Sunday, December 30, 2007

Narragansett Bay Campus to Beavertail to Whale Rock to Bonnet Shores to…

Between working on my house, hiking in the snow, and shoveling snow everything in my body hurts. Add staying up late two nights in a row and I was less than excited about paddling. But the weather looked good and my home project is in limbo while I wait for materials to show up, so what the hell!

Traveling to RI for kayaking from central Mass is quite a commitment. It’s typically about a 75 mile commute. My usual ritual is get up at 6, eat a good breakfast, pack my stuff, make my lunch, leave the house at 8, and arrive at around 9:30 for the 10 o’clock paddle. In winter I like to put the boat on in the evening before. Even on a day like today when it is forecast to be low forties it is usually only about 20 degrees when I walk out in the morning. On this particular morning it was quarter of seven when I got up and the boat was not loaded. Fortunately I’ve got my boat and equipment fairly organized so when suitably motivated I can gather everything up very quickly. I was on the road just a little past 8 and I was the first to arrive at the bay campus.

Matt showed up, ironically planning on paddling solo because he did not know a paddle was planned. Ken and Cat followed and finally Joe showed up at the last minute. We all geared up for the cold water. Cat and I were probably a little over dressed expecting a bit more wind and a little less sun than we had. We discussed plans to make a loop of the lower west passage and agreed to do it clockwise so that we’d be protected by the Narragansett shoreline if the wind should pick up. We would be fighting the tide but the neap tide was not very strong.

We decided to make a more or less direct crossing from the bay campus to beavertail. The crew was full of capable paddlers and the conditions were fine so we had no fear of lingering in the middle of the channel. (We saw only two other boats in the distance the whole day.) In the open water we could see that a powerful swell was in evidence. It was not high but with its long wavelength it was pre-disposed to build over the bars. On the Jamestown shore the boys showed great discretion in avoiding too much play in the rocks. At Beavertail we could see some waves steepening up over the shallow water. We chose to stay out of this and head towards Whale Rock. From there we turned due north. We were headed to lunch just inside the cove where Bonnet Shores is. But it would get a little exciting at the corner when we were all caught by a set of 3 waves that tried to surf us into the rocks. It was my first chance to see how the new Impex Force 4 would respond to a steep growler. It stayed upright as did everyone else’s boat but provided for a little excitement to spur on the lunchtime conversation.

After lunch we were headed to Bonnet Shores beach for a little surfing. Everyone except me donned their helmets. I was in a new boat in winter. I thought it was best that I avoided all the rock gardening that the crew was doing along the west shore.

We explored the beach from west to east. The waves were a bit larger on the west side. We were all a bit tentative about getting wet. Somewhere east of center the waves seemed about right and everyone started taking rides. They were a perfect 2-3 feet and the surfers would just disappear from view as they rode in. I was a bit tentative with my new boat. I simply didn’t know how this long, low rocker boat would handle the surf. The larger waves were arriving in sets of 3 (as we experienced just before lunch). For my first few rides I avoided this set and played in the smaller waves in between. As I became comfortable with the boat I started surfing the third of 3 so that if I was to get messed up I would not have 2 more big ones to pummel me. I was building up body heat and the spray of heading back out through the breakers actually felt good. The boat surfed pretty well so I decided to try and back surf it on a smaller wave. It did this well also but bracing when back surfing is a confusing proposition and I ended up upside down in shallow water. I tried to set my paddle up for a roll but had difficulty getting it into position. Possibly I was pinched by the sandy bottom. I chose to bail out.

We all had a few more rides then headed around the point and back to the bay campus. As expected there were some pretty impressive walls of water coming over the bar inside the point. We discussed some of the adventures we’ve all had at this point on numerous previous paddles.

