Knee Deep in Kayaks

I don't remember when I got my first kayak or my second. I just know they seem to breed like rabbits. I put one or two in my garage basement and before I knew it, there were lots of them down there. Truthfully, it has more to do with my compulsiveness rather than the reproductive capabilities of plastic boats. I found most of them on craigslist, from other guys who suddenly found themselves with 5 or six kayaks in their basement. Maybe their wives got tired of crawling over kayaks to get to the washing machine. Any long sea kayak for $600 or less and I was there with my truck and cash. I had no wife at home to object as I brought another one back to put in my garage. I had even found a double, two-person kayak for $500. They are referred to as "Divorce Boats" because many couples buy them and then have marital discord when they can't paddle in sync or agree on which direction to go or who gets to sit in the back etc.

I should be suspicious when whoever I am buying from at the time inexplicably throws in a valuable wooden paddle or a whole set up of skirt, life vest and other gear. He feels bad that I have offered to pay too much, I haven't bothered to haggle on his price and he recognizes and knows so well the feverish obsession that grips me.

There is a subtle freedom that occurs the moment you sit in a kayak, push off from the launching ramp and become weightless in the water. You're letting go of solid footing and entering the floating world. You have left the bounds of hard gravity and can skim across the water effortlessly. This is the moment when all the things that might be bothering me melt away like a blob of butter in a hot pan.

A large boat is not the same, it has a semblance of floor or ground that may move a bit but essentially is a floating version of terra firma. You 


 in a large boat but you 


 a kayak. It becomes an extension of your body at the hips. You have traded your legs in for a sleek hydrodynamic shell. Sitting in a kayak, you are as close to the surface and as free as one of those skating water bugs. There is very little between you and the water.

I think that our experience of speed is a function of how close we are to the surface we are traveling across. The closer we are to that surface, the more intense the feeling of how rapidly we are transversing it. Add to this the maneuverability of the kayak and you are really free in another dimension.

The draft of a kayak is very slight-maybe 3-4 inches-depending on how long your boat is. I favor the longer sea kayaks for paddling the bay, 16 to 17 feet. The longer the boat, the higher you sit on the water.

I skim across the surface of the water and if I am lucky and out very early, the water will be as smooth as glass. I look at the tankers anchored out in the bay and note the direct they are pointing. If they are pointing North I know the tide is flowing in to the bay, as the ship's anchor chain attaches at the bow and the ship will naturally swing around to nose into the water flow. If they are pointing South, the tide is flowing out under the Golden gate. If I were a little bit more responsible, I would have a tide chart and check it before I went out. When I am paddling regularly, I have a sense of where the tide is on a given day.

My strategy, learned the hard way, is to paddle into the tide flow, against the current for the first half of the trip while I am fresh and energetic. I have determined how long I want to be out-say an hour and a half-and I push the kayak against the tide for 45 minutes, North or South depending on the flow. I then turn around and ride the current like one of those moving sidewalks at the airport back to my starting point. At certain times and at particular points in the bay, the current will be quite strong and you can sit without paddling and watch the shore move by you at a brisk pace.

Like any potentially dangerous activity, ignorance is bliss. When I started, I knew nothing. I used to go out alone at the drop of a hat. A nice day, couple hours free, throw the boat on the truck and I'm off to the boat ramp, oblivious to the status of the tide. As I immersed myself in the kayak culture-of course I subscribed to the magazines and ordered videos-I became aware of the horror stories and they weren't too far fetched. As I learned about kayaking, I shuddered at the memory of things I had done that now seemed foolhardy. God truly does watch over fools, drunks and babies. One assumes that the danger is getting into some high waves and capsizing and getting separated from your boat etc, Even then, you say to yourself, I've got my life vest on, no prob, I can always wait around until another boat comes by. But the real danger in Northern California is the temperature of the water. At 50-60 degrees, you may go into hypothermic shock within 15 minutes and if there is no one to help you, you will be unable to help yourself and die.  The typical reported story is of finding a kayak and the owner is missing.

There is a rule that is similar to the rule used in spelunking: Never go alone, because there is no one to save you if you get in trouble. The basic Buddy System Rule. It's not as obvious for kayaking as for caving. In caving, you're underground and there will definitely be no regular passers by to notice you are in trouble and jump to help. Makes complete sense to have someone along in caving. But when you are kayaking, one of the nice things about it is that you are out there alone floating gloriously close to the elements with the sun on you and it's peaceful and quiet, no human voice to disturb the calm. And in the San Francisco Bay, there's a false sense of security as you assume you're surrounded by several million people to save you or at least dial 911 if something goes wrong.

