Sea Kayaking Articles from P&H Staff, Team Paddlers, and Friends

Author: Andrea Knepper

Dre’s West Coast Adventure: Part Three, “Life doesn’t get much better than this.”

June 18

Life doesn’t get much better than this.

I’m sitting in the sun above a secluded cove eating brunch, watching seals and the tide come in, finishing a lazy brunch of eggs, refried beans, and a mug of tea. You can’t drive to this cafe.  You can’t even hike. I paddled 39 miles yesterday to get here.

The forecast was 4-foot swell, with the period steadily dropping from 12 seconds several days ago. On yesterday’s paddle, though, it seemed higher and longer. I suspected a longer period swell was coming in – there were larger sets coming through all day, breaking further out than the rest and looking scarier than the predicted 4 feet at a diminishing period.

Fog rolled in around 6 to 7 miles from the beach I was looking for, one of the few protected beaches in 30 miles either direction. It got REALLY foggy about 3 miles from my goal.  I could just make out those same big sets, that seemed bigger (I don’t know if they were or if it was the fog…), breaking into cliffs.  I couldn’t see where I was going – just the shore I needed to stay away from.

Lost people go in circles. Trusting my compass to keep me padding along the shore instead of heading in made me feel like I was going in circles. I had to keep turning out from the shore to go out past the steepening swell. I had to trust my compass and my chart. Looking at the chart, I estimated I was about 45 minutes away from the bay where shore would get further away and I would need to go in behind rocks to find my protected beach. I was already terrified, and now more terrified.  How would I navigate the rocks? There was big swell coming around them and breaking, and I wasn’t sure if there was a safe line through. I opted to go out and around. Which got me through the rocks, and turned around in the fog. I couldn’t see my shore, but I could see the rocks, and the chart showed me the direction of the line of rocks and my direction from shore. I was in behind the rocks and needed to head north to my beach.

I was terrified.

I was looking at what seemed unbroken cliffs with the big swell breaking onto them. But I saw an arch that was clearly Grenville Arch. There was a safe way in a bit closer to where my protected beach SHOULD be. And then I realized I was sitting in protected water, and the surf on this beach was much smaller. It was safely landable.

The beach disappears at high tide, so I had to make a level shelf on a ledge above the beach, with a little shelf to hold it so I wouldn’t slide, and a little “patio” so I wouldn’t slide off the cliff when I got up to pee at night. I was exhausted and still a little scared and I had massive blisters – this was all hard work.

The water came really close to my tent that night. I was up 40 minutes both sides of high tide. I got splashed 4 times and had my stuff in bags in case I needed to climb the cliff…

I was feeling a ton of stress, exhaustion and pain just 5 paddling days into my 4-month-long journey.

But before the fog settled in, there was a whale. Right beside me. It surfaced 3 times, all slow like a whale does, making its ‘pffffsssshhhh’ sound, barnacles on its back. And here I am, finishing brunch in the sun, watching the sea. And I’m so lucky I get to be here, to do this, to see this beach.

Post-Expedition Thoughts

This day was one of firsts that became commonplace. My first 30+ mile day. My first whale. My first thick fog with rocks. My first time being scared. My first hard-to-locate landing. What stands out most about it several months later isn’t the fear of the swell against rocks in fog, or the dis-orientation of having to follow my compass when it felt subjectively like I had paddled in a full circle instead of a straight line along the coast, or the wonder of a whale close at hand. What stands out months later is the beach. It remains one of my favorite beaches of the whole expedition. The day ends up lodged in my memory as a good one. Which is kind of cool.

Dre’s West Coast Adventure: Part Two, “I’m so lucky.”

June 13

I’m on Day 3 of this adventure and on my 2nd weather day! It’s amazing the difference 2 days make. (Day 1 was a weather day, and I still had my head in 2 worlds). I was super stressed the last couple days before the trip started.

Then also on the first paddling day, I had a REALLY slow start (I had to carry the boat about a quarter-mile, then all the gear), a really heavy boat, I didn’t know if it may be loaded too heavy and bow heavy, there was water coming over the bow… I was still stressed. Was it a bad idea to round Cape Flattery like this? The forecast was 5-foot swell at 12 seconds – I expected some energy out there.

The kinks ironed out, the boat performed admirably, I remember I could paddle – and I got to the Cape and the stacks off the Cape. It was gorgeous. While I still had regular thoughts that I muttered aloud, “wtf am I doing?” – they became increasingly peppered with “I’m so lucky.”

I had to take another day off today. The forecast said 7 foot swell at 7 seconds, then 6 feet at 9 seconds, then I couldn’t get the right forecast and the marine forecast on my Garmin didn’t differentiate between wind waves and swell and seemed to show wind speeds on land, not water… the beach looked big. All the forecasts agreed it would diminish. A friend sent me ten proper forecast, and indeed, it’s supposed to be smaller. The beach is already looking smaller.

So today I made the best of a ridiculously high percentage of weather days and walked to the Cape Flattery trail to see what I paddled yesterday. Gorgeous. And all I can say is – I’m so lucky.

Post-Expedition Thoughts

I don’t particularly remember that my head was still in two places the first couple days of the expedition. It’s an interesting reminder to read that several months later.

What I DO remember was competing thoughts of “wtf?!” and “I’m so lucky.” I didn’t know at the beginning of the expedition – and probably wouldn’t have guessed – that those two thoughts would be my constant companions through the next 3 months. I think that every single day, I said both of those things out loud. I still think both of those things every time I see photos from the trip – and I see them every day because they’re my screen saver now… I see the photos, and I think how unbelievably lucky I am to have had the chance to do this and to get to see all the indescribable beauty I was immersed in for 3 months. And I also have that moment of “wtf?.” As I was planning, as I was paddling, and after the whole thing was over, I’ve had this constant feeling of something surreal. I mean – really? I lived out of my kayak for 3 months? On the beaches of this country – a heavily populated, heavily industrialized, heavily regulated country?

