule Culture dwelling. This one was being lived in by new tenants, a family of foxes! I suspected as much when I saw the lush green ground cover from a distance and sure enough, I found young kits hiding just inside the tunnels their parents had dug into the old house.

Turning the corner westwards brought me to within a day's paddle of Igloolik, situated on an island about 5 miles or so offshore. Once again the winds held me on the beach, but this time I had company. A group of Iglulingmiut, two families actually, were camped near a small stream fishing. They too were pinned down and waiting for a window in the wind which would allow them to cross over to the island. We all waited for five days before there was a break in the weather.

I left a few hours after their big freighter canoes did. The water was very choppy and bouncy without any set wave pattern. Several times I looked back thinking I was over my safety limit, but I kept on. I knew people on the island were aware I was coming across and eventually I could see 4-wheelers on the hill tops looking for me. In a way, they 'pulled' me over and I finally arrived at midnight, a 3 hour paddle.

The following day was totally calm and I went out for a midnight paddle with a few of the local paddlers.

I also got a chance to drive out to the old hunting camp at Iglulik Point where people were now beginning to build 'cottages' out of old building materials which became available as newer houses were built in town. So much had changed in the intervening years, but it was marvelous to be back with old friends!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

You want snow? I've got extra...

The northeast section of Canada and the USA got hit with a wicked snow storm yesterday, so if you live somewhere snow-less and want a little, I'd be glad to send you a sample package! Here are a few pics of the carnage and clean-up.

The horses standing in the first 30 cm which fell on Tuesday...

My wife uses our car-tracking dog Moss to locate her car...

Our helpful neighbour blows the next 30 cm from our driveway. Now if the wind would die down...

Leaving the Ooglits

My original plan was to spend several days on the Ooglit Islands, taking the time to really see everything there was to see both on the main island as well as the several smaller islands in the group. This was not to be however. When I got up the next day, I knew instantly the weather was unsettled and going to get worse. For the second time, this mysterious island didn't want me to pry too closely into its secrets. It wanted me to leave.

I broke down my camp and reluctantly packed my kayak and launched. I paddled around the west coast, the one I'd not seen on my first visit and slowly searched the shores for anything that looked interesting. I felt I had the time to beach the boat and run up for a better look, but I kept getting the feeling that I shouldn't linger too long, but head for the mainland as soon as possible.

Finally, I committed to the passage. The weather was clear, but fitful patches of wind would come and go. Tidal currents swirled about me, suddenly lifting my stern to swing me around unexpectedly. I focused on my compass bearing and tried to make sense of the low-lying coastline ahead of me.
There were several pans of ice floating here and there along the way. One had a large blood-stain suggesting a seal had been killed on it, perhaps by a bear. Others had flocks of birds on them, many of which flew over to check on me, flying quite close to the boat, squawking in protest.

By mid-day the mainland appeared and I could figure out where I was. The winds had picked up considerably. Ice pans were stranded by the dropping tide and I made a slalom course through them, both for fun as well as to get out of the wind.

I stuck close to the shore, staying in the wind shadow to make better time. I stopped briefly for a snack and to refill my water bottles, but generally kept paddling until supper time. Knowing that the wind would most likely continue to blow, I buried the tent lines in the loose gravel as well as the extensions to the fly I'd added in case the winds got worse. Good thing, as they got a lot worse that night!

I'll continue tomorrow...

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

But First, The Ooglit Islands

The Ooglit Islands were the first of my objectives during my return to the Igloolik area largely because when I had been there previously I had felt it was a special place. In particular, I had seen a large circle of stones and wondered about its origins. The word ooglit in English means 'a place where walrus haul out', so that was another reason why a visit was in order.

As soon as I was safely on the beach, I set up camp, made certain the boat was above the high tide line and then set off for a quick look around before I bedded down.

There were several shallow bays along the west coast and nearly all of them contained ancient tent rings, lot and lots of them. Obviously in the distant past, lots of people had come here for some particular reason, most likely in the summer open-water season. Everywhere I looked lemmings were running in and out of their tunnels and arctic terns screeched overhead, no doubt anxious about their new visitor's sudden appearance on their exclusive island home.

