Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Skagit Effect

So here’s a little something I drafted up a year ago for a writing contest. I didn’t win. That’s likely because every word is true. Sometimes you gotta stretch the truth to win the prize. So I lost. Enjoy.


The Skagit Effect
I wonder sometimes. What exactly were we thinking? How exactly did we not die at twenty-one? With thirty-five more years of further misadventures with kayaks, canoes, skis, chainsaws, firearms and dive bars behind us, this one stands out. The kind of watershed moment that proves Darwin was wrong. We just got lucky.
We were adventurers. It was the 1970s. Our gear, experience, and expedition planning skills were cutting edge.
I never saw “Deliverance” in its full glory, start to finish. But man, as a teenager, I knew all the best scenes from my friends’ descriptions. Then I got to college and met Dave Magee. Magee could reenact the entire Ned Beatty rape scene, with a few innovative pieces of added material, on command, without moving a muscle. He had no props. Just his voice. Magee may be the only guy who could crack up a room full of college guys with a comedy version of a rape scene. The improv got a little better with every retelling.
“Squeal like a pig, boy.”
“Come on, boy!”
“Wee. Oh! Ow! Wee!”
“’at’s it, you fat little piggy, say wee!” 
“Weeee! Come on you guys… oh! Wait a second, don’t – ah! I didn’t know you were gonna – oh! Weeee!”
More than once, someone laughed so hard he had to lean over a garbage can, ready to puke up dinner, when Magee did the rape scene.
With the movie in the back of our minds, my buddy Doug and I still decided it would be a great idea to throw some backpacks in my big Grumman canoe, launch at Newhalem Campground and paddle the lovely Skagit River for a few days. Camp on the riverbank, drink whiskey, maybe float all the way to Mount Vernon.
We put intense planning into this expedition. High tech clothing consisted of wool shirts, blue jeans, tennis shoes, and rubber ponchos. Safety gear? Old school Zeppelin life jackets, and garbage bags, a ton of them. Our clothes, sleeping bags, food and tent would be stuffed in garbage bags which were then stuffed in our metal frame packs. Our packs, stuffed into garbage bags, would be lashed into the canoe. Didn’t want them floating away if we capsized. But in the unlikely event of a water landing, the garbage bags would keep everything dry. The military calls this “redundancy”. All part of the plan. 
We got this highly technical gear and expert advice from the guy at REI. That’s what they did at REI in pre-Goretex 1978. Instead of guilting us into spending a fortune on stuff we didn’t need, cutting edge service meant real outdoorsmen with real advice on how to paddle on pennies a day. “You guys should just go with garbage bags, man. It’s way cheaper.”
We did not have a guitar. Or Burt Reynolds’ archery gear. Or any misguided expectation to find a kid with a banjo. But we did have a map. And we did know that the road – and civilization – ran along the North side of the river. The map didn’t say exactly what was on the South side, just the tight contour lines of mountains dropping sharply to the river. And for sure, no road. We had no interest in finding big dudes with ratty Carhartts and no teeth, so camping would be restricted to the North side or, if we got lucky, a sweet idyllic island in midstream.
September came. With Summer jobs ended, and Fall Quarter not starting for a few weeks, we headed to Newhalem and put on the river on a crisp, sunny morning. Inside the canoe, a floating commercial for Glad Plastics kept everything sealed up in high-tech goodness. The only thing sitting out for quick access was the pint of bourbon, held down under a strap. We nipped on the bottle to celebrate the launch, and paddled away. 
By the first bend in the river, we realized that moving water is powerful. Yeah, really. A little bumpy water, an innocent-looking eddy, and we were out of control. Um, why are we facing upstream?
But we built confidence after the next rapid, and got the hang of staying straight, most of the time. Big waves – no problem! We have garbage bags!
Take a snort of that whiskey. We’re on a roll. Just stay away from that South shore. I swear I hear banjos.
With a victory shooter after every rapid, we decided we’d better eat lunch and sober up. It was only 11 am and the sun was just getting warm. The river was low, the way rivers are in September. We found a nice gravel bar on an island in the middle of the river and pulled our sandwiches from deep within the layers of garbage bags.
