Now, I’m far from being a seasoned sea kayaker, in fact, I’m actually a whitewater kayaker, but when the opportunity came up for a few days of exploring in Scotland with good pals, I wasn’t going to turn it down!
For anyone here that’s also a whitewater kayaker, you may know that I’ve been fortunate enough to work all over the world with TV wildlife presenter, Steve Backshall. It was a big birthday for Stevo this year, and we wanted to make it a memorable one.
This would be unlike any trip I’d done before, mainly because a beautiful 102ft sailing boat known as Lady of Avenel would be our home for the next couple of days. Not only was this an amazing treat, but it would also allow us to paddle and explore to our heart’s content. Stefan Fritz owned the Lady and would be our fantastic skipper, accompanied by friend of the ship, Patrick Winterton (of Scot Ocean Sports), who had kindly offered to join us, sharing his local knowledge and expertise, as well as excellent company!
Unlike our usual missions, the aim was not to conquer anything big and gnarly, discover unknown territories, or document grizzly bear behaviour, it was simply to have fun with friends, paddling somewhere new -and that’s exactly what we did!
Day 1 Our adventure started from Dunstaffnage marina, near the town of Oban, and as always, began with a healthy chunk of kit faff. It appeared that the vital bag of PFDs and breakdown paddles was sitting on Steve’s driveway almost 500 miles away. Steve 1 blamed Steve 2 (Backshall) and Steve 2 blamed Steve 1. Thankfully we managed to beg, borrow, and steal enough gear for everyone and were finally sailing out of the marina, accompanied by some playful porpoise!
We were heading towards the Isle of Lismore, or Lios Mòr, which is thought to mean ‘Great Garden’ in Gaelic and relates to the green and fertile lowlands on this small, Inner Hebrides island. About 180 people live on the 10-mile long by 1-mile wide island, as well as a rich population of seals, otters, peregrine falcons, and razorbills.
With the Lady’s anchor down, we set off in our sea kayaks past the tall, white Musdile lighthouse in calm waters and glorious sunshine, surrounded by black guillemots and squawking seagulls. Continuing west, we passed a small skerry known as ‘Lady’s Rock’, before reaching Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull. It was here that Patrick told us the gruesome, but slightly comical story behind these landmarks and how this seemingly indistinct skerry got its name…
Way back in 1527, a rather unpleasant chap called Lachlan Maclean of Duart rowed his wife, Lady Catherine Campbell to this tiny chunk of rock in the sea, leaving her there to drown once high tide came around. Looking out from his castle window the next morning and seeing no life, he announced Catherine’s death. The plan backfired somewhat when his conversation with Catherine’s family about the ‘terrible illness’ that took her life was abruptly interrupted by the Lady herself walking into the room and joining them at the dining table!
After a quick stop in the bay at Duart Point, we crossed northeast through the Bernera gap and along Lismore’s west coast -where lots of seals were either sunbathing on the beach or bobbing up beside our kayaks! We then rejoined the ship and crossed from Lismore to Port Appin on the mainland.
We pulled in at Airds Bay, where we were met by seals enjoying the evening sun and a bagpiper playing happy birthday for Stevo -a surprise we’d set up with the help of skipper, Stefan! The anchor went down and a night of celebrations followed, including two very large cakes.
Day 2 The Lady sailed us from Airds Bay to Kerrera Island, which at 7km long and 2km wide is home to approximately 70 people. Two communities exist on the island- north and south, and a road connecting the two was only developed a couple of years ago!
Life on Kerrera is not for everyone, especially as residents have to travel to mainland Scotland for everyday basics such as schools, shops, post offices, banks, and health services; however, it boasts some of the best highland island views, which we got to enjoy until we reached just north of the Slate Island of Siel. Here we launched the sea kayaks and paddled the relatively narrow sea channel between the island and the mainland (only 12km between the two) and under the ‘Bridge over the Atlantic’ (Clachan Bridge).
It had been relatively calm and sheltered as we paddled through the Sound of Siel, but as we etched further south the wind really started to ramp up. Rounding the southern tip of Siel, the increasing wind put an abrupt end to our noisy chatter and banter, instead adopting the ‘head down and paddle’ approach! This was amplified even more so when we met the boiley currents of the Sound of Cuan and even stronger winds.
After the gruelling gales and confusing currents, Patrick waved us over to a small harbour in a tiny village called Easdale. Earlier that day, we’d all thought that he’d been joking when he talked about World Rock Skimming Championships. However, it turns out that this is actually a thing and this is where it’s hosted each year. Patrick announced that we weren’t allowed to leave Easdale until we had at least one round of competition.
Obviously, Patrick was a regular here, as his rock skims pretty much covered the entire length of the natural pool. After some embarrassingly bad attempts on my behalf, we got into our kayaks and back into the wind, spotting several Oyster Catchers with their long, orange bills and loud ‘peeping’ call, along the way. By the time we rejoined the Lady, everyone was ready for a cup of tea and of course, more cake.
By the evening, the winds had died down and the Lady made her way back up to Kerrera. Here we enjoyed one last night all together (with more cake), before getting up early for a day of sea swimming and journeying back to Oban.
There are over 40 islands making up the Inner Hebrides islands and we’d only scraped the surface, leaving plenty to come back and explore another time. We’d been limited to just a couple of short days here in Scotland, but we all shared the feeling that we’d had so much during that time. Everything from glorious sunshine to storms and strong winds; calm seas to confused currents and spinning whirlpools; porpoises, seals and lots of sea birds; kayaking, swimming and sailing; laughs, banter, long overdue catch-ups; and of course, a lot of cake.
Thank you, Scotland and we’ll be back soon!
