Paddling the African Great Lakes: North End of Lake Malawi

By Ross Exler

I finished Lake Malawi and have moved on to Tanzania. I believe that my last check in was around Nkhata Bay, before I headed into the rugged and beautiful Viphya Mountain section of the lake. This area is incredibly beautiful, with mountains that drop a few thousand feet down to the lake and then extend more than 2,000 feet down underwater. It’s the deepest part of the lake and the water is clear and cool and a beautiful azure. Along this section, there are few beaches – the shoreline is mostly rocky. It’s also nice because the deep water and rocky shoreline mean that there are no crocodiles, hippos, or schistosoma.

The one challenge is that this area often experiences higher winds. The water can be quite rough and headwinds can be quite challenging. The typical routine was to keep my head down and paddle into a strong headwind from around 6 am to 12 or 1 pm, at which time the wind would calm down and I could enjoy the remaining afternoon of relative ease.

I think that this section, paddles over four to five days with a few rest days to hike and snorkel shows tremendous opportunity for a sea kayaking destination. The tourism would certainly benefit the local economy.

While I do feel a bit robbed of the wilderness experience of paddling the Mozambique/Tanzania side of the lake, it was quite rewarding for me to stay on the Malawi side where people speak English and I was able to freely communicate with the local people and learn about the lake and how they live.

Almost all of the people are dependent on the lake and the land around it for subsistence fishing and agriculture. Unfortunately, their practices are not sustainable, so I worry about the future of the lake without education and enforcement of fishing regulations. It’s a classic tragedy of the commons situation, where people are struggling to get by and therefore are taking as much of the available resources from the lake and land as they can. Almost half of the population is under 14, so the population is growing quickly and these problems will just be exacerbated.

Still, the people of Malawi were consistently kind and welcoming to me, and I really think that has earned its reputation as the “Warm Heart of Africa.”

My next lake will be Lake Tanganyika, the longest lake in the world and second largest by volume. It will also be considerably more remote than Lake Malawi, and there will be the added challenge of people only speaking Swahili. I’m looking forward to the challenge and wild beauty of the region though, and I’ll plan on updating you on my progress.

Here are some photos from the lake. The one of the stars is fishermen using lights to attract Lake Malawi sardines, called usipa. This nightly phenomenon prompted David Livingstone to dub Lake Malawi, the Lake of Stars.

I’d also like to add that my kayak continues to perform admirably. I found it to be consistently stable, durable, sporting an impressive payload, and fast considering all of those other factors. The boat is really adding to my confidence heading out into these lakes alone. Upon breaking down the boat at the end of the lake, I wasn’t able to find any wear or damage. Not bad for three weeks paddling in Africa!

Paddling the African Lakes: Lake Malawi

By Ross Exler

Jan. 26. The trip is going well so far. A few days have been derailed by weather, but otherwise I’ve been making steady progress. I decided to paddle the Malawi side instead of the Mozambique side as they speak English on this side and I thought it would be interesting to be able to talk to people and hear about the lake and their lives firsthand. For the rest of the trip, virtually everyone will speak Swahili.

I’ve been following a routine of waking up around 5 and paddling until mid afternoon and then usually staying in small fishing villages at night. The people along the lake have been very kind and welcoming. They’re fascinated by all of my stuff, but especially the boat. They use dugout canoes, so my kayak is pretty shocking to them. My boat has been awesome, very stable, pretty fast considering I’m solo paddling a tandem and it’s loaded with a ton of cargo, and it easily fits all of my equipment. No issues whatsoever so far – the boat is helping a lot with my optimism and high spirits.

There haven’t been any mishaps yet. The only thing that’s a bit unsettling was that at one point I was paddling about 400 yards off the opening of a big lagoon, and I heard some sloshing in the water. I turned and saw a big crocodile about 20 yards away. It was at least 12 feet long and looking right at me. I definitely set a new personal speed record in the following minutes.

I planned the trip for 20 miles a day, and so far that seems pretty reasonable. My best day so far was 31 miles and my worst was 18, with a strong headwind. I’m sure that mileage will go up as the trip goes on and my fitness improves.