And we took another pull from the bottle. Which drained the pint. No problem, we had a fifth in the pack. After our well-earned eats – we’d been on the river at least an hour and a half – and another pull from the bottle, we relaxed and sat back to enjoy the sunshine.
Nowhere to be, just here. No rush. Just a river to float, whenever we got around to it. Our music of choice drove our attitudes: Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, Jerry Jeff Walker, Charlie Daniels. We were free birds, rollin’ easy down the road, no worries. None of those guys ever sang about what a river can do to an unprepared man. Just warm sun. Nappin’ music.
“Hey man, wake up. Time for dinner”.
That was some nap. After lying exhausted on a rocky beach for five hours, we uncramped ourselves, stretched the cobwebs out and fired up the camp stove. We pulled more food out of the garbage bags, drank more whiskey. Sticking with Jerry Jeff’s takin’-it-as-it-comes style, our lunch spot / nap island became a perfect place to spend the night. We pitched the tent at the downstream end of the island on a soft, sandy patch, and fixed some chow.
We were treated to one of those perfect Autumn sunsets, where everything – the sky, the snowfields on the peaks, the Vine Maples on the riverbank, and their dappled reflections on the water – wheels through every possible shade of gold, orange, red, and purple, fading through dusty pink to a final, starlit blackness.
Lighting our campfire, Doug decided he’d had enough whiskey. This did not deter me. Channeling Sammy the Tiny Irish Waiter from another adventure that summer, I conjured a “River Irish Coffee”: Instant Folgers and cheap bourbon. Sans sugar and cream. I could imagine Sammy’s righteous indignation but laughed it off. That was a mistake. Don’t screw with the leprechaun. 
Mmm, that was good. So I had another. Good thing we already pitched the tent. I could never set it up now.
Well past dark, deep in a discussion only two drunk 21-year-olds would be having, we felt a few raindrops. This was a concern. The forecast was warm and sunny all week. Hmm. Random clouds maybe. Just a little shower maybe. Yeah, that’s it. But what’s going to get wet? Sleeping bags? Already in the tent. Food? Throw it in the stuff sack, chuck it in the tent. No bears on the island, no problem. Packs? Still in garbage bags, they’ll be fine right next to the tent. Stove, utensils? Leave ‘em there, they’ll be fine.
Yeah man, we thought it through. Planned for safety with ultra modern gear. Consulted the experts. Looked at every eventuality, and had a plan. Dealt with this unforeseen shower with quick-witted wilderness savvy. Climbed in the tent and went happily to sleep knowing a little rain wouldn’t dampen the perfect week.
Fzzz-BAM! My eyes came slowly open. A flash of light, and again, Fzzzt—POW!  Then, from outside the tent, “Hey man, get out here! Now!”
Oh baby, I was not feeling good. No longer was I the Beast of the Wilderness I had been earlier that evening. But the urgency in Doug’s voice got me moving.
Doug’s bladder may have saved our lives. At least it saved our gear. He’d gotten up to pee, taking one step away from the tent and finding himself ankle deep in the Skagit River. Swift water raced by where our lovely sandbar used to be, and we were engulfed in the heart of the lightning storm raging overhead. By the time I heard him hollering and got out there, we were soaked in a rainstorm the likes of which neither of us had ever seen.
That low Autumn river level was no more. Along the shores of the island, lapping against our tent, packs, and cooking gear, the Skagit River was rising. That’s what happens in freak storms.
Time for the next level of preparedness. We went to work, flashlights in hand. The packs, sealed tight in techie wrap but half-submerged in the rising water, got rescued first and chucked into the tent. It was going to be crowded in there.
The only high ground on this island was just two feet above where we stood, tight-packed with alder saplings. But we stepped off a spot just big enough for the tent. Leaving all of our gear piled inside, we pulled the stakes, knocked down the poles, grabbed the ends, carried the whole mess like a body bag into the trees, plopped it down, pulled the poles back in place, re-staked the lines and all four corners, climbed back in…
“Um… Doug? Aw, man… Aw, man, no…”
“Man, the canoe.”
I loved that boat. Even more than the canoe, I loved the gorgeous Sawyer wood paddles that went with it. I bought it all when I was 17, even before I owned a car to carry it around. Tonight, I saw it swept from our sandbar by the angry Skagit. It was bashed on a rock, bent around a bridge piling, folded, destroyed and lost downriver. Someone in Sedro would find it and report it. We would be presumed dead when the river kept rising and washed our tent away, only to turn up on a cedar branch in Marblemount after the river went down. Meanwhile, a couple big banjo players would paddle over from the South bank in the dark, rescue us from the treetops and make us their own little Ned Beattys.