Huge ‘thank you’s go to Steve and the crew for a very fun and memorable trip; S1 for driving and putting up with me for two very long car journeys; Stefan, Jules, and Samantha for looking after us so well on the Lady of Avenel; Patrick of Scots Ocean Sports for the local knowledge, guidance, and excellent company for our sea kayaking explorations.
Images: Steve Backshall, Rosie Gloyns, Keith Partridge, James Brickell, Sal Montgomery
Many say the island called Møn in the eastern part of the Danish Baltic Sea is the most beautiful island with the most spectacular section of coastline in the whole of the little Kingdom. This means a lot because the country is supposed to own 1,400 islands and a coastline of more than 7000 km in length. I could quite agree with that, but I have not even seen yet maybe 150 of their islets.
What makes it stand out from the others are its chalk cliffs. The white walls called Møns Klint stretch for about 7 km along the eastern coast of Møn. They consist of shells that accumulated 70 million years ago on the seabed of an ancient tropic sea. Billions of microscopic plankton with chalk skeletons made up a thick layer of sediment, that was later exposed by the glaciers of the ice age. If you are lucky enough you can find fossils of shellfish or sea urchins at the foot of the cliffs.
The highest point, the Dronningestolen, reaches 128 m above the sea level of the Baltic Sea. This kind of rock is also common on both sides of the English Channel like in famous places like Étretat in France, or the White Cliffs of Dover. A wonderful old beech forest that grows alongside the cliff sets the Danish wall apart.
The best time to paddle along this coast is the early morning when the sunrise hits the white, carbonate rock. If the weather is right you will paddle under the glowing “Klint” and look up in awe and wonder as there are plenty of cracks, little towers, and fallen trees along the shore to see.
But the Island has more to offer than the Klint. When you paddle around it, which means about a 110-kilometre distance and approximately 3 days of paddling, you will encounter long and empty sandy beaches and the cute little town of Steege with its historic centre.
The western shores of Møn are pretty sheltered by a lot of small islands, some only inhabited by cows and birds. On the narrow points, you will encounter a little tidal and wind-induced flow.
The main stretch of the route around the island is open to the waves of the Baltic Sea which can be pretty powerful when the wind stirs up over 5 Beaufort. A wonderful thing is the Danish system of free overnight places in the wild, called “Overnantinig i det fri”. Those are designated sites specially reserved for hikers, bikers, or paddlers. Along the shore of Møn you will find some of them in tactical, well-suited positions for a circumnavigation if combined with one of the normal camping sites. Some “Overnantinig i det fri” sites offer Scandinavian-type open wooden shelters and fireplaces, which are perfect for sitting out bad weather.
If you bring your fishing gear alongside and buy a cheap Danish fishing license in a post office, you can catch some sea trout and mackerel to enrich your cooking. So why not visit the little kingdom of Denmark and bring your sea kayak?
There is much more to discover. You can paddle alongside Copenhagen’s City or surf the waves of the North Sea in Klittmöller or Hvide Sande. Looking for a mellow camping trip? Paddle the Limfjord which offers wonderful nature, many “Overnattning i det fri” places, and an intricate system of water bodies…
Lake Schwerin (Schweriner See) is situated in the north of Germany in a county called Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and measures approximately 62 km², which ranks it 4th among the biggest German lakes. Carved out by the glaciers of the Ice Age, it is nowadays a proper paddling ground for sea kayakers.
The vast nature along its shore is a good reason to visit this gem of a lake. A good deal of its shore is accompanied by beech tree forests and floodplain forests that are dominated by alder and ash trees.
In the branches of the trees, you may spot white-tailed eagles. Kingfishers hunt small fishes close to shore. You can listen to the trumpeting sounds of cranes, which usually are hidden in the vast fields of reed that spread over several bays. Spotting them is hard except in migrating time when groups of hundreds pass over the lake frequently.
If you are a fan of culture, you will not be disappointed here either. The Castle of Schwerin is called the Neuschwanstein of North Germany. Built on the remains of an older fortress it was changed over time. Its contemporary face was built in the middle of the 19th century by architect Adolf Demmler with the simplicity of Prussian Neoclassicism and a sense of elegance in mind.
In modern times the castle became the seat of regional parliament. With a kayak, you can paddle around its walls and enjoy the view better than anyone else. Several islands that can be visited by kayak are another reason to cruise here.
Last but not least there are two possibilities to camp in designated places on the islands with your tent. A possibility that is rare in other places in Germany.
When the wind is strong, like in the off-season, you may have the possibility to change from cruising to surfing mode and paddle downwind in steep and powerful waves.
To sum up you will find a good deal of reasons to put your kayak into the water at Lake Schwerin!
With an uncharacteristic spell of good weather, some midweek time off booked, and a willing companion, a quick trip to Pembrokeshire was called for.
My partner in crime, Adam Harmer, and I were keen to claim three of Pembrokeshire’s classic trips back to back before the weather broke. We loaded up my Cetus X and Adam’s Volan MV and drove the majority of the way after work. The ‘Park for the night’ app found us a quiet location. Adam bagged the back of the van whilst I slept under the stars in my seldom-used Hooped bivi-bag. So seldom used in fact that I had forgotten it had a broken ‘hoop’ which meant a somewhat ‘dew soaked’ night, which is the price to pay for such a clear, starry night in October when sleeping high in the Preseli Hills.
