Expedition Wrap Up

I did it.  I actually did it.  It started as a little spark of an idea from a few years ago and it grew and grew and changed and became this amazing trip from Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, to St. Anne de Beaupre, Quebec.  So because this is the first writing for my site that I have done, post trip, here are the headlines.

Sault Sainte Marie to St. Anne De Beaupre

Total number of days: 34

Distance Covered: ~860 miles (~1,384 km)

Days spent not paddling: 3

Average Daily Distance: ~25 miles (~41 km)

Longest Single Day: ~44 miles (~71 km)

Favorite Camp: “The Shack” between Donnacona & Neuville

Number of Portages: 26

Most Portages in One Day: 9

Longest Portage: ~4 miles (~6.4 km)

Offical Beer: Mill St. Brewery Tankhouse Ale (Acquired during my portage through Ottawa

I have been working on writing a more concrete story based on my trip but it’s been difficult.  This trip is so nebulous to me now that it is just these special little events separated by long periods of often boring paddling.  When I think back there are a lot of days where all that really stands out is the misery of paddling in the heat or the cold or the wind.  And the days that are really clear in my head are those that were usually the most taxing.  The Day of the Portage as I remember stands out as one of those days because it seemed I would only be in my boat for 20 minutes before I had to get out and complete another portage.  And the the Day of the Rapids, as I call it now when I went through Montreal, was another one of those days.  I had a long morning over calm flat water and as the St. Lawrence narrowed the current picked up and rapids began to develop I got swept out into the main stream before I could get to shore and had to run a series of big Class 3 or small Class 4 waves.  I made it through the giant waves by aiming for the narrow gaps between the walls of water and the only thing I lost was one of my Storm On stickers from Qajaq Japan.  I left the big rapids shaking with adrenaline and thanking my lucky stars that I had spent all those days riding the gales on Lake Superior and playing on the local whitewater and also kicking myself for being so stupid as to allow myself to end up in that type of situation.  I was much more careful to avoid the bumpy water for the rest of the day and after chatting with some river surfers further

Hanging 10 on the river.

downstream I blitzed through the narrows of the river on the huge swift current and completed my longest distance and possibly the most exciting single day of my entire trip.

This biggest thing about this trip for me were the people that I met.  I met the Canadian Consul to South Africa, boat mechanics, fishermen, water police, ski bums, summer camp operators, and plenty of water angels.  Seeing the terrain change as I traveled across eastern Canada was amazing but meeting the people was what made it special.  Especially meeting people in Quebec where language became an issue was excellent.  There were only a few instances where my minimal survivalist knowledge of the French language was really put to the test but those were often the most interesting as I tried to ask permission to camp or even just talking to people in the local grocery store.

There are so many stories to tell that I think I will have a good stock to last me a while.  In conversation someone will say something that will often trigger a sudden rush of feelings as I recall some little moment of clarity or serendipity from my expedition.  I knew as soon as I finished that I needed to do this type of trip again.  I don’t know what I am going to do but I certainly am going to do it. When you travel under your own power you have the time to explore and talk to people and make a connection to the place.  It puts everything into perspective.  All it needs is to be slow.  Some people have told me upon my return that “This sounds like the trip of a lifetime”.  I usually respond in saying “No.  It’s my first trip of a lifetime”.

Only a few miles left on my last day. The only time on the entire expedition that I paddled with anyone. Photo cred: Michel Simard

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Final Countdown

It’s getting near departure day.  Only 3 days out now.  In the meantime I need to finish moving out of my house, buying my last few groceries, and having a fun play day on the Bear River in Petoskey.  Things have been a bit rough around here but I am looking forward to this trip more and more with each waking second.  I’ve test packed my boat, tested my new equipment, been doing yoga, and pouring over my charts for my route.  I’ll be posting my progress to twitter and facebook as I go and I will be trying to keep in as much contact as I can throughout my trip.  I’ll be checking in along the way if I can find my way onto a computer in the wilds of Canada.  If you want to try and get a hold of me, message me through my facebook page and I’ll get in touch as soon as I can.

