An Aging Beginner’s Kayaking Tutorial

On Drummond Island, an ancient sport is joined by two even older sports.

Who invented kayaking?  If memory of my family’s 1959 Encyclopedia Britannica serves correctly, it was the Eskimos, right? They made frames of whale bone and stretched skins of some kind, probably those poor baby harp seals you see posters of, over it to make a boat. Now this boat was going to be used to chase whales, so it had to be pretty seaworthy. So the hole in the boat where they climb in, called the cockpit by kayaking smarties, was just big enough to get legs and butt into. The rest of the Eskimo stuck out so he could use his arms to paddle or throw spears at whales or signal for help in the face of charging polar bears. And to keep out the freezing ocean water, there was a sleeve of some sort that laced close around his middle. The sleeve also kept the him in. If the kayak went bottom up, the Eskimo was stuck hanging upside down underwater which ought to happen often as the whole thing had the stability of a canoe. Both Rhonda and I have had the wonderful experience of dumping into mucky river and lake bottoms from canoes.  What would kayaks do to us?  Hold us upside down in the muck? These images swamped our psyches at the Drummond Island GeoRendezvous 2013. Well, not immediately upon arriving on the island, but soon after.

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The GeoRendezvous is put on each year by Cap’t. Bud and First Mate Marty (these are not their real names as they assume aliases to for liability purposes.) It is headquartered in the Drummond Island Community Campground, right on the shore of Lake Huron. Rustic campsites and pit toilets are the only drawbacks in this otherwise heavenly paradise. In their GC guises, these two intrepid cachers have populated Drummond Island and much of the Upper Peninsula with creative, “old school” caches where the object of your search is most often an ammo can filled with really good items. Treasures of working flashlights and compasses, tools, toys, and trinkets of high quality make the caches worth searching for.

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Drummond’s shoreline and inland lakes are prime real estate to place caches. Kayaks are prime vehicles to reach those caches.  After two days of caching, and finding nearly everything we sought via overland routes, some newfound friends at the GeoRendezvous urged us to try their Kayaks.  Quickly, but politely, declining their offers worked for a while, but around the campfire early one evening, PhotoBug2 and Terry made us an offer we couldn’t resist. And so we met them at the beach where they provided everything we needed, two kayaks, and two life vests. What we really needed was some liquid courage, but neither of us do that sort of thing and so we had to rely on our own.

“Geocaching gets you outdoors, to places you may not have been, doing things you may not have done.” I read that somewhere on the Geocaching website. Yeah. Really. Thanks…

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Mounting a kayak the first time is never graceful. Or the second time or the third time or the fourth…Water is introduced to places you least expect. Stability is like balancing an egg on a tightrope. The cockpit actually shrinks when you try to enter.

Here I must mention that using the word “kayak” repeatedly has the same effect on me that saying the word “Voldemort” had on Harry Potter’s friends and cohorts. Therefore I will henceforth use the word “boat” in referring to that-which-shall-not-be-named.

Eskimo boat entry positions are many. And through the course of the next two days each helpful kayaking cacher presented his or her own.

There’s the “straddle the boat while you’re standing on the bottom, move the cockpit under your bottom and drop” method.  I have named the this one “Straddling Sam, the Groin Pull Man.” This works if your inseam is 40″ or greater. Personally, my legs are eight inches too short, and I pride myself as a six footer.  We’ll not mention my five-foot-two wife.

There’s the “place the paddle at the rear of the boat, across the cockpit, to stabilize the boat and give you three point balance as you place one foot inside.”  I call this one the “Double Dip Tipsy Toodle” as I tried this one twice and both times ended head first in a foot of water with the boat toodling merrily about laughing at me.

One miraculous entry has the boater standing with one foot on the bottom, one foot in the boat near the front of the cockpit. With one magical motion and an incantation I could not make out, the boater quickly sat back into the seat, pushed back off the bottom with his wet foot, and rocketed out into the lake. I named this oneNo Freaking Way!!!”

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After entering the boats as gracelessly as possible, we found the crafts to be sort of comfortable and more stable than a canoe. We each paddled our own happily about, following our fearless leaders across lakes and along shoreline until we came, each time, to the point where we had to get out of the bloody thing. Being the Man and Leader of the Clan for 43 years, I deemed it my duty to exit the boat first, on my own, without help, then pop up and show my Beloved that in fact this Kayaking (ouch) was something we could take up and enjoy.

Exiting has its own positions which are variations on the entry positions. So I paddled ahead getting away from the group, and all their assistance. I gauged the water to be eight to twelve inches deep and deftly attempted my exit. In so doing I created my own position. It is called “The Double Dip Tipsy Toodle Onto A Slippery Rocky Bottom with a Half-Twist Noggin’-Crusher.”   And, yes, I did it twice.

