I haven’t kept a paddling log in a few years, but for whatever reason, I decided to this year. It’s a pretty basic list of what river I run on each day, and whether or not I jogged the shuttle. After I finish writing this, I’m heading to the river. Today will be my 30th paddling day of the year. As today is the 81st day of the year, that works out to paddling every 2.7 days. Two to three times a week. It’s a pace that puts me padding 135 days this year. So what?
Maybe I’m bragging about it a little bit, but considering that most (24/30) of those days were winter paddling in New Hampshire, I’d say I’m doing pretty well getting after it. But I feel like paddling is part of who I am, it’s something I live and breathe. For quite a few years, I viewed myself as a whitewater athlete, trying to push myself to be the very best I could be. Work and life got in the way, and I got away from that a bit, but the desire to get out and push myself, paddle until I feel like I’ve really been paddling, and continually challenge myself is something I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake. I feel like I’ve reconnected with that a bit this year. It’s a fire that doesn’t go out.
For me personally, that’s all well and good, but what does it matter to you, the canoe buying consumer? If I’m out there paddling every 2.7 days, I want the very best equipment. There’s a lot of great gear on the market right now, and you can choose what you want to use, what the ‘best’ boat is for you. But I don’t get to choose the ‘best’ boat. Instead I’ve chosen to MAKE the best boats. I started designing and building canoes more than a decade ago with that goal in mind. Despite the surge in recent designs since then, I’d do it all again now. I still believe if I want the best boat, I need to make it myself. It’s something I think about and obsess over every time I paddle. And that’s why it matters to you.
The season has ‘officially’ begun here at Blackfly World Headquarters. I know what some of you are going to say, “Where I live we paddle year round, the season never ends.” Yeah, so do I, but I’m not talking about the boating season, I’m talking about the event season. Most weekends from now until I-don’t-know-when, it’s a string of events of one kind or another.
I missed doing a blog post last week because I was helping prepare for rather unusual boating event- The Boat Bash Snow Crash. This event, now in it’s third year, is a fund raiser for Mill City Park and Veterans Memorial Ski Area. If sliding down a snow covered hillside, complete with banked turns, in a kayak or, better yet, a canoe is your idea of a good time, you should check out this event. (Or if you prefer watching other people slide down a snow covered hillside in boats, it’s still a good time.) And it provided me with a warmup and reminder for what’s in store for the coming season. Loading boats, unloading boats, trying to balance paddling (er, sliding) and competing with talking about boats and socializing with friends I might not see very often. Helping organize throws another level of complexity in. And once the crowd moves on, breaking down and cleaning up and the circus moves on to the next town.
I think it ends up being a lot more work than most people realize, but it’s a big part of the reason I do what I do. Sometimes it’s tough to balance work and play at these events, but at the end of the day, when I’m loading boats and cleaning up beer cans, I got to spend my day paddling somewhere cool and hanging out with cool people.
And so I spent most of the week getting things together and loading up to head to ALF. 16 boats, a load of random boat parts, gear, tents, toothbrushes, stickers, etc. Side note: loading boats when it’s 15 degrees is pretty miserable. But I’m heading 1100 miles south, where it’ll finally feel like spring, and getting to see friends I haven’t seen since the “season” ended last fall, paddle some old favorite rivers, paddle some new favorite rivers, get some people stoked on boats, eat some tacos… It’s still a lot of work, but it’s not so bad.
I’ve been fighting with the CNC router lately. I’m trying to finish up the cooling jigs for the Mosquito Burrito, but the machine has been having all sorts of gremlins lately. Mostly just things coming loose, it’s probably at the point where it just needs a good tuneup and tightening of everything. But that’s one of the reasons I chose to build a machine from scratch/from a kit. I know how it’s put together, I know how it works and why it works the way it does. I’m to the point now where I know which hex keys I for which screws on the drives. But the most recent time it started misbehaving was a worn out belt on one of the the motors that drives the gantry. Just about to snap. It’s an easy fix, but it’s dead in the water until I get a new belt.
No matter, there’s always something around the shop to keep me busy. About the same time the belt gave out, my wife came home with a new used dresser for our son. It’s a cute little piece, perfect for a little guy with a little room. Solid wood, the kind they don’t make ’em like anymore, complete with a hideous brown and blue paint job. It took about 10 seconds to decide it would be worth the effort of stripping it down and refinishing it. After a few hours of stripping, scraping, sanding, and staining, it became apparent that was the right decision. At some point, I might make a new top for it, since it’s a little rough. I’ve realized I really like fixing things. Obviously it’s nicer when things just work the way they’re supposed to but, I much prefer putting effort into bringing something old back to life than to buying something new. Partly because, if I can fix it, put it back together, bring it back to life, it’s something that was made to be repairable. It was made to last, not be used and disposed of or planned to become obsolete.
