Leaving a great Cuban themed work party was hard, mohitos on the lawn of the Kellogg’s mansion beckoned. Bocce ball and other diversions abounded just prior to departure for Qajaq Training Camp. I sucked in my temptation to indulge my vices and drive up late in the dark.
I just managed to squeeze in to the event by the grace and effort of Nancy Thorton. So I felt pretty lucky to be driving up to Frankfort at all on a Friday. The weather had turned a little gloomy but my fully loaded Volvo thrummed happily northward up highway 131.
I arrived right at dusk on Lower Herring Lake. Lower Herring Lake is a small inland lake just east of Lake Michigan. I was told the camp could only be reached by boat. So I came prepared to paddle in with all my gear in drybags. I loaded my kayak with the little remaining daylight. I launched my Silhouette and began scanning the shoreline for Camp Lookout. Mist settled over the surface of the lake. It seemed a perfect beginning to the weekend. It seemed like my dream of a summer camp from childhood. A place to go where all the other kids wanted to play the sort of games I wanted to play. It is a lost-boy like camp separated from civilization, insulated for a time from problems. I spotted the camp pretty easily by the 50 or so kayaks piled on the beach and the dock of the camp. Lights were on in the lodge and I heard shouting and cheering. I pulled in and unloaded my “kit”. I walked up a winding set of tree fort like steps to the lodge. I stepped in, feeling like a character out of a bad fantasy novel where the hero (we all picture ourselves as such don’t we) steps into the rowdy tavern just at dusk. I was greeted by a few friendly faces. Alex Pak, Henry and Barb, Dianne Carr, and Nancy Thorton.
Nancy was good enough to show me up some more windy steps to my Cabin, the Eagle’s Nest. She quickly gave me the lay of the land. I changed and headed back down to the lodge for pie.
The events of the first evening entailed a presentation from Dubside, which focused entirely on the Greenland competitions. He also retold a bit of the story of Maligiaq Padilla who did not compete this year due to a boat accident. I was really interested in how interested Dubside was with Maligiaq. He seemed to idolize him in a way that a lot of kids do other sports stars. Maligiaq for all intents and purposes is the Pele or Zinedane Zidane of paddling; he is the first child star of paddling. And he has sort of fallen from his lofty perch by not competing in the last two competitions. And he stated he will not compete again next year. I wonder if Maligiaq is just losing interest, or if maybe he just doesn’t want to be the paddling star anymore? But I think I learned more about Dubside from that presentation than I did Maligiaq. I wasn’t sure what to think at first. He is really small, like Bono. He’s shorter than you think. He is very quiet, very polite, didn’t drink, didn’t eat a whole lot, and didnâ€™t speak until spoken to; unless it was about ropes or rolls. He watched me on Saturday while I was in the water with Cheri Perry doing my forward-forward hand rolls, a cross arm roll, and a spine roll. About every five minutes he would yell to me to come over to the dock where he sat with his camera to give me a few pointers. All of them helpful. I’m not sure I saw anyone else getting that help, so I am not sure if I piqued his interest because of my Silhouette which is larger than the skin boats and the majority of the home built boats, or what. But nonetheless, I appreciated the help. Dubside may be that fantasy warrior we all want to be. The guy with one name, drinking a glass of warm milk in the tavern, waiting for someone to speak to him. Not surprised when the locals gang up on him. The hero then dispatches those violent locals with minimal kung-fu effort and grace.
Saturday morning I tried out a few skin on frame boats with minimal success. A few of the skin boats that folks brought are rolling specific. The paddler is expected to hyper extend their knees in reverse in order to gain entry. When I first tried Alex Pak’s Pete Strand rolling kayak I didn’t think I could get in, and Alex in his casual way says, “You just gotta believe.” With a little further faith in my body’s elasticity I wedged in. Aft laybacks were easy as pie, but forward recovery with my hamstrings being as tight as they are was an impossible dream. The Harvey Golden East Greenland replica was by far my favorite. The upsweep on the stern really makes it turn easily into the wind. Most likely to aid in hunting. Yes, apparently seals can smell. I really enjoyed paddling this boat as it seemed like you really were sitting in another man’s shoes from hundreds of years ago in a way that the other rolling kayaks don’t.
I worked through the morning excitedly with increasing success on my forward recovery handroll. A tuiliq loaned to me by Williard really helped loosen me up. After some thunderstorms in the midmorning, I watched Harvey Golden sew a skin on the Derjip (sic?) kayak. By the afternoon, we were back on the water, and I was getting a lot of help from Cheri Perry, (as stated above). Her main message about my rolling is getting the core torso and abdominal muscles working. Relying on the arms is a weakness that limits rolling. Although she said it in a nice way, it is a common failing of men to rely on their arms. As a result teaching core muscle activity is easier with women, they just, “get it”. I took her lesson to heart and pretty quickly I was rolling up in that forward tuck, nose to the deck with one arm wrapped around the hull. The forward-forward roll sensation went from my earlier one of a floundering hopeful slap, hip snap, and twist, to one of a fluid sweep, crunch and tuck. I think her instruction is pretty good, and watching her work in the water for the rest of the afternoon left me more impressed than I expected.