“No problem man, I tied it to a tree.”
Amazing. One of us had his wits. I wanted to hug him but, you know, that would be weird. We sloshed in the dark along the riverbank to the boat, where it was dry on the shore a few hours ago but now bobbed impatiently in the current. We heaved it up on the low bank, lashed it to a tree trunk and finally headed back to bed.
Crisis averted, for now, thanks to Doug’s detailed planning and quick thinking.
Still on high alert for the rising mighty Skagit, we crawled back into the tent but it was going to be a nervous night. What if the river came up another two feet and inundated our little island? Would we drown in our sleeping bags, trapped in the tent as it was thrown from one tree trunk to the next? Should we try to swim or paddle to the North shore, only to get swept downriver into a log jam and suffocated? What if we climbed a tree to save ourselves, only to fall to our bloody deaths after holding on until we were exhausted?
So focused were we on how we might perish, my next adventure came without warning. Sammy the Leprechaun, screaming in anger at my bastardized Irish Coffee recipe, reached his vindictive evil hand 10,000 miles from the old country and straight into my gut. I had time to get my head out the door of the tent into the raging downpour, when the digestive catharsis hit me. Sammy didn’t stop until he had wrenched every drop of undigested matter from inside me, and he cackled with evil laughter as I spewed it across the drenched grass in front of the tent. Doug later recalled my spasming body “cavitating like the starter on Roger’s old truck.”
The end of a good long puke is like going back to the womb. Consumed by exhaustion, nothing but the aching need for warmth and sweet sleep registers on the brain. In my fetal position, the mummy bag and tent only served to complete the metaphor. All concerns of high waters and untimely death just faded away.
I blinked awake and threw the tent flap aside in panicked recall of our crisis on the edge of Death:
It was plain that the end had come.
It was just as clear that my twenty-one years on Earth had been pleasing to the Almighty. I was in Heaven.
Where last night’s deluge and terrifying flood had raged, bright sunshine and sweet birdsongs greeted me by a peaceful, glimmering stream.
Angels had removed every trace of my bout with Sammy’s brutal vengeance from the grass.
And angels had entered our tent. Everything was bone dry in there – sleeping bags, clothes, and food.
Not a drop of water was in our packs, which had been half submerged in the river just hours earlier. Garbage bags, man. Angels worked at REI too.
The melding of Heaven and Earth faded to reality. Breakfast was on, but where I expected a bikini model cooking bacon and mixing me a bloody mary, I saw Doug boiling water for that damn Instant Folgers and frying up a can of Li’l Smokies. “Heh heh heh, bet you’re hungry aren’t you? Of course. There’s nothing left in your guts.” Empathy was not a strong suit for Doug.
We didn’t talk much about our close call. We had four more days to kill. After our nutritious camp breakfast, we loaded the Grumman and headed downriver. We pulled into an eddy upstream from a foamy, rumbling rapid, and climbed up the bank to the road. We walked closer to get a better look at the drop, and we looked at each other. We looked at the river, then back at each other.
Our next move was our best judgment call of the trip. Doug had actually seen the movie, and was flashing on the part where the big Grumman just like mine went straight into a rock and catapulted Burt and Ned into the churning water. Even in my blissful ignorance of the moviemaker’s thrilling portrayal of swimming through rapids, I was still shaken by last night’s sudden mood change on our friendly river. As our eyes met for the second time, a “naw, man” came out in unison. We’d had enough.
In short order we had hauled the boat and gear to the road, hitchhiked back to the truck, and decided Eastern Washington – just an hour away across the Pass – sounded warmer, drier, and safer.
The river had beaten us. We had paddled that fine line to avoid Darwin’s best effort to remove us from the gene pool. Thirty-five years of misadventures later, with five grown kids between us, our offspring hear the stories, roll their highly-evolved eyes and wonder just like we do. What were those guys thinking?  

