Saturday, June 27, 2015

Paddle Back

There is something about paddling: the quiet rhythm of the blade sliding in and out of the water, the feel of my body's movement and tempo as I lean into the stroke and pull the paddle toward me. Relaxed, glide, I stroke again. Needing each other to cross the lake, my body and my kayak have become one. My feet, knees and thighs unseen under the bow sway back and forth holding steady to the course while my arms and torso, operating like a turbine, charge us forward. In each motion of the paddle, the horizon inches forward and the rest of the world slips further behind.

The world is at peace except for hurried ripples made by the bow slicing through the stillness of the lake. Behind me, the water surface is now scratched and broken into millions of tiny undulations drifting into the calm of the lake. Ahead of me lies the illusion of a priceless mirror laying flat against the earth and reflecting images of the trees and hills cradling this canyon lake. The sky is jet blue, the shore is dark and water is an upside down copy sharper than any photograph could ever produce. 
Environmentalist and wilderness guide Sigurd Olson was more poetic in his description, while paddling the lakes and forest of Northern Minnesota and Ontario, Canada. "If it is calm," he wrote in Open Horizons, "The canoes drifting through reflections with nothing to break the vast silence but the hypnotic swish of paddles, there are moments when one seems suspended between heaven and earth."

Not far ahead, a turkey vulture soars overhead with its wings tilted upward.  With it's ugly red-head and diet of the dead, its not as majestic as the eagle or hawk . The bird is looked at with disdain to most. It circles and spirals on prevailing wind currents with little change to its large out stretched wings. It looms over the lake and canyon, holding me in a trance while I paddle below.
It has been a bad week and the vulture knows it. There are problems at work, troubles at home and doctors with test results. Life is not as tranquil as this peaceful lake. Tribulations dwell outside these canyon walls and that vulture wants to devour us. 
I pass the outcropping of the tower rock formations that the vultures call home and whisper to myself
"Not today my friend. I maybe trampled, but I'm far from extinguished." I paddle on as the vulture slips out of sight.

"The first thing you must learn about canoeing is that the canoe is not a lifeless, inanimate object; it feels very much alive, alive with the life of the river," said film maker and canoeist Bill Mason in Path of the Paddle, "Life is transmitted to the canoe by the currents of the air and the water upon which it rides."
There is energy and healing in the water. It has power that Mason said instilled life into my kayak and now transfuses into me. Water has been revered throughout the ages for inspiring the human spirit with hope and tranquility.
 In Psalm 23, one of most quoted Bible verses of all time, David is led down beside quiet water and his soul is restored.
 This trip to the lake has rejuvenated my vitality in the same way, as it has done countless times before. A friend once told when kayaking she hardly can remember what day it is. The lake was her portal of escape and a place to rekindle her mind.
The sun is falling behind the ridge. Along the highest points, the sun still hits the glimmering peaks while the valley is turning shadow.  It is time to turn around and paddle back to the access. It is a drug. A temporary high that always leaves me wanting more and more. This why I return to the lake every chance I can, so I can feel the paddle, it's rhythm and the sensation of the water. My consciousness is cleared and refocused.
"Penetrations into the unknown, " wrote Olson in Open Horizon, "All give meaning to what has gone before, and courage for what is to come. More than physical features, they are horizons of mind and spirit, and when one looks backward, we find they have blended into the whole panorama of our lives."
In a few short hours on the lake, I have undergone a recharge. My mind is at ease and my burdens have lifted. I paddle back restored.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Kids & Kayaks

We sat on the bank and the river went by. As always, it was making sounds to itself, and now it made sounds to us. It would be hard to find three men sitting side by side who knew better what a river was saying.  Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It.

This Father's Day weekend I will enjoy the company of my oldest son visiting from Omaha. We will try to fit many things into his week-long visit, including reminiscing about our previous kayak and camping trips we have enjoyed together.