I’m grateful for one more thing now – I feel so lucky I took this trip last summer. My initial plan was to do it summer 2020. I don’t know what prompted me to move it up by a year – but wow am I lucky I did!

Dre’s West Coast Adventure: Part One, “I only meant to go to the bridge.”

This time last year, Andrea ‘Dre’ Knepper was on an epic mission to paddle solo along all 3000 miles of the West Coast of the USA from Canada to Mexico.

Unfortunately, we were in the midst of writing a new P&H website at the time, and hadn’t yet finished up its blog page; Dre’s posts, therefore, sadly got buried in our ever-overflowing inbox.

As they say, however, every cloud has a silver lining, and reminded by Dre’s current run of interviews and podcasts, we’re finally getting her posts uploaded. We’re sure, like us, you’ll enjoy the opportunity to get lost in her words and pictures, and absorbed in the story of her incredible journey. Enjoy…

I only meant to go to the bridge.

If you haven’t met me, my name is Andrea. I’ve planned a long paddle for this summer. I plan to paddle the West Coast of the Lower 48. I’ve wanted to do this for at least 15 years. 

The first leg of the journey, after months of planning and dehydrating food and looking at charts, was almost over. But I stopped 40 miles away from the end of my 2100 mile drive from Chicago, where I live, to Portland where my mom lives and where a boat was waiting nearby for me. I stopped at Multnomah Falls. 

I’ve been going to the Columbia River Gorge and the falls area for 45 years. This evening, I decided to make a quick stop at the end of a beautiful days’ drive. 

I was just going to take a quick walk up to the bridge over the lower falls. 

But then I wanted to go around the corner for the views of the Columbia. And then I wanted to go around the next hairpin for views with less obstructions. Pretty soon, I was on my way to the top of the upper falls. And I realized, hiking along in flip flops with a small cup of mocha from the snack bar and no water, that this was why I’m taking this trip this summer. Because there’s always something so beautiful to see around the next bend, the next point, at the next rest area. This world is stunning, and I like when I get to see it. Really see it.

I like long journeys. I want to know what’s next. So I stopped at  Multnomah Falls to take a quick walk to the bridge, and hiked to the top. And I’ve been eye-ing the West Coast for a long paddling expedition for 15 years.

I hope I’m more prepared for this than for my flip-flop-attired hike up to the top of Multnomah Falls! The right gear is critical for this endeavor. I put a fair amount of thought into what boat I’d like to use. The boat I’ve paddled for 15 years is playful and fun, but doesn’t particularly like to go straight. I wanted something a bit more happy to go straight, while still responsive. I needed a boat that would fit me – most boats are too big for me. And I wanted a boat made by a company with a good solid record of consistently good quality boats. 

I find it terrifying to ask other people to get behind my own endeavors. I run a non-profit – and hate fundraising. And the idea of asking companies in the paddling industry if they would sponsor this trip was almost enough to make me decide to use my boat that would double the mileage of this trip with all the zig-zagging it would do. But I screwed up my courage, made a brochure about what I was doing, and asked P&H if they would consider sponsoring the trip. They said yes! So I’m paddling a brand new Scorpio LV from Canada to Mexico. 

It’s a long journey – and I love long journeys. I also like un-mediated immersion in nature. I was struck by this at Multnomah Falls. After a fire a couple years ago that burned a lot of trees and destabilized the soil, there are locking fences where there didn’t used to be. After a large slab of rock fell from the falls 15 years ago, the stone walls along the path by the pool have had posts and chain added so it’s quite difficult to hike around the pool or behind the falls. I was a bit sad – I have this amazing childhood memory of standing behind the falls filling up my canteen. That water tasted really good! It was in the days before we filtered our water, when there were signs warning us to stay on the path. Signs that were next to well-trod unofficial paths around and behind the falls, belying the fact that the powers that be didn’t enforce the rules. 

On this journey, there are no warning signs. There are no fences. There’s no one else to tell me when and where to decide not to go. There’s no one to mediate my experience or my safety. 

I don’t think it’s a bad thing that so many of our experiences of nature are mediated, controlled, regulated. The imposition of safety regulations allows folks who don’t have knowledge or experience to see incredible places. It increases access for so many people who don’t get the chance to be in nature. 

I’m often the person mediating the experience for others. I impose rules that people don’t like and sometimes don’t understand. I direct Chicago Adventure Therapy – a non-profit working with under-served youth in Chicago, using outdoor sports to build skills. Creating access for them means taking responsibility for safety decisions they aren’t equipped to make.

It also means helping them learn to make those decisions for themselves. Because here’s the thing.  It’s great to hike to the bridge at Multnomah Falls.  It’s super-crowded with tourists from all over the world. It’s got a smooth asphalt trail to it. It’s got railings and fences and locks that don’t let you get into a place you shouldn’t be. And it’s absolutely beautiful. It takes your breath away.

It’s also incredible to have the opportunity to take long journeys in nature. Where you have every opportunity to get in trouble – and every opportunity to see what’s around the next point or to hike behind the waterfall and fill your canteen. 

I’ve been dehydrating food, paddling in conditions nothing like the Pacific, figuring out what gear to use to keep myself safe. I’ve been wrapping things up at Chicago Adventure Therapy – paddling with our community at our spring retreat and at the first Midwest symposium of the season, moving our office out of my home, transferring responsibilities to my staff. I’ve picked up the boat (with help from a couple cats) and did a test pack to see if  I can take a month’s worth of food at a time. The preparations are done and it’s time to start the journey. I’m hoping to fill up my canteen this summer. Because there’s no better water than the water I get to be on for four months.

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