The first trip on our hit list was the Castlemartin coast from Freshwater West to Stackpole Quay. Probably one of the most scenic sections of coastline in Britain. A quick check that the firing range wasn’t firing, and with the tides to check which direction we’d need to take, and all was on. Our continued spell of good fortune continued when a phone call to a friend sorted the shuttle for us. Ben would pick up the van and deposit it at the end for us all whilst we were enjoying the coastline. The low swell and light winds meant that we could explore all the hidden ‘nooks and crannies’ this section of the coast provides. The firing range does somewhat restrict landing options but we managed a rocky shore landing in front of St Govan’s Chapel and I managed to get a few snaps off from the hastily flown drone before ‘restricted airspace’, again, due to the firing range, forced it back to land. After a short leg-stretch, we continued our journey to the beautiful Stackpole Quay and waiting coffee shop. Ben had indeed delivered the van and journey one of three had been bagged in perfect conditions.
Day 2 saw us relocate to the car park just above Martin’s Haven – the next objective was Skomer and Skokholm. The tides dictated a very early start and hence a ‘stealth’ camp in the car park to be on the water at first light. Tidal planning dictated a 7 am launch, declining winter light meant that it was in fact 7:20 am before we could see sufficiently to cross ‘Jack’s Sound’ and start our anti-clockwise circumnavigation of the two islands. My calculations had indicated that we need to be on the south side of Skokholm before 9 am to avoid fighting the tide and to enjoy a tide assisted return. Despite the delayed launch, we were perfectly located on the south side at 9:10 am. So we managed to return to Martin’s Haven with the tide behind us and in time for a well-earned ‘brunch’ followed by a flying visit to a friend’s campsite for a refreshing shower to remove two days of salt encrustment. Trip two of three completed.
The third trip on the flying visit was out to South Bishop lighthouse and a circumnavigation of Ramsey. Again, the tides dictated an early start and another ‘stealth’ camp in the van in the car park above Whitesands beach.
We couldn’t afford any light delays this time as calculations indicated that we needed to be at the lighthouse for 9 am after which the tide would be against us. So we launched at 7 am in the gloomy twilight, through a few small breaking waves and on to a stunning flat sea, the twinkling lighthouse our distance target on the horizon. As we reached St David’s head we had increasing daylight which allowed us to settle into the ferry glide down and across to our first target, Careg Rhoson. A quick upping of the pace as we neared this target got us nicely into the eddy behind the collection of islands. The majority of the hard work done, we now dropped down with the tide passing Daufraich and its infamous ‘sump’, (not the place you want to take a sea kayak!) to the north coast of South Bishop where the tricky steep steps and only landing spot are located. But would the swell allow us to land? Many have paddled out here and then not been able to land due to the swell and strong tidal flow. But our luck once again held out and a tricky but straightforward landing saw us on the dry land of the island at 08:45hrs. I’m not sure who was most shocked, us when we bumped into the lighthouse keepers who had arrived the day before, or them when two heads appear up the ‘condemned steps’ just in time for a breakfast cuppa.
After a hastily drunk brew and tour of the lighthouse, we refloated. I had a minor hiccup resulting in a slow-motion capsize whilst relaunching from the rocky steps, which was the only break in our luck for the whole trip, but nothing other than pride was damaged. We ferry glided the early flooding tide to round the south end of Ramsey and float through the Bitches, where we enjoyed a quick play, before landing once again at Whitesands for a well-earned bacon butty. The early finish also meant we could be home in time for some bonus ‘brownie’ points with our respective loved ones. Three classic trips in three days in Perfect conditions. October in Pembrokeshire delivered. The weather did indeed break the next day with force 6+ winds racking the whole west coast of Wales.
We recently became aware of a number of polyethylene P&H Sea Kayaks which had insufficient thickness towards the rear of the cockpit rim and were therefore more prone to splitting in this area.
Affected batches were produced in late 2019/early 2020; you can ascertain the production date of your kayak by looking at the last 4 digits of the serial number, with the letter denoting the month (‘A’ being January, ‘B’ being February, and so on) the first number being the last digit of the calendar year, and the final two numbers being the last two digits of the US model year (changing in August).
If you believe your boat to be affected, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your address, the serial number, model, size, and colour of your kayak, and which dealer it was purchased from.
No other batches are affected, although it is possible that other boats may split in this region for different reasons, such as:
Frequently sitting directly on the back of the cockpit rim.
Transporting the boat with the cockpit rim against an unpadded roof rack.
Storing the boat with the cockpit rim against an unpadded rack.
Extreme or high-frequency usage.
A Cockpit Rim Repair & Reinforcement Kit is available for instances where a cockpit rim split has occurred outside of the warranty duration or conditions.
Over the upcoming months and likely into our next summer season, I’ve decided to pursue a project around what is, in a way, what I call ‘my office’. As we are now drawing toward the end of a fourth season operating Kayak Summer Isles, in the north west of Scotland, I’ve spent many hundreds of days getting to know, sharing, and exploring these islands. It’s safe to say I know them well.
I figure the next step of really embedding myself into the islands is to spend a night on them.
Some of which I do on a regular basis with our guests, but many others (the rocks and skerries) I’ve not even landed on yet. By my count there are 17 ‘proper’ islands and 15 rocks and skerries big enough to safely camp and land on, making a total of 32 nights in the archipelago.
I won’t make them all in a season, as some will mean waiting until the bird colonies move off in winter so I won’t disturb them. What ones I can do now I hope to tackle in ‘evening blasts’ after work and before starting the next day’s guiding.
What better way to start than the iconic and rugged skerry that is Stac Mhic Aonghais.
Local legend has it, that the name comes from a man who was laid prisoner on this lonely and desolate rock. Purportedly having had ‘intimate relations’ with a laird’s daughter, he was rowed out and abandoned as a ‘time out and think about what you’ve done’. Ahh, young love.
By day 3 Angus’s captors must have felt guilty, as they then rowed out to check on him. Upon landing they were surprised to discover that Angus had gone!
