The Paddling Life
Early-season kayaking, a packraft/ski combo, rock gardening in sea kayaks, kayak fishing and more
Well, it’s finally here in the Rockies…kayaking season. Like last year, we’ve had an early melt-off, meaning the playholes in the Yampa are already pumping at 500-700 cfs. It was an abrupt end to ski season, but whaddaya’ gonna do (besides kiss one sport good-bye and dust off the equipment for another). Like usual, my first day out came with some rust—on my boating gear as well as body. First off, I had to find it all, which meant moving the sleds, bikes, baby cribs and other gear out of the way in the crawlspace. Some was more cobwebbed than others, and everything was put away in the same state of disrepair as it was when I ended the season on Gore in October.
My techno-buddies have long espoused the virtues of drysuits for these early season forays, so that’s what I grabbed. Call me a spaz if you will, but for the life of me I can’t seem to wrestle the zipper shut. While there’s talk of exhuming Houdini’s body to see if he was poisoned, I contorted myself like him every which way to fasten the thing, to no avail. Glad I wasn’t in cement booties at the bottom of a river. Just when I was about to give up and wait helplessly on the bike path for assistance, the zipper separated, rendering it useless. So it was back home (fortunately only a block away) for the old stand-by NRS drytop. Okay, so I probably should have lubed the zipper at some point…but I’d like to think that I have far better uses for lube than that.
The cluster only continued. Down at the river I noticed that I had never perfected the foot pads in my WaveSport Project, and squished my feet into an odd assortment of foam scraps crammed inside from the season before. Then I noticed I had two different pogies, an NRS and Mountain Surf. Not the end of the world, but another knock to a perfect beginning. Then came the noseplugs. I could have sworn I fixed those things, or coughed up the whopping $3.99 for another pair, but apparently not. There they were again dangling from my helmet, both pieces of foam sadly missing, exposing only nasal-scraping metal loops. On they went anyway. As for the earplugs (I’ve only learned to use them in the last few years to stave off early season exostosis), don’t ask. They were grody (I don’t think Webster’s adopted that word yet, but if he saw them, he would). A flick of the finger knocked off residual earwax and in they went.
I’m not whining. The actual paddling was great, testing my back, shoulders and reflexes in an array of spins and cartwheels. I never got up the guts to loop into the ice-cream-headache water, but a few more sessions and that’ll come. And hopefully I’ll have my gear sorted out to boot.
Earlier in the Season
Though it marked the first time in my kayak, my Yampa excursion wasn’t my first time out of the year. The previous weekend, I tested one of Sheri Tingey’s Alpacka packrafts on the first skate-ski/raft circumnavigation of Howelsen Hill (you can read about it in the June issue of C&K). Weighing only 4 lbs., they’re all the rage up North, letting people backpack them into previously unexplored waterways. Absent vast amounts of tundra and braided, glaciated waterways in Steamboat, I concocted a plan: throw the raft, PFD and drysuit into a drybag, tie a breakdown paddle to the outside, and skate ski from my house up and over Howelsen Hill to the Yampa. From there, I inflated the raft, tied my skis on, and floated the few miles back to the library before hiking home. Needless to say, I received some weird looks from other skate skiers en route (in which I employed the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” motto of the military), as well as from fishermen watching me ski up and inflate the craft.
These two local forays came on the heels of a trip to Baja with the kind folks at Necky, Ocean Kayak and Johnson Outdoors. In early March we kayak fished in San Diego, where guide Jim Sammons, who’s caught more billfish from a kayak than anyone on the planet, versed us in the art of jigging for spotted bass. With us were such surf stalwarts as Spike Gladwin and Murray Hamilton, as well as such Johnson higher-ups Nando Zucchi and Watersports Division Vice-president Mark Leopold. At one point we all had fish on the line except for Mark, giving rise to friendly heckling, but then he made up for it by landing two at once in a tangle of lines. Sammons, of course, stole the show by landing a 30-lb. bat ray, his largest ever, but couldn’t escape the heckling of fellow guide Matt Moyer, who labeled it a mud-marlin. Me? Fourteen bass, a mackerel and a sunburn.
Next, it was off to Baja with Aqua Adventures for three days of camping, sea kayaking and taking part in the controversial sport of rock gardening, whereby you wait for an appropriate Pacific surge and then try to paddle through some tight slot you have no business being in. Basically, we’d just wait around and see what happened to Olympic-boy Spike, and then decide if we wanted the same punishment. After hearing one tell-tale crunch of fiberglass too many (in front of the boat’s designer, no less), I bailed on the composite for a plastic Chatham, but then there went my excuse for weenie-ing out of moves through such gauntlets as the “Head Chopper.” The moves varied between Class II-V on a whitewater scale, depending on your cajones. Sea kayaker extraordinaire and filmmaker Justine Curgenven emerged with bloody knuckles from one attempt, and several people swam from other thrashings on barnacle and urchin-encrusted rocks. We explored sea caves and blowholes, and listened to Murray’s endless supply of raunchy jokes, ending each night around the campfire stuffed on cuisine prepared by le chef Jock Bradley. A couple of surf sessions up in San Diego afterward, both on boards and Spike’s coveted Spider surf kayak (that guy can seriously rip), and it was back to the ocean-less Rockies.
What’s up next? A few missions to Willow Creek, Cross Mountain, the town playholes, and if I’m lucky, Escalante, before heading on a family trip down the San Juan for daughter Brooke’s spring break at the end of April. Then we’ll be dealing with urchins of a different nature…