The route back always seems long. It is only a mile and a half but we are usually fighting the current there and it’s anti-climactic as the swells die out in this section of the bay. This section gave me plenty of time to think about the fact that I hadn’t rolled this boat yet. I was rationalizing that I hadn’t foamed it out yet but I’ve jumped in a lot of other people’s boats and rolled so that was no excuse. The water was cold but I had to try it. I managed a reasonable roll and called it a day. The cold water was delayed from reaching my head by my neoprene hood but as it soaked in I knew it was enough.

Post paddle was a simple coffee and bagel at dunky’s. We wished each other happy new years as we left from our last paddle of 2007. Knowing a first paddle of 2008 was not going to be too far away!

12/30 Air and water 42. Winds light. 10.5 miles round trip.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Why we don’t put our boats away

It’s days like today the remind me why we don’t put our boats away for the season. Temperatures were in the upper 30s, the sun was occluded by high thin clouds, the wind was light, the water was in the low 40s, and the seas were calm. Cat, EJ, and I met at the town beach on West Island in Fairhaven. We joked about not needing our helmets as we loaded the boats and gazed out over the mirror like Buzzards Bay. On a summer day this would have been a disappointment. But in December, with only three paddlers, this was heaven. Like an omen, we were visited by a seal before we even got the boats wet.

The plan was to paddle around the island but I suggested we head over to Ram Island. Ram Island is a small island off the end of Mattapoisett Neck. I’ve paddled West Island at least a half dozen times but never in that direction.

We had a couple of seals popping up around us within the first mile. As we approached the aquaculture pen there were at least 6 seals popping up all around. We did some paddling backwards but they seemed to figure that out quickly and still popped up behind our backs.

I landed on Ram Island and put a few scratches in my new boat. We then headed to the beach on Mattapoisett Neck for lunch. From the beach we could see seals ½ mile away on Seal Island. (Clearly, we know how it got named.) For lunch we had our sandwiches, soup, tea, Christmas goodies, and H’s excellent corn bread.

After lunch we headed back to West Island passing ¼ mile north of Seal Island. In the water beyond the island I could see one or two feisty seals leaping through the air, their whole bodies airborne for half a second. A couple of seals greeted us as we passed the Island but as we moved further away even more showed up. At one point I counted 12 on the surface. At times they were close enough that I could hear them breathing.

When we reached West Island we were in the midst of a large flock of Eiders. Mixed in was a Buffel Head couple. As we approached Whale Rock we spotted a seal out of the water so detoured well around the rock so as not to disturb him. Near the put-in we saw a seal 3 feet out of the water on a steep sided rock. Clearly she had gotten up there when the tide was higher and the water had dropped out from under her. We were closer than we wanted to be to her because we didn’t notice her until the last moment. Fortunately she wasn’t disturbed by our presence.

Back at the launch EJ was determined to do a couple of rolls. I watched closely to be sure he came back up. In the distance another seal was watching us from its rock. (Look closely in the photo for the smiley shape!)

Without the seals it would have been an uneventful but relaxing day. With the seals it was an exciting and memorable paddle. Either way I was happy to have not put my boat away for the season.

12/26 9.5 miles round trip.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Winter Solstice Paddle

Each year on the Winter Solstice RICKA has a paddle on the Slocum River in South Dartmouth. I’ve paddled this river a number of times. I maintain it is the prettiest river in Massachusetts. But for some reason I’ve never done this paddle in winter.

Seven showed up for the paddle. TM, CM, JS, PH, KF, CR, and PB. We were all suited up in our dry suits as we shoved off into the bottom third of the tide. The sun was shining brightly and the winds were light. The first ½ mile was very pleasant but we quickly ran into ice. TM and PH led the way, carving through with their plastic boats. At first the ice was merely a nuisance because it was soft, as you typically expect in salt water. But as we went further it became more than a ½ inch thick and difficult to break through with the paddle. This went on for a half mile or so. I tried to be last in line through the ice. Not because I didn’t want to work. But because I didn’t want to scratch my new boat on its maiden voyage.

