Friday, October 30, 2015


I gave my heart to the mountains the minute I stood beside this river with its spray in my face and watched it thunder into foam, smooth to green glass over sunken rocks, shatter to foam again. I was fascinated by how it sped by and yet was always there; its roar shook both the earth and me.
- Wallace Stegner

"Swimming is part of the sport." said whitewater paddling instructor Dennis Eagan, "Every paddler, even the good ones are in between swims."

That was a shot of reassurance for the class, that everyone starts out the same, paddling skills are learned and developed over time and being able to swim in fast water is always an essential part of whitewater kayaking no matter what your levels of abilities. It's the basis for Whitewater River Kayaking 1 (RK1) with Current Adventures Kayak School and Trips. A class to develop a foundation and skills necessary to paddle fast water. In talking with the class participants, I learned most had some experience with fast water and one had even rafted down the Grand Canyon. However, the reason they were there was to learn the fundamentals by getting back to the basics of paddling.

"I want to do the Grand Canyon next year, " said student Scott Billups, "I've done quite a bit of sea kayaking in Alaska and have a SOT on my sailboat which I use quite a bit for diving and coastal touring. I've always thought that it (whitewater kayaking) would be fun but never lived close enough to whitewater to make it worthwhile. Sea kayaks want to run straight and cover a lot of ground as effortlessly as possible. Whitewater kayaks just want to turn and play."

It was a typical summer weekend on the South Fork of the American River at Henningsen-Lotus Park in Northern California.
Flows and the river traffic were high. It seemed like an endless parade of river rafts, kayaks and tubers floating down the stream while we unloaded and fitted the class up with their kayaks. "The fit is really important," Eagan told the students, "You want to be snug and your boat. That is really important. It gives you more control. You want to be snug like the boat is a part of you. Snug but comfortable.
After sliding into their kayaks and into the river, one by one, the students are literally submerged into the world of kayaking with wet exits and bow rescues.

In the bow rescue, Eagan capsizes each student as they hold the bow of another student's boat forming a T and progressively tips the kayak further and further over until they can complete a roll from upside down. Two different skills are practiced by the students, Staying in your kayak while using the support of another kayak to bring you upright and learning stability for the rescuer. Also, the students, get a boost of confidence in overcoming any fears of being upside down underwater. "No issues really." said Billups, "I do a lot of diving and am very comfortable in the water."

The South Fork is known for its dependable flows of whitewater. Popular rapids like Barking Dog, Troublemaker and Meatgrinder are just some of the rough waters that make the river attractive to the area kayakers. However, on the first day of the class, Eagan started with an easy moving section of the river to introduce some basic paddling strokes and techniques. "Most people do not spend enough time on flat water when they are learning to kayak." Eagan told the class, "I see lots of kayakers paddling down the gorge in Class III whitewater, but they still haven't developed a really good stroke technique. And even though they are paddling Class III they still haven't got that good foundation, because everyone is in the rush to get into the excitement of the white water instead of working on the drills."

 For the rest of the session, the paddling students practiced integrating and completing their strokes and edging ability while working on an assortment of river maneuvers. "Once you get edging down you won't tip over very much," Eagan told the boaters. Edge control is a skill used for balance and control of the kayak. It involves holding the kayak tilted on one side (edge) or moving it from side to side (edge to edge) in the oncoming current, while at the same time as performing bracing strokes. "In any paddling, there are only three problems that you have." said Eagan, "One is momentum. You don't have enough speed. Two, You don't enough edging, and other is boat angle. The last your going to working for rest of your (paddling) career."


With increased confidence later on that afternoon, the paddling students were weaving and gliding through rocks and ripples along the South Fork while practicing ferrying, a maneuver to get across the river, along with eddy turns and peel outs. It was a day getting back to basics and learning some new skills over again. "It's not thinking about any text-book stroke, "said Eagan, "But, blending them all together."

Whitewater kayaking is an ongoing journey. As the poet Herman Hesse said, "The river has taught me to listen; you will learn from it, too. The river knows everything; one can learn everything from it."  It's consequential that kayakers keep listening, learning and holding true to their paddling basics.

Friday, October 23, 2015


 Waverly Traylor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain image.

Why wilderness? Because we like the taste of freedom; because we like the smell of danger.Edward Abbey

We've all seen the video: "Get away from my kayak." "Come here!" "Stop it bear! Bear! Bear! Bear! Mary Maley's clip on YouTube has racked up more than 4 millions hits of her yelling at a curious black bear ripping up her kayak during a trip into Alaska. When the bear persisted in attacking her kayak she screeched "Go away. Get away from the kayak. Get away from the kayak. Come here. Why are you breaking my kayak?”

