Monday, May 31, 2010
Sunday, May 30, 2010
A couple of days ago, when I was at Spencer Spit in the San Juans, I came across a group of more than 20 kayakers, part of a commercial tour, led by a guide I know who works out of Anacortes. Watching him work, juggling boat repair and food preparation, first aid and island history, brought to mind something I wrote years ago on the subject of being a guide. It is reprinted here in its entirety.
If you are comfortable in the outdoors, have a strong personality and an abiding sense of humor, there is a strange and tragic (in the classical sense), job that can be yours for the taking. There is a paradox, of course, a catch: once you take it, you may not want it.
I’m referring to the lifestyle profession that is the Guide. The act of taking someone else into the wild for money is both an art and a science, and open to constant trouble. You will be misunderstood, second-guessed, berated and openly defied, called a liar behind your back and have fabricated stories told about you years from now by people you have never even met. And those are the good things about the job.
I can hear you, saying that perhaps I’m being a tad facetious. But consider the situation for a moment, if you will. A guide is the last line of defense between the
In these opening days of a new century, we demand that our guides be professionals. That is how the guide services sell them anyhow, as “Professional Guides.” They should have some sort of advanced medical skills and certification to prove it; they should have graduated from some kind of course work that qualifies them as experts in their field, whatever that field might be. It is incumbent upon them to spend each and every hour they have, on their own time, working toward something that will improve and reestablish their status as guides, whether that means climbing Aconcagua or running the Nahanni, circumnavigating Africa or hang-gliding the Khyber Pass. They must be constantly striving to improve their skills, or they are stagnant, has-beens, and they will slowly fade away. They must be professional, but they will earn only the minimum wage, plus tips, if they’re lucky.
It doesn’t stop there. Any guide that hopes to work professionally needs to have a variety of different personalities. Not talking about schizophrenia exactly, more of an ability to channel different entities, simultaneously and at a moments notice:
There is the Cheerleader, that ebullient soul who is continually engaged in positive feedback. “You can do it,” even though it is clear to God, man and beast that the poor bastard can’t, and probably never will.
The Risk Manager, who is constantly watching the group, like a lifeguard doing his 10-second sweep. Keeping an eye out for changing weather, gauging the capabilities of the individuals without their knowing it. Knowing when to fall back, to reassess, to initiate the back-up plan.
The Teacher, coaching paddling skills and climbing technique, as well bearing the responsibility of imparting knowledge about selected items relating to history, geology and wildlife.
The Chef, because food is critical, even to people who say it isn’t. There is no margin for error here at all. They say an army travels on its stomach... it may even be more of a factor on a guided tour. Although people always say that food tastes better outdoors, they are still watching the menu for any flaw, real or imagined. The food needs to be superior to that which can be cooked in a real kitchen, and you won’t have a real kitchen in which to operate.
Then there’s the Counselor. This aspect is often looked upon to offer advice to clients, usually late in the evening, when the guide craves sleep more than anything. Whether to allow the daughter to get a navel piercing or not, how to really communicate with the wife, whether taking that job offer from Microsoft means selling out.
The Entertainer is another vital element of the successful guide. To be a comedian or a musician is great, but even starting a fire or pitching a tent needs to be an act that leaves the audience wanting more. Because if they don’t want more, you’re out of a job.
So why do it? Why subject yourself to this torture, to be required to be a professional, yet be paid third-world wages? If it’s not the money, and it most assuredly is not, then what would make a person want to get involved in the first place, much less stick with it? The conventional wisdom is that guides are just doing what they would be doing anyway, so why not take some rubes along and pay some bills while you’re at it? After all, if you’re a guide, your office is the summit of some far-off peak, or the misty morning water of some exotic island chain, or the deep green of a temperate rainforest. You get paid to go on other people’s vacations. It sure beats the downtown shuffle, right? And that is worth making a bit less on payday, isn’t it?
But that isn’t it at all, really. After all, the real work takes place away from the enjoyable part of the activity, whatever that activity is. It is more complicated, and simpler, than saying that guiding is a lifestyle choice, and leaving it at that. The truth of the matter is that guides choose their occupation because they have something to learn, and guiding is the best way to learn it.