There were plenty of ducks to be seen and a couple of hawks floating over the nearby woodlands. The paddling was easy until we reached Potomska Point and had to navigate the sand bar protecting (or confounding?) the river. The channel passes to the east and although that side is the side I prefer the group was determined to take a shortcut and head towards Barneys Joy Point. We found a way through that only required a gentle rub on the bottom of the boats.

We stopped for lunch at a pocket in the dunes just past the rocky section of shoreline. This location afforded us some protection from the wind which had picked up with the coming of the clouds. CM brought some special beverage and we toasted to the winter solstice. From now on the days will be getting longer. I can’t wait for spring! As we ate lunch CR was the only one to admit that her feet were cold. But I felt the same. Mine weren’t painfully cold but they were uncomfortable.

Without the sun it wasn’t comfortably warm feeling. We finished up lunch and headed back out again. As I backed my boat into the 6-12 inch surf it was just large enough to dump a few gallons of water into my cockpit. Great, just what I needed for my cold feet.

It took a surprisingly long time for TM and CM to get off the beach. I never did figure out why. Meanwhile KF played around the rocks trying to get as much excitement as he could. CR and I were not quite as determined but she did get caught by an unexpected wave that instantly turned her towards shore and surfed her towards a rock. She avoided it with ease but I felt a little bad that I didn’t warn her it was coming.

Our short stay on the beach for lunch didn’t give the tide a long time to change and put some more water in the river. As we approached “Deep Water Point” we all had to try various methods of getting over the sand bar. This included pulling with the paddle and getting out of the boat and walking. I chose to push off the bottom with my hands which kept me in my boat but certainly made my hands cold quickly.

Once over the bar it was smooth paddling back to the launch. The icy section had opened up and no more ice breaking was required.

Back at the launch KF joined in and admitted his feet were ice cold too. We all did what we could to get our boats loaded up and get warm. For some reason there was no post paddle meal. We all wished each other a happy holiday and went our separate ways.

So it was a very uneventful paddle in contrast with some of the more recent outings. But anytime you are out on the water with friends in December it’s a great day.

12/22 Air and water upper 30’s, Wind SE at 10. 12.5 miles round trip.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Not quite how I wanted it to end

I had a goal this year of paddling during every month of the year. I did achieve my goal. In some ways it was an adventure better than I ever expected. In others ways, the ending was a bit sad.

It was my love, me, my boat, and my friends traipsing month to month and state to state enjoying new adventures, learning about ourselves and each other, creating stories to tell and never forget. Fairhaven, Mattapoisett, Oregon, Maine, Gloucester, Stonington CT, Alaska, Lake Champlain, Isle-au-Haut, Stone Bridge, Casco Bay, Sakonnet, Newport, and Jamestown. There is about 12,000 miles of travel here for about 500 miles of paddling.

There were plenty of mistakes made in the year. Most of the time we were upright but there were rolls not fulfilled, places not explored for want of destination, conversations not had, guidance not given or taken, and perspectives not viewed. There were plenty of high points, successful rescues, tricky passages made, one on one time, small intimate groups, and oh those special conversations. At times we were a well oiled machine. Other times we were a fragmented group bickering over what way to go.

All in all it was a wonderful year. By far the most fun I’ve had in years. The bumps and scrapes the boat and I have accumulated only add character. I’m not sure I could have made it better by trying to do more. And I’m certain it would not have been as much fun if I would have played it safer.

But my December paddle was marred with ill feeling. We met at Fort Wetherill. The weather was wonderful and the company was good, but I was not whole. A sickness had snuck up on me and although I headed out and returned under my own power my equilibrium was edgy. We had to stop early for lunch in Mackerel Cove. I thought I might be OK and tried to push on towards Beavertail. But I didn’t have it in me and I had to turn back. The last leg back felt long and hard for me but my friends were there to keep an eye on me. Back on land I could just sit there in a daze a bit. I recovered to get my stuff packed but the ride home was almost as bad as the paddle.

It was really not the finish I had hoped for.

12/8/2007 Air 41, Water 39, winds West at 10-15