Journey to Haida Gwaii
Novice Kayakers Get Expedition Ready
What do you do when you want to go to some wild, desolate place in your kayak but don’t have the skills to do so? That was our problem soon after we got our first kayaks. So began our quest to gain the knowledge, skills, and equipment to become comfortable and confident on the water.
In the spring of 2002, Pat and I decided we should take a kayak tour in the San Juan Islands to see what kayaking was all about. Being the skeptical, frugal one, I thought it was sort of expensive to jump into a boat and take a five-mile, three-hour journey that didn’t really go anywhere. My frugality was further wounded when I found out that we couldn’t wear our jeans and cotton sweatshirts! Oh well, we could probably use the polypro clothes for something. Turns out, it was a fun day and the scenery was superb! After two more guided tours, the die was cast. We had to have boats of our own. Frugality was thrown out the window. The journey had begun.
Our first contact with the paddling community was Island Outfitters in Anacortes, Washington, where we tried out new boats. Remember that local merchants can provide a wealth of information. Since their business survival depends on their customers having a positive kayak experience, they are usually more than willing to help you learn and stay safe. Ask lots of questions. These merchants can usually supply information on local paddling destinations and conditions. They can supply your equipment needs and also put you in touch with local paddling clubs. Many offer classes where you can gain basic paddling skills to get you started right. This is where we took our first class and then bought our boats the next day.
Our next contact was the local paddling club. As beginners we needed to go out on the water, but didn’t feel that we knew enough to venture out on our own. While we were at the local bookstore buying books on kayaking, a friend noticed the titles and said that she was a kayaker and invited us to the next local paddling club meeting. We went and joined. This was a good move. Not only did we meet some very nice new friends, but we also were able to go on club-sponsored paddling trips with more experienced paddlers. In addition to trips, the club sponsors paddling clinics and has regularly scheduled speakers at meetings.
We joined two other kayaking clubs in the area so we could expand our contacts and access. We have found that club members are always willing to help beginners and keep safety in mind. Our advice is to get involved with a club because it can be a very rewarding experience.
So, we were on our way. For the next two years we paddled a lot (even in the winter, you can do that with drysuits) and absorbed all the knowledge we could. We took classes, received advice from friends, got involved with the clubs, and did some overnight camping trips.
In 2004 we were invited to do a 10-day camping trip to the Broken Group Islands in British Columbia with some good friends and very experienced paddlers. We jumped at the chance. This trip was wonderful and it whetted our appetite for more adventurous undertakings.
The same group began planning a trip to Haida Gwaii (also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) in June 2005. For many years we have had an interest in Northwest art and the culture of the First Nations people. Here was a chance to see the country that spawned some of that art and the now-abandoned villages, complete with the original totem poles, of the Haida Nation. It was a big undertaking. There were ferry schedules to consider, permits to be secured, shuttles to be arranged, food to be dehydrated, and equipment to be packed. We were to be self-sufficient, and safety was a big consideration. Gwaii Haanas (the heritage park we were to explore) is largely uninhabited and radio contact is spotty. We took a course in wilderness medicine to help prepare ourselves.
Now, the preparation is done. The traveling is done. We are paddling our boats across the wild ocean with puffins flying overhead. We land on Skung Gwaii. There was a thriving community here 150 years ago; now there are ghosts and the remains of longhouses and totems. The only sounds we hear are the ones heard so long ago. We paddle north for the next 11 days. We see wondrous sights. We are one with our surroundings. This is a long way from that first three-hour tour!
Drawing on our experience, here are some ideas on how to realize the goal of being a proficient and well-prepared paddler.
First, get a boat soon and start paddling! Try as many as you conveniently can, but don’t obsess about getting the perfect boat on your first try. As your skills develop, so will your taste in boats. We have found that if your boat is well maintained, it will hold its value well and will sell quickly when you want to change boats. The important thing is to get on the water and start learning.
Get a drysuit. They are expensive, but they are first-class confidence builders. If you aren’t always worried about falling in the water, getting wet and cold, you can concentrate on your technique and push your limits. You won’t know your limits unless you push your limits. If you fall in with a drysuit, you will still be comfortable and will be able to evaluate what made you capsize.
Go to symposiums. Here you will find many kayaks to try out, as well as on-water classes and instructional classroom talks. You will also meet expert kayakers who will pass their knowledge on to you. The ones we have frequented are the West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium in Port Townsend, Washington; the Port Angeles Kayak Symposium in Port Angeles, Washington; and the Coast Kayak Symposium on Thetis Island, British Columbia. There are others all over the country. Find them, they’re fun. (Check the calendar on the Canoe & Kayak magazine Web site for a comprehensive list of symposiums and paddling festivals: www.canoekayak.com.)
Take professional classes. This is the best way to gain experience and confidence quickly, provided that you practice what you learn. Look for classes that take you from beginner to advanced in a logical progression, while always keeping safety in mind. We take classes from Body Boat Blade International on Orcas Island, Washington.
Practice and play. You can take all the classes in the world, but if you don’t practice, it will be wasted. If you don’t play, it won’t be fun. Go out on an afternoon and fall out of your boat. Get back in. Try to stand up on your boat. Try a new rescue. Practice an old one. Play “follow the leader” using different paddle strokes. Paddle backwards. Paddle with your eyes closed. You can learn a lot by just having fun, so, just have fun!
These days, there is a wealth of information about kayaking in the written word and in videos and DVDs.
Magazines. They are a great source of what’s new in equipment, paddling techniques, event calendars, places to go, and links to paddling gear. A few good ones that come to mind are Canoe & Kayak, Sea Kayaker, Kayak Touring, and Wavelength.
Instructional books. There are many books on how to kayak. They cover just about everything you want to know about the sport. Paddling strokes, rolling, packing, rescues, what to wear, safety: they can all be found. It’s hard to recommend any particular book because there are so many, but read as much as you can and try out the techniques on the water to see what works for you.
Navigational data. Get tide guides, current guides, and navigational charts of where you want to paddle. Some of these guides have instructional data on how tides and currents are measured, weather trends, and aids to navigation. The one that we particularly like is Capt’n Jack’s Tide & Current Almanac. Another very good book is How to Read a Nautical Chart, by Nigel Calder. This book also includes Chart No. 1, which is a guide to all the symbols and abbreviations found on nautical charts.
Videos/DVDs. Videos are fun. There are some good ones showing how to paddle. The advantage of videos is that you can watch them again and again to get the idea firmly in your mind before you try it on the water. Kent Ford has an introduction to all the varieties of kayaking in All About Kayaking, as well as more advanced instructional videos. Nigel Foster’s Sea Kayaking is another good instructional video series. Other videos that are enjoyable and show what can be done in your kayak are This Is the Sea 1 & 2, by Justine Curgenven.
Books on where to go. Pick a place you want to go and then see if there is a book that covers the area. If there is, then it’s a good starting point for trip planning. Often the books incorporate some local knowledge and also contacts in that area. It’s always good to have a general idea of what you might encounter before you embark on an expedition. (Even a one-day expedition!)
We would like to thank the following people for getting us interested in kayaking and helping us gain the skills to go places where others can’t go: Debbie Clough, Linda Sanford, Dave Harris, Heidi Erland, Reg Lake, Nigel Foster, Chris Mitchell, Shawna Franklin, and Leon Sommé.
Dan Moos and Pat Peacock live near the Skagit Valley in Washington State. They regularly paddle the waters of the San Juan Islands and British Columbia, Canada.