PART 1 - A New Adventure
February 1st - Four Months to Departure
In my previous adventures, the end has been the most difficult part. When I arrive back where I started, my first thought has been, “Well, I am done. Should I feel a sense of accomplishment or transformation now that the journey is ended?”
If I have overcome the challenge, I have set for myself, then was it challenging enough? What is my ceiling? When do I feel I have achieved the mastery I set out to obtain? Perhaps mastery is like the horizon, a destination we strive to reach, but never to definitively arrive. If I played a round of golf and managed to be and bogued every hole, it would be a very good score for me, but atrocious for Tiger Woods, though I’m sure he once played a round 18 over par and felt good about it. We can always improve.
Thus, at the end of an adventure, we must not dwell in a sense of emptiness now that the path we had been on has reached its end, we must rejoice that we now can begin the plan for the beginning of a new one.
When I returned from the journey around Puerto Rico, even before the plane landed in Miami my mind began to plan for a new challenge. But what should that new challenge be? To answer that question, I first had to answer an even more important question, “How much time can I get off of work?” I looked at my last paystub and saw that I was down to 7 vacation days, which meant that in about a year’s time I would have enough for about a month off work, and maybe a couple of extra days if I could bridge a holiday or two. A month may seem like a lot of time, and it is, but given my geographical constraints of living in South Florida, and having already paddled around Florida, a great adventure would likely require more time to be worth the effort of shipping a kayak to some far away destination. Therefore, how to convince my employer to give me additional time off was what I had to find out.
Fortunately, the current labor market conditions are such that employees now have considerable leverage to ask for benefits. At the end of the year, one of my coworkers felt the emotional stresses of the pandemic. She took two months of medical leave and then decided to quit for another job leaving us short staffed. Sensing that the company was wary of losing another employee in a tight labor market, I crafted a brief but carefully worded email to my supervisor where I aimed to call attention to the issue and to suggest my desired solution.
“Dear Mr. Sharp,
Over the course of the pandemic many of us have, I am sure, begun to feel considerable burnout, both from the isolation and the blending of our personal and professional lives. I had never thought that I would or even could succumb to such hardship, but after a year and a half I must admit that it has begun to wear me down as well. To avoid falling victim to burnout like so many, I would like to ask if the company can allow me to take some unpaid leave in the coming summer for emotional recuperation. I have reviewed my current workload and concluded that after an early June deliverable I will be relatively light on work, and any remaining project responsibilities can be passed on to others as we have sufficient time to prepare the transition. I will have about a month of accumulated vacation time by the summer and was hoping that I could take an additional month off. The tentative dates would be from Monday May 31st returning Monday August 8th.
Please let me know if this is an arrangement that can be worked out.
My supervisor called me that same week.
“Hi Felipe, got your email. Yup. I am all for a little work-life balance once in a while. Can’t let people burn out. We can work something out. What adventure are you planning this time around?”
“Another kayaking adventure for sure. Don’t know where yet. I am open to suggestions.”
“How about the Pacific Northwest? Last time I was there I saw a lot of paddlers. Zim, our valve and pipe guy, lives in Tacoma. I know he’s gone paddling in the San Juan Islands.”
“You know, that is an interesting idea. I have a friend who lives in Victoria who is a kayak guide; I’ll see with him what kind of advice he can give me.”
Three years ago, before the pandemic lockdown, I had attended a kayaking symposium in Oregon. There I had struck up a conversation with a Canadian who mentioned to me he’d paddled around Vancouver Island by himself the previous summer. “I did it for my sixty-fifth birthday. At sixty-five you are closer to the grave than you are to the cradle. Today can always be the day you’ll leave life; I had put off doing the journey for too many years already. It’s a wonderful place, challenging and dangerous, but definitely wonderful.”
“Really, and how so?”
