Monthly Archives: May 2013

Lessons learned

The MR340 is nearly four days long. In fact, assuming I do it in 70 to 80 hours, it is almost exactly half a week spent either in a boat or getting ready to be in a boat. I know it will be strenous, and I know it will be mentally taxing, but mostly I know it will be long.

So, given the opportunity to spend two solid days on the water preparing my body and mind, I looked at the weather report and threw my stuff together. My plan initially was to put as many miles behind me as I possibly could. Just keep paddling, and when it gets dark find a quiet place to camp, and when the sun comes up paddle some more. I wasn’t going to put in any 18 hour days and four hour nights, but I knew being outside for that length of time would allow me to answer a number of questions. How should I pack my gear? Is the layout of my boat correct, or do I need to change anything? How will my hands hold up without gloves? What kind of food should I take? Am I physically ready?

Sometimes our experiences give us more than answers to questions we already have. Sometimes they provide us us with more questions. Ones we didn’t even know we needed to ask.

Question: What am I doing?

Obviously, I spent more more than just the past few days asking myself this. I think about it almost every time I paddle. What would compel a person to prepare for a challenge? I basically was saying “I am going to be miserable for four days, and in order to get ready for that I need to make myself as miserable as often, and for as long as possible.” Now, that’s overstating it a bit, but you get the idea. About a third of the way through the first day I found one answer.

dam on lake lewisvilleGenerally at Lake Lewisville the winds come from the south, so paddling along the dam it almost always looks like this. I took the picture not because I always marvel at the expanse of calm water stretching out before me, but also because I like that you can just barely see my destination out on the horizon, with the dam stretching out to an undefined spot next to it. I get the same feeling when I can see a bridge or structure in distance. I know that’s where I’m headed, and it seems so far away, but I’ll get there eventually. It’s far and away my favorite feeling when I’m on the water. A lot of times when I’m paddling really hard I’m thinking about how this effort will pay off on the river. I wonder how I will stack up against other paddlers. A lot of times I’m just thinking about my form. But paddling just for the sake of getting to the next destination is when I am at my most content. It is its own reason to paddle.

Question: Am I going about this all wrong?

I realized very quickly I might have the wrong philosophy in my training. Obviously I need to be physically prepared, but I kept remembering the “First Rule of Finishing the MR340,” which is STAY IN THE BOAT. Read the comments on rivermiles.com for an hour, and you will probably see this advise from veterans given to novices three or four times. Stay in the boat. You have a current. Even if you aren’t paddling, you are moving. If you are on land you are dead in the water (so to speak) but if you are on the water you can finish. So… I changed my M.O. and decided that I would go for time in the seat, rather than mileage. I was going to push myself, but if I needed a break I would take one. If I needed to eat something, or filter water , or take a picture, or talk to another paddler I would do it, but I would do it in the boat.

Question: Who is running the show here?

I am. I have nothing but time, and a nearly endless expanse of water to explore, and for the time being I can go anywhere. At least, for the time being…

The combination of going to bed the night before at 9:00, and my less than comfortable sleeping conditions, had me on the water much earlier than I anticipated on day two. Right off the bat the weather conditions were concerning but not terribly so. I figured as the day warmed up the wind would die off, and by two I should be headed north to the toll bridge that loomed about four miles away. In the meantime, I would ride the wind into Little Elm. It was when I made it to the end of that branch that my troubles began. I learned that running the show means you also have to deal with everything that’s thrown at you. It was almost noon, and the wind wasn’t letting up.clouds over lake lewisville In fact I was looking at cloud cover that could spell trouble. I turned around and it was wind full in my face all the way to the Little Elm bridge several miles away.

One of the worst parts about wind is how you are never sure what direction it’s coming from. If you are on the south shore you think it’s blowing from the northwest. If you are on the north shore you think it’s blowing from the southwest. You can’t ever get any cover, and if you don’t read it right you will wear yourself out going back and forth trying to find it. After crossing the arm I was on three times, I realized I had not only judged it wrong, and was very, very worn out, but I was on the wrong side if I was going to get back to the marina where I started the day. My other option was to stay on the north shore and turn right. I would keep heading north, hope the wind would eventually let up, and cross at the toll bridge and be home by 6 or 7 pm. It would probably be a 25 mile day. It was at this point that I found I knew the answer to another unasked question. Do I know the layout of the lake well enough to properly navigate in a situation like this? Apparently I do. I didn’t need to pull out my map once.

I made the decision to cross to the south and get back to the marina, where there was cover from the wind. I also knew I could get help there if I needed it. I made the crossing, paddling non-stop. I don’t know how I wasn’t completely physically exhausted by this point. Adrenaline and beef stew out of the can seemed to be working!

