Friday, September 11, 2015


The water is always calling him. In the Sierra and Ecuador it roars in his face with rush whitewater. In the blue of the Pacific, it serenades him with the song of the sea. Yes, water and Byrant Burkhardt have a kinship, a loyalty and sometimes rivalry. Generally combatants in nature, they share a brotherhood of triumph together with a kayak and paddle.
Burkhardt is nationally respected kayak instructor, both on the ocean and in the river. He has produced videos and published articles for magazines and his blog, Paddle California. In his new book A Paddler’s Journey, he recalls his life-long progression from a paddling newcomer to a guide and instructor. He is now pursuing a career as a novelist, while working and playing along California's Mendocino Coast.
Last week we asked Burkhardt about his new book, his kayaking successes and failures and his connection to the water.

NC: When did you discover that kayaking was your life long passion?
BB: One of my first times kayaking was off Catalina Island in a sit-on-top, in rather large swells. I grew up in Minnesota, the land of ten thousand lakes, and ocean swell was something new and different. It made me want to experience more. As I tried different aspects of kayaking – surf, whitewater, polo, I found different things to enjoy about each of them. The more I enjoyed it the more it made sense to build my life around doing something I loved.
I do think it’s important to point out that kayaking is not my singular passion. It’s one of several. Part of the point of the book is that our passions interact and reinforce each other – the joy I found kayaking spread to other aspects of my life. Most people who kayak have other things they are passionate about – as it should be – and the point is not that kayaking is something special and better than anything else out there. It’s an avenue for finding enjoyment and meaning in life, which is what we’re all looking for.

NC: What made you decide to write A Paddler's Journey? 
BB: I’ve written many kayaking stories on my blog and I enjoy that medium. I also write fiction, novels in particular, and really enjoy crafting a larger story that carries themes throughout. It made perfect sense to combine two to make a book filled with kayaking stories but also a progressive narrative. It was fun to relive my crazy adventures but also examine my past with a critical eye and study how I developed and how much I’ve grown since the beginning. And part of me hoped that other people would enjoy reading it as well.

NC: There are a lot kayaking books, what makes A Paddler's Journey different from the rest?
BB: Every book is different because every author is different. Many books focus on a single type of kayaking, often a single trip. My story includes sea kayaking, kayak surfing, whitewater kayaking, kayak polo, even a little canoeing. At the same time, I didn’t want it to be about my experiences per se as much as the types of experiences lots of people have. The point isn’t about grand expeditions and challenging whitewater - that’s in there, but it’s the background. The point of the book is the journey that all paddlers take – really the journey we all take through life. It’s about the learning process, where things go wrong and you fail. It’s about tasting success and wanting more. It’s about reaching a goal only to realize it isn’t the summit and you have more to learn and achieve.

NC: In Nancy Soares review of A Paddler's Journey, she wrote, "The book isn’t just the story of how to develop all those skills; it’s the story of someone who discovered his path in life through his passion for kayaking." How have you developed, in her word's this "philosophy of life" through kayaking and how can other paddlers apply to their lives as well?
BB: I wanted to share my experience and lessons learned because I think they are common but not always reflected upon. If we’re smart, we try to transfer the skills we gain from one piece of our life to all the others. Kayaking teaches the value of dedication and hard work. It rewards you for practicing and gives greater rewards to those who develop the abilities to handle tougher situations. It punishes you for mistakes and lack of foresight. It provides opportunities to help others and to learn when to ask for and accept help. It teaches you how to play well with others. Those lessons exist in most every endeavor, from kayaking to hiking to cooking to origami. It’s just a matter of paying attention and applying what you learn.
I didn’t want to get too far off on tangents in the book, but my kayak career has been the model for much of the rest of my life. When I decided to be a writer I started with lots of practicing and drills. I didn’t expect overnight success and I continually look for ways to improve and others to learn from. In my personal life, I approach my relationship the same way. I’m much more open to changing the way I do things when what I’m doing isn’t working or someone comes along and shows me a better way. I pay attention to the result instead of my intention. I try not to be goal-oriented but instead focus on enjoying the experiences along the way. All that comes from kayaking.

NC: You wrote in A Paddler's Journey, “No longer worried about accomplishments, kayaking became a means to an end and not an end in itself; a medium to reach other people and enjoy beautiful places. Part of me still wanted to push myself, to use my skill and experience to do something cool. But not alone this time.” Now in these days of bold solo trips, Why is it important to you to share these experiences with others?
BB: I’m an introvert, and I still enjoy solo trips. They’re very valuable and rewarding in ways that group trips are not. But I felt like I had learned enough about myself – not that there isn’t more to learn but to push my solo paddling any farther would have meant hitting high levels of risk, and that was never an attraction for me.
But when I paddle with others I get to enjoy the experience in ways I can’t alone. I love showing people familiar places to me that are new to them – it’s a chance to relive the wonder I felt my first time. I love to see people advance their skills and overcome challenges – it reminds me of my learning days. And I also really like to be able to share memories of experiences with old friends. It’s great to run into someone who you haven’t paddled with in years and be able to reminisce about some past adventure. Telling the story of your great solo trip to the same people over and over again is far less rewarding.
(As an aside, I don’t think there are more solo trips these days – there’s just a lot more GoPros and satellite trackers that allow us to share our solo trips with the world. I’ve done that myself, but it defeats a lot of what is valuable about a solo trip. There is a need and a place for commercialized trips, solo or not, but it takes away from some of the experience. There always have been, and hopefully always will be, individuals doing remarkable trips that no one else ever hears about.)