“Well, the weather can be miserable on the West coast. I waited 5 days before I had a window safe enough to paddle past the Brooks Peninsula, and even then, the swells were over 10 feet. But the scenery is inspiring, and you will hardly find a place more beautiful. It’s a bitter irony for me that I have lived nearly all my life in Vancouver, and only really got to discover it so late in life. I started kayaking at sixty. Some things you learn late in life, and then you must rush to catch up on what you missed.”
February 15th - Three and a half Months to Departure
A strange coincidence happened this week. On Friday night I was perusing through my Facebook stream when I came across a video from Lee Richardson, my friend who lives in Victoria and is a kayak guide. I first meet in Nova Scotia during a kayaking trip in the Bay of Fundy. The video showed him kayak surfing a long gentle green wave all the way onto a white sand beach. The caption read, “A little break from the winter on the Matanzas Inlet.”
Immediately I knew the place. The Matanzas inlet is in North Florida. I’ve kayaked there several times and even camped on the sand spit that shelters the inlet on New Year’s Eve when I circumnavigated Florida.
“Hey man! You’re doing a paddle vacation in Florida and didn’t tell me? I’m heartbroken!” I joked.
“Yeah! Landed in Jacksonville yesterday. I’m leading a course with two other guides for a week. Want to join us for the weekend.”
“I’ll get the Taran in the car and head over tomorrow morning!” For me, having an opportunity to paddle out of South Florida is tough to pass up. The winter weather in Miami is mild, but the ocean here is hardly a place to build up sea kayaking skills. The waves are barely bigger than ripples. It takes a serious storm to whip up the water enough to get the surfers out.
I got on the road at 4:00am, drove through the night and dusk, and was parking next to the bridge across the inlet a little after sunrise. The sea was choppy, and the north wind had chilled the air to a hair raising 50oF. “Don’t make fun of my shivering; 50oF is really cold when you’re from Miami. It was 78oF when I left home five hours ago.” I said to Lee poking fun at myself. “When am I going to be able to try on a dry suit in Florida.”
I had just purchased a new Kokatat dry suit the week before for the princely sum of $1,300. Normally I would never spend a ransom sum of money for something I will get so little use out of, but if I do head out to the West coast and Canada, the water there is cold enough to numb you into hypothermia in less than a minute, and even the dry suit won’t keep you alive for much longer than the time you need to get back inside your boat. I remember a few years ago when I was kayaking in Oregon in the late fall, and I decided to try a few kayak rolls in a dry suit. Although my body stayed dry, my head felt like I had suddenly swallowed half a pint of ice-cream.
The dry suit is an amazing work of craftsmanship. Its many layers of Gortex fabric have microscopic pores, thousands of times too small for water to pass through but thousands of times larger than water vapor from your sweat needs to escape; and so your body stays dry, even if still chilled like meat in the freezer. The openings for the head and hands are silicone gaskets tight enough to choke you and take a little getting used to but they grip flush to the skin and water has no way to slip through. Most impressive are the suit’s zippers; I do not know what kind of magic can make the zipper teeth seal together so perfectly that not a drop of water is able to slip through but this wonder of craftsmanship does exist.
“Make sure you pull the zipper all the way to the end; you don’t want to feel like the sea is taking a cold piss on you. Also, try not to walk on the booty socks, they’re tough but they do rip if you’re shoddy with them. Also, you’ll need to buy two things to have with you. Zipper wax and silicone spray. The zipper wax is to make sure that sand and salt don’t get in between the teeth, especially if you don’t have a chance to wash the suit with fresh water, and the spray is so the gaskets don’t become brittle. If they break, then the suit won’t be watertight.”
I surfed the waves in the inlet with Lee and his students for the next two days, practiced the paddle stern rudder while running down the face of a wave towards the beach, and duck-rolled through the breakers while paddling out from shore. I was feeling confident, I would be able to handle most situations, until Lee gave me an ominous bit of advice.
“These waves are barely bigger than folds on a rug. They can be much bigger in Vancouver. You’ll need to be fit if you decide to head out there…”
“Well hopefully if I start on the East coast of the island, I’ll have enough miles under my boat then that I will be fit enough to handle the swells when they come.”
