Monday, April 29, 2013

2013 SK102

Many, many kayaks
SK102 is The Chesapeake Paddlers Association's annual skills training event down at Lake Anna. I attended this event in 2001 as a student and, if Brian's records are right, in 2005 as an instructor. In addition, one year I trespassed on Saturday night to join in the bonfire and add accordion music to the festivities. In any case, when I volunteered to instruct this year it was a return after a long absence. The event is an awesome gathering in many ways, perhaps most amazingly because it is held at someone's house - yes, a pair of CPA members have for each of the last fifteen years opened their property to 150 strangers for a group campout and skills weekend.

My biggest concern wasn't my ability to teach, anything about camping, or even getting there on a Friday through the inevitable traffic. Rather, I was concerned about instruments. Having just this past year put hundreds of bucks into undoing years of accordion abuse I was a little leery of bringing the squeezebox camping. My only option in terms of battery-powered keyboard was my 1990's vintage clunker. I even went shopping to look at what's on the market now in the area of decent portable keyboards but eventually wound up sticking with what I have and loading up both the old keyboard and the accordion - as well as a full load of camping and kayaking gear. I had a last minute temptation - stopped at the Guitar Center in Fredericksburg, thinking of doing a just-in-time gear upgrade, but they didn't have the keyboard I was looking for.

SK102 is a carefully and expertly choreographed event. Friday started with a quick pot-luck among a subset of friends, followed by the night-time paddle (moved earlier this year so that it was more of a sunset paddle).

Saturday morning meeting, students on the left, instructors on the right
Heading for the water
Saturday is the really fully day of the event. My way into the day was eased by an change since I had last been there - coffee for the group, courtesy of a very early rising coffee crew. I just had to Jetboil a little water for my grits, grab some coffee from the lakefront urns and I was good to go. The official activities of the day start with a group meeting of all instructors and students, after which everyone split up for their morning sessions. I was paired teaching rescues with Jim Z.,who had prepared a detailed and very full syllabus for the session. As assistant instructor my role was to demonstrate all the rescues and so I got to fall out of my boat and get back in again and again - paddle float, cowboy, T rescue and scoop. I even got to demonstrate re-entry and roll, though there was no one there to see it. At one point I was still in the water when Jim decided to take the group over to the next cove to start talking about the next rescue. Finding myself left behind I did the quickest solo reentry I knew to get back in my kayak so I could catch up with the group.
Teaching partner Suzanne (at right)

Teaching partner Jim Z.
After a quick lunch break I headed out to teach the same class again, this time paired with Suzanne, who did not have a printed syllabus but still had a good idea of what she wanted to cover. I did a lot less demonstrating in the afternoon, as several of the students were experienced and were eager to try out their rescues by serving as Also, while Jim and I did one demo and then had everyone practice in parallel, Suzanne had people pair up and work in a supervised fashion one pair of students at a time. Suzanne's serial method meant that less material was covered; on the other hand, everyone got individual attention.

When the afternoon classes were over I mucked around the waterfront a little, trying out a few boats (the P&H Cetus LV and MV models, in case you care), watched the impossibly graceful Alison demonstrate some Greenland rolls and then headed back to the tent city to relax a little before dinner. Saturday night's dinner is provided as part of the event, this year featuring an upgraded menu of burgers (no horse meat this year), beans (the kind with $%*@ bacon),salad and lots of sides.

Saturday night also features a group campfire and a demonstration of how signal flares work. I had organized some music for the campfire; Jen, Manuel, Paul C. and I muddled our way through some tunes, with occasional singing help from Reggie and others.