Early in my kayak career I came across a small-sized youth kayak on craigslist and got it for my son Peter, who was 10 at the time. Both kids were excited to go out and we loaded the new kayak up with the double kayak. We put out at Mission Bay with Sofia and I in the double and Peter in the new youth kayak. We paddled out and turned North toward Pac Bell Ballpark. Once Peter got sight of the baseball stadium, he took off ahead of us like a little motorboat. We caught up to him at the Third Street bridge and poked around McCovey Cove for a bit and waved to the building where we knew their mom had her office. We even found a floating baseball that had been hit over the fence during warm up for the game later. We wondered how we could find whoever had hit the home run and get them to sign it for us.

The weather turned windy and cold as the sun moved behind the fog bank in the West and I directed us back toward the launching ramp. The wind was in our faces and the tide was against us now and it was hard going. Peter announced that he was too tired and cold to paddle any more and wanted to go home now. Sofia, though she was not paddling, agreed and I suddenly had two grumpy kids on my hands and we were a good 45 minutes of hard paddling from the boat ramp. I tried reasoning with Peter and encouraging him to stick with it. I remembered how he had raced ahead of us earlier and realized that his little motor was now out of gas.

One of those moments occurred for me where you realize you could become a statistic or part of a tragic news report. I was worse off than paddling alone, I had two children with me that could not help me if I got in trouble and if we did get in trouble, I would have to save myself in order to help them. Bad father...

I tried cajoling, I tried threatening, I tried reasoning: "Pull yourself together, we could die out here! And if we die out here, your mother's going to kill me!" It was no good, he was spent. I managed to pull the hood cord out of a sweatshirt we had with us and tie Peter's kayak to the back of mine. *Note to self on things I should have on board next time: Tow Line, Tide Chart, Waterproof Emergency Flares, Life Boat with provisions...

I plodded back against the tide and a pretty stiff breeze, making small headway with each stroke, a man humbled by nature once again. We made it back but the damage was done, what could have been an exciting, fun, sensational activity leading to a lifelong passion for kayaking for them had turned into a bad experience where "Dad got upset and yelled at us." From then on, they would say they had homework to do when I asked them to go kayaking.

My best friend Matthew was visiting from Belize and he loves kayaking and adventuring. We set out from Islais Creek and paddled under Levon Nishkian drawbridge on Thanksgiving Day, heading South along the decaying industrial waterfront. We passed old grain elevators with defunct vacuum pipes hanging down to the waterline. We slid past fallen-down wharves and slipped in between rotten timbers that spoke of another time of bustling activity and commerce. Steered wide of the drydock at the North end of de-commissioned Hunter's Point Navy base where legend has it that all the ships returning from the A-bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in the 40s and 50s were sandblasted to remove the radiation that had coated them. As we neared the extensive docking space of the old base, we heard a strange noise. The edge of the seawall had a row of holes along it which were used to secure bumper material so the ships wouldn't rub against the concrete piers. The bumper material was gone and the holes, made a bloop-bloop, bloop sound as the swell of the tide rose and fell trapping and releasing the air in the hole. Multiply the sound by a couple hundred holes and you had a cacophony of random bloops, sounding almost electronic. It was something you couldn't hear unless you were at water level.

As we made our way back, we were lost in our own thoughts and concentrating on the distance we had to cover to get back to the launch point. With no warning, a 6 foot, prehistoric apparition of a fish creature arched out of the water about 20 feet in front of us. Matthew recognized it as a sturgeon, a not uncommon Bay species. We were reveling in our good luck to have seen such a creature and wondering why he had jumped in front of us.

We had our answer a few minutes later when a large sea lion poked his head up about 4 feet from my boat, looked at me, snorted and disappeared. The sea lions hunt large fish like salmon and sturgeon, catching them by the tail in their teeth. They then drag the fish up to the surface and whip them back and forth on the surface, smacking them senseless so they can eat them.

I witnessed this one day out on the Bay when I saw a large group of sea birds circling a small spot in the water near the Bay Bridge. I had always assumed the birds were taking advantage of  a "bait rise", where some small fish were coming to the surface for some reason. As I neared the activity, I saw splashes made by a larger creature in the water and I saw the metallic flash of a large fish out of the water, moving in a definitely un-fishlike manner.  The sea lion was like a dog playing tug of war as he whipped the fish from side to side against the surface of the water. It was pretty much like smacking the fish against a brick wall. Pieces of the fish flew off and this is what the sea birds were after. As the fish stopped struggling, the sea lion disappeared with the corpse to eat in peace and the gulls fought over the scraps. Wow! I felt like I was right in the middle of a wild Kingdom episode, expecting to hear Marlin Perkins or David Attenborough narrate my reality.

A few days after our Thanksgiving Day trip, we hauled the kayaks down to North beach and put in just North of Fisherman's Wharf at the beach in front of the Maritime Museum. We paddled East along the historical front past all the old ships crawling with tourists. It was interesting to see these ships from a different angle. We passed marinas full of modern boats and rounded to the downtown side of Pier 39. It had a protective sea wall that kept the moored boats safe from any big waves that might toss them around. We paddled up the inside of the concrete barrier until we could go no further. To go back, we had to retrace our path back around the sea wall.