Combing the island, they strayed further from their boat and with a sudden race, Angus leapt from a crevice in the rocks, hopped aboard and dis-embarked, waving cheery farewell as his captors became the captives.
Some accounts say he rowed, whilst others claim he had no oars and set adrift. Either way, he landed on Stoer Head some 30km north and survived.
The boat still remains with Angus’s relatives, and there’s been bad blood between the two families ever since . . . apparently.
I wonder if he ever managed to meet the laird’s daughter ever again?
Kayaking out in the evening, I set off from shore around 7.30 pm, with little over an hours light left in the day. I was tired from a day’s guiding but equally excited to disappear for a night’s vagabond adventure, following in Angus’s footsteps for a night on his rock.
The island is 1km south of Tanera Beag and even with the wind in favour and using the tidal eddies to my advantage, the journey took an hour from Old Dornie Harbour. The light was waning.
I’d taken my ultra-lightweight kevlar/carbon infusion Aries, as I figured it’d be easier to haul up the rocks on my shoulders fully laden with camp and cookware, but in hind-sight maybe a plastic boat that I could have dragged may have been a wiser move. Arriving at high tide, I found a crevice without swell on the eastern shore and set about navigating the 40º sloped sides with the boat on my shoulder. Delicate footsteps and my free hand scrambling brought me up to a ledge where I could at last anchor the kayak.
By necessity, I needed to return early the next morning, meaning leaving at the low tide. Before setting camp, I scouted about and picked my exit route as my prior access would be untenable at the lower tidal state. A scramble, toss, and a leap seemed likely.
The stac was largely rock, with a bristling hair of lichens adorned across the top. Around the corner, on the wind-battered western cliffs, I could hear a bird colony, out of sight but not out of sound.
Many, if not all of the possible flat spots were waterlogged with bright green algal pools. To my delight on the summit, a single large flat slab presented a near-perfect bed. Surrounded on all sides by a small rocky lip, it cradled the sense of security atop the island and granted a fantastic view. Darkness was fast approaching.
Bivi bag out on the rock, I scoffed a quick dinner, took a few photos and then settled into bed. The sound of the low swell pounding below me, and the occasional whoosh of birds flying past lulled a sense of calm. The air was warm, and as hoped for a breeze kept any midges at bay.
By 2 am, the full moon had risen, bathing the island in a silvery light, enough to see without a head-torch. 20km to my east, I could see the lights of Ullapool, home, in the distance.
The breeze had dropped, as had the swell, leaving the island eerily calm. Below me, I could hear a pshhht coming from some form of cetacean nearby, most likely a porpoise, but I liked to imagine a whale.
My alarm wasn’t necessary. As it turns out seagulls also wake with the first hint of dawn, and their calls as they fledged their roosts around the corner was sufficient to wake me. A faint orange glow was rising as I re-packed my kayak and carefully carried it down the rocks, thankful for the barnacles to give some grip.
Clipped to my kayak, I tossed it into the gentle swell and leapt aboard under head-torch. Once decked on, I turned my light off, preferring to navigate by the dawn glow. It was 5 am.
Returned to Ullapool before the day begun, I arrived home, showered and packed, ready to re-pack and head back on the water with guests. I felt satisfied like I’d stolen a secret adventure through the night, unseen and unknown until dawn. Most of all however I was thankful not to leave the island and drift north to Stoer, wondering if I’d ever return again.
If you’d like to share my island adventures as I try to camp on each follow me on @willcopestake (Instagram and YouTube) and via #summerislessleeps, or better still, join me through www.kayaksummerisles.com
Having spent much of lockdown reminiscing on past adventures and planning exciting new adventures (the shelf of guidebooks has had to bear the burden of a few new additions since March), we were ready to make the most of the easing of restrictions. One of the new additions to our guidebook collection was Doug Cooper’s Skye and North West Highlands Sea Kayaking. In hindsight, it seems remarkable that it wasn’t already an established and well-thumbed favourite.
With kayaking, adventures, and overnight stays more than 5 miles from home all back on the cards, a plan was forming. It seemed that high pressure was going to dominate the North Coast for at least a few days, and after our enforced time away from the water we wanted a series of day trips with the option of an overnight camp or two.
“A week could easily be spent exploring this area, let alone the islands further south.” – Doug Cooper on the northern-most of the Summer Isles.
Our plan for a few day trips around the Summer Isles and an overnight camp now formed, the P&H Virgo seemed like the perfect choice: In CoreLite X it would be light for daily lifting on/off the roof of the van; rugged for lots of rocky landings and if the swell picked up some rock hopping; big enough to accommodate our camping kit; maneuverable to allow us to explore the tightest of gaps.
The first few days were spent making day trips in Loch Ewe and around the Summer Isles. Rocky coastlines with imposing cliffs, white sandy beaches, small bays and inlets, crossings up to 8km all with a beautiful mountainous backdrop, crystal clear water and wildlife aplenty. Midway through the afternoon on our second day, as we emerged from the mist and confirmed that we had followed our bearing correctly, found a sheltered cove for a rest and bite to eat, it became clear that our lives were to become richer in two ways. Firstly the Virgo, and secondly the North West coastline that we had been exploring.
Having covered nearly 100km in the first 3 days, it was time for a slower pace for a few days. Boats loaded with overnight gear we set out from Achnahaird beach to explore the coast of Enard Bay, following the rugged coastline as far north as the Bay of Stoer. With a brisk wind blowing offshore we slowly made our way north, in and out of the countless smaller bays and between the smaller islands. Our Virgos continued to impress us, never feeling as cumbersome as some larger boats do when carrying enough chocolate spread, cheese, and biscuits to see us through. Having spent time getting up close and personal with the many seals on Soyea Island on the outward journey we took a break on islands of Fraochlan and Eilean Mor, the perfect vantage point to watch the large pod of dolphins leaping in the middle of the bay.
