Rainbow kayak flower

Flower Power

Over the years Life beats us up. Not whining, just stating facts. Therefore, it is SO GOOD to be around women who remind me of my younger self: rowdy, boisterous, athletic, outdoorsy, a little bit raunchy, funny, fun, supportive, smart and creative, and that’s good because they show me how to live all over again. Lately I’ve been having a little trouble holding on to that grrrl that I am.

Sammy gives us the 411

Sami gives us the 411

The women I’m talking about work for the California Women’s Watersports Collective and Sundance Kayak School of Southern Oregon. These two groups collaborate on an annual kayak camp for women. I signed up for this, their third annuaI event, and  came back filled with warm light vibrant energy. I love sea kayaking but it’s often cold and foggy and conditions change so rapidly and the consequences of those changes can be so severe that it was wonderful to be in the State of Jefferson’s riverine environment which reminds me so much of the Sacramento and American Rivers of my youth. The sun and warmth of late June made everything friendly. The water was warm. The sky was blue. The drills were fun and interesting and I learned a bunch of new skills and some games I can bring on retreat (Stinky Fish, anyone?) The rapids were friendly and totally doable but occasionally big enough to be exciting as well as fun so you felt really proud you made it.

Sara works the riffle

Sarah works the riffle

It was four full days of warm ups, kayak instruction, yoga, massage, really good food, and interaction with a bunch of great women. Over the course of the camp we paddled Class I and II sections of the Rogue between Hog Creek and Almeda with a grand finale at Argo, a Class III rapid to finish the weekend. Here’s a synopsis of the event:

Warming up with high 5's and heel palm strikes

Warming up with high 5’s and heel palm strikes

Day One. Wet exits. Key words, Tuck, tap, tug, take off your pants. Meaning lean forward so you don’t hit your head on a rock, bang on the sides of the kayak so you alert your buddies you’re upside down, tug on the loop and pop off that spray skirt, and slide out of the cockpit like you’re taking off your pants. Great mnemonic. We talked about swimming: swimming through rapids on our backs, the back stroke, the crawl, and why not to use the legs in the crawl stroke. We also talked about the California lazy float, on your back with head upstream, feet raised, and butt lifted.

Torso rotation drills

Torso rotation drills

Then we practiced peeling in and out of eddies. Another mnemonic: Position, angle, speed, turn/edge, or Past or Pase. This practice included lots of edging drills. One drill to help us hold our edges was to paddle in a circle around a stationary kayaker in both directions. We worked on forward strokes and paddling straight in a squirrely boat. We also practiced sweeps. Then we broke for lunch on the river bank.

The scenic Rogue recreational corridor

The scenic Rogue recreational corridor

After lunch we played Yip-Poi. There are two teams; one is Yip and one is Poi. As you play you yell “Yip!” or “Poi!” depending on which team you’re on, or if you’re trying to fake someone out. You freeze people on the other team by tagging their stern with your bow. Then they have to stop paddling and raise their paddle on end until someone on their own team unfreezes them by doing the same. When one team is immobilized the other team wins. Another game was Stinky Fish, similar to water polo. You throw a fish-shaped sponge into the water and each team tries to pass it back and forth until one player throws the sponge onto the opposite team’s side of the river. You can block with your paddle but if you’re holding the fish you can’t paddle until you pass it to someone else. I had people yell at me for holding on to the fish too long, but the strategy worked because everyone bunched up around me and then I could pass it to a team member on the outside. These games were useful in getting people to forget to be anxious or afraid in their desire to Get That Sponge and also in getting people to paddle through eddies and currents without noticing because they’re focused on the game, not the water.

Everybody eddy in!

Everybody eddy in!

Day Two. On this day we divided into three groups. I was in a group with one other student named Ursula. It was me, her and Ashlee, our instructor. We worked on ferries and entering and exiting eddies going up and down stream, usually repeating each drill at least three times. Then we joined up with the group to play more Stinky Fish. After the games we worked our way downriver, scouting rapids from our kayaks, choosing lines, looking for the “V” that provides safe passage, finding the eddy at the end, entering, then peeling out and re-entering the current.

How high (and deep) can you go? Jumping into the swirlies.