The other day, my wife asked me when I had developed such a keen interest in water sports and if I had kayaked growing up.  In Nebraska, we really didn't have access to water outside the public swimming pool where I learned to swim. My dad was a hunter. He took my brother and I hunting almost every fall weekend for upland game birds and fishing only a couple of times.  He would pack up the family station wagon every summer with camping gear and take us on cross-country trips to central Nebraska, the Black Hills and even to California. He would often pick scenic state parks to visit that included a lake or river for swimming. It was those summer camp outs and hunting trips that offered my first taste of exploring the outdoors.

My junior high school offered canoes trips along the Missouri and Niobrara rivers which were my first paddling experiences. Those great trips that I took with friends and classmates planted a seed in me that would later grow into a passion.

However through college, building a career and raising a young family those canoe trips turned into someday-dreams. In Fargo where the lakes are 45 minutes away, I didn't have the time and I didn't make the time. There was always a something else to do such as a work assignment, a doctor visit or another bill to pay. The water might as well have been a million miles away.
But then something great happened. My kids transformed from babies to creatures of action and adventure.
They wanted to camp. They wanted to canoe. They wanted to explore.
My kids were attending and working at summer camps offered through Boy Scouts and Campfire. Adults were needed to supervise and insure safety. That is what I told myself, but I came because it was fun. It opened a whole new world for me that I had forgotten. I was hooked again.

Before long I was attending the camps with them and taking them along on our own family adventures. Back on the water for at least a few days a year, my enthusiasm was just beginning. A couple of years later I bought three kayaks, some PFDs and paddles. I wasn't a real live kayaker yet, but I was getting there. The next season we added some whitewater boats and a tandem kayak to the fleet. The tandem meant we did not have to leave the dog behind.

On our paddling and camping trips into Minnesota, we stayed at scenic state parks with water access. After setting up the tents and exploring the lake or river, we remembered the day's journey fondly that night by the campfire. Some of my best fatherhood memories have taken place fireside with my kids. Laughter and reminiscing circled like the smoke from the fire.

"Remember the time at camp?" Taylor, my oldest would start.

"You mean the time that kid's swimsuit was hung on the flag pole?" added Cole, my youngest while roasting marshmallows.

Along with a collection of others, I had heard that story a dozen times before. I'm sure the trees that surround the campsite have heard thousands more like it.  I listened to the telling and retelling of their tales again like it was the first time. The jumble of camper's hi jinx and mischief have turned into family fables. Taylor has a way of stretching one story to another and another providing nostalgic entertainment. I have often said there is no one better around a campfire than Taylor. Even the trip we were on would later be a story at some distant campsite to come.

The next day brought more paddling, exploring and spending time together. The trip would end too quickly with a stop for ice cream or pizza or both on the way home.
So on this Father's Day weekend, may all dads and their kids build classic tales of their time together along the water. Those adventures will live in their memories and will be told over and over again as long there kayaks, canoes and campfires.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Over the Bow: Three Mile Slough

It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking loud, and it warn’t often that we laughed, only a kind of low chuckle. --Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Debbie joked when we pulled up the boat ramp that when people saw our pictures, they would think we were in Sisseton instead of CaliforniaThe view at Brannan Island State Recreation Area had the that look of those Mid-western lakes we both remember growing up.  Flat, hot and windy. Tall grasses and stubby banks along the shoreline, while speedboats and whitecaps came with the open water. Even a South Dakota license plate in the parking lot gave us a double take.
It is the heart of the California Delta. An expansive inland delta and estuary to the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. Some 700 miles of rivers, sloughs and wetlands come together before heading toward the Pacific Ocean. The area is alive with birds and great fishing.
Under the shadow of 3,500 foot Mount Diablo to our southwest we paddled along Three Mile Slough. The slough is sandwiched between the two rivers and is jumping off point for many speed boats heading into the delta. We won't be going far to get our first taste of the delta. We slip into a quiet wake free zone on the east of recreation area. Swimming and fishing areas make up most of the west bank of recreation area. A land bridge forces us back to Three Mile Slough. Into the wind we paddle out to catch a view of the bridge by the same name.
A speed boat roars by putting water over Debbie's bow getting her all wet. She has had enough of this windy paddling exercise. We spent the rest of the day exploring the old river towns and their history on the way back.