I have a pair of gloves I’ve been wearing a lot this winter. They’re an old pair of Patagonia gloves I found abandoned at a campsite while on a scouting hike years ago. It looked as though something burned though one of the palms and they were cast aside. I aqua sealed the hole and one other worn spot and have been wearing them ever since. This winter, skiing rope tows with them has taken it’s toll, but they’ve held up a lot better than most gloves. (If you’ve ever skied a rope tow, you know how real the struggle is). So I’ve spent a couple evenings sewing and glueing them, and they’re still going strong. They’ve got a story. I’ll be disappointed when they get to the point I can no longer put them back together, not because they didn’t last, but because they did.
So next week I’ll get the belts replaced and the CNC back up and running and the dresser finished and put back together, and I’ll probably have to patch my gloves after skiing again. And despite the imperfections, I’ll take satisfaction in all of it, knowing that I fixed it.
I hope that that ethos comes through in the products I make.
I’ve been working on a sign this week on the CNC. I’ve made a few signs on the CNC, but it’s not something I do a whole lot, mostly because it would be something that would be easy to fall into spending too much time on. Occasionally a project catches my attention, and in this case, it’s a sign for a local ski area. But it’s not what you think of when you think of a ski area.
I’ve never really been able to find the passion for skiing that I have for whitewater. I think a big part of of it is my perception of big ticket prices and lift lines. Most of the mountains around here are in the range of $80 for a day ticket. A season pass doesn’t seem like something I’d invest in, not knowing how much I’d use it. Somehow this winter, my family decided we’d try getting into skiing, and what I’ve found out is dotting the New Hampshire hills, hidden back in remote and unlikely spots, as small community ski areas. Veterans Memorial Recreation Area in Franklin is one such area. Run by the Franklin Outing Club, and all volunteers, it’s an anachronism. Walking into the lodge, it feels like it’s been lost in time since the 70’s. There’s a rope tow and a T-bar. There’s no snow making, so you ski on whatever Mother Nature brings. There are enough working lights on the hill for night skiing on Thursdays, and the City Rec Department brings kids out to the hill. There are familiar faces every weekend. The snackbar is reasonable priced. It’s family focused. There’s no marketing budget, the money is better spent trying to keep the groomer running. There’s a room in the basement full of donated ski gear that Outing Club members can borrow for the season, swapping it as the gear is outgrown. And the cost of a lift ticket? $20, but that’s on weekends when a local business hasn’t sponsored a free-ski day to cover the operating cost for the day. Maybe skiing is something I can actually get into.
And so I find myself making a sign to memorialize the contributions of a long time member of the Outing club. It’s also gotten me wondering how this sort of model could be replicated in the whitewater world? Whitewater is often criticized as being an expensive sport to get into, but I would say the same about the “retail price” of skiing. If you walk into a ski shop, buy skis, boots, goggles, a helmet, etc, you’ll be feeling a similar pain in the wallet as if you do the same in a kayak shop. And then you have to pay again once you get to the mountain. But ski hills like Veterans virtually eliminate cost as a barrier, while also building a community around the sport. As someone who began paddling as a teenager, I can appreciate the benefits of being a part of such as community during the “formative years.” I may be an extreme case but the experiences and relationships I’ve built over the years have put me where I am today. I count the people who picked me up and took me to the river before I had a drivers license as some of my best influences. Canoe Clubs used to offer avenue of building this sort of thing, but with the advent of online trip planning and increasing liability concerns, they seem to be facing the same fate as many of the lost rope tow ski hills. Is it possible to re-focus and build partnerships between Clubs, municipal recreation departments, and local outfitters to help build the next generation of whitewater paddlers?
I guess sometimes I like to do things the hard way. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I’m sometimes met with funny looks when I talk about the satisfaction I get from paddling upstream. As someone who came up paddling in the mid-Atlantic, ‘attaining’ rapids was a thing people did. Start at the bottom, see if you can make it to the top. They’ve even got upstream races. But apparently it’s not something people do everywhere, so I figured I’d share why I think you should spend some time paddling the wrong way.
The biggest benefit is it makes you a better paddler in so many ways. It’s great exercise to work against the current; it makes you stronger. Planting your paddle in water that’s moving past the boat forces a higher stroke rate to be effective. In terms of control, you receive instant feedback if your ferry angles are off just a little bit- you’re suddenly blowing downstream instead of making that next eddy. Because of that, I find it’s a great way to dial in a new boat. The mistakes happen quicker and more obviously. But the beauty of it is you get to come back around, reset, and try the move over and over and over until you make it. You can pick out moves you’re not sure you can do, and work them until you can make it. That’s something that’s a lot harder to do while running downstream; you make a mistake, but might not be able to go back and try again.