How high (and deep) can you go? Jumping into the swirlies.

Periodically we’d join up with the others and at one spot we found a swirly little bit of river where we stopped and jumped into the river off a rock into the turbulent eddies and then swam back to shore. The goal was to go under as deep and as long as you can but our PFDs kept popping us back to the surface. While swimming I observed that I dip my shoulder to enter an eddy just like I edge my kayak. On this day I learned to really lean into eddy lines. At times it felt like flying.

Look ma, no hands!

Look ma, no hands! Doing the lazy float.

We also practiced crashing into rocks, leaning into them, and pushing off, always a valuable skill. I love paddling right at the rock, hitting it hard enough to slide up onto it a little, slip back, push off and spin around. Super fun. Another time Ashlee had Ursula and me paddle blind down a small but fairly long rapid to get the feel of the river. We closed our eyes. It was so cool. All your other senses kick in. You smell, hear and feel the river all around. It was amazing.

Anna coaches while Ashley demonstrates how to rock the rock

Anna coaches while Ashlee demonstrates how to rock the rock

We did some more stroke practice, working on rudder strokes, draws, and more forward stroking, plus edging, in addition to spinning in circles using forward and back sweep strokes on either side. I got better at putting my spray skirt on, which was huge. It was hard on the first day, but by the end of the weekend I had it down no problem. We did some more hip snaps and T-rescues. Ursula and I became “Abillibuddies”, which is basically using the buddy system, always good on the water. We became a team, working together, encouraging each other, and helping each other carry the boats.

Roll practice for those who wanted it was held at the end of each day. On the left Anna assists Sadie and Melissa works with Kathy

Roll practice for those who wanted it was held at the end of each day. On the left Anna assists Sadie and Melissa works with Kathy on the right.

Day Three. This was Swift Water Rescue Day. We started with throw bags and ropes. We learned how to pack the bag and identify entrapment hazards offered by loops in ropes and straps. We talked about how to throw overhand, underhand, and sidearm. We talked about rope length and how to rescue a swimmer. Then we practiced rescues with some of us walking upriver and swimming down so those on shore could throw the ropes. The drill was to throw the rope upriver of the swimmer so the river takes it down to them and not away. Then the swimmers put the rope over their upriver shoulder so it doesn’t flip them over on their faces but pulls them along on their backs. The rescuer pulls gently and continuously on the rope so the swimmer pendulums smoothly to shore.

Walking in swift water

Walking in swift water

In another drill we practiced walking through a shallow but very fast rapid. I learned two formations: triangle and circle. This was something completely new to me and super fun. Pretty hard too. Twice I was swept off my feet by the strong current. But it taught me how to bring a group across a rapid relatively safely. After that we played with more eddies and practiced more hip snaps and played some more Stinky Fish. A good day.

Walking the rapid in triangle formation

Walking the rapid in triangle formation

On this, our last night, we had a big party. There were games, a catwalk, and a costume competition. There was music, dancing, and prizes.  I won for best catwalk in a green curly wig and a blue tutu! It must be the influence of RuPaul’s Drag Race, of which I’m a big fan. Instead of yoga, on this evening a massage therapist showed up before dinner and I got a 20 minute massage. Delightful!

From left to right: Liz, Queen of the Celebration Cones; Sami,The Lavender Pixie; Ashlee, Santa's Favborite

From left to right: Liz, Queen of the Celebration Cones; Sami,The Lavender Pixie; Ashlee, Santa’s Favorite!

Day Four. This was an AMAZING DAY. Actually one of the best days of my life. We paddled downriver and came to a beautiful deep section where we landed and lunched and those of us who wanted to jumped off a tall rock. I did a massive preacher seat. I wish I could have seen it, because it felt like one of the best I’ve ever done. I got the angle of the hips just right and hit the water from my butt to my knees. Thank goodness for wetsuits, because the skin would have been flayed off the backs of my thighs. I went down in a big air bubble as the water displaced. Then the water cascaded back down and the buoyant wetsuit and PFD popped me back up like a cork. Bellissima!

