The Inland Paddler: Teachable Moments

Inland Paddler

Anything can happen when you are on the water.

It doesn’t matter what you are doing – you could be paddling standup, OC or an inner tube and something unexpected can kick off a chain of events that at the very least make good blog fodder.  Or,  ruin your whole day. Or worse. 

Even when you are in your own back yard.

Tuesday I had a reminder of that.

It started out as a beautiful, spring-like unseasonably warm day.  We checked the weather forecast and was more than excited to see no rain and a high in the mid-70s in the forecast.

We headed out for an hour’s worth of intervals on Lake Jordan.  I had the SIC Bullet with me and was in full on intervals-will-not-kick-my-ass mode.  I went out a little too strong but had no problem settling into a good rhythm.  I made sure my intervals were nice and clean. 

About half way through, though, I noticed I was going pretty darned fast. It’s funny how when the wind is behind you, and you are on a board like the Bullet, you just don’t really notice how hard it might be blowing.

Until you turn around.

This was a straightforward out and back course.  One hour out on the intervals and then a leisurely paddle back for time time on the water

Mother Nature had something else in mind.

When we turned around, the wind was stiff and coming out of the south, across the open expanse of the lake. It was manageable at first.

But as we paddled, the wind intensified and soon there were white caps and significant troughs on the lake.

Wendy and I both went to our knees.

Jordan Lake right now is about 51 degrees. Even though we were both wearing leashes, pfds and had on thermal protection of some sort, neither of us fancied a swim in the cold, frothy muddy brown water. 

I don’t like conceding the knee paddle.  But on this day, it made the most sense.  51 degrees is cold.  Even in with the right gear -I had just purchased a Starboard All Star semi dry suit – and the warm air temp, I did not want to be exposed for long.  It’s also two months away from the official start of the paddling race season – the Carolina Cup.  That is immediately followed by what might be my most challenging race to date – the Olukai on Maui’s famed Maliko Run. 

It was just not worth getting injured so early and so close to races I’ve been training through the winter for. Sitting down is okay.

That was the first major decision I made during the course of the Jordan Lake Slog-Fest.

On the one hand, it made sense for my over all well-being.

What it did not make sense for was my circulation.

The Starboard All Star semidry suit has tight rubber gaskets on both the ankles and wrists.  While certainly  more comfortable than my full white water drysuit by Kokatat, for many, many, reasons, the ankle gaskets are still tight.  My feet were fine as long as I was standing, but sitting down with my legs tucked under me really compromised blood flow to my feet and toes, which are already having trouble feeling the board because I am in neoprene booties.

I’ll come back to this.

The second major decision.

We were out in the middle of the widest part of the lake.  No protection.  It looked as though storm clouds might be forming.  Last thing I wanted to was be out in the middle of the open lake in a weird, Carolina winter thunderstorm.  I have a little experience with the Summer version of that meteorological phenomenon and I was not looking to repeat that. 

I also knew that we had about three miles to paddle to the car, and I was going to feel the fatigue from the intervals soon.

While not as efficient as my Lahui Kai in cross chop, the Bullet is okay.  So I made the executive decision to head a little bit down wind and paddle toward the shore.  Yes, it would add a bit of distance (half a mile to be exact) but I felt like it would be worth it to get in the lee of the shoreline and have a break from the wind and exertion that comes from fighting headwind full on.  Even if that break was only mentally.  I knew that  being closer to land would make me feel better psychologically at the very least.   And if a stupid weird Carolina winter thunderstorm should materialize, we would be in a safer place.

Wendy and I had been in this spot before. More or less.

“This is just like Core Banks!” She shouted at me over the whipping, whining  wind.

Except were weren’t in 85 degree water and we weren’t paddling in boats with cockpits and nice warm, waterproof covers.

Several years ago, we got caught in a similar situation out on the Core Banks, near Cape Lookout, where we’d spent the weekend kayak camping on the beautiful, remote barrier island south of Cape Hatteras.  The channel there is shallow and the coastal wind is so very changeable.  You really have to watch your weather and tides.  The wind kicked up sooner than expected on our return crossing and in retrospect, we should have turned around and downwinded to get to shore – any shore – as quickly as possible.  It was blowing a little bit harder than it was this week on Jordan and the chop was more significant.

What should have only been about a two hour or less paddle in our 17-foot sea kayaks turned into nearly four hours or more.  I can’t remember – I’ve put THAT part of it out of my mind.

To make matters worse, one of our paddling buddies was struggling.  Injury had kept her from paddling much and while she was fine in the calm water, the strong wind was a problem.  Wendy ended up towing her. 

To say that Advencha was a Teachable Moment is an understatement.

But – it did teach me that when conditions get rough like that, the best course of action is to get to shore.

I shouted to Wendy that we needed to cut across Jordan to the shoreline.  Wendy’s board was having trouble handling the cross wind and waves and she’d almost been pitched into the water a couple of times.  So it seemed to her that it was better to continue in the headwind, straight on, where she was more stable.

But I needed rest.  I made for the trees, but always kept an eye on her.

I wasn’t that far from land when I saw Wendy turn around and run downwind.  I thought she might be following me after all, but the she kept going backwards, too far backwards.

I turned around and went out to meet her, thinking something was wrong.

Turns out, she saw one of the SolarBees, these weird contraptions that float around the lake, with the intention of “scrubbing” the water to help keep it clean.  (That’s for another blog, one that’s more political in tone.) She thought the SolarBee was me, in the water, and floating way, way away and in trouble.