I have a few more days on this section, and then I’ll get to my first planned break – Nkhata bay. I’ll probably just be there for one1 rest day, but from there it kind of feels like the home stretch. From Nkhata Bay, I have about six more days of paddling and then this lake is in the bag and it’s on to bicycling towards Tanzania.

It’s been interesting to see the people along the lake, how they fish, and some of the environmental impacts. The lake is clear and blue except near rivers, where deforestation has caused huge amounts of sediment to turn the lake a muddy brown. The local people fish both using nets and lines with hooks. Some people are beach seining, which is pretty destructive. Others go out at night, far offshore, and use lights to attract the fish. It’s cool to look out on the lake at night and see dozens of lights in the distance.

I’m feeling good and confident. This lake should go down without too much of a fuss.

Paddling the African Great Lakes: TNC

Tuungane Dugout, Lake Tanganykia. Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

January 5, 2018 Update

By Ross Exler

I first became aware of the African Great Lakes while I was a student working in the Alexander Cruz lab at the University of Colorado. The lab’s research was focused on novel species of fish endemic to Lake Tanganyika. Working with these species introduced me to the biodiversity of the African Great Lakes, but also the threats to the continued survival of these ecosystems. I soon realized that the African Great Lakes region is globally significant to biodiversity, vital in sustaining the lives of the millions of people who call the region home, but also tragically suffers from a comparatively low profile to conservation efforts in other regions. Therefore, a founding element of this trip was to find and support a non-profit whose work in the region aligned with my conservation ethos.

So, when I had adequately planned my trip, I conducted some research on the leading conservation groups active in the region, and found that The Nature Conservancy has a large scale project, the Tuungane Project, on Lake Tanganyika. The Tuungane Project brings a multidisciplinary approach to conservation and addressing the extreme poverty that is the underpinning of environmental degradation in the region. Their efforts are introducing fisheries education and management, terrestrial conservation, healthcare and women’s health services and education, agricultural training, and other efforts to increase the quality of life and understanding on how human activities impact the very resources that the local people depend on for survival. Without the buy in of local communities, efforts to conserve this incredible region will likely be unsuccessful.

I am happy to announce that I will be working with The Nature Conservancy to promote greater awareness of the value and threats to the region, as well as their conservation initiatives on Lake Tanganyika. If you have some time, please visit the Tuungane Project website and read more about the great work that they are doing.

https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/africa/wherewework/tuungane-project.xml

Paddling the African Great Lakes

 

On Lake Malawi

By Tamsin Venn

This January explorer Ross Exler sets out on his quest to paddle the African Great Lakes. He plans to paddle across the three largest: Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria. The expedition will be the first unsupported, human powered, solo crossing of these lakes.

The total distance is about 1,000 miles of kayaking and 600 miles of biking from lake to lake through remote regions of Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda. Exler will carry everything he needs, including a folding expedition kayak, folding bicycle, and folding bicycle trailer.

At press time, Exler was in Malawi waiting for a cyclone forming off the coast of Madagascar to pass before setting out. “The lake is looking massive and beautiful and I’m very excited to get going,” he says. The reason for his trip?

“I love Africa,” says Exler. “There are big animals, the landscapes are beautiful, the people are charming and endearing even when their living situation is very difficult. I go back there frequently, mostly recently for three months last winter to Botswana and Namibia in the Kalahiri. It’s a beautiful part of the world.”

He is also a man on a mission. He will be be working closely with The Nature Conservancy to promote awareness about the region and the work that it’s doing.

He writes, “The African Great Lakes region is extraordinarily important for vertebrate diversity, containing an estimated ten percent of the world’s species of fish. The lakes also contain approximately 25 percent of the world’s unfrozen freshwater. In addition to their ecological significance, the region’s fish and water are essential resources for the millions of people living along the shores of the lakes. Unfortunately, the lakes are under threat from invasive species, increases of sediment and nutrient inputs from deforestation and untreated sewage, over fishing, and the myriad impacts of poverty and war.”

No stranger to arduous journeys, Exler notes, “I’ve done a number of these large solo expeditions. I’ve got a background in biology and am drawn to these remote areas. To be by yourself and travel over a large area, that is the way to really experience it.” His most recent expedition was traveling 2,000 miles of the 4,000-mile-long Amazon River through Peru, Columbia, and Brazil for four months on a motorized canoe.