I realized how cool this trip was all of a sudden when I got my boat test loaded and my semi-sponsors’ stickers on my boat.  So I am giving a personal thank you to the fine people across the pond at Reed Chillcheater for the pro-deals they gave me on some new cold weather kit and also to Smartwool for giving me some of their amazing merino wool socks and shirts for my trip.

So this is a short and sweet entry and I thank you for taking the time to read my pokey little blog.

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A Morning on the River

It’s as though they’ve turned up everything to 11 for our last few semesters here at school.  So back in the fall I hadn’t slept in at all, exercised, or eaten that well for that matter.  After an especially brutal week I went into the weekend realizing that I could get all my work done one day and have the other day to play.  So as Saturday rolled around I went to school and cranked out as much work as I could.  A full day’s work later I finished.  Well, mostly at least.  There were still a few loose ends but nothing terribly terrible and looming.  So when Sunday came in I pulled my boat out of the basement, geared up, and headed for the river.

I thought about maybe heading into nearby Canada for a bit more of a rugged and adventurous trip along Lake Superior that would take all day but as I hefted my boat onto the roof of my car that thought just wafted away.  It didn’t matter where I went as long as I was on the water.  So I decided on my favorite old route.  A paddle up the St. Marys river to the shipping locks and back down.  Not too long, not very challenging, but rather dynamic.  There is tons (or thousands of tons really) of commercial shipping traffic on the river which is always interesting to see along with lots of fishermen, work boats, Coast Guard Patrols, and the occasional sea-plane.  On this day I saw them all except the Coasties.

I had the usual combination of odd looks and motions toward my general direction as I geared up and hit the water.  It had been almost a month since my last bit of water time but I was feeling good.  The boat was just an extension of myself as it had been all summer.  Nothing felt awkward or uncomfortable.  I headed into the main current of the river and headed upstream.  I cruised past the Sugar Island Ferry at the narrowest section of the river and followed closely along the shore over the old sunken docks that line the shore.  Giant square timbers connected together by twisted pieces of pitted and rusted iron sit in some areas just inches below the surface.

Sault Sainte Marie (Pronounced Soo-Saint-Marie [The Soo]) is the oldest city in Michigan.  It was originally settled hundreds of years ago by the local Ojibwa tribe.  The original name was Baawitigong which means “At the cascading rapids”.  In 1668 the famed missionary Father Jacques Marquette created a missionary in the area and in the process settled the third oldest permanent settlement east of the Appalachian Mountains.  The modern name is essentially the same as the original Ojibwa name.  Sault Sainte Marie translates from archaic French to mean “The Rapids of the St. Mary’s”.  Since the original founding the area has been known for the fur trade, border disputes between the French, British, and American forces, and today for heavy shipping.  The history of the city and its twin in Canada are tied to the river.

The tour boat docks

As I headed up river I went past the Soo Locks Boat Tour dock with their large green and white tour boats.  A ways up river they were doing some dredging at the entrance to a small commercial marina.  The  dredger was a large barge with a crane mounted to one end.  The crane had a giant clam shell bucket that made quite the Whumpf when it hit the water.  Being the engineering type that I am I sat fascinated for a few minutes as the crane operator smoothly worked the crane back and forth and up and down to clear out the channel.

Scooping up with the dredger

A bit further up the up-stream is the power building.  The long and thin brick building that stretches nearly a quarter mile sits at the end of a canal that cuts through the Soo and makes a large part of downtown an island.  The water from the canal surges through turbines in the building and sends the water out into the river.  I’ve paddled by the power building at times where the wind, river current, and outflow current all mesh perfectly and make a miniature tide race with large eddies, small standing waves, and swift water.  This day was a bit different.  And by different I mean normal so there were no eddies or standing waves but the swift water still gave me a few minutes of play time as I continued upstream.