Because the bear decided only to rip up Mary's kayak and not Mary, most of us found the video somewhat humorous as human tries to exert her power over nature by trying to reason with the wild creature. "That is one of the funniest things I have ever seen." said Current Adventures Kayak School and Trips,  Dan Crandall, "All I can say is that in bear country it is common knowledge in places like Alaska where I lived that bears like to chew on rubber and plastic, so you don't leave it where they can easily get at it.  They are also known to have a wicked sense of humor and fair play. He knew the kayak was important to her when she thanked him for not chewing on it, but then she pepper sprayed him. He simply knew how to get back at her in the most effective way.

While laughing at the bear video, we held our breath while watching the clip of the two Brits narrowly escaping death and injury when a 40-ton humpback whale crash-landed on their kayak while paddling off Monterey Bay in California. "It was above us and all I could see was this whale crashing towards us, blocking out the light." Tom Mustill. told the Telegraph, "I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to die now. " The terrifying incident was captured on video by a passenger on a nearby whale-watching boat. Mustill and Charlotte Kinloch were breached and dragged underwater by the force of the whale. “I remember coming to the surface and thinking, ‘How am I not dead? Maybe I’ve got lots of injuries but I’m in shock and can’t feel them,’” he recalled. “Then I saw Charlotte and thought, ‘How is she not dead?'"

Remarkably, the two were left uninjured and the only damage was a small dent in the bow of the kayak. "I'm actually quite surprised there aren't more accidents," said San Francisco based wildlife photographer, explorer, and founder of The Wild Image Project Daniel Fox, "Considering the increase of tourists and the increased pressure the animals and the audacity that the tourists are showing. It's pushing them (the whales) to their limits. More and more there is a concept that nature is cute. All the animals are cute. Let's get close to the animals. Let's go and pet lions, lets go and pet bears. Wild animals are wild animals. We have to respect and honor who that are. When we go and enter their territory we have to understand their primal ways."

Fox makes a good point. However, with regulated hunting and people living in or much closer to bear habitat, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, people are going to be encountering bears more and more. In most cases, the bears quickly vanish into the woods after being seen or scared off. In August however, a grizzly bear killed a hiker in Yellowstone National Park, tragic yet extremely rare experts say. According to the National Park Service, the chances of being injured by a bear are approximately 1 in 2.1 million. So in other words you are much more likely to killed by a bee's sting than a bear's bite. "On a couple of occasions when bears were showing significant interest in trying to scare the crap out of me," said Crandall, "I have had success throwing rocks at them and getting them to stand off, stop there rapid advance or retreat. I have not had success yelling at them and certainly not pleading with them."

Fox agrees, "You have to respect predators. You have to give them space. You have to understand the way they communicate is primal. They feed off your body language and the intonation and the vibration within your voice. She talked to the bear in that really high pitched annoying voice. There was no power in it. There was absolutely nothing. She was totally conflicted. Her voice was full of fear and sadness. She was telling the bear come here, no go there.  Plus on top of that (laughing) she had the guts to just keep filming when all this is going on."

With all my experience in the wild,  I have never seen a bear, mountain lion or shark in the wild. For me those are rare experiences. I have stared down a few raccoons a time or two. One after he grabbed a full bag of marshmallows and climbed the tree above our campfire and proceeded to eat them in front of us. Amusing for us, but survival for our little wild friend. "No predator will attack unless the risks are worth it," said Fox, "So either for food, either for protecting your cubs, or either for protecting your territory. When it comes to the woman, she was absolutely stupid in the way she handled the situation, she is lucky to be alive and that bear didn't go after her. The wilderness is not a funny place. It's a struggle."

Nature is both beautiful and brutal. In both videos, I found the humans shared the same good fortune. Fortunate to experience a close up view of something wild and lucky enough to live to tell about it.

Friday, October 16, 2015


Wild rivers are earth's renegades, defying gravity, dancing to their own tunes, resisting the authority of humans, always chipping away, and eventually always winning. --Richard Bangs and Christian Kallen, River Gods

"This is why we came here." said Erik Allen, "We came to surf Barking Dog."
Maybe that is why he came. I was just trying to the learn my way down the fabled South Fork of the American River. The rain had stopped a little while after getting on the river. That didn't mean, I didn't find away to get wet. Right away,  I caught the edge of an eddy and rolled my kayak over. An unceremonious dump into the river.