For this expedition, Exler needed a real boat plus a way to get it from lake to lake over roads. He reached out to Mark Eckhart at Long Haul Folding Kayaks, a low-key kayak company in Cedaredge, Colo. “Mark Eckhart was very enthusiastic and very helpful,” says Exler who refers to the kayak as a very high quality but artisanal project. The kayaks are made of wood frame components of ash hardwood and birch laminate with a rugged deck fabric of either cotton or acrylic. The company’s mission is to provide a safe and reliable way or reaching the most remote locations in the world. In the fall Exler went out to Colorado to pick up the kayak from Eckhart.

“It’s important too that he cares about how it goes for me and takes a lot of pride in his product,” he says.

Long Haul built the boat around a rugged, collapsible Burley bike trailer to make sure it fit inside the boat and made a custom skin to accommodate the bike. Exler will pack the boat up and put in on the trailer, and will bike the couple of hundred miles to the next lake.

“At night, I will wilderness camp or stay in small villages, relying on the kindness of local people – a reliance that has been rewarded time and again by good natured people in remote areas of the world. It is my hope to document the trip in a way that can bring you along to witness the splendor of this incredible place, and maybe to see some hippos and crocodiles from a safe distance.”

The itinerary is a starting point on the south end of Lake Malawi, at Monkey Bay, go through a portion of Mozambique and Tanzania, for 400 miles, then he will bike up and over to the Lake Tanganyika for 325 miles, then paddle up to Kigoma in Tanzania, or the vast majority of the lake. The lake ends in Burundi, but it has become a dangerous country, unacceptably dangerous. Then he will bike to the southwest corner of Lake Victoria, and paddle up to the northern end and finish in Entebbe, Uganda for 250 miles. Exler plans to take three months to complete the expedition and hopes to end the journey in March.

Exler is an accomplished photographer and story teller so look forward to stunning photos and finely spun stories.

To follow, www.RossExler.com

Cool Facts About Winter Seabirds

By Tamsin Venn

Harlequin Ducks. Ducks Unlimited

Common Eider. Bill Thompson/Cornell Lab

Red-Breasted Merganser. Greg Schneider/Cornell Lab

One reason to go kayaking in the Northeast now is to see winter seabirds. Recently I took a trip with Mass Audubon experts to find and identify  these winter visitors around the rocky tip of Cape Ann, Mass. We went via heated vans, but I plan to return by kayak now I know what to look for.

Cape Ann’s exposed granite shores with crashing waves, plus protected harbors, seaside ponds, and sand beaches provide good habitat and viewing for these hardy seabirds.

Here is a list of the birds we saw and those you can expect to see out offshore now.

1) Red-breasted Merganser. Identifiable by the Mohawk haircut and narrow, red bill. The females have a rusty head. The narrow, serrated bill enables this diving duck to stab at fish and hold it firm in its bill or else grind crustaceans.
2) Common Eider. Eiders float in big rafts of dark brown females and distinct males with black bellies and white backs. They are the biggest sea duck of all and so easy to pick out from the buffleheads. If you’re really lucky, you might see a King Eider.
3) The Bufflehead a.k.a. “marshmallow head” is aptly named, for its large white round head and how it pops up on the water. One of the smallest and endearing ducks, it dines on mollusks and clams and swallows pebbles to help grind them up.
4) Three types of scoters. Close to shore you will see the Black and White-winged Scoter. It is rare to see the Surf Scoter which feeds farther out to sea. The key to IDing scoters is in the dabs of white on the cheeks.
5) The Double-crested Cormorant sprouts white feathers in the winter, but otherwise does not change dramatically from summer plumage. Fun detail, it sprouts two horn-like tufts at the top of its head in spring breeding season. It is easy to find by the orange bill and low stance in the water.
6) One of the biggest delights to see is the multi-colored, sea hardy Harlequin Duck, Latin name Histrionicus histrionicus. It is one of three rapid obligates in the world. That means it needs rushing water to feed so you often see them on rapidly flowing freshwater streams in summer. Along shore, they like the really rocky spots and can handle the strong water. Crashing waves break over them and they just sit there unperturbed.
7) Rarer to spot is the Long-tailed Duck, a striking bird with black and white markings; Horned Grebe; Lesser Scaup whose head may be nestled into its feathers and hard to ID because head shape is how you distinguish a Greater from a Lesser Scaup. Also, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, Ring-necked Duck, American Coot, Northern Pintail.
8) Scuttling along the rocks and seaweed you’ll find the Purple Sandpiper, so named for its slight purplish gloss. It’s the only sandpiper that sticks around in winter and is found mostly only on wave-washed rocks vs. sandy beaches or mudflats.
9) Shift your gaze out to sea and you might spot a Northern Gannett patrolling high above the water, steadily, floppily, winging by with its large wingspan and black wing tips. It’s common on open ocean, rare on land.
10) And you’re bound to see Herring, Great Black-backed, Ring-billed, and Bonaparte’s Gulls and of course the delightful Loons in their winter plumage.
11) If in doubt about the ID, check out the range maps in your guidebook and the blue bands for winter habitat. Happy winter paddling and bird watching!

