Katya and I were invited to present our film The Last Baidarka of Prince William Sound at the 2nd Annual Pacific Paddling Symposium on Vancouver Island this past weekend. We also talked a little bit about building kayaks and showed a few slides from our paddling trips. Nigel Foster presented a slideshow and told a few stories related to his most recent book, Encounters from a Kayak: Native Peoples, Sacred Places, and Hungry Polar Bears, and my fellow Tacoman Ken Campbell presented his very interesting film, Secrets of Augustine, about the expedition to Alaska that he and Steve Weileman took to document the presence of plastic waste on the remote beaches of Augustine Island. It is the continuation of the Ikkatsu Project.
I first heard about the Pacific Paddling Symposium after seeing pictures some of my Facebook friends posted last year. I really wanted to attend this year, so I was totally thrilled to get an invitation from the organizers to present my film. As an introduction to the film, I took the opportunity to reminisce about my personal journey through Greenland-style, building traditional skin-on-frame kayaks, and paddling around the Pacific Northwest. Katya also talked about her own experiences, receiving her first skin-on-frame kayak as a gift from Phoxx Ekcs, and recently building her own. I was pleased by how well the presentation was received. During the next two days people would come up to us and graciously tell us how much they enjoyed it, and thank us for presenting it.
One point I wanted to make during my presentation was that, compared to the sport of modern sea kayaking, traditional kayaking is really a very anti-consumerism, DIY counter-cultural movement -- or at least it was originally. When I got into Greenland-style about ten years ago, you had to learn how to build your own kayak and carve your own paddle, or find someone who could teach you. This was the initiation into, and an essential part of, the traditional kayaking experience. It was a way to slow down, to escape from the materialism of our toxic, fast-paced culture, a way that valued autonomy, resourcefulness, and creation over mere consumption. Boatbuilding teaches patience and persistence. When I started building my first kayak, I actually questioned whether I was even ever going to finish it at all! It sounds silly to me now, because it ultimately only took me 3 months. You could finish building one in a week in a workshop under the guidance of an instructor. And an experienced boatbuilder could probably knock one out over a weekend. Compare that to the year it typically took for the Inuit to built a kayak using hand tools, scavanged driftwood, and real seal skin.
Back in the early years of the Greenland-style movement, it was hard to find a traditional kayaking instructor outside of symposia such as SSTIKS. It was actually frowned upon within the Qajaq USA community for instructors to charge for instruction. The thinking was that we are all students, teaching and learning from each other, and no one except the Greenlanders themselves “own” the tradition and have any right to “sell” it. A few kayakers I met on the water expressed interest in exploring Greenland-style kayaking, but unfortunately had no idea where to look to even buy a traditional paddle, let alone find an instructor.
It is really amazing that Greenland-style grew so much in popularity despite the lack of readily available off-the-shelf gear and instruction. Manufacturers eventually caught on to the trend and are now selling a wide variety of wooden and carbon-fiber traditional paddles, paddle wear, and very high-end low-volume kayaks inspired by traditional Greenland design. These days you can get into Greenland-style without ever picking up a block plane or even touching anything made out of wood. I suppose it was inevitable that it would come to this, but I think approaching Greenland-style in this way totally misses the point.
Consumerism creeps its way into any popular sport. Manufacturers try to seduce people into thinking that owning high-end gear makes up for developing skills. Instructors tell us that our priority should be to develop good judgement first, then skills, then acquire good, dependable gear. The unfortunate fact remains that people are more likely to pay good money for cool stuff than instruction.
Primitive skills expert Phoxx Ekcs is the probably the most extreme example I know of the idea that skills take priority over stuff. Taking only a skin-on-frame kayak and buckskin clothes he made himself, and a few other handmade implements including a large felted wool blanket, he completed a 28-day expedition along Vancouver Island’s remote North Coast from Port Hardy to Cape Scott. He didn't take any food, water, immersion wear or even a lifejacket, and fished and foraged along the way. A trip like this necessarily has to be slow, because you spend a lot of time simply securing the basics for survival. It also doesn’t get any publicity. It is a huge contrast to high-profile expeditions that essentially race around islands as fast as possible. They seek contributions from sponsors and get attention for the benefit of sponsors.
Only in its 2nd year, the Pacific Paddling Symposium is an amazingly popular event. This year it sold out only 26 hours after registration opened. It's no wonder, since it is held at an awesome venue. The college is right outside of Victoria, on the water on Pedder Bay. It's a small campus so everything (dorms, registration office, classrooms, auditorium, dining hall, yoga center, parking lot) is fairly close together.
One problem was parking. The cars were all packed in together on the lot and we were told to keep our kayaks on our cars at night. Unless you were parked in the front row, you had no way of getting out. It wasn’t a problem unless you needed to leave early to catch a ferry on Sunday. We were worried about it but the volunteers did a great job of getting the parking lot cleared after the last classes in the afternoon.
There really wasn’t any reason to leave campus because all meals (including Happy Hour drinks) were included in the package, and the cafeteria served some awesome meals. Some of the veggies came right out of the college garden. There were very good about having plenty of vegetarian/vegan options too.
On Saturday Katya and I signed up for the all-day coastal tour course. We loaded up all of the kayaks onto a trailer and took a shuttle to a launch site at Albert Head Lagoon, paddled south around Albert Head, stopped for lunch at a large beach called Witty’s Beach, a popular spot for teenage skimboarders and nude sunbathers. We continued southwest around William Head into Pedder Bay and took out at the Pearson College boat ramp. The view of Washington’s Olympic mountain range from the Canadian side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca is fantastic!
The coastline just outside of Pedder Bay is exposed and rocky, and the currents can move fast in Race Passage and around the Race Rocks Lighthouse and Ecological Reserve. The college director said that the students are told never to go there because it is too dangerous, but under the right conditions it apparently can be a very interesting trip, not only because of the tidal races but also because of the sea lions and elephant seals hanging out there. Unless you have a permit, you are not allowed to land on the reserve. It is possible however to explore the rocks by taking one of the regularly scheduled boat tours that go there.
On Sunday Katya and I went paddling on our own outside of Pedder Bay, heading southwest toward Bentinck Island. It was an amazingly sunny, warm and calm day. I'm looking forward to spending more time in this area. Vancouver Island has so much more coastline to explore than the Puget Sound area and San Juan Islands, and so many more remote, pristine beaches. So far I’ve only explored the Broken Group, Clayquot Sound and Johnstone Strait. There is a whole other world of kayaking up there and I feel that I’ve only scratched the surface.