To be a good guide, you need only two qualities. Seriously, there are two items, and that’s it, that any client will demand of you, when all is said and done. The first of these is that you must be interesting. You must be able to converse on a wide variety of topics, from economics to basketball, sex to roofing materials. You have to possess a range of experience that makes you a resource for others in some way. If you can tell a joke or catch a
crab, sing a song or prepare a quiche, so much the better, but people have to be able to walk away from time spent with you with the realization that you are an interesting soul, someone they’d like to get to know better.
The second simple requirement is the yin to the first ones yang: you have to be interested. If the monotoned boor who’s number three on your rope is a librarian for an HMO, or the mousy woman in the bow of your canoe has worked data entry for an insurance company for the past 22 years, you need to be able to listen to him or her talk about those jobs, and be genuinely interested. They will be able to smell false interest; you need to cultivate a real fire for who they are, the lives, the joys and the sorrows of your participants, if you have any hope of excelling at the guide business.
The funny thing is that these two essential qualities are what each of us looks for from our own friends and respected acquaintances. We all desire to be interesting to others, to have a personality that makes people want to be around us, and at the same time, we want to be surrounded by others who match that description. Guiding, done well, will get you to this place. I’m not sure there’s any other job that can do for you what this one can. To be a guide, to be a really good guide, is perhaps the best way to ensure that you will turn out to be the person you’ve always hoped you would be.
Saturday, May 29, 2010
This ain't winter any more, however. I made it out to Crescent and Twin the other day and was not impressed. But that's how it goes and I knew it when I left that morning. As the tide rose and the wind picked up, the waves got better, but still nothing memorable.
But it's a long drive from Tacoma and if I've made it that far, I'm going to get wet. I got about three hours of small stuff on an 11' Pearson Arrow... highly responsive board, but not the best choice for the conditions.
(That suddenly seems like far too much complaining. Not impressed... nothing memorable...long drive...not the best choice. What a whiner.)
Here's the truth: I got to spend the afternoon in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I had the lineup to myself all day. I saw an eagle dive and come up with a fat salmon in his claws, gulls following him in to shore, hoping for scraps. I surfed - little waves, yes - but still better than anything in Tacoma, or a bunch of other places, for that matter. Hardly a bad day, by any measure.
I need to be more grateful.
Friday, May 28, 2010
It was a successful event model and it worked real well. For a while.
The terrain is a little different now than it was back in those heady days of the mid-1990's, when it seemed as though kayaking was poised to be the most significant new outdoor activity in the nation. Certainly the most significant here in the watery Northwest. I've carped previously about the decline of the industry and I'm not meaning to rehash those tired points... suffice to say, recent symposiums around these parts didn't come close to measuring up. To the way it used to be, as well as the way it ought to be.
It may be that there isn't anything organizers can do about it anyway; the whole notion of a symposium based on sea kayaking may be an idea that has outlived its usefulness, and that now it's time to move on. At first, back when most people had had very little, if any, exposure to kayaks, symposiums were efficient methods of getting the word out to as many people as possible. Spreading the gospel of kayaking. Now, however, when it seems as though anyone with a possible interest in paddling has already had the opportunity to try it, maybe the need for the symposium is on the wane. Has waned.
What else is there to tell people about kayaking? Something that they don't already know. With the internet (rolling and rescue clinics on YouTube), club activities and dealer demo days, is there anything a symposium format could provide paddlers that they couldn't get somewhere else?
This is all just talk, but here's the thing: I think that the idea of a paddle sports symposium could be relevant again, if it wants to be. It would need to combine the different elements of the modern kayaking family... the manufacturers, dealers, maybe even organized programs like the BCU and the ACA, while at the same time court support from sources outside the immediate paddling community. It is problematic for a proprietary event, put on by a single retailer or manufacturer, to be fair to all the participants. (Perhaps a club could take on the role of sponsor and organizer?) The ideal calendar would feature items for paddlers of all skill levels, presentations and clinics that - and this is important - are not just warmed over versions of the same old topics that get trotted out year after year. It would need to feel like a party too, live music and libations. People should be able to attend, knowing they will be able to find good deals, good advice and good vibes. It could be done.