March 1st - Three Months to Departure
After getting locked assurances that I had the free time I would need for the journey I began to give due consideration about where the next great adventure should be. The more I thought about it, the more Vancouver Island made sense. I traced a path on Google Earth, and the distance came to about a thousand miles. If I average twenty-five miles per day which is about what I did around Florida, that will mean about forty paddle days and leave some 20 rest days, an incredible luxury that would allow me to sit out any tumultuous weather, and maybe perhaps even take a side trip or two.
In addition, I made a contact through Lee with a Canadian paddling company he’d worked with called Skils Sea Kayaking, which was organizing a two-week trip along part of the West coast of Vancouver Island. This year they would be leaving from St Joseph Bay on June 26th, which given my planned late May start would give me enough time to catch up with them along the way. The thought of paddling what may turn out to be the most challenging section of the journey around the Brooks peninsula in the safety of a group of more experienced paddlers gave me a sense of comfort. “You are welcome to tag along with us. Just be sure to be there when we leave. It’s not always easy to meet up on the water; the weather decides whether that happens.”
Vancouver Island would be my adventure.
My next task was to figure out how to get my kayak there. I called up my contacts at Crowley Marine who did a great job getting my kayak to Puerto Rico. “Kayak Guy! Yeah, we remember you! Unfortunately, we don’t ship to the West coast, except for the port of Los Angeles. Maybe instead of Vancouver, you could head down to Mexico. I hear the Baja Peninsula is beautiful, maybe even go as far as Panama! We can pick you up there and send your boat back to Miami from there no problem! Or wherever else you want to go. Unfortunately, for anywhere else you’re going to need to find a land carrier, and I can’t recommend you one.”
“I’ll keep you guys’ mind for the future when I have a year or two to spare.” I laughed.
I began to search for a land carrier. Immediately I ruled out international shipping directly to Victoria in Vancouver Island as the prices were astronomical. For $5000 one way I would be better off buying a new kayak and giving it away at the end of the journey. The most economical option was to send it somewhere in the Seattle area, and then crossing into Canada via the San Juan Islands. That would add some distance, but with two months for the journey, that would not be a problem.
I contacted UPS and Fedex but both said that my package was much too large for them to take on. I began to feel a bit exasperated. What’s the hassle of a 3-piece kayak worth, if you can’t get it to where you need it? I decided to appeal to the wisdom of the crowd and posted my conundrum on the Facebook Strictly Sea Kayaking Group page. Promptly one of the members mentioned he’d used a company called MoveIt. “When you call, ask for a guy called Joey, and tell him you know me, and that I am sending him business. He’ll know how to handle it. He’s the kayak whisperer if you need to ship a kayak on the cheap.”
“Even if it’s a 3-piece kayak?”
“Yeah, a little out of the ordinary, but he should manage it. Probably even easier ‘cause it’s not so long.”
I called MoveIt the next day, inquired about Joey, and was promptly transferred. Joey is an avid kayaker who lives in the Virginia Beach area and owns a Sterling Reflection. “Kayak surfing here is really good on a windy day, the beach is flat, and the waves break gently. No dumping rollers. Yeah, we can ship your kayak to Seattle. We’ll pick it up and send it to whichever address you want.”
“Oh, that is so great to hear! I don’t have a destination address yet. I need to look for that next.”
“Don’t wait too long. Fuel prices are going through the roof with the war in Ukraine on top of all the inflation, and I can’t lock you a price until I have a pickup date and destination, right now to Seattle based on the dimensions you told me, it would be $750.”
“Yes Sir, I will call you again as soon as possible!”
March 15th - Two and a Half Months to Departure
Finding a shipping address in Seattle was more difficult than I thought. Ideally, I would like to ship the kayak to a place next to a boat ramp and save myself a few uber rides like I had to do in Puerto Rico.
“What’s that?” The drivers would always ask me.