Just a short way past the power building is another historical site that I have a particular interest in.  It’s the 550 foot long Valley Camp museum ship.  It began life as a freighter in 1917 and for nearly 50 years it sailed the Great Lakes.  I paddled past it slowly and got close enough to touch the curving black hull and see the thousands of rivets that hold its outer skin on.  The reason I have such an interest in the ship is that my senior engineering project is using the Valley Camp as a drawing board for developing virtual maintenance operations on ships.  We’re doing all of this with 3D laser scans of the ship.  There isn’t much cooler than a 3D scan of a freighter.

I only went a bit further upstream from the Valley Camp to just past the Coast Guard Station and the buoy tender the Katmai Bay and turned back just below the shipping locks.  I headed right out into the center of the channel for the way back.  I reveled in the bright early fall sun and watched as a tour boat cruised past the Bush Plane Museum on the Canadian side of the river and had an unexpected treat.  A family of loons was floating in the middle of the river with me.  I let the current carry me and watched the family dive and call.  They were very vocal for the middle of the day.  I tried my loon call to see if one would respond and a short conversation in loon-talk later I kept on down river.

The sun was getting warm and my black dry-top was starting to slow cook me for the last stretch back to my launching point.  My early fall day had turned into a cool summer day.  I wrapped up my day with a quick rolling session near my car.  The water still had the summer’s warmth, or at least as warm as Lake Superior water ever gets, and the rolls washed away my last bit of weariness from the week.  It was only a few hours on the river.  But it was a few hours of adventure.

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Top 10 Favorite Pieces of Paddling Gear

Everyone does lists of the best boats, paddles, gear, companies, songs, cities… I could go on but I think you get the point.  People love lists.  So here is one of my own.  It isn’t which things I think are the best but instead I will list my favorites.  They may not be the best, my judgment can be flawed, but I sure like them.  So, without further ado, in no particular order, here is my top 10 favorite bits of kayaking gear.

Valley Aquanaut HV RM

My workhorse

So no one ever thinks about a boat being a piece of equipment.  It’s always a boat and you gear.  But just like wearing a pair of swim trunks instead of a pair of jeans at the beach, you pick your boat for the type of water you’ll be on.  My boat of choice is my trusty Aquanaut.  It’s a great swiss army knife of a kayak.  It’s big for starters, but then again I’m a big guy.  It has plenty of space for gear and enough length to make cranking out miles comfortable.  But there are some details that set it apart from other boats of its type.  It’s the way this boat rolls.  A combination of the low back deck of any Valley boat and huge secondary stability make this thing roll nicer than just about any other large touring kayak that I’ve tried.

Kokatat Trinity Dry Top

This is one of the newer pieces of gear that I own and it became an instant favorite once I got it.  The Trinity is a short sleeved top with a double skirt tube and full latex gaskets on the neck and biceps.  For summer touring when the weather is a bit iffy or for hot play days on the river this top is great.  The bicep gaskets take a bit of getting used to but once they’re stretched out a bit they work great.  Before this layer I had little clothing in the mid weather range and this fills it nicely.  It was probably the second most worn piece of clothing I had this summer.  I even wear it under my tuilik for rolling if it’s too warm for a dry-suit and too cool for nothing.

Greenland Travel Paddle

Translation : "Travel Paddle"

This last summer I went to Qajaq Training Camp (QTC) and had amazing time.  You can read about it here.  One of the events at camp is a silent auction.  It usually isn’t very silent from all the people milling around, the laughter, and the occasional stare down and friendly threatening from across a table when someone got outbid on an item.  I tried my hand at getting a few things including a hat, a small draw-knife, and most importantly a Greenland Travel Paddle.  There are a few companies out there that make and sell sectional Greenland paddles but none that make a 4 piece take apart paddle.  This one was made by my friend (and I think everybody’s friend, he knows everybody or at least everybody knows him) Roy.  He’s a superb craftsman and paddle-maker and he put 3 up for auction.  I tried all 3 but one stood out for me so after fighting a few bids back and forth I won it.  It breaks into 4 even sized parts and can fit comfortably in my backpack and paddles well with a smooth catch and powerful loading.  It would be a great paddle alone but it just so happens to come apart too.