Friday, October 24, 2014

Why Dragon Boating? It's more than just paddling

“Paddles… Up!”

The coach’s voice rings through the boat and across the chilly night air of the harbor. Twenty paddles rise in unison, poised for the first clean stroke of what promises to be another tough practice for a finely tuned team.

“Take it away!”

Twenty paddles jab the water together, pull powerfully to the finish of the stroke, and exit the frothy brine together. Twenty paddles reach in perfect precision for the next stroke, and repeat, and repeat again, a lesson in teamwork and well-rehearsed harmony among athletes eager to challenge themselves to reach the top….

Errrr!…. the needle scratches across the record…

That is the ideal anyway. In fact that’s what many North Puget Sound Dragon Boat Club (NPSDBC) members thought they would experience when they joined the club. A simple “hut! hut! hut!” and everyone on their way in exact precision. But it’s not that easy. Twenty different paddling styles enter the boat with twenty different people, as do twenty different ideas of perfect timing and twenty different levels of fitness.

And, holding a four and a half-foot wooden tool of the trade, each paddler is within accidental striking distance of the paddler in front, and a potential victim of the paddler behind, if there’s the slightest variation in timing or form.

But what paddlers discover in Dragon Boating, while seeking that perfect union and that perfect stroke, is something even better than their own athletic performance. Better than personal achievement. Better even than a gold medal.

“The coolest thing, the thing that makes me most proud to be a part of this team, is that there is a spot for anyone willing to commit themselves to the team and work hard to support the team’s mission”, said Bill Walker, volunteer coach of Team Tsunami, one of two practice groups that make up NPSDBC. “Age doesn’t matter, fitness level doesn’t matter, past athletic accomplishment doesn’t matter. The diversity of this crew is amazing, with the single goal of working hard for the success of the team.”

Dragon Boating originated in China thousands of years ago. According to one legend, Qu Yuan, a beloved poet and statesman, took his own life in a river after an intrigue-filled quarrel with the emperor. The citizens manned their boats and tried to save him, beating their paddles on the water to keep the fish from eating him, but to no avail. The millennia-old tradition of the dragon boat festival, said to have originated in Qu Yuan’s honor, has spread around the globe. Festivals abound in Asia, Europe, North America, and New Zealand / Australia and are not just about racing; they celebrate the origins of the sport and bring together people from widely diverse cultures and athletic backgrounds. Still, the competition can be fierce, as crews focus their year-round training efforts on a few minutes of racing at Spring and Summer festivals.

That ideal of twenty perfectly-timed paddles and bodies, moving as one, is still a goal. But team members say it’s more about each participant pushing themselves a little farther at each practice, maybe a little farther than they thought they could go. Some have backgrounds in team or individual sports; some are struggling with injuries or fitness issues, or trying a sport where they can avoid injury as they get older; some have battled fears and personal demons just to be a part of the team. But when you get down to it, they say, it’s not about any of that. They’ll tell you it’s about each one working hard, and trusting their teammates to work hard too, for the good of the crew. When a crew is successful at that, they become more than just a boatload of paddlers; they are a solid team. Practices fly by; they don’t notice the rain, the chilly winter air, the heat of the summer sun, or the cold choppy water splashing in their faces. They may not even notice how hard they’re working.

Our local dragon boaters will tell you what they do notice, too. They do notice how good it feels to work together to get better. They certainly stop to notice the abundant wildlife -- seals on the logs at the marina, eagles overhead, kingfishers screeching as they fight for a meal, herons squawking when startled from their spots on the shore as the crew paddles by. “We notice how lucky we are”, Walker says, “to be on the water together. And more to the point, we notice the big smiles on our own faces when we go home after a good workout together.”

The twenty paddlers in the boat -- practices may include as few as ten or as many as twenty-two -- are joined by a caller, who sits in the bow facing the crew shouting instructions and setting the beat, and a steersperson (“till”), who stands in the stern using a long, heavy oar to set the boat’s course. Callers and tills have responsibility for the precision and safety of the team, and are specifically trained for their jobs in the boat.