Matthew had a familiar look in his eyes as he peered into the darkness under Pier 39. "I wonder if we can paddle under this place to the other side and avoid going all the way back around the sea wall" and he nosed his kayak between the pilings into the dark. I hated when he did this. I had been on a few caving trips where Matt pushed on into the darkness when I was content to call it a day. This is the way Matt is, always looking into the unknown and pushing the envelope. His wife Marga and I had no choice but to follow him. "I hate it when he does this and drags me along" she said to me as we poked our way through the dark. It was like being in a cave without a light. Matt kept calling back, saying it was OK and as we got further toward the other side (and daylight, I hoped) we began to hear snorting and breathing of sea lions. They were swimming all around us in the dark, blowing air out when they came up for a breath. We soon saw light and emerged right near the spot where all the sea lions lay around on the docks and bark at each other.

My sister Rachel has the same kayak disease. They have four or five kayaks. She lives on the Hudson River just South of the Tappan Zee Bridge. She has the dream set-up for kayaking. Their property has a boat ramp. No loading of kayaks on vehicles, driving somewhere, straining to lift them off the car. She just walks down to the water and pushes off.  Her kayak-owning friends bring their kayaks to store in her yard and the place looks like a kayak rental place. Rachel has a dog named Hudson and he rides on the boat with her. Together they ply the waterway, fishing and collecting antique river detritus, some of it hundreds of years old. She makes wonderful art with it. See it here:

I decided to become a real kayaker and learn how to roll. I enrolled in the beginner  kayaking course at Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School. My good friends Peter & Kristy Sturges run this world class facility in Forks of Salmon, CA. You drive to Eureka, take a right and drive another 100 miles into the mountains. The last 18 miles to the lodge is mostly a single-wide road with no guardrails, carved around cliffs with 100 foot + drops to the river below. White-knuckle driving for sure. You are torn between taking in the incredible scenery and trying not to imagine your car tumbling down into the ravine and certain death. If you meet a vehicle coming the other way, the vehicle going downhill has to back uphill to the nearest point where you can pass. White-knuckle driving in reverse.

Peter & Kristy have a luxurious lodge on the Salmon River with a 4 acre pond for learning the basics of rolling. Peter bought the hardscrabble Otter Bar riverfront 30 years ago. It had been stripped of all vegetation and soil by the sluice-mining practices in the 1850s during the gold rush. He then bought an old dump truck, borrowed a backhoe and spent literally years bringing countless truck loads of dirt to Otter Bar, re-establishing a soil base and sculpting this little paradise in the mountains. They are off the grid yet you would never know it. 

Like snow boarding, wind surfing or any other activity that seem at first to be completely counter-intuitive, it takes 2-3 days to learn to roll a kayak. You must hang upside down underwater with no breathing apparatus, position your arms and paddle just so and make a sweeping movement with your paddle while at the same time leaning away from the direction you want to go. Right! And if you need some help, calmly slap the bottom of your kayak(which is above water) and keep holding your breath and someone will turn you back upright. It helps being in static water three feet deep but for most of 2 days, you are hysterically clawing at the surface, just trying to get your head above water for air and giving in to the urge to "wet-exit", which means basically that you've chickened out and bailed, pushing and kicking your way out of the kayak, you wuss. 

There is no frigging way I am going to get this, I'm thinking and I wonder how Peter & Kristy stay in business if they have to refund money to all the (in a hushed whisper) "People who fail to roll". I dreaded going back to the pond after lunch. Can I just sneak off to the hot tub instead and maybe no one will notice? Maybe I'm just not a kayaker. 

Sometime during the third day, it magically happens-I do something different and boing-I'm up! All of us are hooting and hollering with glee and excitement as we finally master it. Like corn kernels in hot oil, we all pop sooner or later and-like riding a two wheel bicycle-once you do it, you can't not do it anymore! It becomes effortless. The rest of the week we spent on the real river, testing our rolling abilities in moving water, a different experience from the still water of the pond. Lots of wet-exiting.

I think Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School is the best learning facility in the world. Most other schools take place on a wilderness river in a camping format, meaning that after you get your ass kicked on the river all day, you have to start a fire, cook your meal and try to get some sleep on the hard ground. Otter Bar Lodge has incredible gourmet meals served outside with mountain backdrops, hot tub, comfortable rooms and you can schedule a massage for your sore muscles every night if you want. Each morning after breakfast, we had a classroom with videos on technique and pointers on what each of use needed to work on for the day. Many of the instructors are world class kayakers. An unforgettable experience! Here is their website:

I still have 5 kayaks in the garage.