NRS Kicker Remix Wetshoe

For the last few years I have had the NRS Boundary shoe and loved them.  They’re a knee high neoprene boot with a good sole.  They’re super warm and waterproof which is good for cold season/ ice water paddling.  Not so good for summer guiding.  Those boots have gotten so stinky over the couple of years that I’ve owned them they could knock a buzzard off a gut-wagon.  I needed an alternative.  So I got the Kicker Remix.  They’re a low cut shoe with a super sticky sole that is flexible enough to fit in my playboat and sturdy enough to wear when hauling kayaks up and down cobble stone beaches from the trailer.  They have their flaws (water doesn’t drain well so they slosh a bit) but they fit a niche in my paddling perfectly so I can’t complain.

North-Water Quick Release Sea Link

Being a guide has been the number one reason for the development of my paddling skills.  Being on the lookout for potential hazards, reading winds and waters, and orchestrating rescues for people you’ve only met an hour earlier really forces good skill development.  It also forces you to think about contingency and for short tows this system is great.  You can have it unopened and have only a few feet of tow or for longer distance you can release the mesh webbing from the pouch and have some 20 feet of line.  It’s designed to work on a belt too so that you can release it from your pfd in an emergency.  Besides towing I use it for the occaisional boat leash for shallow water portage where the boat floats but not with me in it.

Ikea Tarp Bags

Possibly the best value of any of the gear on my list.  A large tarp duffel that folds super small and can carry a hatch worth of gear.  What’s not to like?  From hauling gear when setting up camp or carrying your wet gear in the back of the car these bags are worth getting.  The best part, the only cost $0.65.

Stoic WPF Compression Sack

I bought a pair of these before a solo trip I did in May 2011 on a whim.  I didn’t really need drybags but these were on a super deal.  They may not have the witchcraft fabric like Sea-to-Summit has but they have the next best thing.  A valve.  Just open the valve, roll down the top, and the air get pushed out.  Just close it up and you’re on your way.  I can attest to the toughness because I put on bag with some supplies in my cockpit up past my foot braces.  A couple weeks of trips over the course of the summer in the cockpit and they are none the worse for wear.

Greenland Ropes

Okay… so the greenland ropes isn’t actually gear that you bring along on trips with you (usually, I have before, just not on solo trips).  What you do bring along with you is strength, flexibility, power, endurance, and coordination that it develops.  So here is some background on the Greenland ropes.  The greeland ropes are what you use to do Greenland Rope Gymnastics.  It’s a set of exercises, all done on a pair of suspended ropes, that range from the brutally simple to the brutally complicated.  They were developed by seal hunters in the arctic as a means of exercise, training, and fun.  50 feet of rope and a couple of nicely spaced trees is all you need to get started.  The ropes offer an amazing workout.  It’s the cheapest piece of exercise equipment you’ll ever have.

Kokatat Surfskin Shorts

I’ve been asked if I was going cycling instead of paddling several times because I was wearing these shorts.  They may look like the spandex and chamois apparel that saddle junkies sport but these are better.  They are neoprene and fleece.  That’s right, it’s fuzzy rubber.  As far as comfort goes I prefer these over trunks for long days in the boat.  And they add enough warmth to take the bite out of the wind when you’re eating lunch on the beach.  Once I bought these I pretty much put my trunks away.