Why Knot Go Fishing at Little Harbor Boathouse?

In late May, I head over to the Little Harbor Boathouse in Marblehead, Mass., to take part in a Guided Hobie Kayak Fishing Excursion. It would be a three-hour fishing program with use of a Hobie Kayak, fishing gear, and know-how from three very friendly and experienced guides: Jesse Minoski, Joe Gugino (see above photo on left), and Mike Marquis.

Our prey? The striped bass which had recently moved north from their southern vacations to spend the long summer feeding in New England waters. May and June is prime fishing season for this species.

The rocky shoreline around Marblehead is ideal striped bass territory, Hobie Team member Minoski says (he took the photo), and the Little Harbor Boathouse’s “hidden gem” location means you don’t have to go more than a half mile from the launch to fish and you duck out of the wind behind Crowninshield and Gerry’s Islands.

Maryellen Auger, owner of Little Harbor Boathouse, has a Hobie Revolution 11 waiting for me. It’s an ideal boat size for women, she notes. Sleek and lively, the Revolution uses a pedal system to propel forward (a paddle is attached by bungee chord on the side if you need it). The kayak comes in three lengths, 11, 13 and 16 feet, increasing in speed with the hull length. Conveniences include a molded-in rod holder, multiple hatches, lots of on-deck storage, and a “hyper adjustable” Vantage CT seat with webbing, that is so comfortable you could sit out there all day and cast a line. The seat sits off the floor and keeps you dry and is removable to turn into a beach chair.

I “power-pedal” my way out through Little Harbor behind Crowninshield and catch up with six eager clients and three helpful guides.

A couple of the clients catch fish on the dropping tide and release them. I’m not so lucky, but I can tell you how wonderful it is to sit out on the ocean in a comfy seat on a fresh spring day, casting a line, enjoying the beautiful surroundings, camaraderie, and communing with a species that obviously knows the most of any of us about the water dynamics and food below. All and all, I had a very good time and highly recommend it, especially for someone new to kayak angling such as myself.

Little Harbor Boathouse will hold two more Hobie First Cast Kayak Fishing Meetups this season. The dates are: Saturday, June 17, 8:30-11:30 (good Father’s Day outing) and Sunday, June 25, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

Details and 24/7 on-line reservation to participate in Hobie First Cast Guided Kayak Fishing Excursions, Private Guides, and Hobie hands-free Kayak rentals visit:

http://littleharborboathouse.com/kayak-fishing/events

For ongoing fishing guiding service out of Little Harbor Boathouse – the blues come out in July – with 2017 Hobie Fishing Team Members Joe Gugino and Jesse Minoski: www.whyknotfishing.com

– Tamsin Venn

Paddlequest 1500: An Expedition to Inspire Outdoor Desire

John Connelly at Newbury Kayak and Canoe. From left to right: Zand Martin, NFCT Board of Directors; Jack Phillips, Development Director MITA; da man John Connelly; Mike Duffey, owner Newbury Kayak and Canoe; Keith Attenborough, sales NK&C; Madison Moran, Membership and Development Associate MITA.

John Connelly at Newbury Kayak and Canoe. From left to right: Zand Martin, NFCT Board of Directors; Jack Phillips, Development Director MITA; da man John Connelly; Mike Duffield, owner Newbury Kayak and Canoe; Keith Attenborough, sales NK&C; Madison Moran, Membership and Development Associate MITA.