Looking inland from the shore, I could see a series of bumps lining the ridge above me. As I approached them, I could see they were the semi-underground houses typically made by Thule Culture people long ago. There are many such dwellings in the northern Foxe Basin area, the name Igloolik meaning literally, 'The place with houses'. It was a rich hunting area then and still is today.

The houses themselves were usually built by digging down into a ridge of ground, with a burrowed out tunnel leading into the main circular interior. The floors were often laid with flat stones and a bench and sleeping platform ringed the walls, much as is still seen today in a snowhouse. The roof was usually made by arching a framework of whales' jaw bones overhead which were covered with a skin sheathing. It's possible the roof was then covered with a sod insulating layer, although I am not certain of this.

Beyond the ridge, I could see the mysterious stone ring lying close to the eastern shore. The ring was loosely built of large stones and was about waist high. A large stone block sat in the center, looking like it had been given purposely squared sides and top. I have no idea what the site was used for although it appears ceremonies of some sort may have been performed here. When asked by outsiders like myself, most modern Inuit pretend an ignorance of what used to happen long ago on the Ooglit islands, but I suspect there are stories told even today of its wonders. I hope so. It's impossible to walk around the place without feeling its power and mystery and the stories that explain it must be kept by its inheritors.

It had been a long day. I was really beat. The midnight sun had allowed me to explore part of the island after my arrival, but it was time to eat and get some rest.
Happy Valentine's Day Paddlers!

I'll continue tomorrow...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Return to Igloolik

Twenty-eight years after leaving Igloolik on the Nauja with a dream in my head, I was finally on my way back, by boat, just like I'd promised myself. For years, I believed the way to return was in a sailboat and I eventually bought a sailboat with that trip in mind. However the dream began to fade as the more I learned about 'big boat' sailing and the conditions I would face, the more I realised I wasn't going to make it. Financially, it was beyond my reach. I'd need a much more sea-worthy craft. Then I discovered kayaking and the dream returned. This time, I knew I would succeed.

I flew from Montreal and camped in Hall Beach, my point of departure, I was ready to launch my dream in the morning...

About thirty kilometers along the coast, I stopped for lunch and took my bearings for the offshore passage I would have to make to reach the mysterious Ooglit Islands. They were about 15 kilometers out, somewhere out there beyond the horizon waiting for me. The weather was perfectly calm, but I was nervous anyway...

As I left the safety of the shore behind, I slowly paddled into a bizarre world without clear horizons, an enormous bowl where ice and clouds floated above and below. Ice mirages came and went. I began to lose confidence, but I kept paddling onward, hoping I was going to be alright.

Finally, something real popped up out of the fog and mirages. The Ooglit were just ahead. I'd made it to my first objective! It was nearly midnight when I pulled the kayak up the beach.

To be continued tomorrow...

Monday, February 12, 2007

A New YouTube Offering...

While you are no doubt dazzled beyond recognition with my stellar guitar playing virtuosity, the object I have in mind here is to learn how to post videos like 'real' bloggers have learned how to do. Once this feat had been accomplished, I will issue everyone an advance warning so you can delete this URL from your bookmarks, thus saving you the high cost of psychoanalytic fees... ;-)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Dreams Dreamt, Promises Kept

I left Igloolik in 1969 on the Nauja, the government Peterhead boat which was used for various trips in the area. My work there was done and it was time to go back to university and finish working on my studies. The boat made the trip along the coast, south to Hall Beach where I could take a flight to what was then Frobisher Bay and on to Montreal. It was a sad time. My experiences living and hunting with the Inuit had changed me completely. I knew it then and I believe it still. But for the wonderful people who taken me in and cared for me, I would be very different today. I will forever owe them more than I could ever return.

As the boat chugged along, I made up my mind that I would someday return to Igloolik and I would do it by boat, under my own power. I had no idea how or when, but it was a promise to myself. When I paddled from Hall Beach to Igloolik in 1997, I made good on that promise and lived a dream. When I landed on Igloolik's beach, the people on the beach were the very ones I'd said goodbye to almost thirty years previously. My eyes were full of tears.