During the spring and summer the South Fork in northern California is a playground for whitewater kayakers and rafters of all different levels.  The river descends at a steep gradient of 30 feet per mile. The first 5 miles from the Chili Bar access are chocked full of exciting Class III whitewater with rapids with scary names like Meat-grinder and Trouble Maker. The so-called easy section is the next, nine miles through the valley consisting of a number of Class II rapids including Barking Dog. After that, the river enters what paddlers call "The Gorge." It's mostly a series of challenging Class III rapids descending at 33 feet per mile toward Folsom Lake.

About mile down river from the Highway 49 bridge, the river makes sweeping curve to the right and then plunges into two standing waves and hole between as it turns again to left. The river's velocity, turbulence and converging currents have created a steep hole in its path making it an appealing and challenging site for area play-boaters.  Local legend says this Class II rapid got its name when a neighborhood dog barked loudly at the rafters and kayaks as they went down river.

Erik along with the rest of the play-boaters line up like kids, waiting to ride the roller coaster at the amusement park. Inching forward one by one to test skills their skills one at a time in the churning boil. Its cross between ballet and bull riding. A choreographed dance of spins, flips and rolls all before the wave spits them out and then back in line to try one more time.

Erik dips the nose of his Pyranha play-boat into the turmoil of the Dog, heading straight into its current. Skimming, then flipping at the edge of the standing wave.  He loses momentum and is buried by the water crashing down on him, only to roll back on the surface, surfing into the wave. Up right again he spins again on the wave in another maneuver .

Over sixty years ago Sigurd Olson said, "As long as there are young men with the light of adventure in their eyes or a touch of wildness in their souls, rapids will be run." It still hold true today at places like Barking Dog Rapids on the South Fork where souls sing and surf in the rolling whitewater.

Over the Bow is a 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, October 9, 2015


Every drop of knowledge sparks a light, illuminating an ocean of darkness teeming on the edge of brilliance --CN Hamilton

The tide is out and the moon is gone. The only light is coming off the shine of distant headlights off Highway One, about a mile away across Tomales Bay. I'm sitting on the edge of space. Drifting in darkness, isolated from the world around me. Clouds block the stars and blackness engulfs the sea. I can barely see the front of my kayak's bow or anything at all. The dark has not only stolen my sight but my voice as well. Longtime veteran night-time paddler Sigurd Olson revered this quiet when he said, "At times on the water one does not speak aloud but only in whispers, for then all noise is sacrilege."

Abruptly out of the darkness the magic flashes alongside the bow of my kayak. A stroke of the paddle and push forward emits, even more, waves of bluish-green flickers across the water. Across the way my paddling partner Jim Bryla exclaims, "Wow, It's like Disneyland!"
Not quite. As magical as it is, there is no fairy pixie dust here. It's bioluminescence, a light produced by a chemical reaction in living things. Similar to breaking a glow-stick, tiny singled cell creatures called dinoflagellates, think of two whip-like appendages that stick out from a single cell's body about the size of a speck of dust. These dinoflagellates, (dinos means “whirling” in Greek) contain a light-emitting compound called luciferin. When they are stimulated by a wave, fish or even a kayak they create a blue flash in the water around them. Scientists feel it's a burglar alarm in sense, to startle and ward off any potential predators.

It's ethereal and gorgeous. "This is our world, people." said film maker and deep-sea explorer  James Cameron  "You don't have to believe in magic. It's already magical! Look at these things. Bite your knuckle."

The same sparkling blue light designed to scare off predators is exactly what brings us to Tomales Bay and the eastern side of Point Reyes National Seashore, near of San Francisco. Bioluminescence is present for a couple of months a year, usually in the spring and fall, when all the variables align: water temperature, air temperature, winds, currents, and tides. During the phase of the new moon, the bay offers an ideal location for observing bioluminescence. The narrow gap of the bay's entrance limits the sea water moving about during the tidal exchange, trapping a concentration of dinflagellates between the main land and Tomales Point peninsula. Federal laws protect the much of the seashore as wilderness, which keeps light pollution from fading the greenish blue flashes of the microbes.

As I paddle through the bioluminescent waters, I marvel with excitement while creating my own mini light show with my kayak, paddle and even my hands while jostling the water surrounding microbes-organisms. I can see a hint of  Jim's silhouette with sparks flickering around him. The bottom half of his kayak seems to be glowing as he leaves a trail of lights behind. Spellbound by the phosphorescent event we glide along the flat water enjoying the magical experience. The water now, has switched places with the sky, as we paddle on looking down on a pool of meteors, comets and stars. 