Over the Bow is a new feature from Outside Adventure to the Max, telling the story behind the image. If you have a great picture with a great story, submit it to us at

Friday, June 5, 2015


We were not far from where gold was discovered in California that set off the Gold Rush. This Saturday morning South Fork of the American River was in a gush and for steady gathering tribes of kayakers conditions couldn't seem more golden. Despite the historic on-going California drought, the river was full of water. Through deals made with upstream reservoirs and powerhouses along the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission guidelines, timed releases will keep dependable flows of whitewater and boaters coming all summer. 

Pete DeLosa has a calm demeanor, an easy-going personality that makes you like him right away. He is a member of Team Pyranha and would be leading the trip down river. It's Demo Day,  a free event sponsored by the River Store and Pyranha Kayaks to give local paddlers an opportunity to try Pyranha's new 9R and Burn III kayaks. 
"I think that is what I like the most." said DeLosa,  "Seeing people get in a boat they haven't paddled before and enjoying it.  Everyone thinks its boat height, boat weight and gallons. Stop looking at the specs. Get out and paddle different boats. Find the boat that makes you want to go out and do it"

 The shiny new kayaks glisten in the morning the sun. The 9R is the newest of Pyranha's fleet of kayaks. Its narrow width increases its speed while innovative outfitting and a lower knee profile offers maximum control.
 Across from it rests the Burn III offering combination of precision and stability whether you are a beginner or expert. It was the kayak I will be paddling.
 I had looked for a bigger volume boat. The crossover kayak I own doesn't suit my skills and is a bad fit. I have had my share of swims with it. It always makes me a bit doubtful when it comes to my whitewater paddling abilities.
 DeLosa instilled some confidence in me.
 "Picture a good run at the top and you will have success at the bottom." said DeLosa. "Usually if you see something bad happening, it's self-fulfilling."

Then he said something that rolled me like a Class III wave.
"You know I'm  scared to death of water." he said looking at the placid river,  "You know, if you ask me I don't think I would swim across the water right here. I mean I could do it with a PFD,  but without it,  I don't think I would want even try it. It something I have to overcome."
DeLosa is a special athlete. He can do amazing things in his kayak. I paddled behind him and the three others with us during the first rapids we met, coincidentally called Old Scary. I looked for the easy line hoping not to roll in the days first waves while the others punched through the big waves. DeLosa then pulled his kayak for a bit of surfing and offered tips to the other paddlers.

"Kayaking is more mental than it is physical." said DeLosa, "My first couple of years of creek boating were in a Wave Sport Habitat. I had bought it from a friend of mine and never even paddled the thing. I wanted to get to kayaking and he had a boat to sell. It was totally dumb luck, but it worked out great for me. For a couple of years,  I paddled that boat through what at the time the hardest water I ever paddled. I had done it all in that boat and I didn't want to get in any other boat.  I thought I was unstoppable in that kayak. It made me feel confidant which pushed me to want to try news things. I had success and it kept me stoked. It also just kept feeding the cycle. The more success I had, the more confidant I felt and I was willing to attempt more."

My confidence was beginning to soar with the Burn III. The river running kayak proved to be stable and forgiving through the turbulent water. After crashing through Barking Dog Rapid a popular kayak play hole, I felt an eagerness for more challenges. I took the lead at Highway Rapid a long rock garden wave train. I twisted and turned with the punches of the flow. The last one was Swimmers Rapid, rightly named because it seems to dump the commercial rafter customers at the end, was a victory lap for me. As I paddled up to the Greenwood Creek take out, I had a great sense of satisfaction. Credit goes to the Burn III.    
"I like seeing everyone having a good time" said DeLosa at the end of the day, "I like giving people the opportunity to get into a new kayak that they have tried before. And its like icing on the cake when they really enjoy it."