Last winter I was speaking with Nigel Foster about his trip through Ungava Bay and down the Labrador and discovered that his trip was also the fulfilment of a promise he'd made to himself years previously. How wonderful it was to learn that other people also make promises, dreams they keep alive in their hearts until a window opens and life blossoms magically for them. Like me, his trip was a moment of completion and pride, a perfect circle of accomplishment. One of those things in life you can look back on and truly say, "I did that! I lived my dream."

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Andrew's Challenge

The kayaking world sits quietly this morning, paddles still, resting on our cockpit rims, waiting to hear some good news from New Zealand. Andrew McAuley has been separated from his boat only a day's paddle from New Zealand's Milford Sound. His boat has been located, but as I write, he is still missing.

Naturally some will be saying his trip was foolhardy and he should never have been out there, risking all, but let us not forget, he had to be out there. Challenges like these are not really voluntary. They grind away at your inner being, until you just 'do it' as the expression goes. Andrew went and did it. We need to rejoice in that fact. Hopefully he will be found and we'll find out what happened which separated him and his kayak. But if the news is otherwise, never forget that had mankind spent the past few million years without daring to face its challenging moments, we'd be still living in trees looking over the grasslands, wondering if it was safe to switch trees. We may not be here at all. Most life forms, never got this far.

Every time someone like Andrew has the guts to try something new, we all move ahead just a little bit more. It doesn't mean we all have to take risks like these and that's the wonderful thing. We get to move ahead with these people. They literally take us with them. For the vast majority, that's why we're here today, not risking much, living quiet lives, yet at the same time, we're the beneficiaries of all the risk-takers who've lived before us.

So come home safe, Andrew. Take us with you on your next great challenge!

Friday, February 9, 2007

Even More Fun Under the Ice!

I was astounded by the amount of life that existed in the cold, dark arctic lake water. Instead of being the crystal clear, barren water I was expecting, it was murky with suspended living material. At the water/ice interface hundreds of small shrimp-like creatures scurried about, as though skating upside down on the ice. Some had been accidently frozen into the ice itself and wiggled in little liquid bubbles. Others had already become solidly frozen in place, I suppose, until spring released them. I have no idea whether they survive this bizarre experience, but perhaps they can.

We set up several gill nets leading away from the diving hole and faithfully checked it twice a day for several days. In spite of the waters teeming with life, we failed to catch a single fish. Apparently there were lots to be had during the summer season, but we failed to find them in the winter.

One event which gave us a scare occurred when my diving partner lost his weights while checking the net. His belt suddenly let go and headed to the bottom of the lake while he bounced up to the bottom of the ice, totally helpless. He tried to swim along the surface, but was hampered by the slippery surface and his SCUBA equipment. Tugging his life line only seem to make matter worse as he was worried about getting dangled in the nearly invisible gill netting. In the end, I was able to pull him to the hole where we exited, but for a moment it was a scary feeling being so helpless in such an alien place. Thoughts like being frozen into an ice bubble went through his mind...

The week ended all too quickly, and we headed back to Cambridge Bay in the snow machine, crossing this large sea ice crack in the top picture along the way. Starting the frozen, stubborn engine of the snow machine in the cold morning was always a chore, but spraying methyl alcohol straight into a carburetor already warmed up with a blow torch, soon had us up and running... not something I'd recommend anyone attempting on their own! We also made a few stops to use the 'facilities', a rather chilly experience at this time of year and, of course, no privacy whatsoever!

Thursday, February 8, 2007

More Under the Ice - for Fun!

After sharing our supper with the Inuit family, I played with their adopted son who in turn played with his set of new puppies. This boy had been adopted in the old way by a simple arrangement with friends or family. In this case, the adopting parents had already raised one family and had adopted another child who would act in a way as their 'old age security'. Thus, as the boy grew up, he would gradually take over the hunting from his father and take care of both parents in their old age. This was the common way old people were taken care of in the old days. The myth of setting old people adrift on an ice floe was just that: a myth! Speaking of which, can you see the ermine tails attached to this child's parka? They are there to ward off evil. As nothing evil happened to the child the whole time we were there, I can only assume they work!

