A First Time Surf Ski paddle through the Columbia River Gorge

Photo credit – Kai Bear Sports and Photography

I’ve always found that being outside, in nature, is healing. Whether  walking in a city park, through a remote mountain wilderness, or paddling on the ocean, rivers and lakes, nature’s vast playground inspires me, causes my chi/energy to flow. Even standing at the window at your workplace, staring out at the trees and the sky for 30 seconds once an hour can relax and refresh the mind.

Outdoor recreation keeps me from turning into a couch potato watching old movies or stressing over the latest harbingers of doom in the sensationalized media news cycle. Of course, an old movie can be fun now and then, and staying informed regarding current ecological and social issues affecting humanity and the web of life is important, but balance is always the key. If we live in an inner world of stress and fear, or anger or sensory overindulgence, whatever activism for positive change we engage in will be poisoned by these inner demons.

After my total knee replacement in January, I realized that I would be wise to give up backpacking. The lifespan of an artificial knee is about 20 years on average and a second “revision” surgery for a worn out prosthesis is a much more complex surgery with higher risks.  Based on my dad’s lifespan I could live another 30 years, so why not take care of the equipment I have rather than risk a late life surgery?

If I can’t climb the mountains, I can still admire their beauty from the seat of my surf ski! What is a surf ski? It’s a cross between a kayak and a surf board – one sits on top, in an open cockpit, with a leash that attaches you to the ski. If a wave fills up the cockpit, a retractable “bailer” automatically empties out the water as you paddle. If a wave flips your ski, dumping you into the water, you just climb back on and keep paddling.  Much easier than learning a kayak roll!

When researching different skis before making a purchase, I seriously considered an Epic V10 – 19 inches wide and very fast, but a friend advised against it – suggesting that paddlers in their 60s generally do better starting out with a ski that has more stability. I ended up purchasing a Stellar SX18x (17’ 11” X 20.2”) which has been a lot of fun and very comfortable in almost any conditions, but after my first race at Ski to Sea, I wanted something faster, something that would challenge me even more, requiring laser focus to paddle, so I added a Stellar Eagle  (20’8” X 17.25”) to my fleet, justifying the purchase to myself by selling a pile of backpacking gear on Craigslist. After paddling it 4 or 5 times and practicing several remounts, I headed to the Columbia River Gorge for the “Vortex 3” race.

The geological history of the Gorge fills me with a sense of awe….an Ice Age dam in Idaho busting open thousands of years ago, multiple times, filling the Gorge 600 feet deep with a raging torrent.  The recreational history of the Gorge is no less awesome– the white water equivalent of running Lava Falls through the Grand Canyon, or for sea kayakers, rounding Cape Scott at the northwest tip of Vancouver Island. These are places of immense scale and cosmic power. A human can feel both tiny and insignificant on the one hand, and transcend the ego bound self, tapping into that vast power on the other.  I felt a mix of both getting ready for the race, enjoying the camaraderie of other paddlers, and the usual pre-race jitters which saw me visit the bathroom several times in the last hour before getting on the river.

photo credit – Kai Bear Sports and Photography

I had heard the winds would be relatively light – a good day for a first downwinding run on the Gorge. But it didn’t seem light when I launched. Paddling into the wind was straightforward, but as I turned and took the wind and chop on my beam, I was uneasy, not knowing if a wave would suddenly flip my ski and dump me in the river as it did for another surf ski paddler right next to me. My pre-race plan was to line up on the right side of the starting line to minimize distance through the first bend of the river, but I was nervous to get close to the other skis, not feeling fully in control of mine, so I stuck to the left side way at the back.

After the start, I quickly settled into a rhythm, linking a few fun surfs together and enjoying the sun and spray on my face. The goal was already reset from racing to simply finishing the 12 mile course, not concerning myself with where I placed in the field.  The pack was steadily pulling away from me as I slapped braces right and left (slowing me down) and swamped the cockpit occasionally.  My technique needs more practice, a lot more.  Yes, the ski was a bit too tippy for me at times, but wow, what fun when I was able to tame the wild horse and ride! During one particularly memorable set of linked surfs, I caught and passed an outrigger canoe paddler who only moments before had been 50 meters ahead of me.

Credit: Kai Bear Sports & Photography

I had made a mistake not to wear a sun hat. It was cloudy and cool before the start, but when the sun came out, my head was getting hot, and eventually, I began to feel a slight dizziness. I couldn’t figure out how to bite/grab the mouthpiece of my new hydration bladder without breaking my focus on paddling. Another conundrum adding to my multi-tasking adventure. But I was still upright and in my ski after about an hour, the sun was shining, and there I was, a tiny human in the middle of the Columbia River Gorge! Just wow!

I had studied the course and knew I wasn’t quite at the half way point. The pack had almost disappeared ahead of me. The outrigger canoe paddler was nowhere to be seen – maybe behind me? I was too afraid of tipping over to turn my head around and look back but sensed I was pretty much all alone, an old man in the middle of one of the planet’s largest rivers, a half mile from either shore, in choppy 2 foot waves and a stiff breeze.  I was getting tired. My paddling was getting sloppier and my reflexes weren’t as sharp. I had stayed upright in my ski so far, but a tip over could happen at any moment. What then? Would I be able to successfully remount? I thought so, but wasn’t 100% sure. I hadn’t tested my remount in these conditions before. The water was 64 degrees – not cold, and I was wearing a 2 mil shortie wetsuit, but it would be a long swim to shore pulling my ski behind me and hypothermia couldn’t be ruled out. Home Valley Park was on my left somewhere. Yeah, the smart thing is to be safe and bail here, I told myself. The decision brought an instant sense of relief, letting go of ego imposed goals and listening to the inner voice of wisdom. Still, I had to make it to shore with the wind and waves on my beam – no simple task.

Knowing when to quit, to step back and redirect goals is essential to survival – whether in outdoor recreation, or in a more general sense of rethinking humankind’s actions on a collective scale and how they are stressing the biosphere towards ecological tipping points leading to extreme planetary heating and imbalance.

If this blog post inspires you to take up kayaking or surf ski paddling – great! However, please recognize that there are inherent risks in water sports. Take a class or connect with other experienced paddlers who can give you advice based on your skill level.

After a 15 minute ferry, zig zagging through white caps, pointing straight up into the wind when a wave threatened to break, I landed on a sand bar leading to a small rocky islet. The road was far away through bushes and trees where rattlesnakes and poison oak might lurk. I pulled out my phone and called the race director and within 15 minutes, a safety sweeper paddled down from Home Valley Beach Park to escort me back there.  Thanks to the organizers for such a well run race with good safety protocols in place, and to friends – new and old – who taught me how to hold a paddle in my hands, how to swim, and to my parents who instilled in me a love of nature at an early age.

Father – in his rowboat back in Maine.

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