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Sea Kayaking

In search of beyond.


In search of beyond.

With the 2015 Ski to Sea race now behind me, my regular racing season now comes to a close with a handful of surprising wins, and many more near misses and silly blunders. It's a bit strange to write that, because for most who paddle in climates North of the equator, the best and biggest races of the season are just around the corner. 

But for me, my attention now pivots to the irregular season, as I am preparing for my attempt to break the circumnavigation record of Vancouver Island. The island is roughly 700 nautical miles (1100km) in circumference, and offers it's guests a true test of their seamanship and athleticism with vast exposed coastal wilderness, numerous technical cruxes from surging narrows, pounding surf to the exposure of the open ocean itself. Roads, habitation, and communication are few and far between. Heck, there are even bears. And wolves. 

The current record is held by Stephen Henry, who pulled it off in just under 13 days and represents a very high standard indeed. It's one I hope to contribute to by making my attempt entirely unassisted, and is to my knowledge a standing problem yet to be solved due to the sheer scale of the undertaking and the numerous variables that can derail even the most skilled and prepared attempts.  

It's natural to approach the subject of a speed record by focusing on the central issue itself by asking the question "how fast and how far can I go?". That question gets a bit more interesting when I contemplate bigger questions concerning the sport of expedition paddling itself. Questions like "where are we going as a sport, and what does it really mean to break the record?"

The parallels between expedition paddling, and expedition climbing are numerous and readily apparent. Much like climbing in the 1980's faced an existential crisis when grappling with what it truly means to climb fantastically huge heaps of ice and rock, so does the water-sport community today when contemplating paddling around them. Central to the quandary is the inherent ability of technology, gear, and ever increasing emergency resources to round the sharp edges of off every adventure. Taken even further, there is a real risk that the big, noble challenges we face can be reduced to nothing more than engineering problems. 

For climbers, the answers for the great problems of the Himalaya were answered collectively by guys like Reinhold Messner, Mugs Stump, Mark Twight and Alex Lowe who set very high standards with bold ascents of previously unthinkable lines. In the process, they helped articulate a new ethic known now as alpinism that inspired a new generation of athletes with even bolder ideas of how mountains could be climbed around the world. Anything with an ism is typically heady stuff loaded with philosophy and artfully worded rhetoric, and alpinism does not disappoint. But where alpinism veers away from precious arguments around the role of technology and actually picks up conceptual steam is in its central argument that less is more. 

There is also the numbing threat of repetition in pursuit of reputation. I can't help but wonder what Anderl Heckmair and Ludwig Vörg would have thought of Ueli Steck running by? They, like us, wouldn't have seen him coming. But once he did merely repeating his feat, while an enormous challenge, would ultimately just be a form of imitation. Flattering but not exactly work worthy of the Louvre.  

Ultimately any conversation around ethics and the aesthetic of the athletic pursuit will be informed and animated by the underpinnings of your motivations. The question such endeavors naturally raise shift from "how, what, when and where?" to "why?". We all have our own reasons. If it's the summit that matters most, then any means can conceivably find itself justifying the end. Want to top out on Everest? Well then it's possible that you needn't even climb, as there are now helicopters capable of landing you on the very top. Chances are you can even bring your selfie stick. 

If however, adventure is what you seek, the journey becomes as valuable as the destination itself as the cliche' rightly informs us. For myself, adventure is merely the dogged pursuit of the unknown by artfully escaping the limits of the known. Yet the allure of the unknown is more than the irresistible pull of the horizon and what might be just beyond. And its even more than discovering the limits of my own physical capabilities or slipping away from the daily grind. Adventure and the pursuit of the unknown has the unique power to bring equilibrium between visceral risk and meaningful reward by making known who I am made to be as an adventurer, husband, father and man. And that to me is something worthwhile and truly meaningful. 


Surfski Touring in the San Juan Islands


Surfski Touring in the San Juan Islands

TRIP REPORT: Surfski Touring to Sucia Island in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. 

My friends and I put in at Fairhaven with fair skies and light wind. We then paddled across Bellingham Bay to Portage Island, and then up to the Northern tip of Lummi Island where we took a quick pause on a beach before crossing the Rosario straight. 

While on the beach, the land owner came down to see what the fuss was all about with a booming shout of "WHAT DO WE HAVE HERE!?!" at the very moment one of my friends was relieving himself. Feeling a bit like Peter Rabbit, I greeted him with a quick handshake and introduced us as a "traveling spectacle of spandex!" to break the ice. It worked, he laughed out loud and we ended up having a pleasant chat with a man who has lived his entire life on the island. Spend enough time on the water, and you'll soon know you need beach access to regroup on long days. I am typically careful to empathize with the land owner, as the law is on their side and they pay the taxes to prove it. A little understanding goes a long way, and I have met some really kind people over the years who have become very frustrated with large groups of guided kayakers who often bring entitled attitudes and leave trash and feces on their beaches.  


The wind shifted, and we enjoyed following seas as we paddled into the San Juan archipelago. We covered roughly 21 miles in 2:54 of paddling, averaging just a tick under 7.0mph. Not bad considering each person was carrying close to 50lbs of gear and food. 

Upon arriving at the island, it's appeal was immediately apparent with coastal reefs and tide pools hemmed in by jumbled stone cliffs and wind twisted pine. There are numerous coves and bays on the island that offer shelter from the frequent storms that blow in.

The name "Sucia" translates literally as foul, as legend has it the first Spanish explorers found it rather irksome to safely visit and harbor. Either that, or in a stroke of genius and foresight they camouflaged a very pleasant island with an unpleasant name. 

We camped in the charming Fox Cove bay and were dismayed to learn that the water supply for the island was not yet turned on. This of course meant we would have to charm our fellow yachting guests into giving us some of their supply. The task proved remarkably easy, and in addition to water we were offered cold beers and a great conversation around a fire that night. In a strange twist of fate, one of the people we met was from my hometown of Billings, Montana. We had a great laugh, and in typical Montana fashion set about figuring out who we knew in common. Quite a few people it turns out. 

Saturday the clear skies continued, this time with the addition of significant westerly wind blowing close to 20mph throughout the day. I typically try to bring one great meal on a trip, and treated my friends to breakfast burritos. My friends elected to head west to explore more islands and then perhaps surf back if the wind held. I chose instead to do downwind laps near the island in the good weather and wind, and practice remounting my ski in the rough water and relative safety of the island. As I suspected, the wind soon eased up and the waves laid flat. This called for a proper nap in the warm sunshine. 

On the the third day, a storm blew in packing 30 mph wind with a strong easterly component. We knew we'd have our hands full with loaded surfskis paddling beam in confused seas and very technical conditions. We were not wrong. Our plan was to paddle from Sucia Island to Orcas Island in search of wind shadow in the lee of Island and then "possibly" surf with the wind down the Rosario straight back to the north side of Lummi Island.  

As soon as we put in and departed the island, we had a stiff reality check with one of my friends taking a prolonged swim and difficult remount about a mile offshore. I made the crossing to Orcas as planned, while my two friends turned back to regroup on Sucia. We coordinated by radio, and 20 more miles in these conditions was simply not going to happen. The guys were able to score a boat ride to haul us and our gear back to Bellingham (small craft advisory be damned!) with a very kind local named Robbie who happened to be sheltering in Fox Cove with us. Having a brother named Robbie, I've yet to meet one I don't like. 

Late winter / early spring in the San Juan's is not to the time to expect sunshine and lollypops on the open water. We knew heading in that we would see challenging conditions, and we embraced it. 

As Yvonne Chouinard famously said, "For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.” Adventure indeed!