Local knowledge and advice often provides for the most memorable experiences and with Oldany Island coming highly recommended by Will Copestake of Kayak Summer Isles, it was the natural way to spend our last day in the area. Paddling out from the pristine beach at Clashnessie to the exposed outside of Oldany Island, with views back towards the Point of Stoer, we were soon rising and falling on the powerful swell with the crashing of the sea against the rocks adding a sense of exposure. As we rounded the island we again found ourselves engulfed in mist, adding to the atmosphere and creating a sense of isolation. With the disorientating mist and distraction of dozens of curious seals, we were soon lost in the maze of small islands, finding ourselves paddling into several dead ends before regaining the narrow channel separating Oldany Island from the mainland. The final few km along the coastline to Clashnessie provided plenty of interest and a magnificent archway to paddle under.
After a week of good fortune our weather window was closing and it was time for us to return home, our need for adventure sated for now, but with plans already forming for a return to explore more of this beautiful and dramatic coastline.
Day One: Loch Ewe Day Two: Southern Summer Isles Day Three: Northern Summer Isles Days Four & Five: Achnahaird to Bay of Stoer and return Day Six: Clashnessie & Oldany Island
Two weeks after I returned home from my expedition, I had jury duty. I learned that when radiologists (and other medical professionals) talk about an intake of breath, they call it an “inspiration.”
I love that!
I love that we can’t live without inspiration. I love that something we do every single day is an inspiration.
I’ve enjoyed being able to share a little bit with you about kayaking the length of the Pacific Coast of this country – from the northwest tip of Washington where I could see Canada, to San Diego Bay, where before rounding Point Loma to go into the bay I could see the Coronado Islands in Mexico.
It was breathtaking. Literally. Every day I held my breath as a whale languidly passed directly in front of my boat or a bevy of migrating birds stretching from horizon to horizon passed so close I could hear the air through their wing feathers. I involuntarily sucked in my breath when a wave collapsed on itself or broke over and around a rock. I laughed out loud when I went by Common Murre or Sea Lion rookeries with their grumbling and belching and chortling. There was the air expelled in sudden surprised tears several times, and (embarrassingly) great big loud ugly sobs when I made contact with the person who was picking me up on that day, when I was utterly exhausted and hadn’t been able to get ahold of him and thought I was going to land in a busy harbor with no place to go. There were the moments of sudden wonder that forced air out of my lungs in surprise- the moment I rounded Point Bonita and the Golden Gate Bridge came into view, the time a pod of dolphins swam out to me and split the pod on both sides of my boat, leaping into the air within just a few feet of my boat, and sank into the water, leaving my surprised breath as the only sound in the silence that filled in behind them.
That word marked the start of the last day of my expedition. I was greeted with a video compiled from videos made by friends across the country and the world, congratulating me on completing this trip. I was given a bouquet of flowers and instructions to decorate my boat with them to remind me of all the colorful friends supporting me in this journey. I was given a white rose with those flowers in honor of Gio, a young man who went to Mexico with Chicago Adventure Therapy (CAT), the non-profit I founded and direct, and was shot and killed in Chicago 6 months later, one week before his 19th birthday. The rose was to lay on the water sometime this day, in honor and memory of Gio, and of the young people still alive, in part because of CAT. I was given a necklace. It was a silver lotus flower – a flower that grows into the sun from roots deep in muck and mud. The lotus flower was holding a piece of sea glass that had, like me, been tossed and pummeled by the sea, stripped raw and worn to the nub, to that essence where all that is left is breath and wonder.
I was greeted that morning by one last thing. A bag of flower buds. A note with them told me they “symbolize all the young people CAT has yet to inspire.” The note reminded me that “you can’t save them; you can only inspire them, as they inspire you.”
I cannot tell you that there is anyone who inspires me as much as the young people who are part of CAT. Young people who are gang-involved, non-binary, homeless, refugees, or have mental health issues or live under the poverty line, these young people have more grit and grace and courage than any other group of people I know. It is the honor of my life to get to paddle and climb and camp with these young people. I’ve cried (and sobbed) with relief, with joy, with worry, with frustration, in grief. I’ve laughed, over and over again. I’ve held my breath, expelled it involuntarily in sudden surprise. There have been moments of wonder as I watch the grace, the courage, the generosity of these young people who’ve been handed a raw deal in their lives.
I learned in October that an “inspiration” is an intake of breath. I wonder – what takes your breath away?
* * * * *
If you are inspired by CAT young people…
If you are inspired by a 1508 mile paddling trip…
If there is someone in your life who inspires you…
~ I hope you will take a moment to make a contribution to CAT.
Chicago Adventure Therapy is not closing our doors, or cancelling our summer season, because of the coronavirus epidemic. While Chicago is still under a Stay at Home Order, we are ramping up efforts to maintain connection with young people and provide referrals to concrete resources like rental assistance or food pantries that they or their families need right now. As the state re-opens, we will run modified outdoor programming where and when we believe it’s safe. Until then we’re working on engaging and relevant online materials, resources and activities to provide for young people, their families, and their communities. Your contribution will help us connect with our youth and provide respite, recreation, and relief to the fullest extent we’re able.
Just past Point Sur, far enough past and on a beach behind a rock from the lighthouse so I could avoid the park rangers, I camped on a beach that had a different look than most of the places I’d camped on this trip. It got me thinking about the trip as a whole, instead of just in the moment or the next leg. If all went well, I was just two weeks out from the end. That was hard to believe. Almost as hard to believe as the idea, two weeks into the trip, that I was going to paddle the entirety of the West Coast of this country.