On race days at festivals around the world, plain-looking practice boats are decorated with beautifully-painted traditional dragon heads and tails, and the caller beats a large drum to help set the stroke pace. Dragon Boat Festival season runs from Spring through late Summer, and events feature a full day, or multiple days, of continuous racing, often among thousands of competitors. Competing teams are divided into women’s, mixed, and open divisions at levels from recreational to elite, and multiple-elimination heats run all day. In 2014, NPSDBC teams traveled to festivals in Olympia, Kent and Seattle, with some members being picked up by other clubs and masters teams for festivals farther afield.  

Team Stayin’ Alive practices three days per week in Spring, Summer and Fall, takes the Winter off, and gears up for the festival racing season as soon as they get back on the water. Stayin’ Alive practices focus on preparing for competitive racing, increasing endurance, working on form and having fun. Team Tsunami practices year-round, three days a week, at a more strenuous intensity level, and has a stated mission to foster and develop paddlers of all skill levels, while fielding the most competitive racing teams possible .

Both groups are all about fitness, friendship, and fun; they welcome new members of all ages and physical abilities. Paddling experience is not required. Visitors may try the sport at no charge for the first three practices. Club membership is $75 per year plus a share of festival entry fees for those who attend. Paddles and lifejackets are available to borrow from the club.

More information on North Puget Sound Dragon Boat Club can be found at www.npsdragonboat.org . To set up your first visit, please contact Cathie Harrison (Team Tsunami),  cathieanne@aol.com or Norma Lisherness (Team Stayin’ Alive),  njlish@gmail.com.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Water Safety: Know and Prepare for the Risks

On the first weekend of June, near our beautiful Whidbey Island home, two young Navy men stationed at NAS Whidbey went fishing on open water in borrowed kayaks. The bodies of Vinson Ya and Joey Lee were found the next morning, victims of hypothermia and drowning.

These guys had family and friends who loved them, who are stricken by grief at their loss. Could the tragedy have been prevented? That’s unknown, since the only comment from first responders in the local press was “the water is cold”. A little more research by other regional press revealed that their equipment and experience may not have been right for the conditions. But while the town grieved, then got over it when our next big story hit, no comprehensive public statement was made by our fire departments, police, health care professionals, or any public official about how the rest of us can stay safe on the water.

Click here to see the original – and only – article about the tragedy from our local Whidbey News Times staff. The tributes in the Comments section are heart-wrenching.

I wrote up the following few paragraphs last week for the News Times, reflecting simple steps to enhance safety for ourselves and our loved ones on the water. Did Vinson and Joey follow any of these steps? There’s no way to know. If not, there’s still no way to know if doing everything right would have saved them. But the least we can do is to honor their memories by educating ourselves about the risks.

Since the News Times edited some volume from the article, here is the full version:

Water safety begins with knowing the risks
Two weeks ago, our island community suffered another tragic loss when two young Navy men drowned while kayaking off the West side of Whidbey. The grief is immeasurable to their families and friends  – a permanent, life-changing hole ripped in their hearts.  But for the rest of us, like too many other times, we blink our tears away and a deputy tells the paper how cold the water is… and we move on.

This is a challenge to honor these men’s memories by learning how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe on our waters, and it begins with knowing the risks. Whether paddling, motoring or sailing, a healthy fear and thorough understanding of the effects of cold water could save your life.

Our local waters stay between the mid 40s and low 50s, year-round. When immersed, even on a hot summer day, you will be incapacitated in just a few minutes. Your motor skills – swimming, waving for help, even shouting to a rescuer – will be severely compromised. After fifteen minutes you will be approaching hypothermia. Your core temperature begins to drop, and so do your chances of survival.

How does a boater stay safe, without staying home on the couch? Here are seven simple, essential steps to enhancing your safe enjoyment of the water.  