Sadie getting right into that whitewater

Sadie getting right into that whitewater

Ashlee told Ursula and me we were going to do a Class III rapid called Argo for the grand finale. The run was just up from our camp, where we’d take out. I felt a little anxious but then I looked up and saw a bald eagle soaring upstream right over our heads! It was river right, the line we had to take. I knew then we were going to crush that rapid and we did. Everyone made it down smoothly and found an eddy and to me it seemed easy, thanks to skills learned from our fearless leaders.

Sarita and Melissa prepare the feast

Sarita and Melissa prepare the feast

I’m so glad I did this. It’s great to be in a group of strong, competent women with lots of young, positive energy. By the time you get to be 50 or 60 a lot of rough stuff has happened to most of us and it wears us down. I’ve had an especially tough time over the last fifteen years since Eric first started having open heart surgeries and this is just the infusion of energy I needed. Dancing! Twerking! Butt clapping (don’t ask)! I felt like I was twenty or thirty again.

Debbie and Christy en regalia

Debbie and Christi en regalia

I’m also glad it was a full four days because on the last day I was really beginning to feel the river so that I could paddle way less and let the river do the work. I definitely got comfortable in those little skirted river kayaks and even started to feel one with the boat and the river which was my ultimate goal. Along the way I learned games, drills, and skills that will serve me well when I get back on the ocean. Winning!  

Photographer Liz stylin' it in a rapid

Photographer Liz stylin’ it in a rapid

There was a lot more I could talk about, but the best thing to do is see for yourself. I will be back next year for sure! Mad props to our wonderful teachers Anna, Melissa, Ashlee, Buckets, Sarita and Sami, and also to Liz (who I bonded with over RuPaul’s Drag Race) our intrepid photographer. You guys did a great job! Thank you so much for this wonderful experience!

To learn more about California Women’s Watersports Collective and Sundance Kayak School go to https://www.cwwcollective.com/ or to http://www.sundancekayak.com/  I highly recommend them!

 

 

      

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I borrowed this image by Konraad Wothe from the National Geographic website on gray whales

I borrowed this image by Konrad Wothe from the National Geographic website on gray whales. We didn’t get this close!

On May 8 I went kayaking with whales. Because it was a spur of the moment decision I didn’t go over to the coast and spend the night as I’ve done before so it was necessary to leave at about 3:30 am in order to get to Trinidad Harbor by 8. I love the drive though, going through the redwoods and down the coast. It’s stunningly beautiful and with a fat cup of coffee to keep me company it was no problem. I signed up for a commercial tour with Jason Self and Nick Gadouas of Kayak Trinidad and highly recommend the experience to everyone.

Trinidad

Trinidad

Jason and Nick provided the tour group with all the necessary equipment, including wetsuits, booties, PFDs and Werner paddles. They even have spare dry bags in case people need them. The kayaks they use are Venture Islay 14s, Wilderness Systems Tsunami 145s, and WS Polaris 180 tandems. They also have WS sit on tops for larger people. Our fearless leader, Jason Self, has been running tours in Trinidad for 5 years, but he has been guiding for 12 years and kayaking for 17. Jason thoroughly briefed the group on equipment, paddle technique, and what to do if you tip over and fall out of the boat. His instructions were clear and easy to follow. I brought my own stuff because it’s easy and that’s just how I am, but it was interesting to see how the tours are put together for other paddlers. Jason also cautioned us to stay close together both for our own safety and so we didn’t accidentally cut the whales off in their path.   

Jason gives us the 411.

Jason gives us the 411.

In addition, Jason explained the 100-yard marine mammal rule. You must stay 100 yards away from all marine mammals, but they will often come to you in which case you just stay still and let them do their thing. Jason emphasized that at this time of year there are not only whale mamas and their babies but also harbor seals were giving birth to their pups and they were all over the rocks in the harbor. We were careful not to disturb them by getting too close.

Searching for whale sign

Searching for whale sign

There were some grays at the edge of the harbor right when we launched, but they had already done their feeding for the day and were swimming out around Trinidad Head. They have a pattern of coming in to Clam Beach to the south and then slowly moseying up the coast feeding close to shore before peeling off to the west and going around, although Jason told us that a few days previously his group had seen whales right in the harbor around the crab pots.