That said, who's going to do it? Who is even in that position, or wants to be? From where I'm standing, that sounds like a thankless job and a lot of work besides. I don't claim to have the answers, but nobody else seems to have them either.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Ten years ago today, I pushed off the beach at Quidi Vidi, day one of what would turn out to be a 13-week kayaking odyssey around Newfoundland. In the next 91 days, I would encounter big water, traveling icebergs, and more wild shoreline than I could envision back then, as I took my first strokes.
It's funny... I can't remember a single song by Ten Years After, but I can remember every day, every little moment, of that trip around Newfoundland. Some things just stay with you.
(If you'd like to read more about my Newfoundland sea kayak journey, copies of Around the Rock, the book I wrote about the trip, are still available. You can order off the web, or by phone at (253)691-7941.)
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
But when that alarm goes off, at that first spark of consciousness and for ten minutes afterward, there is no getting past reality. Almost like the weight of all the mornings that have come before needs to be shaken off before you can get to the morning in front of you. The older you get, the higher the cumulative tonnage of personal history.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
I found my first card last weekend at Spencer Spit. Number 1128, released by students from Lincoln High in Port Angeles. The contact name on the card was Deb Volturno, a name I recognized instantly. I know her as an outstanding kayaker and instructor; I didn't realize that she also taught high school.
When I called to report the finding, Deb told me that my card had been part of a group that had been released in the Strait of Juan de Fuca on May 11, about 4 miles out from shore. I don't know how long it had been sitting on the beach at Spencer Spit, but even if it just arrived on the high tide previous to my finding it, the card had covered some distance in a short time. To get to its final resting place, its most direct route would have been around the south end of Lopez Island, through the narrow pass between Lopez and Decatur, and then north up Lopez Sound until it hit the spit.
That's a pretty good pace for a drifter. Deb said that other cards from the same drop have been reported up nearer Anacortes as well as down into Puget Sound. If nothing else, it's a reminder to paddlers to check their current atlases... that water is moving and it's moving fast.
Monday, May 24, 2010
The Rosario Strait crossing went quickly, our pace spurred by a massive freighter bearing down from the north. Although I knew we were moving fast enough to avoid him and his course was veering to pass behind us anyway, it's still a humbling feeling to be that small around something that big. Even with all that room to move around, it's almost like some kind of magnetism takes effect, a tractor beam maybe, like on Star Wars.
We got to the beach at James Island in 80 minutes, which isn't bad at all. Conditions were most benign all the way across (a little wind near the island), but any fear I had about the board not keeping up to kayaking pace was gone. The Bark 14 flat out moves! Even with a load comparable to the one I expect to be hauling this summer on the coast, I had no trouble maintaining the going speed.
The next four miles to Spencer Spit went quickly as well... normal kayaking speed, about 85 minutes. The wind pushed us on our way as we left James Island and entered Thatcher Pass, but before we could get to the top of Lopez Sound, it turned on us. The last half-hour or so was spent bucking a quartering headwind - a little harder than I wanted to work, but I was still able to make decent progress. Jackie beat me to the beach by five minutes - she had been further out in the choppier water of the Pass - and as I got to the beach, the first thing I could see was her grin. "That was fun!," she said. "Let's do it again."
After setting up camp and hanging some wet gear up to dry in the afternoon sun, I took a walk down to the end of the spit. The cabin that once stood here is gone now - it was here the last time I passed this way, about two years ago, but it was looking pekid. With its log walls twisting from the forces of time, wind and gravity, it was only a matter of when, not if, it would finally collapse. They've built a new one now, concrete foundation and all, a replica of the original building that stood on the spot (one of the early homestead's guest houses.)
Clouds were gathering as the afternoon turned into evening, and the wind had picked up. It was a cold wind, even though it blew from out of the south, and we were both tucked into our tents before darkness fell.
I awoke early on Sunday morning. The wind was still blowing, though not as strong as the night before. Low clouds scudded across the gray sky; I was wearing everything I'd brought with me. According to the last weather report I'd heard, conditions were supposed to be even more favorable than they had been the day before, but apparently just not yet. Oatmeal for breakfast, with fresh blueberries and granola, then into the drysuit for round two.