It highlights one of the pretty cool things, which is that I got to watch the slow change in the land. You’d be hard-pressed to mistake this for the Washington coast! And I got to watch the change at human-powered speed.
As I watched the land and vegetation change, I also got to see the individual pieces we usually see one at a time all strung together as a whole. Instead of this beach and that headland and this other cove, I got to watch them all come together in one coastline. I got to see beaches from the outside, the outsides of headlands that mostly just fishers get to see, the shape of the whole coast.
It’s interesting too how the coast breaks into chunks. Northern Washington was cliffs and smaller sand beaches and lots of sea stacks. Southern Washington was long sandy beaches with big bays. After crossing the Columbia River, an adventure in and of itself, northern Oregon kept the long sandy beaches and bays and added stunning headlands between them. The sea stacks got fewer and bigger. Then southern Oregon was long stretches of sand dunes interrupted by bays and rivers. There’s this little stretch of far southern Oregon that I want to go back to. It’s got lots of giant sea stacks that protect all these hidden sandy coves behind dark green water.
The people I met in the different chunks were different, too. Backpackers on those small Washington beaches among the cliffs and sea stacks of Olympic National Park. A father with two young daughters who helped me carry my boat up the beach when I landed at low tide (the dad was all over Girl Power and made sure to ask questions about my trip and to let his daughters ask questions); another family who helped me carry my boat back to the water in the morning, whose son was mostly interested in searching for crabs and whose daughter was all set to climb the “mountain” at the end of the beach. An evening walk through the campground above the beach revealed identical backpacking stoves set up but put away for the night. In the bays further south I met RV campers with big campfires and beer, and sometimes big (only slightly legal) fireworks. These beaches also hosted a lot more day users – locals walking their dogs in the mornings or evenings (I met so many great dogs!), vacationers coming to the beach for the day, couples taking romantic walks… In northern Oregon, I found people horseback riding and hang gliding along the long beaches in the north. The hidden coves behind the big sea stacks in the very southern part of the state are only accessible by hiking the Oregon Coast Trail (where overnight parking is prohibited in the parking lots, so it’s all-day users) or by boat (not motorboat – it’s too close to the rocks for them!). I met a couple holed up for the day in a cave at the top of the beach, chilling out with their didjeridu.
It starts getting more arid before California – the doug firs give way to pines and then grasses, the beaches smell different, and you start to see lizards. And you realize you really have moved south. I met a man from Spain with the same name as the Cape I was at; he’d found his soul in this landscape.
In Northern California, you get stretches of sea stacks and stretches of long sandy dumpy beaches. They’re interrupted by bays – but also lagoons that you mostly don’t see because they only have an opening to the sea when the sand spits get topped. The bays have a different shape – you get the feeling they’re more like those lagoons. In California, I started periodically getting picked up by local paddlers, many of whom I’d never met before, who would take me to their homes, feed me, give me the opportunity for laundry and a shower, and give me a place to sleep for a night or two with a roof over my head. Once, friends of one of these new-found friends picked me up and provided this hospitality. He’d surfed the California coast for 50 years and gave me good beta about the rest of the coast. The generosity of the paddling community is really remarkable!
And then comes the Lost Coast with mountains straight to the water’s edge and narrow beaches at low water that aren’t there at high water. The beaches that do stay have big dumpy surf – camping is definitely a search for protected beaches. And then you find these incredible gems once you walk to the top of the beach. I saw no one (other than hikers camped where I couldn’t land) on the Lost Coast – except at Shelter Cove. It’s a busy fishing harbor. The marina, though, is at the top of a cliff on land. When fishers head in for the day, they call ahead to the marina. For a small fee, the marina sends someone down with a tractor and a boat trailer, who loads the fisher’s boat onto the trailer and hauls it up to the marina at the top of the cliff. Really and truly. I met a couple who just wanted a place on the coast where they could drink a beer and smoke a – well, we’ll call it a cigarette. They’d found it at Shelter Cove – and they spent days there on vacation drinking beer, smoking “cigarettes”, and watching the fishing boats come in and out. I met AJ, too. He’s an old Salty who grew up fishing in the area. He told me stories of heading out in an 8-foot dinghy with just a compass and a watch to navigate with. He was curious about my trip and told me about the brothers who took surfboards from Ketchikan, Alaska to Tijuana. (I crisscrossed with their story several places, starting in La Push, Washington where I stopped at a marina to inquire about a mailbox where I could mail a letter to my husband. They had stopped there to paint patterns on the bottom of their boards to ward off shark attacks)
Fort Bragg and the Mendocino coast bring rocks and inside lines again (the chance to paddle on the land side of sea stacks or rocks instead of the ocean side. The small sea stacks – or big rocks – provide enough protection that I could have paddled close enough to the cliffs to touch them with my fingertips). As you head further south the human influence gets bigger – by the Sonoma coast, there are houses above most of the coastline and kayak fishers outside the protected coves. It was along the Sonoma Coast that I shared a beach with a Catalan couple biking from Seattle to San Francisco. We had matching tents for our adventures.
San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge are a piece unto themselves. The juxtaposition of natural beauty and a truly beautiful piece of massive human engineering is unique. Most beautiful places are natural or human-made, not both. Just before San Francisco was the second place I paddled with anyone else. (The first place was across the Columbia River). A friend who used to live in Chicago paddled out to my campsite in Tomales Bay at night and paddled around Point Reyes with me the next day. A group of 4 people paddled with me leaving San Francisco. Unfortunately, strong south winds coupled with a flood tide that was also working against us meant that we made the decision to turn back. (The flood tide meant that as we were paddling away from the Bay, the ocean was flooding INTO the Bay – so we were paddling against the sea…) Still – company on the water and off (beers and burgers after the paddle was a great time to swap stories) was lovely.