After making it across I was forced to turn to the east, with the wind coming at me now from behind. It was at this point I was forced to admit that, even though I was running the show, things were out of my control. The boat was being almost continually turned sideways and then swamped with water. With my destination seemingly just around the bend I found myself floating next to a completely full canoe. Stay in the boat indeed! I swam, emptied my boat of both equipment and water, and called Matt, my room mate on my nearly dead phone. Luckily I didn’t need the shore patrol to come get me, which was my first inclination since I didn’t know exactly how far away from civilization I was.

canoe on lake lewisvilleConclusion: Let’s call it a learning experience.

I learned a lot over those two days. I finally feel comfortable giving instruction to Tim and Steve Murray, my ground crew, regarding what I will and will not need during the race. I found out that my seating position, along with too much trail mix gives me indigestion. I learned it’s better to bring your pee bottle into the tent with you, so you don’t have to go outside three or four times in the middle of the night.

But most importantly I realized I have all the tools I will need to finish this race, as long as I stay in the boat. July can’t get here soon enough.

Christian.

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Qajaqs and kenus

On July 23 Christian and I will take off on one of what National Geographic has listed as one of the 100 great American adventures. He’ll be in his canoe and I in my kayak. Many people who hear about this think the idea of 340 miles on one of the great rivers of the world is looney. What they don’t understand is how very reliable small these boats are. Here’s a little interesting (I think) history of these boats.

Kayaks got started in Siberia about four thousand years ago. The original design (the umiak) was about like a kayak except that the top was open. So, a kayak is , in fact, a type of canoe. Closing the top made the umiak useful for voyages out into the frigid arctic seas. Those early skin on frame boats were probably the most advanced hydrodynamic watercraft in the world – and the Wright brothers would have appreciated the technology as they rigged up their aircraft.

Qajaq is the Inuit word for hunter’s boat and they were extraordinarily effective. They could be paddled into arctic oceans and used to silently approach seals, walrus, and other prey. The Eskimos and Greenlanders would take them out for days at a time, even learning to sleep in them by laying our off to the side of the boat – floating the upper body on the water. The most important requirement, though, was stability. Imagine yourself in a small boat, on sub-freezing water, in the open ocean. Anything that isn’t rock solid stable can mean a quick death for the kayaker!

My boat was built by a company in Tacoma, Washington – specifically for use in the Pacific ocean. It’s a 17′ 5″ composite fiberglass boat, weighing 45 pounds, with two watertight bulkheads for floatation. I can flip the the boat, sure. But, by bracing myself with my paddle, I can stay upright even under some pretty rough conditions.

What’s the downside to this design? First off, I can’t really move my legs much. They’re inside the boat and stretched out in front of me. My rear end is about two inches above my heels and I’m sitting upright. I guess I should take yoga more seriously! Also, because I’m sitting at the level of the water, I can’t get as much leverage on the paddle. Kayaks are, however, so much cooler than canoes!

Christian is taking another tactic for the race – the canoe. His boat has an even older pedigree than mine. We, in the U.S. think of canoes as indian boats but the oldest known canoe excavation dates to about 6,000 years B.C. – from Holland! Those earliest canoes were basically dugouts. Heavy and slow, but tough. Variations of them have been used all over the world. The American Indians took them to another level by building them of bark. They were lighter and faster – and could still be built big enough to carry many people and large loads. The other advantage of their construction was that they were easily repaired when punctured.

They’re “open decked” so, not as adapted for rough water. But the Missouri River is fairly smooth – until the wind kicks up or a barge comes by. For those conditions he’s rigging up a skirt. The front and back of his boat will be covered with waterproof fabric that will keep at least most of the water out! When he’s passing a barge he’ll tuck in behind a wing dam and take a break while I’m out playing in the rough water. He’s sitting higher in the boat, so he’ll have better paddle leverage and, best of all, he’ll have the ability to move his legs around.

When most of you think of canoe you most likely think of the aluminum “barges” you plowed around as a kid. Those things weighed up to 80 pounds, were fat, and very stable. If that’s your vision of a canoe you wouldn’t recognize his ride for the MR340. It’s a carbon fiber composite and weighs about 30 pounds. It’s long – about 22 feet – skinny, tough, and fast. That long part makes it difficult to turn, though. And, if the wind or river current does start to turn it, it’s tough to keep straight. To cure that problem, he has a rudder. While I’m paddling on one side to turn or maintain a straight line, he just kicks the rudder and keeps his paddling cadence going – less wasted effort. The skinny part, and the fact that he’s sitting higher, means it’s tippy. But, heck, a bicycle is tippy! He’ll be able to blaze along and take more breaks to stretch his legs. His canoe doesn’t have the watertight compartments of mine so, to keep it afloat should it fill with water, Christian is installing floatation bladders. They won’t keep the water out but, if the water does get in the boat won’t sink completely.

Those are the ships of the White Rock Navy. I mentioned in an earlier post that our goal is to finish the race in under 75 hours. What do you think? Who’ll be in St. Charles first – the qajaq or the kenu?