The house in the picture was typical Inuit housing back in the 1960's. Houses like these were the first generation provided to Inuit familes. They where shipped up in prefabricated panels and assembled on site. Ten years later, multi-room homes were being built and today, houses in the north look much like they do in southern Canada.

The next morning we headed back out to the shack to go diving. The idea was to take some small gill nets with us and set them up to see what we could catch over the next several days. We would dive twice a day and check them to see what had been caught. When we got to the shack we discovered that our wet suits - 1/2 inch neoprene, with doubled layers around our body cores - were solid blocks of rubber thanks to the cold temperatures! They were too stiff to be removed from the packing box without breaking them...

We set up a two burner Coleman stove and used it to heat the shack and its contents. It didn't take very long before the small space was up to 25°C so we stripped down to be ready to suit up. We had to keep our boots on as the air temperature dropped well below zero just a few inches off the floor. Gradually the wet suits warmed up and could be removed from the box. We then put them on and poured some warm water down our necks, front and back, to have a layer of warm water inside the suits before entering the water. While this was going on, the non-diver member of our team used an ice chisel to break through the newly formed ice in the hole we'd made the previous night.

Finally, with all ready to go, tanks checked, weights strapped on, safety lines attached, underwater lights rigged, we entered the water. In was a bizarre wonder-world indeed!

I'll continue tomorrow...

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Under the Ice - for Fun!

When I was at university, I got a call from some people I knew at Canada's Fishery Research Board (FRB) wondering if I would like to go to the arctic to go diving under the ice in mid-winter. Natually I was concerned about my studies and a host of other important items, but after a pause of 30 nano-seconds, I signed on making up a team of three, two of us being divers.

We flew out to Edmonton and then north to Cambridge Bay. Once there we bunked in with a few 'old hands' as people called them back then, men who seemed to have lived most of their lives in various arctic towns with no visible means of support other than being handy at just about anything. When one old guy discovered I was a university student, he proudly informed me he had obtained his whole schooling off the back of match-boxes. As a chain-smoking man, he considered himself rather well educated, and in many ways, he was!

We hired an Inuk snow machine driver to pull an 8 x 8 x 8 plywood shack on skids over the sea ice for about 40 miles to a small lake where the men from the FRB had been conducting a lake productivity study the previous summer. Once there, we set to chain-sawing a hole down into the lake water, about a meter down into the ice. That was done with the usual amount of cursing and tom-foolery associated with working outside when it's far too cold to work outside. Then the hut, which had a diving hole set into the floor, was manouvered over the pool of smoking water. We then banked up the shack's sides around the bottom with snow blocks to prevent the water from freezing too hard over night. Finally, after a long day, we retired to a local Inuit house for the evening. It was dark by this time and about -40°C, so we were ready for something warm to eat.

I'll continue tomorrow...

Note: the snow machine we used was built by Bombardier, makers of the 'Ski-Doo'. It was an incredible machine seating 7 people more or less comfortably and was once seen everywhere in Canada's arctic. Alas, they are now only seen in museums. The Bombardier company now makes planes and subway cars around the world and recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of it's founder, Armand Bombardier.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Trail Magic

Winter, naturally is the time to read. The other seasons of the year lend themselves to getting outdoors, doing things and going places. Recently, I've been rollicking through the Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell. In a way, these are the land versions of Patrick O'Briens wonderful series with Captain Aubrey.

For a break however, I am presently enjoying Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. This is a tale recounting his hike along the Appalachian Trail, but in many ways, it could be about any human powered adventure, anywhere. There are many parallels to paddling on kayak trips that will bring smiles to your face as you recall that last 'adventure' you were on. Here's a just one idea of what I'm getting at...

All of us do some planning before we head out for a few weeks, but mostly it is of the 'how many undies to bring', 'where to leave the car' and 'how do I get home after it's over' type of planning. The rest is a matter of throwing some food and the usual paddling gear into the boat and heading off, hoping you can do without the stuff you forgot to bring. What you can't plan for is something very special that Bryson calls: 'Trail Magic'. And it is this ingredient, perhaps more than any other, that brings us back on the water time after time.