And then you keep going, and things keep changing – and just a day out from the Bay you’re watching a notorious boomer field (a place where waves jack up over unseen rocks covered by water and can easily catch you unawares) and a long reef where Mavericks lays hidden until the right swell comes through. (Mavericks is a famous “big wave” surf spot with massive wave faces in the right conditions).
A few more days to Monterrey Bay, and then into Big Sur, where the waves against rocks felt a bit different to me – somehow more easily caught unawares. Like Mavericks, it feels like there’s a slumbering power there just under the surface. The water, when you have sunlight, is this amazing color. The cliffs come right to the water again, with very few coves that have beaches at the back. It feels similar to the Lost Coast – except there are expensive houses atop pretty much every cliff. (You don’t see them in the fog though…) The granite here made it seem like paddling next to the Rocky Mountains. I had company a couple different days after San Francisco, including crossing Monterrey Bay. In Big Sur, though, I didn’t see anyone. This is where I stopped at the place just south of Point Sur that looked so different from other places I’d camped. The next night saw one of my favorite campsites, with a freshwater lagoon and a big beach and a curious coyote in the morning. The coyote, and bugling elk at Tomales Bay, was one of the few land mammals I saw on the trip. Marine mammals, though, were amazing – whales surfacing and feeding and breaching, dolphins jumping within feet of my boat, sea lions chortling from the rocks, popping up behind me, or taking a good look at me from the front before careening away from me. And birds! I especially like pelicans. Pelicans and common murres. (They look like loons on the water – and like penguins when they fly or stand. Isn’t that just the coolest thing?) I was fascinated by egrets and herons in Big Sur – they stand on the kelp beds and fish!
And then you come out and head to Morro Bay, where it’s not far to Point Conception and Southern California. One of the more perplexing encounters I had was on the water just offshore of a nuclear power plant south of Morro Bay. I wasn’t the full mile offshore I was supposed to be – and a surfer-looking dude with wild blond hair, a metallic green wetsuit, and a lifejacket (?? OK, so that’s not so surfer-dude-looking…) on a jet ski came out to talk with me.
Yep, I was good.
“Awesome, man. Just checking in.”
And he meandered off on his jet ski – towards the nuclear power plant.
The jury’s out about whether he was a low key security guard, or a dude out enjoying the water…
Anyway, I’d been told everything changes at Point Conception, which was just a couple days away now – the swell, the water temperature and color, the level of risk. And it’s Southern California – I was almost done camping. (Because how do you camp through LA and San Diego? I’d been told it was possible – but I didn’t want to try to search for hidden camping spots in the midst of huge population centers). Things did change at Point Conception – the swell was minimal, the wind was minimal (despite several days of headwinds!), the water was decidedly warmer, the weather was mostly sunny and warm, and after a (marginally legal) final beach campsite with dolphins playing in the water next to me as I landed and bioluminescence in the waves after dark, I was done camping – nights were among people in civilization. The smell of the beaches changed – mostly you can smell the pollution. But sometimes there was this surprising sweet smell that wafted from the beaches. It smelled a bit like freshwater. As in not saltwater. In the desert, a few beaches had this lush meadow smell coming off them. (I didn’t understand it).
And then there was my landing, where the sounds stand out. There’d been sounds along the way. The grumbling and chatting of common murre rookeries; the belching and snorting and yelling and mumbling of sea lions; the pop of dolphins, sea lions, or whales surfacing; the Harley Davidson sound of elephant seals on a beach too far away to be as loud as they were; the sound of an actual engine of a boat off on the horizon or fishers talking through the fog or a shipping container turning or accelerating; the myriad sounds that water makes, whether it’s the fold of a wind wave behind me, the smack or boom of a wave that seems way too small to make that sound against the cliff it just hit, the slow, inexorable rumbling and crashing of a wave coming over and around a rock; the chortling and chatting of sea lions and birds on rocks far enough away that they sound like humans singing, reminding me of Odysseus and the singing of the sirens. In Southern California, the sound of music pulsed from the beach-side bars and I started hearing traffic (I also used a traffic sign on the freeway once as an aid to navigation).
The sounds at my landing were unique. Family and friends were there to meet me. They’d told everyone on the beach what I was doing. So when I got close, the whole beach erupted in cheering and applause. There was whistling, a stranger’s assurance of a cold beer waiting for me on shore (it was actually champagne!).
And just like that, my trip was over. I’d paddled 1508 miles through a stunningly, exquisitely beautiful changing landscape. My journey through that external landscape changed my internal landscape. I don’t know the contours of this landscape yet. I hope what I will find includes a fierceness borne of the wildness of water against rock. A serenity that mirrors the calm protected waters in those inside lines behind the solid, immovable sea stacks. A joy that mimics the none-may-care, over-the-top abandon of the ridiculous and delightful sea lions chortling and belching and calling on the rocks as they go about our daily lives. I hope, at least periodically, that I can enjoy the everyday, mundane, breathtaking beauty in which we live and move and breathe – and chortle and belch – with the same reckless, absurd abandon of the sea lions.
If you’d like to read more about Dre’s West Coast Adventure, just click through to her author profile to find the full series.
A word to the wise. No one sleeps in at an active fishing harbor! The first boats put in at 4:30. The rush was over and the parking lot over-full by 7:00. The town itself, a tourist town, wouldn’t start moving until 10 or 11. I decided rather than hanging out at the harbor I’d go in search of a coffee shop to wait for the tourist shops to open. I found Whale Bites Cafe, a lovely place with chai tea and giant homemade cinnamon rolls, owned by a marine biologist who does whale-watching tours and knows most of the individual resident whales. Beth was super nice, and a couple regulars recognized me as the paddler and chatted for a while. One was a kayak fisher. Conversation with him confirmed that the kayak fishers here who go out on sit-on-top fishing kayaks are really safety-savvy. It was a great place to sit for a while with lovely people.