Sunday is more informal than Saturday. After hearing it was going to be really crowded I decided to skip the early morning yoga class in favor of an extra trip to the coffee urn. I then hit the water, this time as a student, to get some wing paddling tips from Bill and Kristina. That was a good class, with participation from both wing paddle experts (like Susanita, paddling a surf-ski with a wing) to newbies like me. With this class and coaching from both Brian and Cyndi on Thursday night paddles I have the good fortune of being able to tap a lot of real wing experts.
Lead singer Reggie

Sundays at Lake Anna are famous for rain, and though there was none in the forecast it did start to rain lightly around mid-day, hastening everyone's departure. So, around noon, after lots of hugs I headed into the northbound traffic for the ride home.
"Frankenpaddling" with the wing to get the feel of proper torso rotation

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Great Dismal Swamp Camper

It had been a lousy week and I was ready for a break. It seemed that everyone was mad at me. Work was driving me crazy. Our favorite pet lizard had died. So I let out a great sigh of relief when I finally - later than planned, due to delays caused by traffic, lizard interment, etc. - hit the road to the Great Dismal Swamp. I've long loved that name as well as the history of the place. George Washington was party to business ventures here, and during the Civil War it was a hideout for both the Underground Railroad and Confederate guerrillas.

Park Closed?!?

I made the trip without incident, though was a little dismayed when I arrived at the parking area to find signs saying the park was closing at sunrise Friday for an event. I noticed a hand-written sign in the window of Suzanne's car saying that we had received permission to park there - so I guessed that Suzanne and Steven had already worked things out. I packed my boat and headed into "the ditch" for the four mile paddle to the campsite where the group was meeting. I knew I was behind Suzanne, Steven, Greg and Jenny and ahead of Tom. I figured I'd make it around the same time as the truck carrying Ralph, Jim, Dick, and Dave. 

[Location of the "ditch" parking],-76.381365&z=16&t=k]

The paddle down the ditch was easy - dead straight for a mile, then turn right and do some more dead straight miles in the feeder ditch towards Lake Drummond. Along the way the scenery was Southern swampy - very pretty. I paddled past a number of really big turtles, all still groggy from the cold water. I got to the camping spot to find Suzanne and Steven there as expected. They were groggy too, having gotten on the road at 3 AM (why? why? why?) and having spent a frazzled hour on the phone calling various places before finally getting permission (as I had surmised) for us to stay in the park past sunrise of the next day.

In the ditch

The place we camped is actually an Army Corps of Engineers spillway site within the refuge. So, while it's remote, there are buildings there, electricity and even a (rather grubby) flush toilet. There are also several screen houses but they seem to function in reverse - they are chock full of flying, stinging insects. The area is even lit - too well. There are lights everywhere but I figured out which breakers to throw to shut off the ones near our tents.

Suzanne, Steven, Tom and I had coordinated on dinner. Dinnertime came and still no sign of Tom, so after a while the three of us went ahead with our food - middle-eastern appetizers, and a pasta dish with sun-dried tomatoes and olives, and chicken sausages. We kept trying to hail Tom on the VHF, getting more concerned as it got dark. We finally reached him by cell phone at around 8 PM to find he was on the water finding his way up the ditch in the dark, and was less than a mile away. We shone our lights down the ditch in his direction and before long we saw him paddling up
towards us.
Chocolate & Juice Boxes with Steven and Suzanne

Day 2


Spillway Machinery
Rain was supposed to have come in overnight and so it is a pleasant surprise when we awaken to dry weather. The place we're camping is a portage point between the ditch and Lake Drummond. After breakfast (where we listened to Ralph complain about how the single light I had left on kept him up all night) we split up. Greg and Jenny went off exploring on their own. Dick decided to hang out in camp. Ralph, Dave, Jim, Tom, Steven, Suzanne and I heading into Lake Drummond. The group broke camp, leaving our stuff in the one of the campsite's dilapidated screen houses where it would be protected by myriad stinging insects  - no point paddling with full boats when we didn't need to. The forecast called for heavy rain and gusty winds, and it started to drizzle as we launched, but we figured we'd at least chance a little exploration of the lake.