This is actually a well known phenomenon that happens to virtually everyone who has gone out into the natural world seeking adventure. What am I talking about? It's waking up in the morning to discover you pitched your tent in a patch of strawberries. It's looking down at the bottom of the lake below you wondering where all the fish are, and then a big one darts out of the shallows and swims under the boat. It's thinking you've never seen an egret on the Great Lakes, and one suddenly lands and starts feeding a few meters away. It's landing on a small island and a patch of tundra gets up and trots off looking very much like a caribou, it's heading into the brush for a leak and when you return you see a wolf jump over your kayak and keep running down the beach...

These make up the essential magical ingredient in wilderness travel which has us believing we've participated in a 'spiritual' revival when we go out paddling. Trail Magic.

Bryson's writing style, his wacky descriptions and easy humour make for an enjoyable read on a cold winter's evening. Hopefully as all you adventure kayakers sit down to compose your stories of paddling in far off places, you'll remember to include some 'Trail Magic' and remember, lace the tale with a good dose of humour. For some of us, a good laugh may be about all the exercise we can get when it's really cold out!

Monday, February 5, 2007

Got that Sluggish Feeling?

With the daytime temperature outside currently at - 23°C, perhaps it's a good time to wonder about the role that temperature plays on water when we paddle in different climates. As the duck's bow waves in the picture suggest, water has to be pushed out of the way, to the front and sides if we wish to move anything through water. Thus when we move our kayaks through the water, we say, we "displace" the water, mostly to the side of the boat, and then the hull's passing allows the water to re-fill the space left behind. This is why paddling takes some effort on our part. It is the reason behind those numbers in SeaKayaker Magasine's boat reviews comparing the 'speed/resistance' of the boats being reviewed. Those numbers give us an idea about how much effort it takes to push the water out of the way.

Some hulls have lower numbers than others mostly because they are designed to push the least amount of water out of the way. Water is water and it resists being moved. We call this resistance viscosity. However, just like molasses, water will react to changes in temperature, so that warmer water will flow - move out of the way - faster and more easily than colder water. In fact, water's viscosity will double with a temperature change of 25°C, about 3% per degree centigrade. This means it take about twice the effort to paddle in, say 5°C water as it takes in 30°C water. No wonder so many people like to paddle in the tropics - it's easier!

I suppose this means that those planning expeditions to the high latitudes will need to train for endurance, the long slog, while those with tropical expeditions in mind can focus on speed. It brings to mind the feeling I had last December when I thought my kayak was acting sluggish as I paddled my usual route. It really was!

Photo by 'jurvetson' from his FlickR site.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Do Lakes Breathe?

If you look out over a frozen lake, with its covering of ice and wind-blown snow, sooner or later you're going to wonder how things are fairing in the water down below. Are the plants dead from lack of sunlight? Are the fish still swimming around? Where does their oxygen come from now the surface is closed? There are lots of similar questions one can wonder about.

Let's look at the question of oxygen. Generally speaking, with open water, there is a balance maintained between the atmospheric oxygen - which we breathe - and the dissolved oxygen in the surface water - which aquatic plants and fish utilize. The wind plays a role in helping to stir the surface waters up and to promote the maximum absorption of oxygen down into the depths, but during the warmth of summer something else begins to take effect.

Water is an odd-ball material, which is most dense at 4°C and less dense at the freezing point. Thus melting ice water in the spring slowly begins to descend into the depths as it warms up. Water above 4°C stays closer to the surface. However there comes a point when virtually all the water in the lake is at or near 4°C. If there is some wind at this point - and there usually is - then wind driven mixing of the lake's water will occur. Around here we say, "The lake turned over." You might say the lake "breathed" because during this period the water in the deeper parts of the lake gets a fresh breath of oxygen as it can finally freely mix with the surface water.

