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.
This week I was digging around in my desk, and came across a couple of test pieces I made up a couple years ago. One is a one foot long section of gunwale I cut off a scrap Option, the other is a 1-foot section of similar dimensions of Ash gunwale. I made these to compare weights between them, and being reminded of this test, I figured this week I’d discuss the advantages of plastic gunwales and why I use them rather than wood.
Chapter 19 of Seth Godin’s excellent new book, “This Is Marketing” is titled, “The Funnel.” He explains it this way:
“Visualize a funnel, one with a bunch of leaks and holes in it.
At the top of the funnel, you pour attention.
At the bottom of the funnel, committed loyal customers come out.
Between the top and the bottom, most people leak out.”
I’ve now experienced this first hand, and can quantify it. More
We’re excited to have released the second episode of “Where We Canoe.” Blackfly Team paddler takes us to his local run, Tohickon Creek in eastern Pennsylvania.