Jason with Trinidad Head in the background

Jason scouting for whales with Trinidad Head in the background.

The reason the whales come so close to shore is to avoid attack by orcas. Migrating grays can travel as far as 12,430 miles round-trip from their summer home in Alaskan waters to the warmer waters off Baja in Mexico where they winter. When the grays go south they’re usually miles out to sea, but on the return they have their calves with them and to protect them they hug the shoreline. Gray whales are often covered with parasites and other organisms that make their snouts and backs look like a crusty ocean rock. I saw the back of one whale surfacing just a few yards away, all pink and knobbly. More pink than gray to me, it reminded me of the pink you see in sea caves.   

Sea life. Notice the pink color on the rocks, similar to what I saw on the back of the whale.

Sea stars. Notice the pink color on the rocks, similar to what I saw on the back of the whale. In fact, the whale back looked a lot like the humps on the rock! 

With all his experience guiding whale watching tours at this spot, Jason had a plan. We paddled out past a big red buoy and paused to assess the situation. Looking south we saw spouts way down by Clam Beach, about 2.5 miles to the south, so we paddled slowly toward them hoping they’d come to us. 

Right in the center of the photo you can see an almost perfect heart.coming up off the water

Right in the center of the photo you can see an almost perfect heart-shaped spout coming up off the water.

There must have been pretty good feeding down there because they didn’t come to us, so we began slowly paddling toward the beach keeping a sharp eye out to see if they would start heading our way. They stayed put, though, and we ended up going almost all the way to the beach where we found a big pod. We watched them feed and roll and blow for about 45 minutes. It was amazing! When they roll you can see their pectoral fins. A couple of times it looked like they were waving at us. One of the cool things I learned about gray whales is that they have two blow holes so that when they spout it comes up like a heart. I was lucky enough to get two shots of the heart-shaped blow with my camera. They look far away but you can still see the heart above the water.

Another heart. It's a little wispy, but you can see the whale too.

Another heart. It’s a little wispy, but you can see the whale too.

Finally the pod started to move. They came and visited us close up and then swam beside our group all the way back to the harbor for about an hour. Epic! While we paddled leisurely alongside the feeding pod Jason told us about grays and their habits. One thing I learned is that the moms and babies swim together so close they actually touch. We saw this many times. You’d see a big back and then a little bit behind and to the side you’d see a little back. There would be a big spout and then right afterwards a little spout. It was so cute!

It's incredible to think those giant animals get so close to the rocks and in such shallow water

It’s incredible to think these giant animals get so close to the rocks and in such shallow water.

The gray whale uses its snout to forage by dislodging tiny creatures from the seafloor. It then filters these morsels with its baleen—a comblike strainer of plates in the upper jaw. The whales will also rub their bodies on the rocks to remove stuff to eat which they then strain out of the water. We saw several grays get right up to the rocks, in one place in about 6 feet of water which is amazing when you realize how big they are. Gray whales get up to 40 to 50 feet long and weigh 30 to 40 tons when mature. Their size is relative to a bus. 

Couldn't believe this guy let me get so close!

More wildlife. Couldn’t believe this pelican let me get so close!

The whole tour was three hours long, and we paddled about 6 miles round trip. As for weather, we had glassy water, sun, some light rain, and incredible cloud formations. The air temperature was warm but the water seemed quite cold and was incredibly clear that day. When we returned to the beach I packed my gear and headed back to Ashland, another 4 hour drive, but I was so stoked by the experience it seemed like nothing. That evening and all the next day as I put together this post I felt energized. It was good to be alive and to experience these amazing animals so close up. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. 

The sea stacks alone make this a great place to paddle.

The sea stacks alone make this a great place to paddle.

Thank you to Jason Self and Kayak Trinidad for a wonderful day. To sign up for a tour, contact https://kayaktrinidad.com/ They also do tours of Big Lagoon, handline kayak fishing, and sea kayak instruction and rolling, plus they have rentals. For more Tsunami Ranger adventures with whales, check out Steve King’s wild experience being chomped by a whale at https://tsunamirangers.com/2016/09/05/baleen-bruises-and-beer-or-the-whale-that-mistook-my-x-15-for-a-large-white-sardine/

 

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