The bottom of Lake Huron is pridefully varied. Its most picturesque and least expected bottom configuration is one of rocks, about the size of bowling balls, covered in pale brown algae. On a calm day, with crystal clear blue water, this is absolutely beautiful to behold.  Each rock, rounded and smoothed by wave action nestled tightly with thousands of others just like it, demonstrated some elemental property of physics or construction of the cosmos. And never did it occur to me that property might be anything less than friendly…

Friendlier Bottoms Ahead!

Tahquamenon Falls Winter Campout

“You know babe, right now a small part of me is terrified.”

This summer, on our ten thousand mile long odyssey to tour Alaska, we were in very lonely places, uncountable miles from nowhere, unknowable distances from others. We relished it.

Now, driving in the dark, our high beams lit the way through the winding narrow snow packed canyon that was Michigan Highway 23. No wind. No snow. Just us on this winding slippery road to perdition. At Tahquamenon Falls Campground hoped to meet up with other Roadtrek owners to prove our mettle as wintertime campers. But first we had to get there.

Driving on snowy roads in a heavy duty van converted to a class B motorhome seemed like a good idea at one time. After all, the vehicle drove like a van, but a little slower on the take off and longer on the braking. I have driven vans since 1985 in every kind of weather. But just now a little fear was creeping in. One wrong turn, or swerve, or a bit of inattention to the road could easily land us buried in a ten foot snow bank, as long as we missed the trees on our way off the road.

The menacing white shroud cloaked familiar landmarks. It multiplied curves in the road, making it a new and endless thoroughfare. Later in the daylight, after we had set camp, that same snow gave soft curves to bare trees and campground buildings and crunched benignly beneath our feet. Such is the nature of snow.

Our Roadtrek is an earlier model with little ground clearance, and even a few inches of pristine snow on top of snow packed park roads, gave me pause. I was forgetting that our Big Bets which carried us faithfully across country and touring though Alaska, gained the nickname Beluga Bets for her sheer weight. Weighing nearly ten thousand pounds, her heft and power and my almost 30 years experience in vans with rear wheel drive provided us an effortless ride in any direction or speed I cared to reach.

That’s the secret. Speed. On a snow packed road in a wheeled vehicle, speed is the enemy. All those folks in the newly snow covered southern states have to learn as much. You can’t go fast, if you do, you can’t stop. The news clips of drivers turning against a skid, spinning their wheels trying to regain control make a native northerner laugh, then cringe, then cluck with the ignorance of inexperience. Maybe next time they’ll know better. We only pray that during the next snow and ice event we are nowhere near them. Or that they all stay indoors and let us quietly motor on through.

And so that small terrified part of me fell silent to let experience and adrenaline get us to camp.

Setting up camp usually meant pulling in somewhere and putting the van in “Park.” If you have “shore power” a term stolen from the nautical vernacular, you need to locate it and connect up. If it’s late, you convert the dining area to a king sized bed, put on jammies and crawl in.

In winter it’s only slightly harder. The van part is still easy, although the cold turns the electrical cable into a stubborn rigor mortised python. The ever schizophrenic snow now loves you so that it clings to your every body part. When brushed off inside the van, it reacts like a jealous lover and attacks when you least expect it. Cold melted snow is sucked instantly into thick warm socks if you are careless enough to step on your spurned lover. Such is the nature of snow.

Day Two
Overnight, no more Roadtreks have come to join the adventure a day early as we have. Cricket needs to be walked, and so our foray out into the gray day once again gives us entertainment. Not that watching a dog pee is entertaining. But this dog is outright hilarious. She can’t decide if she is male or female and in point of fact is probably both equally. She was spayed very young and now pees like a male, lifting one leg, or both to maneuver her piddling parts to pee onto a tree or fence four or five inches over her head. It really is quite a feat for such a little dog.

She is also a fierce hunter and knows no limit to her stalking and tracking ability. Every squirrel and chipmunk in our yard scampers at the sight of her. In Alaska, there lives a male grizzly bear solely because we restrained Cricket, dragged her into the van and sped away before she could catch and gut the helpless beast. The bear must be grateful we spared his life, as we are grateful we only had to change underwear and nothing more.

Outside, Cricket spies a lone camper walking up the road. She puts on her most seductive act of doggie cuteness and subdues the camper. Of course we invite our new found friend in for a coffee and we all visit. Cricket shamelessly bounces from lap to lap, begs for attention, and gets it. Kiki, our new friend, will not quickly forget us or our adorable mutt.

Late in the day, more Roadtreks arrive onsite. Piloted by owners who are so proud of their vehicles and where we all can go in them, that we nearly all belong to a Facebook Roadtrek group created by Mike Wendland and Jim Hammill. There we exchange greetings and niceties and information. Now, here, we hope to make real acquaintances and become real friends.