The group of us began a clockwise circuit of the lake, marveling at the bald cyprus growing in the lake, the crimson red maples and the general boggy loveliness of the lake. After about an hour we stopped to look at an eagle which had made its nest in a tall, burned out tree. At this point the "goat locker" gang - Ralph, Dave and Jim, decided to head back (goat locker is a Navy term referring to the area of a ship reserved for the Chief Petty Officers - usually grizzled veterans - stretched in this case since our self-proclaimed "goat locker" group included veterans of the Navy, Coast Guard, and Army as well as a civilian).
Lake Drummond

While Ralph, Dave and Jim headed back Tom, Suzanne, Steven and I decided to explore a little further. Our original plan had been to circumnavigate the lake, but with the yucky weather we figured we'd cut the trip short. We paddled about another mile and then decided to make a bee line back across the lake.

Remember the forecast for heavy rain and gusty winds? Well, they hit just as we were getting into our lake crossing. The wind picked up to about 20 MPH with gusts up above 30. The rain was torrential at times, stinging our faces. The wind was whipping up waves from the south which were hitting us abeam, occasionally breaking over the boats and soaking us (not that we could have gotten any wetter by that point). We hit intermittent whiteouts where we lost sight of each other. All we could do was keep to a heading as best we could, keep our eyes out for each other, and keep paddling. The crossing was less than two miles but felt like an ocean. One wouldn't think that a relatively small lake would have roiling waters in it, but this one did. I was wearing my glasses rather than contacts and once it started raining they got all wet and foggy, limiting my vision even further. At a certain point Tom started pointing out the yellow sign ahead indicating the entrance to the canal back to the campsite, but I couldn't see it until we were pretty close up on it. Fortunately, through a combination of Steven's excellent dead reckoning and Tom's GPS we hit the canal entrance spot on. When we made it into sheltered waters of the canal the conditions calmed down, and amazingly, at just that moment the storm blew out. By the time we got back to the campsite (maybe 10 minutes later) it was sunny out. Not a drop of rain fell on us as we portaged and loaded our boats. The best part of all this is that our tents and sleeping gear stayed completely dry. We had a warm, sunny, pleasant trip back up the feeder ditch back to our cars.

Après le déluge, moi

From there we headed to the campground, which was maybe twenty minutes away. After you've been kayak camping, even for one night, a campground seems pretty civilized. We set up camp easily, showered and then - and this is unusual for me when camping - Tom, Suzanne, Steven and I drove to Chesapeake to eat dinner at a restaurant. Greg and Jenny did their own meal as usual, and the other four had dinner in camp. The restaurant was actually quite good - a Mexican place with an extensive selection of vegetarian dishes and two kinds of habanero sauce on the table. After dinner we headed back to camp where the whole group socialized around a campfire. Ralph complained once again about the brightness of the single light I had left on last night, as well as about how the brightness of the light on the campground's bath house was going to ruin his sleep that night.  Being city born and bred I do not understand needing total darkness to sleep. Sodium vapor lamps are my moon; the subway is my lullaby ... but to each his own.

Day 3


An early start today. I got rolling with my usual breakfast of a mix of instant grits and trail mix, chased with two Starbucks Via brews - one mocha, one regular (I have been selflessly helping Suzanne use up her collection of nearly expired Via packets). We got on the road at 8:30, headed towards a nearby put-in. Our plan was to do a point-to-point paddle with a shuttle. My car was the one to be left at the end so I dropped it off and hopped in with Tom to ride the rest of the way to the put-in. The launch itself turned out to be a dilapidated former marina cum junkyard, staffed by a central casting southern Virginian who was happy to collect five bucks per car (ten bucks for the truck with four kayaks on it) to let us launch from his land.