NC: In the foreword of A Paddler's Journey, you tell of a harrowing experience. Do you think every paddler might have a tale of overconfidence in their abilities and underestimation of the conditions? What do these misadventures teach us?
BB: You can’t have adventure with some failure. You can’t move forward without sometimes stepping too far. Hopefully it happens when the consequences are small, but every paddler I know has some story of when things went wrong. What you learn from those experiences very much determines what type of paddler you become. For me, the important part was to always improve my judgment. That’s what makes a good paddler in my eyes: someone who honestly appraises their own skills, whether high or low; someone who thinks through their decisions and understands risk vs. reward; someone who understands that just because everything worked out in the end it doesn’t mean good decisions were made in the beginning.
But it doesn’t have to be our own misadventures that teach us. I’ve learned a lot of things to avoid by listening to the stories of others. I think my book provides some of that – I hope others can learn from my lessons without having to put themselves in mortal danger.
I also think there’s more to learn than simple safety concerns. You can learn about what kind of people you want to surround yourself with. You can learn how strong you are when you have to be. I’ve seen other people overcome fear or sacrifice their own comfort for someone else’s well-being. Some terrible experiences have bonded me much closer to the people who I shared them with. There’s always something to learn in life from the difficult times that makes the better times even better.

NC: You share a lot of memories of the water, any favorites or places you never want to ever return?
BB: Right now I live on the Mendocino Coast and the paddling up here is amazing – the best sea kayaking I’ve ever found. To be able to have that ten minutes from my doorstep and be back home in time for lunch is really special. And there are some rivers I’d love to run again (if our drought ever ends), like the Middle Feather. I always love the Forks of the Kern, and the Channel Islands are like a former home to me. But mostly it depends on who I’d be paddling with rather than where.
There are a number of places I’ve paddled that weren’t spectacular: Piru creek outside L.A.; the Santa Monica Pier. But I’d gladly do them again if I was in the area and had some good friends to go with. I’ve never been one to chase far off destinations and exotic locations. It’s nice to travel now and then but I’ve always found plenty of interesting, beautiful, diverse, remote, and special places to kayak right here in California. And I still have more to discover.

NC: How has being an instructor and guide made you a better paddler?
BB: Teaching definitely sharpens your physical skills. You have to know what you’re doing and be able to break it down to teach well. It also forces you into a leadership role, which sharpens your judgment further and makes you more self-aware and self-confident. I think it makes you more appreciative of the variety of people in the sport and how different people get different things out of it. That makes it easier to paddle with others and also teaches you to enjoy different types of paddling.
Some of my favorite classes to teach are instructor certification courses, and I get a lot of people in there who don’t really want to teach but just want to improve their skills. It’s great to help them with that, but they also normally end up enjoying the teaching aspect and using it often even if they don’t teach for money. They ‘teach’ their paddling friends, they introduce new people to the sport. It really makes you an ambassador for kayaking and we need all of those we can get.

NC: You are a guide and instructor sharing your passion of kayaking with countless students. Who was your guide and inspiration?
BB: I’ve definitely had mentors. It’s one of the best traditions of kayaking. My buddy Pedro Frigola got me started in kayaking – he’s the one who organized that first Catalina trip, a story I recount at the start of the book. He didn’t formally instruct me as much as simply take me on trips and inspire me to do more. He was (and is) the best paddling buddy because of his positive attitude and endless enthusiasm. Traits I try to emulate.
Paul Macey and his wife Katherine introduced me to kayak polo and whitewater kayaking. Both disciplines are much more technical and Paul taught me skills while once again taking me on trips and modeling great leadership. It’s very rewarding to get to the point where you can handle the same difficulty level as the people who first inspired you.
I’ve had to opportunity to paddle and teach with some of the best in the world, and I’ve picked up things from all of them. The people are what make this sport great and I learn from my students all the time. There’s so much inspiration to be had!

NC: What is the future of kayaking today?
BB: It’s everything. I’m really excited that more people are doing more varieties of kayaking. I love that sea kayakers are trying out whitewater, that people are kayak surfing and SUPing. Cross-pollinating the disciplines helps them all and also helps connect the different communities, which is something I’d like to see more of. I see more people getting more training and pushing themselves further.
At the same time, I see the sport’s recreational aspect spreading. Kayak fishing is exploding. Meetups are making it easier to find people to paddle with. It’s great that cheaper kayaks and equipment, more access to waterways, and public programs are increasing participation. Great, but not without its own problems. I worry that the ease of buying a $150 kayak from CostCo makes people think it’s as safe as a bicycle. It’s not. Especially in a cheap recreational kayak that isn’t built with the safety features you’d find in a more expensive boat (bulkheads, deck lines). You don’t need a ton of education and safety equipment, but you do need a little knowledge and judgment, and too many people going out without either is a recipe for disaster.
It’s a big challenge for the industry to get the message across that people need to wear life vests and they need to be able to get back into their boat if they flip in deep water. The paddle community can help by valuing safety – new paddlers often take their cues from the more experience people they meet. Those who’ve been doing this a while need to let people know that classes are a good thing. Practicing rescues is necessary. Don’t go paddling with people who aren’t safe. It’s peer pressure in a good way. The alternative will be more laws and regulations to protect us from ourselves, and I’d rather not see this sport get buried under red tape.
The best part of kayaking is that it means so many different things to different people. It’s something that can challenge the young and hearty, it’s something you can enjoy into your eighties, it’s something you can share with your kids and grandkids. I hope it continues to become more accessible and draw more people in so they can experience the joy and wonder it brings.