I also like the puzzle aspect of it. How do I break down a rapid into a series of moves, linked together, following the path of least resistance? Eddy to eddy to eddy. It’s taught me a lot of about reading water. Where there’s a hidden rock that will interfere with a crucial paddle stroke, how to carve up across a wave to the next higher eddy, where there’s a thin thread of slow current I can exploit. And the forced precision of putting the boat’s hull in that thin thread of current and keeping it there while paddling as hard as possible.
Attaining is also good practice for real-world scenarios. Sometimes when things go sideways, it’s important to have the skills to get back upstream in a rescue situation. On the Gauley this fall, I came across an empty raft getting surfed in a midstream hole. It had been there for a while, and was too far from shore to make land-based extraction feasible. There were a couple of small eddies downstream of it, and I was able to eddy-hop and attain back up, and after a few tries, paddle up to the backwash of the hole and hook the raft with my t-grip to pull it out. In this case, the stakes weren’t very high (other than the PBR I helped myself to from the cooler in the raft), but you can see how these sorts of skills are useful for more important rescue situations.
Attaining doesn’t have to be a “put in at the take out” sort of endeavor. You can pick off a series of moves in your favorite rapid and work it a few times before moving down to the next rapid. Eventually you might find yourself linking several of those rapids together going agains the flow, and you’ll be a better paddler for it.
I think this week, we can all agree that Winter is brutal. Even for the most hard core winter enthusiasts, the cold, the snow, the wind, the short days, take their toll eventually. For someone who builds something that people tend to buy in warm weather, the effects are compounded. With sales slow as they usually are this time of year, I tend more toward doing “busy work” around the shop. Things that need to get done, but get put off during the times of year when boats are moving faster, or I’m traveling, or can play outside more. This week I spent a while working on the ol’ canoe trailer, fixing some of the wear and tear from last season. Tuning up the CNC. I spend a lot more time sweeping the floor. On cold days, I find myself sitting at the computer and catching up on bookkeeping. I’m also trying to get ahead on building cooling fixtures for the Mosquito Burrito. And the ever-present snow removal. It’s a lot of the kind of chores you don’t think about when you think about running a canoe company. All things that need to get done, but not really the type of work that makes me want to get out of bed on a cold morning.
Like any boater with a pulse, I love rain. I love the anticipation the sound of rain brings. What will we run tomorrow? We’re talking Garbage’s ‘I’m Only Happy When it Rains’ level of enthusiasm for liquid precipitation. So what I’m about to say might seem strange, or even blasphemous. More
Winter in New Hampshire isn’t exactly a paddler’s paradise, but we’ve been getting enough days when the Mercury approaches (and sometimes breaks) 30 degrees that I’ve been getting out on the water a few times a week. With things a bit slow around the the shop this time of year, I’ve been heading to the Winni for mid-day mid-week runs. It can be tough to find people to join on these, so I’ve been jogging shuttle and attaining upstream from the put in as far as I can. It’s mostly moving flatwater and a good way to put in some extra forward strokes to try to stay in shape for spring paddling, and I’ve been seeing a lot of wildlife- mink and muskrats and various waterfowl. It also gives me a lot of time to think about whatever has been on my mind. This week it has been an article from Rapid Media that has been popping up on my social media lately entitled “Moving Forward: Why The Most Important Solo Whitewater Canoeing Stroke Is Dead.” The article was written by Andy Covenry, the man behind Echo paddles and a long time canoe instructor. I think this same article made the rounds a couple years ago, and then and now, I think a lot of people are mis-interpreting or misunderstanding the author’s point, so I figured I’d give my take on it.
Winter has arrived in earnest here in New Hampshire, and that’s got me looking ahead to spring. I’ve started taking preorders for deliveries to Ain’t Louie Fest (ALF), so I while it’s on my mind, I figured I’d write up a few answers to the questions that come up commonly.
- What the heck is ALF? ALF isn’t what we usually think about as a boating festival. There’s no organization to speak of. The dates are a little fuzzy (if it has official dates, it’s March 8-17th this year, but some some people start earlier). There’s not necessarily a central location. Think of it more as a gathering, or better yet a pilgrimage. It’s like the Hajj for open boaters (er… something like that.) You have to do it at least once. Basically people show up in east Tennessee, meet up, and go boating for a week or so.