[Launch point, approximated from Google maps:,-76.200487&z=16&t=k]

Launching into the North West River

We launched into the North West River, which is far prettier than its uninspired name would leave you to believe. The weather was beautiful and so we extended our trip beyond our original plan, spending about six hours on the water. In fact, we bagged the point-to-point idea and paddled all the way back to our put-in and beyond (I retrieved my car later). We only covered about 15 miles as it was a meandering sort of trip. We poked into various creeks, explored here and there, and took a nice lunch break at the riverfront day use section of the park where we're camping. It's a beautiful area - again lots of bald cyprus (that's the best kind of cyprus in my opinion), wax myrtle, wild magnolia, and mistletoe. I admit that I know the identities of these plants only because of Steven, our trip leader and plant expert. At our lunch break we amused some other kayakers as well as the other park users, dressed as we were in CPA regalia, that is, fully equipped to paddle the North Sea in a hurricane - wet suits, dry suits, broad-brimmed hats, PFD's festooned with whistles, lights and knives, as well as enough GPS receivers to build a small supercomputer. We probably looked like space aliens to the people out enjoying a sunny day in the park.

Terrorizing the Natives

Dinner that night was Tom and my responsibility. I prepared a chicken sausage chili made with peppers, garbonzo and canneloni beans, peppers, and spinach. Tom provided appetizers (pita chips and dip) and delicious asparagus and carrots.

Again we gathered around a campfire (at our site, this time) where we talked and filled our bellies with S'mores before turning in.

Campfire Girl (with Jim & Steven)

Day 4


It had been a chilly night, down in the 40's, and it was with some reluctance that I crawled out of my warm sleeping bag and tent. I was happy to find Suzanne and Steven already up and boiling water to make coffee and rehydrate everyone's oatmeal and grits. Some people like the big bacon and eggs breakfast when camping, but our group usually has someplace to be and so the morning meal tends not to be elaborate. Steve and Suzanne had brought little single-serving oatmeal bowls, which looked like ice cream containers - and were almost as sweet. I had my usual packets of instant grits with trail mix, plus Starbucks Via brew.

As I was going to be heading home directly from paddling, I broke camp. I was done at 8:15, in plenty of time to attend the 8:30 trip planning meeting, which unfortunately for me had started at 8:00 (this group is something beyond punctual). By 8:45 (15 minutes ahead of schedule) we were rolling, headed to a put-in about twenty minutes away. Unfortunately, we wound up with the story of Goldilocks and the three kayak launches. The first one was toooo small (no room to park our cars). So we got out our DeLorme atlases and found another launch not far away. That one was toooo large (it had plenty of parking but had signs saying that a permit was required to launch - and there was no place to get a permit, particularly early Sunday morning. So we got out our DeLorme atlases and found yet another launch not far away. This one was jusssst right. 

[Launch point, approximated from Google maps:,-75.992543&z=16&t=k]

A heron at Back Bay

Soon we were on our way, heading generally east across Back Bay, a more open water / salty water paddle. I got off to a sluggish start. A couple of days of out of shape kayaking and a couple of nights sleeping in a tent had left me a little worn out and, with the additional challenge of paddling into the wind, I found myself lagging the pack. Tom was hanging back with me and after a bit I realized that he wasn't there because he wanted to spend time with me; he was just "sweeping" which means herding the stragglers - me, that is. At that point I said to myself that I was damned if I was going to be the flea hanging off the tail of the dog all day. I aggregated whatever energy reserves I could muster - I found a little in the fourth toe of each foot, scraped a little off my uvula, and yet a bit more in my right femur - and took off towards the front of the pack. I soon found myself ahead of five paddlers but only very slowly closing on the front four. The front of the pack was paddling at its own pace and not a single one of them even looked behind them for the longest time. Finally they took a break to check the map, allowing the group to close up, at which point I pulled out my new toy, a wing paddle. Wing paddles come out of the racing world and can give you a lot of speed and power, but you have to know how to use them, which I don't beyond having been given one wing lesson a year ago by Cyndi, I did my best to remember what Cyndi had taught me and soon found myself keeping up with much less effort. Pretty cool, but it was clear that I was using a different set of muscles, one which wouldn't last all day. I used the wing until our lunch break (a stop on a little island in Back Bay). I could feel the strain in my shoulder and so I switched back to my Greenland paddle for the rest of the day.
Greg, Jenny & Jim at Lunch (Suzane's photo)