“It’s a kayak; it’s in pieces, trust me we can make it fit. You just need to put every seat down, and I’ll crouch on the side somewhere.”
I turned to Google Earth and scoured the shores of downtown Seattle for a suitable launching site. I thought I had a lucky find when I located the paddleboard shop on the harbor bay across from the Space Needle. I immediately gave the place a call but was disappointed. “Sorry, but this is not a good neighborhood. It’s full of homeless people and we have break-ins all the time. If you can’t put a cable and a lock through your equipment, it will grow legs in the night, and you’ll never see it again.”
I pleaded for the help from the wisdom of the Strictly Sea Kayaking crowd once again, “Folks in the Seattle Area, this summer I’m planning to paddle around Vancouver Island. Would anyone be kind enough to receive and hold on to a 3-piece kayak for about a month? I’m coming up from Florida. Will reward your inconvenience with great tales from the sea, seasoned with some bourbon and rum. If you’re close to a boat ramp that would be fantastic!”
Soon after I had several responses. One of them was the owner of a Kayak shop called Tides and Currents. “Hey Felipe! Yes! I can handle it no problem! Send it over whenever you’re ready! I’m 45 minutes north of Seattle. The boat ramp is a little far, but we can figure that out when you’re here.”
“Sounds good then! Thank you!”
I called up Moveit to set the pickup date. Joey wasn’t kidding about prices going up. After two weeks, the shipping cost was now $950, and he said to get it booked now or it might be more later.
April 2nd - Two Months to Departure
Although there are still two months before I head to Seattle, there is an avalanche of things to do to be ready. Except for the dry suit, I am nowhere near ready with all the items I will need for cold weather paddling. Unlike the Puerto Rico circumnavigation, I’ll need a sleeping bag for the cold nights, layers of warm clothing for the day, and something for the rain as well when I am confined to the shore. All that takes up a lot of space which is a premium commodity in a kayak. The sleeping bag is particularly volumous. Even when I stuffed it into a compression sack and crushed it as tightly as I could, it was still bigger than the bag I use for the tent. “Where the hell am I going to keep this? It’s too wide to fit through the front hatch.” I shouted out loud as I sweated trying to ram it in.
After admitting defeat, I was resigned that it would need to go inside the stern hatch, which is where I normally keep the dolly which takes up a lot of space as well. Somehow, I delivered a miracle that even the inventor of the game Tetris would have doubted. Into the stern hatch went the tent poles, the tent bag, two drybags of food, the folded kayak dolly with the wheels and lastly the massive sleeping bag all neatly and tightly tailored together. When I closed the lid, I paused to admire my finished work like I had just completed a thousand-piece puzzle.
At that moment, I got a message from my mother. “Did you know there are bears on Vancouver Island?”
I picked up the phone and called to calm her fears.
“Yes, I know, it will be fine, as long as I don’t keep the food in the tent. In fact, what people do is they hang the food in a bag from a tree limb with a rope, and then the bear won’t get to it.”
“OK, but what if your food is not what the bear is interested in, what if they think you’re the food? The Bears up there aren’t the timid black bears you saw cycling in Colorado, they’re big mean grizzly bears, and they won’t be scared of you. Maybe you should take a gun with you.”
“I’m not taking a gun with me. I don’t even know how to use one, and what do I tell the Mountie Police at the border when I cross into Canada, and he sees I’m packing a 9mm? “It’s for the bears.” That will go over as well as it sounds.”
“What can you take with you then?”
“I’ll buy some bear spray.”
“Does it work?”
“It’s bear spray, that’s what they’re made for.”
“Ok then, take like ten with you.”
“Mom, I’m not going to a bear disco party. Two will do. One for a bear, and one for a mountain lion if I come across one.”
“There are lions there too??? Oh god. Take at least three then.”
Later that day she sent me a YouTube video of a bear grabbing a box of bird seeds that had been hanging from a rope on a tree.
“Just so you know…”
April 15th - One and a half Months to Departure