By this time, my feet and legs are on fire from lack of blood flow.  Since I was going downwind, more less, I decided to stand up, let my legs recirculate and maybe get some practice in the challenging conditions.

As soon as I did, my leg seized, full on.  I couldn’t feel my feet and I couldn’t move them on the board. In seconds, I was parallel to the waves.

And, as it so often does in these situations, reality dissolved into slow motion mode.

I pitched forward and went head long into the drink.

Now is the time on the Mullet when I talk about the difference between a drysuit and a SEMI-Drysuit.

A drysuit has rubber gaskets at the wrists, feet (in some cases there are footies) and most importantly the neck.  The neck gasket is very, very uncomfortable.  It can make you feel like you cannot breathe.  It is not conducive to aerobic activity.  The drysuit itself is bulky.  But, for what it is designed for, sitting in a kayak with a sprayskirt and being worn, ostensibly by someone who has a roll, it is perfect.  The best exposure protection this side of a Mustang suit.

It is not suitable for standup paddling, especially hard workouts.

The Starboard suit, and others like it, has a neoprene neck gasket. It is SUPER comfortable.  You can easily vent the suit if you get to hot and close it back up when you need to do so.  But neoprene is permeable.  Water will get through. Period.  A small, unspectacular entry into the water followed by a quick exit – no problem.  And face it, when paddling on flatwater, that’s usually what happens, if we fall in.

But on this day, I launched off my board like Michael Phelps rocketing off the starting block at the Beijing Olympics.  And then having a seizure in mid air.

Cold Shock Response is that subconscious GASP! we have when we hit cold water. Water doesn’t even have to be THAT frigid for it to happen, according to experts in the field.  If we are underwater when that gasp occurs, we can aspirate cold water into our lungs.  That’s why pfd’s that keep our heads above water are so important in winter.

Inland Paddler
Source: Beyond Cold Water Boot Camp, Designed by Boston Globe staff

Having the Starboard suit on was helpful.  It mitigated some of the cold but the head first entry into the water did cause liquid to get into the suit.  Not enough to weigh me down and keep me from getting on the board, but enough to make me cold after my self-rescue. As Jason at Carolina Paddleboard advised when I bought the suit, it’s not for surfing, or situations where you might really be pushing your limits.

I had no idea this would be the case on my backyard lake on this particular day.

I held on to my Bullet and waited just a few moments before getting back on, telling myself out loud not to panic.  Even though the water was rough, and even though I could feel a bit of the cold in my suit and outside of it, just those few moments of settling down, realizing I was okay, was enough to clear the frozen cobwebs.

I will say this – had I NOT been wearing a leash, my board would have been gone in a heart beat. And then I might have been in serious trouble, had Wendy not been right there.

Once again, my Virus base layers were a godsend.  I was not wearing the top layer  because I knew that would be too hot while I was doing intervals. But I did have on the Stay Warm Coffee tights, and the insulation was exactly were I needed it after flushing the suit. Considering where the cold water was pooling.

By the time I made it to shore and found a place to beach, most of the water was out of the suit but I still needed to vent the ankle gasket and let the remaining h2o trickle out.

The air temperature was 73 so I was warming up quickly as well.  I was in the lee of the lake contour and the water was calmer and it was easiest to paddle standing up.

I decided to follow the shoreline, and duck into the coves where ever possible in order to rest and recover.  There, I would stand up to keep from cramping.  When I had to paddle back in the hellacious wind, with its 29 mph gusts, I sat down. 

The work in the headwinds quickly had me warmer than I needed to be. 

At times like this, I always think of Bear Grylls and his tips on Man V. Wild.  You know, like when he strips off all his clothes, after swimming in icy water in the Himalayas or where ever and rolls in the snow to get dry, followed by jumping jacks to get his heart rate up and get warm.

Inland Paddler

Yeah, right. Whatever.

As we fought our way back to the boat ramp, I started getting mad and frustrated.  But you really have to put that aside, as best you can.  It’s wasted energy. It only serves to make things worse.

For the last ten minutes of the paddle, the Farrington Road Bridge, which is the indicator that the paddle is almost over, suddenly became the eastern version of the Hales Bar Dam at Chattajack. IT NEVER GOT ANY CLOSER. At that point, nothing seemed to afford us any protection from the wind, either.

So close. But yet….so….far.

I was ready for this paddle to be over.

When we finally finished, it took me a while to get to the place where you realize your accomplishment and are proud of what you just did. Wendy was pretty stoked.  But she didn’t get full on wet. And it wasn’t at all like the previous Saturday when I faced some irrational fears and went out into Mason’s Inlet at Wrightsville Beach and practiced ins and outs by myself. 

Inland Paddler

The biggest difference there – I didn’t fall.  Didn’t get wet, not even coming back in to the beach.  Yes, conditions were completely different. Calmer. But I got a confidence boost, immediate gratification from that experience.  It’s kind of like the difference between shopping on Amazon and finding exactly what you want, at a good price and pushing the button and boom! It’s yours – versus having to go to the mall and hunt and not find what you’re looking for right away.

Sort of.

But maybe not.

After the fact, I realized that what we did on Jordan was a huge accomplishment, in its own way.  First, we had a GREAT interval session. Second, I made, for the most part, smart decisions based on experience.  And third, I handled myself in a dicey self rescue situation and learned from it.

UCLA basketball coaching legend John Wooden said “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.” He also said “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” There were lots of little details on Lake Jordan Tuesday, and I am confident they will help make my big “things” happen.

Inland Paddler