Canoe-and-Kayak-by-Chris-Wall-768x768
It was a year ago that John Connelly became the first paddler to both canoe the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (740 miles) in northern New England and kayak the Maine Island Trail (375 miles), connecting them via the Saint John River and Bay of Fundy (385 miles) in New Brunswick. The grand total? 1,500 miles.

Recently, Newbury Kayak & Canoe in Newbury, Mass., hosted John to give a presentation. Present were sponsors Maine Island Trail Assn., and the Northern Forest Canoe Trail as well as an enraptured crowd, reliving his adventures vicariously.

How much water did you take?

Did you ever capsize?

Would you do it again?

What was your favorite spot?

It was interesting to hear his talk to see what message stayed with him a year later. See “Paddlequest 1500: An Expedition to Inspire Outdoor Desire,” ACK, September 2016 where we talked to John right after he returned from his epic journey.

Although John was alone during his expedition, he posted his whereabouts on his website, received thousands of “followers” and was often greeted by “Trail Angels” who knew where he was offering encouragement … and beer.

He calls the expedition as challenging, rewarding, and eye-opening. There was the drama… told to stand down by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, when they thought he was a canoeist who entered the country illegally (not); and violent storms, as in crossing Mooselookmeguntic Lake, where it was safer to keep going than to turn into shore for protection, through rain, sleet, snow, and vicious winds.

John, who was passing the big 6-Oh, was more than up to the challenge. He has spent 19 years in the whitewater rafting industry and ten years in management at L.L.Bean as leader of the L.L.Bean Outdoor Discovery Schools. He was a member of the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team, competing in whitewater World Championships and World Cup competitions. He co-authored “Appalachian Whitewater – The Northern States,” a guidebook for rivers from West Virginia to Maine. He is a risk management consultant, is the President and Chief Experience Officer of Adventurous Joe Coffee LLC. John lives in Falmouth, Maine with his wife, Nicole.

He is writing a book and just finished revising a draft. I would urge everyone to read it when published. Aside from being a terrific story teller, he has a great deal of knowledge about both river and sea conditions, and is in general an all around good guy.
Several highlights of his talk: He started in April but waited two weeks after ice-out to make sure the lakes he was paddling wouldn’t freeze on him overnight and leave him stranded sans snowshoes. A favorite place was the Nulhegan River in Vermont, a 15-mile tributary of the Connecticut River, where it’s possible to run the entire river.

The most remote he experienced was in the segue from NFCT to MIT, no maps or guides, and he relied on old pals with local knowledge to accompany him on that stretch, culminating in going through the Reversing Falls at St. Johns, where even someone used to high water was awed by the dynamics of that water flow. Needless to say, he made it through without mishap. Plus he didn’t capsize once on the trip.

He wonders if anyone has ever found a level spot to camp on Halifax Island on the Maine coast. He encountered eagles (dozens in one day) and whales. He lost more than 30 pounds but ate well.

He also presumably drank good fair-market coffee, as owner of Adventurous Joe Coffee.

His main post-trip mantra? Go light. Don’t wear yourself out on hauling equipment around. He planned his gear so he was able to make one-way-only portages on NFCT, for example.

These and many more interesting tips John shared. The book should be a good read from a person who is clearly comfortable in wilderness waterways, is keen on being fit, having the right equipment, maintaining community, knows route planning and navigation (no off days for fog), an unfailing belief in how outdoor experience leads us into a profound stewardship of natural resources… and sheer perseverance. Should I go on? John is inspiration to us all.

Thanks to Newbury Kayak and Canoe for hosting and MITA and NFCT for sponsoring. We paddlers are all so lucky.

Check out John’s upcoming presentations at www.Paddlequest1500.com.

Nicoles-Kittery-Welcome-by-Rob-Center-768x768

Essex River Race: May 20, 2017

Tammy_N_David01_Web

Tammy and David in the push to the finish. Photo copyright by and courtesy of Donna Lind.