Ralph, Steven and Suzanne Check Out the Dolphins

After lunch we continued on across the bay to False Cape State Park. False Cape is on a barrier island facing the ocean. We landed our kayaks on the calm bay side and hiked through the dunes for the treat of strolling the ocean side. The surf was up pretty nicely and we enjoyed walking along with the waves crashing at our feet. Ralph spotted gannets (birds) out over the ocean and as we looked out at them we also began to see dolphins. Looking at the pictures people took at the beach I have to laugh - I'm still wearing all of my kayaking gear including PFD (I don't find the PFD uncomfortable, plus in most situations I like its warmth, and so I typically leave it on during breaks ). Others have taken off their PFDs but are still decked out in wet or dry suits. And clearly Tom's lifeguard instincts kicked in - he's taken off all his paddling gear and is wearing a t-shirt and shorts.

Greg, Ralph, Steven, Jim, Tom and me (Suzanne's photo)

Our trip back was pretty uneventful. We received a nice push from the wind and the waves. I spent some time debating with Greg the value and risk of giving people compass headings to paddle on. On the plus side, it keeps everyone pointed generally in the right direction. On the minus side, small deviations in compass calibration can result in large errors over time. I guess the right thing to do is a combination of watching your compass and the rest of the group as well.

Back at the launch I parted company with the group. I was returning Sunday night while everyone else was staying over into Monday. I had one final treat on the way home - dinner of pulled chicken and hush puppies at Pierce's Pitt BBQ in Williamsburg. They've cleaned Pierce's up and it feels less dumpy and more fast foody than it used to, but the food's still good!

Overall a cool trip - three very different kayaking experiences: swamp/lake, river, and bay all in one trip. Good company, good weather. A great first camper of the season.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Laurel Hill MTB Exploration

Coming Out of Slaughterhouse
I know that my friend Cyndi is both a Facebook lurker and a wing paddle aficionado and so it was no surprise when my recent mention of having purchased a wing paddle drew an immediate comment from her. This led to some emails and somehow to a plan to go explore the mountain bike trails at Laurel Hill Park.

Dave, Cyndi and I met at the main parking lot. Cyndi arrived, as warned, sick as a dog, coughing, wheezing, and looking a little less than her usual robust self. "Great," I thought, "I might actually be able to keep up with them today." For you see, Cyndi is a gifted athlete who can humble most people in any number of activities, and Dave is not far behind (see the photo above - Dave is not far behind Cyndi). For better or for worse, any hopes of speed equity I might of had were dashed as soon as we started moving. I'm still something of a mountain biking newbie and as I tentatively started down the single-track Cyndi disappeared off ahead of me. Dave and Cyndi are, however, gracious and patient with those of us who lack super powers and so we generally hung together as we explored the trails. 

We headed out from the main parking lot and did the Giles Run Meadow loop then continued on the Cross-Country Trail to the Workhouse loop. From there we connected to the Dairy Barn, Pasture and Apple Orchard loops. That's pretty much the whole park except for the extra challenging Slaughterhouse and Power Station loops. We actually poked into the Slaughterhouse loop a little, exploring some log jumps and such but when the trail turned to vertical uphill twisties we decided to reverse course and leave the tough stuff for another day. Laurel Hill Park is carved out of part of the old Lorton prison complex and so the ride takes you not only through pastures and woods but also past abandoned guard towers and dormitories.

My ride was without incident despite bombing along at a much faster pace than usual, until near the very end when I inexplicably wiped out on a fairly straight, flat piece of trail. Fortunately, no harm done.

It was great to see the elusive Dave & Cyndi (they've both been traveling a lot), enjoy a (finally!) warm spring day and stretch my MTB skills a little. 

At the end of the ride