Friday, October 2, 2015


"We need to keep some of our vanishing shoreline an unspoiled place, where all men, a few at a time, can discover what really belongs there -- can find their own Island in Time." ---Harold Gilliam

The area outfitter gave us a stern warning. "Weather is moving in. Tomorrow it could be worse." she stated firmly, "We had a lot of rescues over the weekend. If you go out there you might not make it back."
We had all seen the weekend report of fifty-four kayakers on a nocturnal outing being plucked out of Tomales Bay by local fire departments when the conditions suddenly changed. Two were treated for hypothermia after a kayak capsized in the wind and rough seas.
A gray sky hung overhead while two-foot waves pounded Miller Boat Launch at Nick's Cove on the northern section of the bay as we continued unloading our kayaks and gear.  I saw the outfitter's tired eyes looking out over the water watching her crew retrieve kayaks from across the water, remnants of the past weekend's rescue operation. Her crew's motorboat with kayaks in tow seemed to make slow progress across the bay.

 "The little boat, lifted by each towering sea, and splashed viciously by the crests, made progress that in the absence of sea-weed was not apparent to those in her. She seemed just a wee thing wallowing, miraculously, top-up, at the mercy of five oceans." That's how American author Stephen Crane described the ordeal in his short story The Open Boat. The story is based on his own experience of surviving a shipwreck.  In classic literary style he would narrate the tale that seemed to match my view of the motorboat crossing the bay. "As the boat caroused on the waves, spray occasionally bumped over the side and gave them a fresh soaking, but this had no power to break their repose. The ominous slash of the wind and the water affected them as it would have affected mummies."

I looked to the members of our five man party all loading their kayaks with camping supplies. We had all paddled together in San Francisco Bay and camped on Angel Island. The conditions seemed similar, wind, waves and a little current. Nothing we had not paddled together before. "You know what we call a day like this in Minnesota?" I asked the group with a with a smile and then answered quickly not waiting for an answer, "A nice day."
The outfitter shook her and continued with her loading of kayaks. Her warning had disappeared in the wind. We had planned this trip to Tomales Bay for weeks. It was a scouting mission of sorts. We are looking forward to bringing other folks along on a future camp out as part of Bayside Adventure Sports, an active outdoor church group based in Granite Bay, California. The idea was to find a suitable beach for camping and viewing of the bioluminescence along the Point Reyes National Seashore. All we had to do was paddle out past Hog Island to the western side of the bay, about a mile away.
"A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important," Crane observed in The Open Boat in enduring the test of the ocean swells. Loaded full with camping gear, the waves crashed over my bow putting a salty spray in my face. I was the last one trailing behind the others heading into the gusty bay. Memories of paddling the mid-west lakes floated back to me. There wind and waves are common place. I can remember, one windy day on West Lost Lake in Minnesota where I battled whitecaps while paddling along the Otter Tail River chain of lakes. Up and down my kayak bounced along in the same fashion across the bay.

Hog Island sits about five miles south of the entrance of Tomales Bay. Small in nature the uninhabited island covers only two acres, while its next door neighbor Duck Island is even smaller. A haven for wildlife, the islands are managed by the National Park Service as part of the Point Reyes National Park Seashore and access in restricted. However, it did serve as a good rendezvous spot out of the wind as we all paddled between the two islands. Near the western shore of Tomales Bay the wind eased up and the waves ceased. While the other three paddled ahead into the cove with sand colored cliffs called White Gulch, longtime paddling partner Erik Allen cruised the along the shoreline looking for a beach to camp on. From the shore we heard the bugling sound of the tule elk. In the distance we could see them grazing freely in open grasslands and coastal scrub. Once almost wiped out, the elk have returned to Point Reyes and are one of the largest herds in California.

Under the shelter of Tomales Point blocking the winds coming off the Pacific Ocean, the tempestuous bay calms yielding way to smooth paddling along the coastline of the bay. It's a mixture of sandy beaches, high bluffs and thistle plants clinging to the rocks and tall banks. The vegetation huddles close to the ground.  Coyote brush and grasses are the dominant plants on the peninsula. It may look quiet but its home to all the animals, birds and reptiles. Higher up and lining the draws are a full array of Douglas fir, Bishop pine and coastal live oak.

Conservationist and writer Stephen Trimbles
said, "To cross this valley to the peninsula (Point Reyes) is to leave modern California and enter an island of wilderness, forgotten by progress, a quiet land misplaced in a noisy world." We picked out a quiet beach along the coastal prairie almost directly across from the noisy world, where had we started. Pulling our kayaks on to the shore, we pitched our tents in the sand, ate freeze-dried food and watched the tide roll away. The weather and waves and warnings faded into the tranquil sound of the water lapping against the shore. Resting around a beach fire, we found own haven by the bay.

Photos by Erik Allen & Jim Bryla. 
Next week in Outside Adventure to the Max find the magic during a bioluminescence excursion in Tomales Bay.