By Captain Jim Kakuk and Lt. JG Nancy Soares
Editor’s note: This post is first in a series of upcoming Meet the Rangers posts. The numbers of the Rangers have fluctuated over the years as people move in and out of the team due to time passages and life changes but there are usually about 12 or so active members at any given time.
Capt. Kuk: Flying home from Mexico over the Sea of Cortez from 30,000 feet, I could see Isla Angel de la Guarda, the giant guarding angel of Baja California. Remembering a time in 1995 kayaking there with Misha Dynikov and Tim Sullivan, I thought about the connection I have with the water planet and how the kayak has shaped my friendships and my life over the last 50 years.
I came to California in 1956 from a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. With my parents and 6 siblings in a station wagon, we came west over route 66. We ended up in Trinity County and I grew up next to the Trinity River in the late 1950’s during the construction of the big dam just up river from Lewiston.
Inner tubing down the river was my first river running experience and the Trinity river was my playground for the all the summers of my youth. I learned to swim in current, dive off the rocks and navigate the rapids in my trusty inner tube with siblings and friends. Yes, the young boyhood friends you find in a backwoods hillbilly town, friends like Rob Roy Nelson who taught me the important things early. Rob Roy taught me how to lie, steal and swear. The routine was to follow him around while he repeated various cuss words for no reason except to get a laugh. We looked for trouble and he would find it. When caught he always had an alibi or undeniable story. I was not very good at most of these social skills but learned some useful things and usually had a great time. I also built my first tree fort by the river and we invented imaginative schemes of what we were going to do in life.
In the 60’s when we moved to a small town close to Shasta Lake, I built my first kayak while in 8th grade out of thin plywood and 1 x 2 strips of wood. It did not work very well; in fact it was unstable and totally useless so I tore it apart. My first attempts at building small boats were the start of a long life of building kayaks, some good and others not. On Shasta Lake during my pre-teens my best friend Alex Valdivia gave me my nick name, Wild Man Kukamonga, a variation of my last name and the one I still go by today, although, usually shortened to just “Kuk”.
For me the mid 70’s was the golden age of river kayaking. Shortly after the movie Deliverance in 1972 I got a river kayak and started exploring rivers. I was gonna be Bert Reynolds. My first kayaking buddy was Gene Leach, a math teacher at Shasta College. We paddled the Upper Sacramento and Trinity River in the 70’s and early 80’s. During this time and with my younger brother, Jay, we designed and built river kayaks and explored the Northern California and Oregon rivers. The skill sets learned on the river in my early years were to prepare me for the next phase of my kayaking life in the sea.
I met Eric in the fall of 1972 and we became fast friends. Eric was a combination of all my earlier friends only funnier and smarter. Selling him one of my beat up river kayaks, the Deckadense, for cheap, Eric was off to college in Santa Barbara and while in Southern California he became an ocean kayaker and kayak surfer. Some 10 years later, in the SF Bay Area we would create the Tsunami Rangers in 1985. Eric and I had the same adventuresome spirit and, as we compared ourselves to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, we went looking for our own adventures in the vast unexplored ocean. The big difference is that now we were adults and could do what we wanted. What we found in the sea was an endless source of discovery and all the excitement of wild water and remote beaches to camp on and explore. We wanted to be daring, adventurous buccaneers exploring the sea in our kayaks.
Here’s what Eric wrote about Jim:
The Ideal Tsunami Ranger
He is a quiet man who leads by example. He is very creative, both in a mechanical way (he designs and builds boats) and artistically (he has shot a lot of our footage and taken many great action photos).
He paddles effortlessly. When going long distances, he conserves energy by keeping his elbows low and making small circular movements from his core to move forward at a decent pace. As with skiing, I’ve imitated his movements and improved my own style.
He is not a flatwater racer and neither am I. There must be thousands of kayakers who are much faster than we. But when it comes to ninja strokes, those quick small paddle maneuvers designed to keep you and your boat in a good situation, Jim is king. River kayakers already perform ninja strokes to deal with strong and constant currents; ocean kayakers need to learn more of them.
Jim is courageous but not foolhardy. When younger, he was bolder, but as his swimming stories attest, he learned the old maxim of “there are no old, bold kayakers.” By observing Jim, I have learned to slow down when I see something exciting and make sure I can actually do it before plunging forward.
Though he has many fans, acquaintances, and business associates Jim is very slow at establishing deep friendships. However, once he is your friend, it is for life. I have known Jim Kakuk for 40 years. I am honored and grateful to claim Captain Kuk as my best friend.
Taken from Confessions of a Wave Warrior by Eric Soares
Nancy: As the newest Tsunami Ranger, I’d like to add my two cents. I love Jim. Like Eric says, he’s quiet. He has the quality of a deep well. He’s one of the few people I can either be chatty or spend long silences with comfortably. He’s about the best house guest I’ve ever had. He could stay for weeks, he’s so unobtrusive. Whenever he’s around I have a warm feeling. One of my favorite memories of Jim is the 2016 retreat when Jim and I spent an afternoon on Shell Beach gathering abalone shells. Just beachcombing… not talking much, wading in the surf, gazing out to sea, being alive. I felt so peaceful. As far as kayaking, I watch what he does; I go where he goes. I know I’ll be safe. I learn a lot from tagging along behind Jim.
To read more about Captain Jim Kakuk and his amazing adventures and great swims, check out Confessions of a Wave Warrior available on this site! Have any questions for Jim? Let us know by commenting below.