Throughout dinner at The Camp 33 Brewery and Restaurant in The Lower Falls Park there is much laughter, story telling, food and drink. Later, around a campfire we laugh, cough in the smoke of stubborn firewood gradually lighting and warming us. And we continue to become Face to Face Friends, so much more than Facebook Friends.

Tomorrow we plan a snowshoe hike to the lower falls, and dinner and another campfire. We hope the weather holds. It’s been in the high 20’s, unusually warm for the Upper Peninsula, but by Sunday morning it is supposed to be zero or lower, with snow. We will see what tomorrow brings to us in our Roadtreks.  Such is the nature of snow.

Day Three
It’s -29 degrees in Denali, Alaska, +28 degrees in Fairbanks. That’s a swing of 57 degrees within a few hundred miles. And our balmy 34 degrees above in Paradise Michigan, just east of the “First Annual Wintertime No Rules Tahquamenon Falls Roadtrek Campout” will swing 37 degrees to a nightime low of -3. Extreme temperatures are relative. As our snowshoe guide Caroline says just before a long hike, “Go when you can!” So we do, though we are unsure if she meant to the loo or on a hike.

Striking out on an “easy” mile long snowshoe hike is a tenuous thing. Some of our group of twenty have no experience walking upon the deep snow, while those who do seem as demigods. My place is somewhere in the middle, sort of a demi-dolt. Desire enough, strength enough but soon to be determined skill enough.

Without being disrespectful, showshoes make you a Jesus of the wintertime. And as Jesus called Peter out onto the water to walk with Him, Caroline called us. Miraculously, it was easier than we thought. Walking on deep snow with large enough steps to keep from stepping on your own shoes took some small amount of concentration and a slightly larger portion of determination. But it was doable and something we all came to know we could master.

Of course, there were mishaps. Just as Peter sank when his faith waned, I slid off my shoe and promptly sank up to my crotch in the soft snow beside the packed trail. But only once. I believed in my shoes and my faith in myself grew with every step after that. Such is the nature of snow, and the benefit of practice.

Rhonda and I have our own snowshoes and we were proud of them. Purchased some years ago at an estate sale, they were “old school” bent hickory and leather thronged beauties. Their bindings were leather and of the buckle on type, but easily worn and forgiving of their slew footed wearer.

Truthfully they resembled either Fred Flintstones badminton rackets or Sasquatch’s banjos.

Studying them carefully a snowshoed demigod of the group politely said, “Hmm, those ARE coming back into style.” We took this to be a compliment…or not. Either way, they were different, adequate and we were proud of them.
They were however wider than most of today’s shoes and required a longer stride to clear each successive step. I am blessed with a long stride. Being ten inches shorter than me Rhonda had to work at it.

Like everyone on snowshoes, we also had to work at keeping our feet farther apart as we walked and put a little extra stress on the hips. Stretch, toe up, step, heel down, stretch, toe up, step, heel down becomes your unspoken mantra as you parade through winter forest scenes, uphill and down.

Down. Yeah. That was sort of the thing. See our older shoes tended to gather just the smallest layer of snow across their bottoms. On flat ground, all is well. Downhill, we get a huge coating of snow on our bottoms as our former shoes adeptly become skis. Without warning.
And so it was, that my wonderful wife, the beauty of my life, the picture of poise and grace, was the first to ride spay footed on her butt twenty feet downhill ending in a bank of snow with her shoes askew, and her giggling heard throughout the forest. And, as she was immediately in front of me, I felt compelled to follow her splendiferous example, though I ended astride a tree on the opposite side of the path. Such is the nature of snow.
Unhurt, and because of the great nature of our group, we were really unembarrassed at our antics, we proceeded to untangle from each other, rise gracefully to our feet and calmly exhibit our best snowshoe form.

Eventually we all viewed the Lower Tahquamenon Falls, taking pictures, sharing stories, and generally trying not to step on each others’ shoes. No one was cold. Everyone was cheerful, and it is safe to declare the First Annual Wintertime No Rules Tahquamenon Falls Roadtrek Campout Snowshoe Excursion a rousing success.

As we all maneuvered to complete our tour and loop along a new path back to camp, Rhonda’s treasured antique snowshoe binding gave up the ghost. Its long neglected leather split at a critical point and proved to be damaged beyond a simple repair on the trail. Sadly we both dismounted our shoes and joined a small group of others who chose to return the way we had come, walking on the trail packed hard by twenty snowshoe hikers.

Soon we leave for dinner at The Tahquamenon Falls Camp 33 Brewery and Restaurant to be followed by another campfire back at the campground. Life is good in the winter if you face it head on and enjoy it. Such is the nature of snow.