Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sculpted by Nature

Along the shore of the Penobscot ice forms layer by layer.  Thick sheets pushed over as the ice breaker works the river.
 Thin sheets from low temperatures the night before.
 Ice drifts on the current and is pushed to the shores, catching on ancient log structures.
 And small icicles form where streams flow down the sides.
The moving water carves and smooths the ice below, creating fantastic shapes. Though when you look closely, the layering is still evident.
Eventually entire “Seuss-ian” villages are created.

This is the first year we’ve paddled in Maine during February.  February tends to be cold; plus long hours and six day work week give me little opportunity to get out.  In fact, it wasn't I who suggested this paddle, but Mark who insisted from the moment I awoke we'd go paddling; the wind "Wasn't that bad."  (This was last Saturday)  And he was right, though I love my job, it was wonderful to be out beneath the wide open sky, not rushing between my car and a building.  Wonderful to be concentrating on seeing the world around me and sharing its beauty. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

How Babybel Saved the Day

See this picture of Mark perched on the side of a river, beneath some trees? I took it in Florida about three years ago. What’s he doing there? Obviously, he’s ignoring the ubiquitous alligator warning signs. And he’s unconcerned about whatever poisonous snakes might be lurking there.
     Fun fact: Maine is the only state in the continental US without any indigenous poisonous snakes. “Red touch yellow- kill a fellow” is not something we regularly deal with.
Alligators are another dangerous creature absent from Maine waters. Which is no doubt why the outfitter had filled our heads with tales about how lucky we were to get enclosed kayaks. Sit-on-tops, he warned us, allowed the gators easy access and were expected to be banned from rental use.
     I was a bit skeptical about his story. Alligator attacks on people are rare enough; I’ve seen alligator attacks on kayaks only in SyFy original movies. Even so, that didn’t mean we wanted to be lingering at the water’s edge waving our hands about as if we had access to raw chicken.
     But there Mark is, hunched beneath the trees, focused on a twig and distracted from whatever dangers lurk nearby. And all because of misplaced optimism.

     We’d flown to Florida in late May, hoping to enjoy some early season kayaking. We’d arrived to what could not technically be called a hurricane, since hurricane season starts on Memorial Day. It was a system stalled just off shore, dumping rain and wind on the state. Earlier in the year Florida had been suffering from a drought. As the week wore on, first water bans were lifted, then the news was filled with stories of flooding.
     It was not a great week for paddling. We’d had pretty good luck renting boats in the Homosassa and Crystal River area. But when we ventured elsewhere, we spent a day being turned down. Outfitters were closed, or uninterested in renting. Eventually, we’d called an outfitter for a nearby river. He hesitated, most of his boats had already been committed to scouting and similar groups heading out for the Memorial Day weekend. But, if we were willing to compromise, he had a pair of sturdy Pelicans he could rent us, he’d drop us off nine miles upriver and we could call him when we reached the target landing.
     When we showed up at his house in the morning, it was clear he wasn’t lying about the lack of boats. He had several racks out back, but only two pumpkin-seed boats remaining. The seats looked adequate, with a decent upright angle.
     The paddle situation was not good. Just a few paddles left, all crappy beginner paddles. But, as with the start of all outdoor disasters, we figured we’d power through, and selected the best of the bunch.
     Our second harbinger of doom came when we launched. Mark’s boat was missing a foot pedal. The dealer offered to bring us back while he repaired it, or found us a different boat; he’d placed some by distant swimming holes for the upcoming weekend. But we wanted to press on, finish our paddle before the rain started again and move on to a new area. Mark figured he could brace his feet against the sides.
     The outfitter drove off, and we launched into the water.
At the launch
     Just a few minutes later, Mark realized something which should have been obvious at the start. A missing foot pedal means a missing screw in the side of the boat- which means an open hole- which means the boat fills with water.
     So despite the alligators and snakes, Mark headed to shore to drain his kayak and to carve a peg to fill the hole. That slowed the leak down, and allowed us to concentrate on complaining about the paddles for a few miles.
     If you haven’t used a beginner paddle recently, you may have forgotten how unpleasant a cheap paddle can be. Phone books taped to the end of a stick would provide a similar sensation. More depressingly, one of my blades was loose and would shift. Every so often I’d have to stop and twist the blade back into position.
     Never-the-less we paddled on, making it to the pleasant rest area halfway down. We pulled ashore to snack and drain Mark’s boat again.
     Our meal was nothing great, just some food from a local grocery store; apples, Babybel cheeses, water and chips. Enough for a MacGyver moment; Mark took the cheese wax and filled the hole. No more leak! Just turtles, gators and some heavy paddles.
One of several gators; it's probably much bigger than it looks...
We learned several things that day:
1) an unpleasant adventure makes for funnier stories than an ordinary paddle,
2) if an outfitter is reluctant to rent gear, you probably shouldn’t push them,
3) if you’re flying on a paddling vacation, there’s not room for all your gear, but a first aid and repair kit should be a priority, AND
4) always include Babybel cheese in your lunch; it could save your life.