Dan Segal whom I did not have much of an opportunity to work with also seemed great on the water with students. He listened attentively despite numerous interruptions and bizarre arguments from one student and managed to get the student started on what he needed to work on. His handling of the situation seemed so effortless and so direct that I recognized what I lack as an instructor at times, which is a total focus on the other person and what their needs might be. I asked him later about the situation and he said, “I don’t even hear the words really, just the need.”
Later on while near the dock I watched another instructor giving a demo of side sculling. I was totaled baffled by the instruction, and watched as the student floundered and failed to really effectively side-scull. I noticed that the top hand grip was being reversed intentionally for some reason. Which to me made little sense as it would be the only stroke on the Greenland paddle where your grip really changes. Even from a pure paddling standpoint it removes the ability to link strokes and transition to a brace if need be. The woman who was floundering looked at me with a sort of pleading expression and said “what am I doing wrong?”
So I walked over and showed her how to keep the standard paddling grip, rotate her torso and then slice back and forth. She seemed uncomfortable doing it, and then the instructor who had been distracted for a few moments looked at me, and said, “This isn’t the BCU Keith.” I looked into the water, felt foolish for getting involved, and walked away wordlessly. I recognized immediately that I had walked in-between a husband/wife instructor/student situation. It had nothing to do with me, but I was amused nonetheless at the instructors approach to get me to back off.
Saturday night was a gas. I spent a lot of time with Williard from Massachusetts. We talked a lot about family. We talked about being young parents and how isolating it feels at times, all your friends are still out drinking, partying cavorting, spending money on what they like, when they want, traveling etc; while we go to jobs, have mortgages, and loose sleep over stress, kids, and life. The paddling community is particularly hard on marriage from my limited observations. There are quite a few divorcees. It’s an engrossing hobby with a lot to offer. But at a certain point some folks state boundaries. They say “well this is as far as I can go without pushing the wife/husband over the edge”. Others might cave in and deduce the husband/wife is the problem, get divorced and then discover the whole cycle starts over. Others perhaps really do find happiness with the spouse that shares all their hobbies. I don’t know, certainly I’m not placing any judgement on people who get divorced, but I think I recognize that I push Laura pretty hard at times due to paddling. Williard told me, (perhaps idle flattery and speculation) that he sees someone in me who could easily be as good as anyone, if they had the time to spend. But that I can’t or won’t invest the time. Maybe that’s true, certainly my wife would disagree with both. I am not THAT good, and I have certainly put in a LOT of time already. We shared some single malt scotch. We enjoyed an excellent dinner prepared by Michael Gray and Nancy.
I managed to spend a lot of time talking with Harvey Golden. Harvey is as smart as he seems, if not smarter, he is the pocket genius of the Qajaq USA crowd, someone who really has spent way more time than you can even think about, looking at, drawing, and just speculating on traditional kayaks. We had a great discussion about the Norse in Greenland, Jared Diamond’s book Collapse and its failings, and then a lot of trivial smart-alecky jabberwocky. Due to our similarity in height, weight and lack of hair, I had a lot of people coming up to me and asking very good, detailed kayak history questions. It took all of my willpower not to mislead them with the information I do have about U-Boat types and Napoleonic Age of Sail information. Harvey told me later that I really should have explained to every person that all kayaks were originally designed to have a conning tower with a periscope made of sea ice.
Sunday I spent trying to further perfect some of my other rolls. I tried a few more skin boats too. I sat in on a few lessons with Turner on the continuous storm roll. I managed to give a real bow rescue to one student who got very disoriented during continuous capsizes.
Pretty soon I was water logged and wanted to really paddle. I needed to go somewhere and see something. So I managed to find some folks from Yonkers who wanted to paddle Lake Michigan. Four of us went out to the lake. As we crossed out of the stream from Lower Herring Lake into Lake Michigan we were presented with a beautiful panoramic view of the lake. Bright blue water with a fresh breeze that pushed small whitecaps along the surface. A small swell was building from the north. Along the dunes hang gliders were launching from the peaks. I immediately went into a strong forward stroke push. I felt all my muscles thanking me for pushing forward and my kayak glided over the water and slapped down the back of the waves. I quickly separated from the crowd and had to hold myself back. The others really weren’t up for the ride into the wind and decided to turn around. I pushed on until I could feel myself sweating from the effort and my legs pumped like pistons inside the cockpit. I had made it about halfway to Frankfort in pretty short order. I looked at my watch and turned around. I was rewarded with a beautiful gliding ride back to the beach interspersed with brief intense sprints to catch waves, then edging hard to keep from broaching, coming back online with the wave, and then sprinting again until the nose started spilling water perfectly down wave. I realized how much I love paddling, and that rolling is really more about a means to an end for me. I love the skill building and the challenge of learning all the rolls, but what I really love is paddling. I like having the wind in my face and the open lake in front of me with no one telling me which way to go.