Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sports, Shooting Sports

I know this blog is usually about some fairly laid back activities like kayaking and hiking but today we go in a different direction. St. Ambrose said, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." I say, when in Virginia long enough, y'all are gonna wind up shootin' (and quoting saints, apparently).

There's a group within the local Mensa chapter (yes, I'm a member) called BLAM: Blazing Lightly Armed Mensans. It's a group of Mensans who meet once per month to go target shooting. The group usually meets at the shooting range at the national NRA headquarters and let me say that the average IQ in the place goes waaaayyyy up when the BLAM folks walk in the door. Oops, there I go again, giving in to the stereotype that people who like to shoot are a bunch of idiot yokels. I have to remind myself that target shooting is a perfectly respectable sport - heck, it's even in the Olympics, including my favorite odd combo, the biathlon. It's just that if you hang around gun ranges in Virginia it's very easy to conflate those who enjoy shooting with Confederate flag-waving rednecks.

As a further digression, I learned the other day that the official adoption of the Confederate Battle Flag (the well-known "stars and bars") took place right nearby in Fairfax, Virginia. Generals Beauregard and Johnston chose it because the official Confederate National Flag of the time looked a lot like the U.S. flag and on a battlefield it's important to be able to tell who's you friend and who's your enemy.

Anyway, back to shooting. I've always felt like a total know-nothing when I've gone out with the BLAM group since I have absolutely no background in shooting. To rectify this I signed up to take the NRA basic pistol course. I have to admit I couldn't believe it myself, but sometimes it's good to stretch a little bit beyond what you normally do.

The day of the course comes and I show up at the address given to find that it's a private house - a typical suburban McMansion in Fairfax (no Confederate battle flags in sight, though). I ring the bell and a pretty, petite woman about my age answers, assures me that I'm at the right place, and leads me into her family room. It's a typical McMansion family room: vaulted ceiling, giant TV, family photos. Nothing unusual at all ... except for the big collection of handguns spread out on the coffee table. Revolvers, automatics. Big guns, small guns. The woman who answered the door introduces herself as Tina, the instructor, and gives a little bit of her background. It turns out that she's former Secret Service, former ICE federal agent, former air marshall. I quickly figure out that this little Southern belle is in fact one tough chick.

I was the know-nothing of this group too. My fellow students included a guy who brought several of his own guns along, a woman who says she currently keeps a loaded revolver in her nightstand for "home protection", and an Indian guy whose name was sufficiently difficult to pronounce that he went by "Z". Z is a current gun owner too. The class was a few days after the Tucson shooting of Rep. Giffords, which most present took as a sign that we all need to be carrying guns to protect ourselves from gun-wielding crazies. The majority opinion in our little group is that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and that as a result we all need to be armed.  I find myself once again a little bit of an outlier, but I keep my mouth shut.

Politics and paranoia aside, the course was very well taught. I learned everything I was looking to learn and feel much better prepared to hang out with the BLAM crowd. The class was supposed to end with a trip to the range at the Blue Ridge Arsenal but the range was 100% booked by a law enforcement agency doing practice. Instead, I met up one on one with Tina at the range a couple of days later before work. I opted to shoot .22 - the smallest caliber - so I could work on form without the bigger kick of larger guns. We went through a box of 100 rounds. Again, Tina proved to be an excellent instructor and I got better with each clip. Finally, my very last shot went right through the center of the bullseye. Success! I feel ready to start listening to country music and driving a pickup ... oops, there's that stereotype again.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A True Ice Pirates Paddle

The Chesapeake Paddlers Association has a number of weekly paddling groups, all of which finish up their seasons in late October when the water and weather turn cold. The hardcore nutballs of the Georgetown group continue paddling past the official end date. Known as the Ice Pirates, this hale and crazy group paddles year-round, weather permitting. I'm a part-time Ice Pirate myself. It's nice to use those Thursdays in winter to do something else - yoga, music, anything inside where it's warm and cozy. But there's also something very special about being out on the river in the winter when it's cold and quiet, so I show up to paddle at least once per month through the winter.

Last year was not kind to Ice Pirating. With the Snomageddon snowstorms and extremely cold weather, the river was too frozen to have paddled on, even if you could have gotten to it. This year also got off to an inhospitable start as an early cold wave froze the river in mid-December. This past week, though, there was a warm spell and reports started to come in that the river, while frozen in Georgetown, was navigable below Gravely Point. I was the source of one of those reports, having gone for a speedwalk by the river Christmas morning.

So mid-week the emails started flying: Was anyone paddling? Was it even possible? Advisable? After discovering that the Park Service locks up Gravely Point at night we decided to chance Columbia Island Marina. A group of six of us showed up to take our chances on this titanic adventure.

The marina has bubblers which keep the water moving thereby reducing freezing around the boats in the docks. Most of the lagoon was frozen, but we were able to get out by hugging in close to the docks. Once out on the river we saw that it was frozen upriver, frozen out in the middle of the river, but open along the Virginia shore. We headed that way to see how far we could get.

About five minutes into our trip we ran into an obstacle: an ice field. A section of the river which had been frozen was in the process of thawing but was still covered in large, chunky sheets of ice. We could see the ice field was only a few hundred feet long and decided to try to cross it. Getting through took a combination of trying to shove ice sheets out of the way with your paddle, poling against them to move your boat (there was too little open water to paddle normally), running your boat up and over ice, and just generally crunching along. We made it through, though it was more than a little nerve-wracking to do so. The traversal took its toll on my paddle too; when I got home I noticed I had chewed up one of the edges of the paddle a bit. Not a problem. I was using one of my homemade wooden Greenland paddles; I'll just sand out the damages..

Once we made it through the ice field it was smooth going. The river was open and the winds were calm. We paddled along through the crisp air most of the way to the southern end of National Airport (a security truck did come out and take a look at us at one point but must have decided we didn't look threatening). I was warm in my dry suit; only my hands were cold. There is just no answer to keeping your hands warm when paddling in cold water. As we neared the bottom of the airport we started to hit some more ice and decided that maybe it was time to turn back.

The trip back was much like the way out. The ice field seemed a little worse on the way back. The night way cold and maybe the river was refreezing. Maybe we were a little more tired and a little less excited. Or maybe we just didn't pick  as good a route through the ice. It took all of us a while to pick our way through the ice. Caroline and I were the last ones to make it through, but we made it.

Back at the marina I paid the price for not having brought gloves. My hands were cold, cold, cold as I changed out of my drysuit and loaded my boat. The loss of manual dexterity I experienced even on dry land in upper 30's temps is a sobering indicator of what to expect in case of a capsize. Yikes. But enough of that ...

Dinner was, as usual, at Noodles & Company, where we toasted our having truly earned the Ice Pirates name. But I'd still be happy if global warming had kept the river ice free for us.