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The Nootka in Maine, 2002. It looks shorter because it’s angled away from the camera

Thursday night at home, Tammy says, “I really want to do the Essex Race this Saturday.”
“OK,” I respond. She runs the race every couple of years.
“Oh, and I’d like us to do it in a double.”

So here’s the story. First of all, the only time Tammy and I had raced a double kayak was the 1995 Blackburn Challenge in a fast Seda Tango loaned to us by Bob Hicks. Second, our own double, a large Necky Nootka more than 22 feet long (the boat I always used on our trips with the kids, with Lilly in the forward seat and Anton in the middle hatch. Fast, stable, and with plenty of room for gear and the occasional batch of lobsters bought directly from the lobster boats), has mostly sat on the racks for the past 12 years, since the kids moved into their own boats, quietly gaining water weight. The last time it was moved, I could have sworn it was tipping the scales at more than 100 pounds. Third, it was probably full of spiders and was pretty dirty after a winter on the racks under the oak trees, requiring its annual cleaning and polishing a little earlier than usual. Fourth, didn’t Ozzie Osborn of ERBA (Essex River Basin Adventures) just recently mention to me that his term for a double kayak was “divorce boat?”

Oh, and it also meant that I would have to find and install the Hullavator racks, because there was no way that we could lift the boat over our heads to get it on the car as we used to. We tried. Instant vertebral compression fractures.

We did figure out how to maneuver the boat up onto the car. (We had to bungee-unlock the Hullavator handles, then each grab an end of the kayak and swing it up, then release the handles so it would lock into the racks. Hope it works in reverse.) And on Saturday, May 20 at 07:15 hours, we rolled, bleary-eyed, into the ERR’s new venue at the Riversbend Restaurant in Essex. Fortunately, the change from funky, small-town marina to funky, small-town marina plus upscale restaurant meant that the access road, famous for its collection of potholes and small meteor craters, had been paved smoothly over.

Early as we were, the scene was already one of controlled (ish) madness, as craft ranging from SUPs through sea kayaks, surfskis, dories, sliding seats, up to multi-rower gigs looking as if they were just preparing to speed Captain Cook from the Greenwich docks out to the Endeavor, were carried on or behind autos from all over the East Coast. Since the parking lot triples as space for the restaurant, storage for many motorboats, and the headquarters of the Essex River Cruises, the crowd was well jammed in, looking for a way to drop their boats at the ramp. We were early enough to be able to find premium dockage for the Nootka next to the ramp in the marsh, and slide our car into a spot next to a line of cabin cruisers.

Then it was a matter of signing our lives away on the release form (“YOU MUST SIGN A WAIVER IN PERSON,” according to the website) and standing around waiting for the Captain’s Meeting at 08:30. The only grumbling in our crew was from my neglected tum, which had not had time for breakfast. Fortunately, one of the participants had brought in mass quantities of coffee, cream cheeses in various flavors, and bagels. Lovely!

(This act of charity underscores a critical aspect of the Cape Ann Rowing Club, which sponsors, organizes, and runs this race and July’s Blackburn Challenge. All aspects of the events, from planning and scheduling, through implementation to clean-up, are handled by volunteers. Nothing but praise for this great organization and its dedicated members.)

The Captain’s Meeting is where the course is gone over, heat starting times restated, and rules of the road laid out. The affair took place at the porch of the restaurant. The crowd was enlivened by a small group of officials, including the harbor master and some Coast Guard men packing heat. Over a bullhorn crackling with static directions blared out and were repeated to shouts of “Louder!” Then the only bit of disagreement occurred when the harbor master ordered that wearing of PFDs was required. The cries of, “NO!” and, “May 15th,” arose from all sides, but especially, it seems, from the SUP and surf ski paddlers. This made little sense to me, until I looked it up in Section 323 of the Code of Massachusetts Regulations:

“CMR Section 323-2.07(10): Any person aboard a canoe or kayak between January 1 to May 15 and between September 15 to December 31 shall wear at all times a Coast Guard approved personal flotation device of Type I, II, or III.”

Since it was after the 15th of May, the nays won. We dithered a bit on that one, trying to decide whether carrying our PFDs on deck, increasing windage, was worse than the binding that wearing them would cause. Since the wind was quite strong, and we would be heading into it for more than half of the 5.5 miles of the course, we decided to wear them.