Napping in the Tuilik

There isn’t a feeling quite like rolling in ice-water and only feeling the bite of the cold when your nose hits the water.  That is the magic of a Tuilik (Too-ah-leek, too-leek, too-ee-leek, there are many variations on pronunciation.  I like the first one).  The very first kayakers wore tuiliks in cold conditions when they went paddling and that tradition lives on today both in greenland and in the growing sport of traditional kayaking.  The tuilik gives you warmth and comfort and flexibility that you don’t get in the use of a PFD and spray-skirt.  Rolling feels so much nicer in the tuilik.  The only thing I have to say that’s bad about my tuilik is that it is too warm sometimes.  On hot summer days I have to roll on a regular basis to stay cool.  That’s actually happened on the coldest of days too for that matter.  But as far as comfort, warmth, and flexibility go, the traditional tuilik is all there is.



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It’s actually a party…

Some of the fleet

This summer (2011) I was fortunate enough to be able to attend Qajaq Training Camp a.k.a. QajaqTC, QTC, Michigan Training Camp, and The Coolest Paddler’s Gathering EVER! .  This was my second year in attendance.  My first year was in 2009 and I went into the event knowing almost nothing about it.  I didn’t know any of the people, where it was exactly, or very much about traditional paddling really.


I had only just obtained a greenland style paddle about 5 months earlier in March of 2009.  I had bought it after paddling with one at the Hiawatha Paddling Festival for about 15 minutes.  All that summer I had practiced, practiced, and practiced more to get my rolling and paddling skills up to snuff.  And then only a few weeks before camp, my paddle broke.  I was doing a behind the head roll a mile or so from shore when it snapped in my hands.  It was a slow and sad paddle back to the beach.  A few weeks later when I paddled up to Camp Lookout, the amazing location for QTC, I was using my euro blade.  I nearly died of shame but I borrowed a Greenland paddle for the weekend and had an amazing time at camp.  That first Training Camp was my baptism into the traditional paddling world.  The people were so fun and nice, the food so amazing, and the experience so cool that it left me ranting for weeks about how much fun I had.

Synchronized rolling with Danielle

Fast forward a few years and I am now an ACA L4 open water instructor and have done a lot of Euro paddling.  But my heart has always belonged to the skinny wooden paddles.  Training Camp gave me resolve and more drive to be better, not just in rolling and paddling but in teaching it and representing what it stands for.  This year I returned to the 10th annual QTC as a mentor.  Camp is based on the traditional mentorship idea: Everyone Teaches, Everyone Learns.  It’s a great system that allows people to work on what they want to work on without being slotted into formal classes.  The on water part of camp more or less looks like 40-60 kayaks paddling around in little circles with about half of the people either laying in the water or being upside down at any given time.  The mentors move about and work with different people as they come by.  I went from working on advanced forward ending rolls with one of the other mentors, to working on edging and maneuvering strokes a while later.  It really is a free-flow event.  The white board in the lodge lists morning yoga, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with only the words “Play” written in between, seriously.

One of my pass times is Greenland Rope Gymnastics or Allunaariaqattaarneq (for those of you familiar with greenlandic) and that was one of the reasons for me being a mentor.  I would tag team teaching and mentoring the ropes with ropes guru David Sides, or Unkel David as he is affectionately known at camp.  When I first arrived at camp David and I set up the ropes rig in one of the camp buildings.  We were planning out the next few days of when we would do demos and mentoring but unfortunately David got sick that night and was unable to join us for part of camp.  But when he was on the mend and well enough to return on Saturday he narrated the ropes demo that Maligiaq Padilla and I performed.  