The wind pushed us along for the first 3 miles, to the top of Lopez Island. Once around the corner, however, it was in our faces, so we crossed over to the Shaw Island shoreline in an effort to escape it as much as possible. The current and the wind funneled through Cattle Pass and gathered speed, blasting directly north to where we were picking our way along the rocks. I felt the effects of the breeze more than Jackie did, and for a while anyway, I did my paddling sitting down.
It couldn't have been that bad though... we were at Turn Island, just outside Friday Harbor, in short order. Somewhere in there, the skies had gone from gray to blue and summer had returned. We paddled the last half-mile into town in the lee of the San Juan shore, feeling the warmth of the sun on our backs as we finished the trip.
Friday, May 21, 2010
One of the possible sources of the name comes from a Boy Scout outing back in 1914, led by Edmond S. Meany, Seattle's Grand Poobah of Scouting at the time. The large group was traversing a portion of what would later come to be the National Park when Meany told them that he would have the peak named for the first one of the bunch who made it to the top. 13 year-old Tom Martin (who would one day become Washington's State Treasurer), beat out his companions for the honor and Meany, true to his word, hung his name on the mountain.
I cannot say whether this version of reality is unimpeachable truth - there is at least one other possible explanation for the name that involves a Land Office surveyor named Tom Hammond - but regardless of its veracity, the Tom Martin story is an amazing tale of an event that could never happen today, for a number of reasons.
First of all, to tell a group of kids, "Hey, I'll name this mountain for the first one to make it up there," is something no Scoutmaster will ever say again. The peaks have all been named, for one thing, but just thinking about the melee that the ascent must have become after Meany's pronouncement would make any lawyer see negligence. I can only imagine the legal circus that would result if Scouts of today were injured in the course of trying to be the first to top out on an unclimbed summit. I'm sure there were less lawyers back then, along with a heightened sense of personal responsibility, which made the race to the top seem more acceptable. Between the abject whining of parents and the unquenchable appetites of the lawyers, such races ended some time ago.
I worry sometimes that kids have become too sedentary, that TV, video games and the internet, combined with Big Macs and high fructose corn syrup have conspired to make kids excessively flabby and devoid of imagination. That's the pessimistic side of me - the "glass completely empty" side - but I worry about it all the same. Would little Tommy Martin have made it up to the summit of a mountain, any mountain, if he'd had an X-Box back in camp?
Kids were tougher back then. Adults were tougher too.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
I'm planning on going through my gear again this morning. One last packing exercise to determine what's going and what's not. With the summery weather of last week now consigned to memory, I'm having second thoughts about traveling lightly. There really is no other option on a SUP, but the wind and rain are making me think I might want to add a pound or two of insulation and a heavier sleeping bag. There's really nothing to do but to pack it up and see what fits. Then go from there.
What I am trying to accomplish, other than getting to spend another weekend of my life in one of the finest places in the world, is to make sure I can do the coast section of the Olympic Grand Circle the way I want to do it this summer. I'm going to try to approximate the weight I'll be taking and, even though conditions will be different, I'm hoping they will be similar enough to allow me to get a better idea of my ability to cover miles in a variety of weather and wind.
The forecast is also mentioning thunderstorms for Saturday. Hope they're wrong about that.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
I don't do the whole Facebook thing. I did for a while, for a few months, but I shut my page down not that long ago and, I must say, have suffered no ill effects.
Monday, May 17, 2010
But I'm not. There's a whole lot of workin'-for-a-living yet to do before I can get started. I am, however, planning on getting up to the San Juans next weekend for a two-day traverse, from Anacortes to Friday Harbor, kind of a shake-down cruise for the Olympic Grand Circle. I will be carrying a similar weight on the board to what I will take this summer and, although I may have a few kayaking friends who will be coming along, I expect to carry all my necessary gear myself, just to see where any changes need to be made.
It's all planning and dreaming at the moment. And, while I am a huge fan of both of those pursuits, I'd really rather be out there doing it.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
And what a beautiful weather weekend this has turned out to be. The blue skies and mild spring temps would have been ideal for the event, certainly much better than some of the previous years, but I guess it doesn't really matter. It was a good gig, while it lasted, and I will always believe that it should have lasted longer, if the parks department would have had its act a little more together.
Still, I'm not sure I'd say that I miss it. Not exactly.