I got nervous about the time, though, even though it wasn’t any later than I had planned for my launch at slack with a short day ahead of me. There was just something about this leg that had me unnerved. I got my flip flops and went on my way.
Of course, a late start meant more wind. I keep forgetting that wind causes waves! It’s the only thing pretty much that causes waves at home, but here I pay attention to the swell and keep thinking of the wind just as wind. It was definitely strong enough to kick up some good waves – a solid 2 ½ to 3 feet. Not huge or unmanageable, but noticeable… It got cloudy and foggy again – everything always seems just a bit scarier when it’s cloudy. I got the forecast for the next couple days, and the swell was growing and a south wind coming in. I had planned a short day, with a really short day the next day, and a long day after that when there wasn’t much in the way of places I wanted to land. With a bigger swell and south wind coming in, I thought I should go to tomorrow’s landing spot so I could do the long day the next day before the bigger swell and south winds. Having already been nervous, I got myself psyched out again. It didn’t help when I passed my planned spot for the night, which was anything but protected with the southwest swell.
I went into Newport, and very soon came the next debacle of this leg of my journey. The beach I’d found on Google Earth looked not to have a beach at high tide. And there wasn’t much anywhere else to take out. I pulled out at the Coast Guard and hiked up to their building. I startled a young guy having some downtime in the sun by climbing up from below. He didn’t know what to tell me about where I could land, so he went and got his superior. (It turns out she’s the one who gave Freya Hoffmeister a citation for crossing the bar when it was closed!) There weren’t any good options, but they helped me find a bit of a spot to pitch my tent right on the other side of the fence from their property. (She apologized for not being able to let me stay on their property, which I thought was nice.) Anyway, it was this itty bitty loose rock beach. I took a tumble and hurt my toe. I didn’t think I’d injured it, but I changed my mind through the evening. I hobbled around setting up my tent on this itty bitty rock beach, and then hobbled to town for another restaurant meal. I was exhausted again. And my toe hurt. And the last thing I wanted to do was try to cook. I was only 2 days into this leg, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over!
Dinner was good, and the waitress was really nice. We had this amazing conversation about life, and being happy. (I think I forgot to leave a tip! When I have internet I’m going to find the place and send her her tip. There’s a special place in hell for people who don’t tip!)
I hobbled “home” and splinted my toe. I couldn’t wait for this leg to be done!
My sleeping pad sprung a leak. On this rocky beach. Uggh.
I was less than happy in the morning. I didn’t know if I’d need to leave my toe splinted, if it was dumb to go anywhere that day, if my toe was broken… I felt dumb for finding myself in this predicament and pretty exposed on this little “beach” on the channel into town. My toe felt a little bit better though, and I sure didn’t want to stay here another night, so I taped up my toe, packed my boat, and caught the ebb out of there.
I thought it would be a miserable day. It was 30 miles to a good landing spot, and it wouldn’t be the spot I’d thought because of the southwest swell. With a hurt toe and low morale.
It proved to be one of the best days so far. My toe did all right, the sun came out, and I finally found my “usual” paddling speed and cadence all day. I still psyched myself out for the small surf landing – which meant I “over-studied” it and styled the landing onto an iconic Oregon coast beach at Heceta Head.
I was planning to get up the next day (today) and paddle the last 10-12 miles to the pick up for the next mom-sponsored Airbnb and the end of this short leg. I decided instead to give my toe a break and stay here a day instead of look for a place to pitch my tent by the dive shop where my mom will pick me up tomorrow evening.
This beach may go down as one of the most beautiful, but this leg may go down as one of the worst. Or at least one of the ones I was most eager to end! Which is a little bit funny, because it’s also likely one of the ones with some of the best or most interesting memories.
Anyway – it’s a rainy day. I’m hanging out in my warm dry tent, but it’s about time to go cook some food. Here’s hoping I can end the leg on a good note tomorrow!
When I let my mom read this post, she didn’t like it. She thought I downplayed my experience. My knowledge, the fact that I’m a good paddler with good judgment and solid skills.
Much later in the trip, an experienced expeditioner commented that I was doing it in a way that made it accessible to other people. I was really glad to hear him say that – because it’s exactly what I was trying to do.
I think one of the things that made it accessible is that I was open about the fact that it’s not easy. That the decisions are challenging. That there were times when I was scared. Really scared. That there were times I did it “OK” but didn’t do it “great.” There were times when I made some dumb mistakes.
Being scared, doing something dumb, questioning yourself – these things don’t mean you aren’t up to the task. They don’t make it a bad experience. They DO mean you need to be prepared enough to handle it when you make a mistake. Part of mitigating risk is about avoiding as many of those mistakes as possible. The other part is about having the knowledge and skill to handle it when you DO make a mistake. Because there will be something that goes wrong. If you only have the skills to handle it when you do it perfectly the first time – you don’t have the skills to handle it.
And I wanted people to know, and to see, that you don’t have to be a bad-ass hammerhead paddler to do something really big. I’m a skilled paddler. But I’m not a superstar or superhuman or a superhero.
You don’t have to be either.
You have to be good enough. “Good enough” was a high bar for this expedition. I took it very seriously to be as clear-eyed and as honest as possible with myself in determining whether I was “good enough”.
You don’t have to be perfect.
You WON’T be perfect.
So work hard to get good enough – and then have the trip of your life.
It will be scary and it will be full of mistakes and you will question yourself – and you will style it and it will be amazing.