Maligiaq and Emmet during the rolling demo

Maligiaq Padilla is considered to be one of the best traditional paddlers in the world.  Besides winning the Greenland National Qajaq Championship Qajaq Man of the Year award some 8 or 9 times he would probably also win the Nicest Paddler Award if they had such a thing.  Maligiaq was the special guest this year at Camp and we all enjoyed having him there.  His rolling skills were unmatched.  For a while he didn’t have a nose plug so he was rolling with his offside hand pinching his nose.  Even with forward ending hand and fist rolls.  Every roll he performed was smooth and natural and if anything his ropes skills are more amazing.  Where as I did many of the basic ropes moves I would then sit on the sidelines with my mouth agape when Maligiaq stepped up to the ropes.  Flexing and contorting in ways that would confuse a yoga instructor Maligiaq did several moves that I’ve never seen anyone else actually perform.  And he was doing it all with a healing ankle that he broke earlier in the summer while playing soccer…

One more story about Maligiaq before I move on.  Maligiaq and I were in the same cabin and when I woke up one morning he was already gone.  I thought he must be drinking a cup of coffee on the deck of the lodge or something so I didn’t think much of it.  I saw him at breakfast but once finished I left to get changed for the water I walked into my supposedly empty cabin and pulled some things out of my duffel.  I heard a noise behind me and spun in surprise to see Maligiaq on his bunk, in a sleepy haze, huddled under a couple of coats.  He said that he hadn’t slept much the night before because someone was snoring nearby and he couldn’t get to sleep.  I heard the snoring too but since I’m the type that can sleep through thunderstorms I wasn’t bothered.  So in the middle of the night he grabbed his sleeping bag and headed for the couch in the lodge where he finished off the night.  So once he finished breakfast he hotfooted it back to the cabin to catch a few more minutes of sleep.

The thing that really sets QTC apart from other symposiums I’ve been to is the atmosphere.  It’s more like a family reunion than a typical symposium.  There are old stories and inside jokes from years past and a connection from person to person that you miss out on at other gatherings.  

Special cocktail napkins for QTC

 There are martini’s artfully prepared by Dan and Judy from out east complete with custom cocktail napkins and fine scotch tasting lessons with none other than Unkel David himself.  We even got home cooked meals and snacks from none other than the illustrious Michael Gray from Uncommon Adventures.  As we sipped on our beverages and ate our Hors d’oeuvres laughing filled up the deck of the lodge.  Stories and tales from past camps and adventures filled the air.  Laughing broke out between groups and when the dinner bell rang the laughing and fun didn’t stop as we headed inside.  The difference between the mentors and the participants faded away and we all just became a group of old friends.  This event isn’t so much a symposium, it’s actually a party.  


Thanks to everyone that attended this year’s Training Camp for being so awesome!  It was seriously one of the most fun times I’ve had paddling with friends.  Hope I can make it back in years to come.


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My Promises to you

This is the awkward first post to this “blog” as they call them.  They will be better or worse in the future but certainly more interesting once I get going with training, equipment, and final preparation for my expedition.  If you made it here and are wondering what’s going on then please take a few minutes to wander over to the “The Expedition” tab in the menu bar.  In the mean time here is what I’ll try to make this blog about.

My promises to you:

I will try to be honest, occasionally witty, and to tell my stories to the best of my ability in my future writings.  I’m not much of a writer but I like to tell stories.  They will all be true but they are subject to change and to elaboration just like any adventurer’s stories.  Depending on the crowd, the story, and the BAC % the waves will get taller, the wind more ferocious, and the cold more biting.  I will try to keep this to a minimum here though.

I won’t rant on about my feelings.  There are enough teenagers on the internet to cover that type of thing.  If you are looking for that type of reading then I suggest going somewhere else.  This is about a trip in my kayak, not a trip to the therapist.

I will write to the average person.  I want to get people interested in sea-kayaking and expeditioning out of a kayak so it would be bad practice to scare them off with too much technical paddling talk.  If you want to get into a kayak geek conversation then email me.  Most people aren’t interested in fine tweaks in forward stroke form, optimizing blade angle for stern rudders, or what weight nylon to use for skinning a skin-on-frame qajaq.

I will try to keep it fun.  Kayaking is about having fun.  When kayaking stops being fun I will stop kayaking.  When writing about it stops being fun I will stop writing about it.  But in the meantime, there is still a lot more fun to be had.



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