This past week saw a humpback whale near Destruction Island that had been entangled in line from crab pots. Rescuers with the Cascadia Research Collective, based in Olympia, attempted to free the whale from the nylon ropes that had been wrapped around it and were able to get some of the lines cut off, but they were unable to get the last one that remained coiled around its tail.
The whale is gone now and, as far as we know, it's still pulling the last crab pot with it. The rescue team was able to affix a radio transmitter to the whale on Thursday and when they get a signal, they'll make another attempt to check the whale's condition. It may have been able to get loose from the line or it might still be pulling its trailer... difficult to say.
I suppose there are parallels I could draw from this situation to other, more human, predicaments. Almost anything can be used as a metaphor, and it can often be instructive to do so. For now, however, I just hope the kid gets free and stays out of trouble.
Friday, May 14, 2010
Wouldn't it be better to be on the couch, with a tub of KFC and a dozen Budweisers? To be down at that musty neighborhood pub, throwing darts and complaining about the kids these days? Wouldn't it be better to be driving somewhere, like the drive-through at Dairy Queen, or maybe down to the casino for half-price well drinks and cranium-numbing hip-hop at happy hour?
Why? Why do anything?
I didn't have an answer. Not a good one, anyway. I can think of a dozen responses, but none of them really matter. Like we all told our parents at some point during those prickly, awkward years that coincided with adolescence, "If I have to explain, you wouldn't understand." It's not that I didn't have an answer for her question; it's that any answer I may have given might just as well have been in Swahili - she wasn't going to get it.
It's the same with kayaking. And climbing, skiing, backpacking, and all the rest. They are all tough concepts to explain when there is no common language.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Monday, May 10, 2010
I got there by paddling out of a new boat launch (new to me, anyway), on Bywater Bay. From the launch to the eastern tip of Hood Head, the dragon's lair, is a short trip, but the relentless winds that are common to the area can make it seem longer. The shoreline is mostly wild, once outside the bay, and the voyage from the south passes gravel beaches that are perfect for paddlers.
The launch itself is at the end of a road, with ample parking but no facilities. It's a quiet place and I get the feeling it doesn't see many visitors that don't live in the local area - it just has that feel to it. Aluminum skiffs are stacked on racks above the beach and most of the cars that I saw were owned by people who also belonged to one of the boats.
I'm usually pretty free with information about things like this but I feel like I've said enough already. If you want to find the place, you shouldn't have much difficulty. It's the only public launch in the bay and I've certainly included enough here for anyone to be able to locate it. It's easy to drive past the entrance, but if you keep the title of this post in mind, you should have no trouble.
The dragon awaits.
Sunday, May 9, 2010
I drove back to town last night from Port Gamble so I could be here for Mother's Day breakfast. Making pancakes with the boy and taking them upstairs for breakfast in bed is something that's well worth the drive.
Of course, it means I'm driving back out there again this morning for another day at the Port Gamble paddling foofaraw. Hard to really assess how it's going, at least at this point, but they sure got the weather for it anyway. Sunny and warm, as long as you find a spot out of the wind, and the scenery is fantastic. I was able to get a couple paddles in on my own (Bywater Bay was a pleasant surprise... more on that another time), and I taught a SUP class at a symposium for the first time as well.
It's not a long drive and I don't mind the extra loop. It's funny, but even with all the paddling I've been doing up there, it's still nice to be back in town for my morning ritual on the Foss. I missed it yesterday.
And, even though it's barely 4:30am, the sky is already turning light. And that's all right with me.
Thursday, May 6, 2010
I'm looking forward to it. I'm doing 6 classes in 2 days, which is a lot, and when I'm not teaching, I'll be in the Backpackers Supply booth, probably gabbing about hull speed and gelcoat. It's a familiar scene, even though this is the first time this particular event has been held. I've been to many like it... I can't imagine this one will be fundamentally different from the others.
I am starting to question the whole symposium scene, however. I don't need to go into it in depth here, but my main concern is that there is often nothing really new at any of them. Tired, cranky reps who seem like they'd rather be somewhere else, attendees who look at beautiful new boats and boards and see only dollar signs when they should be seeing freedom. I know there's more to it than that - maybe I've just been to too many.
This will be the last one for me this year though, so I'm planning on making it a good time.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Monday, May 3, 2010
Saturday, May 1, 2010
It doesn't feel like May.