As the summer progresses, this changes as the lighter, warmer surface water in the lake rises to the top and continues to 'breathe'. However, this warm water no longer mixes with the deeper water. It is too light to make it down very far. Instead, a definite layer of warm water starts to 'float' on the denser 4°C at the bottom effectively cutting it off from the air above. This 'barrier', called a thermocline is usually about 10 meters down, but varies from lake to lake in temperate regions. As kids, we used to hold our breath, swim down, dip into this cold bottom layer, and find it shockingly cold compared to the upper layer we usually swam in. The dividing line is remarkably distinct, only a few centimeters from one to the other.

In the fall, the surface temperature of the water slowly lowers back down to the 4°C point, the layering effect disappears and once again the lake's water can freely circulate. When the winds blow the surface water, instead of reaching the shore line and recirculating back just above the thermocline, the water can now descend right to the bottom of the lake where it mixes and oxygenates the lake from top to bottom. The lake takes its second breath of the year in the fall.

It is this second breath that keeps everything happy during the winter when the ice stops the interchange of gases from air to water. Normally there is an amply supply of dissolved oxygen to allow life to continue during the winter. At times, however, there are sinister things at work under the ice which 'rob' the water of its oxygen. This is caused by organic run-off or pollution entering the lake during the summer and fall, followed by the decomposition of these organic materials during the winter. Decomposing organisms require oxygen and will use up the available supply killing fish and other dependent organisms. It is called 'winter-kill'. It's not a common occurrence thankfully, but one more reason to maintain healthy, clean waterways when you're paddling.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Winter's Hump

Skiing yesterday - Groundhog Day - was a pleasure for several reasons. Obviously the day was a good one for skiing, not too cold, sunny after a bit of snow the previous night, no wind, and good company. But, Groundhog Day - or perhaps you call it Candlemas or is it La Chandeleur? - marks the half-way point in the sun's path. That is, we've crossed the mid point between the Winter Solstice just before Consumer Fest and the Spring Equinox. We're now in the downhill slide to warmer weather, open waters and the start of new paddling adventures. Why it has anything to do with groundhogs is anyone's guess. The native people who used to hunt and fish in this area watched for bears not groundhogs on this day, the ancient Celts and many other northern peoples also celebrated this event as well. Perhaps we're all just party animals and any excuse will do.

So I watch the sun as it sets behind the ridge of hills to the west of me. I track it's progression southward each day in summer and fall, watch it pause at the solstice and then see it head back northward in winter and spring, where, once again it will pause and turn. It's yet another advantage of living out in the open countryside where Nature is always close by, showing off it's stuff, drawing me out, teaching me it's cycle of daily lessons.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

We, the Privileged Few

Every now and then I click on my little Cluster Map on the right hand column to see where my blog visitors live. Not too surprisingly North America and Europe show the most visitors, followed by Australia. There is a scattering of other places with dots, but sadly they are few and far between.

I say "sadly", because it makes one aware that not everyone in the world has the same access to kayaking. We live in a world of kayakers and non-kayakers, split between those with the leisure time and the money to be able to kayak and those for whom kayaking is only a distant dream, one they are probably unlikely to reach.

It is one of the reasons I have mixed feelings about paddling in certain places where I may be seen as flaunting my status. I also have mixed feelings about the business of sponsorships, especially those which include boats, travel expenses and other expensive items. While I realise that manufacturers need to get their equipment out there to be tested by well known paddlers and be seen in exotic locations in order to market them, it bothers me. It's a lingering, uneasy feeling, not a down-right disgust. I'm just happy to blend into the background when I paddle. No big fanfare for me, thanks.

That's one of the reasons I am happy to go paddling knowing I paid my own way. In a sense knowing that I spent years working and saving for the right to paddle makes me feel better about heading out when I know that many cannot. When I look at the Cluster Map and know most people in the world don't have that same privilege, I paddle a bit more quietly, soaking up the experience I am very lucky to be able to have. Meanwhile I work quietly to see if I can't help a few more dots light up on the map, but that's been very difficult to achieve to date and it frustrates me a lot.

Note: Did you turn off your electricity this evening for 5 minutes? We did! Let's hope everyone did.