Now boats began to take off as their heats were called. The organizer at the ramp was good at calling back vessels who tried to launch more than 15 minutes before their heat was called, a grim necessity in the narrow confines of the start. I began to feel the normal urges that precede a race, but was loath to go to the official porta-potties, situated a couple of hundred yards up the hill. These are traditionally decorated with long lines of desperate racers trying to get rid of all that coffee. Fortunately, Tammy had found one in the lower lot, hidden behind several large motor boats still on their winter racks. Whew!

Our next decision was where to put in. Our nice marsh launch site had succumbed to the steadily falling tide, and now we looked over a three-foot cliff. Not a great spot, but otherwise we would have to schlep our ocean liner over the boats that had jammed themselves in between us and the ramp. We decided to schlep, and, at last, we took to the water and approached the start.

The most important factor in a start is position, position, position, relative to the starting line. Also useful is some experience with your boat. As we came around the corner from the ramp, the north wind started blasting us full in the face, and the high prow of the Nootka, catching it like a sail, began to fall off, and we started moving backwards. (If you look at the photo of us heading towards the finish, you will see how my bulk lifts the bow right up. When I used to paddle with the kids in front, I would stick a couple of small boulders under the bow hatch to lessen this effect.) I pumped at the rudder pedals, trying to remember how they worked in reverse, and we soon found ourselves in an excellent position, if the race had been heading straight over the rapidly drying marsh. “Go!” rang out, and our competitors rushed off, followed belatedly by boat number 156.

The course first follows the meandering channel of the Essex River until it opens wide into Essex Bay towards the Cross Island archipelago (Cross, Dilly, and Corn). The dropping tide was with us as we headed out, but the advantage of the current was overwhelmed by wind. So, heads down and arms pumping, we started on our five-and-a-half-mile adventure.

It’s always a good idea before a race to do some training in the boat you plan to use. The question was, was 23 miles in an entirely different model two decades earlier sufficient for the day? Well, no. Because of our feeble start, we were dead last across the line. Still, we managed to maintain our position throughout the race!

In the confines of the river, the mass of our class seemed so very far ahead as we rounded a curve just in time to see them disappear around the next ahead. When we came out into Essex Bay, however, we could see that our position was not as desperate as we thought, and we traded leads with several doubles for the next mile or so. I pulled our rudder out to reduce drag, and we began to make up time.

Crossing the bay to Cross Island was a steady grind against the headwind over open water. Stroke timing in a double is critical, and it was my job as stern paddler to make sure that our strokes were as coordinated as possible, maximizing their effect. Stern paddler in a race in a headwind always gets a face-full of water, as the breeze flings the drip from the bow paddle directly into his face. The constant shower was actually not unpleasant, as it countered the effect of an extremely bright sun. The crust of dried salt on my sunglasses did make it hard to see, and I was startled when Tammy cried a warning to change course. Although it seems a straight push to Cross Island from the opening of the marsh into the bay, the falling tide poses risks for paddlers unfamiliar with the area. We were heading towards the great mud bank just to the south of Cross, and with the wind and sun reflections the shallows were hard to differentiate from the channel. We swerved to avoid grounding and headed for the deep water of the channel. On the left (west) side, the channel stays deep nearly up to the rocky shore of Cross, so we cut a few feet off by cruising under a ramp between the rocks and a float.

Despite the relentless breeze, we had kept a steady pace up to the narrows between Cross Island and Conomo Point. Increasingly, the draining of water from the bay as the tide dropped further was creating more obstacles, and would eventually expose a great expanse of sand bars and mud banks with just a few channels threading through. Any attempt at a short cut would have meant a grounding. As we came around Cross, I looked in desperation for the passage that I knew existed sometimes between Dilly and Corn, only to see four feet of dry land where but a few short hours ago had been water.

Cross Island, which would seem to be a turning mark for the race, is no such thing, as the swing around Dilly and Corn is several hundred yards of exposed paddling. Here we met a desperate dory floundering about. “Have you got a Leatherman?” he cried. His oarlock was coming loose and he was tool-less. Alas, we had no tools either, and we had to leave him to his fate.