- If there’s no central location, where do people stay and meet up? The two most popular options for accommodations are 1) hotels in Lenoir City, or 2) Cherohala Mountain Trails campground near the Tellico. CMT has become increasingly popular as the base for ALFers, and that’s where Blackfly bases out of, at least for the first weekend. The Lenoir City crew usually meets up at the Shoney’s in Lenoir city to make plans for the day, and there’s communication between the two groups as to where people are planning on paddling.
- Am I ready for ALF? What about skill levels? One of the greatest things about this “event” is it’s accessible to paddlers of all skill levels. Groups break up to head to rivers of various difficultly, so even if you’re only comfortable on Class II, there will be something for you to do. Many of the rivers also offer different sections of varying degrees of difficulty, so it’s possible for someone to join you part way down the river if they aren’t feeling up to a particular section.
- How to I know where to paddle? The best advice I can give is to be honest about your skill level and follow the locals. They know what’s running, where the rain hit, what won’t be running tomorrow, etc. And they’re very happy to point you in the right direction. Pretty much all the runs are rainfall dependent so don’t try to plan too far in advance: go with the flow and follow the local knowledge.
- What about the weather? March in eastern Tennessee can be a crap shoot. I’ve seen everything from snow to 75 degree sun. Maybe you should just bring all your gear, I usually do.
- What else should I do? Make new friends, get pointers from paddlers who are better than you, and try out a new boat! We’ll have a fleet (or fleets) of demo boats available, so it’s a chance to try out a new ride.
I also need to mention that if do order a boat for delivery to ALF before Feb 18th, I’ll waive the delivery charge ($40). Just use the discount code ALFPREORDER when you check out. Getting orders in early helps me plan and get boats assembled ahead of time…and ensures your boat has a spot on the trailer.
I’m not big on New Year’s Resolutions. My usual one is “To not make a New Year’s Resolution.” (Turns out, it’s easy to keep.) I’m making one this year though. It’s a simple one, but I think it’s important, and I’m inviting you to do it too. In fact, three days into the year, I’ve already achieved it. This year, I resolve to take more plastic out of the river than I put into it.
As paddlers, we like to think of ourselves as stewards of the river and the environment. And yet, every time we paddle, we leave little tiny bits of plastic behind on the rocks. Those boofs and rock spins and splats are contributing to microplastic pollution. Those low water runs are leaving behind tiny traces of plastic that will slow work their way down the river and end up in the ocean. It turns out I make and market a product, that if “used as directed,” puts plastic directly into the aquatic ecosystem. Does that thought bother you? Because it sure bothers me. The impact of micro plastic pollution is just beginning to be understood. How am I supposed to be an advocate for rivers when I’m contributing the the problem and encouraging other people to do the same?
One way would be to stick my head in the sand and say “the impact of whitewater recreation is a minuscule fraction of a percentage of the problem.” Given that the US contributes about 242 million pounds of plastics to the oceans a year (or approximately the equivalent of 5 million canoes and/or kayaks), it’s actually a reasonable statement. But that still doesn’t change that fact that we’re still leaving colorful curly-cues of polyethylene behind that will remain in the ecosystem for hundreds or thousands of years.
Since we’re probably not going to change our behavior- those boofs and splats and rock spins and seal launches are too much fun, and the “we thought the river would be higher but we ran it anyway” days aren’t going away, I propose another solution: Take more plastic out of the river than you put into it. A net positive for the river. I started off my effort for the year yesterday, and immediately hit the motherlode: half of a plastic pallet weighing several pounds (plus several soda bottles, bits of styrofoam, a piece of plastic pipe, two shoes, a change jar, a kid’s floaty toy, etc.) I’m pretty sure I’ve made up for all my boofs for the year, but I’m going to keep going.
I can’t tell you exactly how much plastic we scrape off our boats on an “average” river trip. It’s something I’ve wondered about, but I haven’t yet tracked runs and boat weight over the life of a boat to find out. I don’t imagine it’s much, probably less than that soda bottle floating in the eddy. To be on the safe side, I’m going to shoot for two soda bottles each trip. And if I’m on a pristine mountain river and can’t find anything, I’ll make it up on a less pristine river another day. It’s actually a pretty low bar and as i found out yesterday, it’s easy to overachieve- which is great. It’s easy, and it’s something you might already be doing. It’s certainly something we should be doing already, but I know I’m guilty of turning a blind eye to trash in the eddy sometimes.
And so, I invite you to come along with me on this quest. I’m realistic that whitewater paddlers plucking one Mountain Dew bottle at a time from the river isn’t the solution to our plastic pollution problem, but at the same time, I believe that we can have a net positive impact; we can more than offset our negative impact.