  • Prepare for immersion. Either dress for it, with a neoprene wet suit or waterproof dry wear, or know how you’re going to get out of the water if you go in. Practice reentering your kayak or remounting your SUP board. Do a regular overboard drill on your sail or power boat. Otherwise, stay within 1 or 2 minutes’ swimming distance from shore… much less than 100 yards. 
  • Know the area you’re boating. Check charts and seek local knowledge about currents, obstructions, commercial traffic, and weather patterns. Plan potential bailout points; many of our beaches aren’t easy landings, and even if you get safely ashore, you may have to walk for miles before you reach help.  
  • Check weather and tide predictions. A marine forecast from NOAA will include more accurate wind predictions than your local weatherman. Again seek local knowledge to understand the relation of wind, tide and current in specific locations.
  •  Leave a float plan with someone you trust. Include your intended boating location, and descriptions of your boat, clothing, vehicle, parking location, and intended return time. Instruct your friend, “if you don’t hear from me by X time, call me. If I don’t answer, call 911.” Contact the friend as soon as you’re safely off the water. 
  •  Know your craft. Understand what it can and can’t do. Some kayaks can’t be reentered when they’re swamped, so should never be taken far from shore or into heavy swells. Some sailboats aren’t made for heavy winds. Some powerboats aren’t designed for more than two people. Put a boat to a use for which is was not intended, or play Russian roulette. Same thing, your choice.  
  • Wear your pfd (lifejacket) properly. If it’s lying on the seat next to you, or worn loosely, it’s useless. A pfd is meant to be worn snugly – almost uncomfortably – so it can give buoyancy to your upper body and keep your head out of the water when you fall in. It’s virtually impossible, especially in frigid water, to put on or adjust a pfd after you’re in the water. Wear it and cinch it tight before you need it.
  •  Bring waterproof communication. Keep a vhf radio or cell phone safely waterproofed, usable and reachable if you end up in the water. Practice using your device while it’s in its waterproof case.

It’s rarely possible to speculate whether any of these steps would have prevented a specific tragedy. But to maximize your shot at survival in the event of a mishap on our chilly, beautiful Salish Sea, treat these seven steps as essentials every time you hit the water – regardless of your craft.

  • Here are some additional, sensible steps to consider when appropriate:
  • Don’t wear cotton. Fleece and wool dry much more quickly, tend to wick chilly water away from your body, and provide some insulation even when wet.
  • Bring a thermos of hot beverage, to warm you or a boating buddy if you’re chilled.
  • Understand navigation using charts and a compass, not just your pocket gps.
  • When boating with a group, know your buddies. Know the strengths, weaknesses, and expectations of each person, and talk about what to expect in an emergency. 
  • If you end up in the water, it’s almost always best to stay with your boat rather than try to swim to shore.
  • SUP paddlers should always use an ankle leash.
  • Along with “know your craft”, practice your skills. Take advantage of boating safety resources on line and in person. We have professional instructors right here on the island who teach everything from SUP paddling and kayaking to sailing and power boating, including all the safety information you could ever need. Use them!
  • Don’t assume you’ll be rescued. This isn’t Disneyland or a water park. Your safety is your responsibility.
  • Boat regularly with someone who’s more skilled than you are. There’s always something new to learn, from unfurling a sail to rolling a kayak. Keep getting better by challenging yourself to learn more from your boating buddies.
  • Learn to swim. After a few minutes in our waters, we’re all non-swimmers. Still, a strong, confident swimming stroke provides an extra margin of safety. And with a local pool that provides affordable lessons for both adults and children, there is no excuse for being a non-swimmer here on Whidbey Island.

Honor the memories of our neighbors and friends who have died in our waters by not becoming a victim yourself. Know and respect the risks. Play by Nature’s rules, and teach your loved ones to do the same. You and your family will come home with smiles on your faces and build a lifetime of good memories on the water. 

*             *             *             *

If you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading. For graphic detail on the effects of cold water, take a few minutes to look at some shocking videos at Cold Water Boot Camp.

Here on Whidbey Island, learn to swim at Oak Harbor Pool, where you can also raise your kayaking awareness with their in-house certified paddling instructor; learn safe SUP paddling technique from Jeff Vallejo at Harbor SUP; and learn the skills you need for safe powerboating and sailing from Deception Pass Sail and Power Squadron.

Beyond our local waters, internationally recognized safety training resources are available at US Power Squadrons, American Canoe Association, US Sailing, and British Canoe Union.