The trip back to the finish line was by cadence count, 20 power strokes followed by 20 or more more relaxed lily-dips. I must admit I was getting a bit tired by this point. No, I lie. My chest was heaving and my tongue was flapping in the following breeze, which seemed to have dropped just in time to minimize the advantage it would give us against the outgoing tide. “1-2-3-4-5-6…” we chanted, then “pant-pant-pant….” and repeat.

The surfskis started to pass us, as well as, it seemed, every other boat on the bay. We did pass a fast paddling herring gull, and I gave it a surreptitious glance to see if it bore a number. Maybe we wouldn’t be the very last entry to cross the line.

We entered the narrow river channel and began the meander back to the finish. (Why the distance back to the start after rounding the half-way mark is at least twice as far as on the way out is one of those mysteries of racing.) Tammy kept saying, “Just one more curve. Oops! Just around the next curve. Oops!” and so on, until we sped (¡really!) across the line. We had finished; we had kept our position in our class and surprisingly, pulled ahead of two other doubles to finish sixth of eight boats; and we weren’t divorced! Not at all disappointing, considering.

Will we do it again? Not on your Nellie without at least some together time training. Maybe the nine-mile circumnav around Castle Neck? It was nice to be back in the Nootka after so many years, so it might be a good thing to schedule at least a few trips in her this summer. All in all, it was a lovely race, ending with a delicious pizza, beer, bacon cornbread, and steamed clam picnic from the Riversbend chefs.

Old Quarry Offers Registered Maine Guide Course

10410866_528413997286753_823576111468112043_n (1)Old Quarry in Stonington, Maine will run a Registered Maine Guide Course at the end of May in time for the summer guiding season. Held at Old Quarry in collaboration with Pinniped Kayak, the course is designed to prepare participants for the State of Maine Sea Kayak Guide Exam. Participation in the course does not guarantee certification.

This 6-day, 56-hour course, held over a four-day weekend (Memorial Day) and a two-day weekend, will cover a variety of topics including risk management, trip planning, group leadership, navigation, safety, island ethics, and minimal impact camping. There will be on-water training in kayak paddling skills, rescue techniques, and towing. If time and weather permit, one night may be spent on an island learning group island camping techniques.

Due to the time of year this course is offered, drysuits are required for all on-water activities. Old Quarry has a few dry suits and many wet suits for rent if you do not have your own. It has dry suits and wet suits for sale as well. Students should be in good physical condition and be prepared for the weather and sea conditions of spring in Maine.
Course Dates: Fri, May 26, 8:30 a.m. – Mon, May 29, 4:00 p.m. & Sat, June 3, 9:00 a.m. – Sun, June 4, 3:00 p.m.
Registration: Contact Pinniped Kayak to register.
Lodging & Meals: Contact Old Quarry to reserve campsites, bunkhouse, meals.
Old Quarry Ocean Adventures is the gateway to the islands of the Deer Isle – Stonington archipelago, with a campground, practice pond, classroom facilities, and two all-tide launch sites. Its Sea Kayak School offers courses for most any experience level.

Spring Migration

Great_Egret_at_Bill_Forward_Pool_-_Susan_BalserOne of spring’s great events is the daily arrival of migrating birds. Some will stay around to breed and nest and others will just stop for a rest and bite to eat before they get on their northward way again. One migrator that sends a riffle of joy throughout is the great egret, newly arrived a couple of weeks ago in our neighborhood north of Boston. One of our favorite marsh sentinels, it is easy to spot, its white frame stands out in the colorless marsh.
Spring migration takes place over a shorter period than the fall migration. Birds are trying to get here quickly and immediately set up shop and reproduce. It’s nice to know we’ll be able to enjoy the egrets’ stately walks across the marsh and white flashes of flight for the summer months to come.
Plum Island just to the north of us is one of the most productive birding areas on the Atlantic Coast and even in the country. Every Wednesday morning, David Moon, Sanctuary Director for Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center, leads field trips in and around the Plum Island area. The program has been going on for 21 years! And is enormously popular with locals and visitors alike. No registration is necessary, just show up and pay your fee. For more information, www.massaudubon.org, or joppaflats@massaudubon.org
Susan Balser, a Wednesday morning birder regular, has very kindly let us use her photo of a great egret from Bill Forward Pool on Plum Island. Spring is here!