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March 2011
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July 2011

The "Full Circle Kayak Expedition" With Primitive Skills Expert Phoxx Ekcs

Phoxx Ekcs Kickstarter Video.

When I first heard that primitive skills expert Phoxx Ekcs was planning an expedition along Vancouver Island's north coast I knew I needed to talk to him. An intriguing video on Facebook announced his trip to the world to help raise funding for the documentation of the trip (Phoxx plans to go whether or not he is able to meet his fundraising goal). The video didn't offer many specifics, but rather raised plenty of questions. Like his name, "Phoxx Ekcs." Is "Phoxx" like "fox"? Does it refer to a totem animal, his nonhuman guide through both the physical and spiritual world? Does "Ekcs" refer to the letter "X", the symbol of the independent and unknown variable? His Facebook page says he's living in Utah. How much sea kayaking do they do there? Is he really going without bringing along any food or toilet paper?

Actually I didn't ask him any of those questions. We had plenty of other things to talk about. When I emailed him to introduced myself, I said I knew Kiliii Yu, who had taught him how to build skin-on-frame kayaks. Later we talked over Skype and discussed his upcoming 28 day ("one moon cycle") primitive expedition on Vancouver Island.

Phoxx has taught primitive living skills since age 16. He seems to be very passionate about  passion for whatever he does, whether it is slacklining, whitewater kayaking, or sea kayaking. I also got the impression that he desperately needed to do this trip, to finally put himself and his skills to the test, and that nothing was going to stop him.

Primitive living seems to mesh well with traditional kayaks. The trend toward traditional kayaking has presented a challenge to the idea that major kayak expeditions can only be completed with modern (and expensive) kayaks and paddles constructed from high-tech materials. Kiliii Yu demonstrated the durability of traditional skin-on-frame construction in challenging coastal conditions with his successful 31-day trip along the northwest coast of Vancouver Island. Accepting the idea the one can complete an expedition living primitively, leaving civilization with only a stone knife and handmade leather clothes, requires a paradigm shift, because preparing for an expedition typically involves acquiring the best gear you can afford -- alpine tents, sleeping bags, freeze dried foods, and satellite phones -- because your life might depend on your stuff. When Phoxx paddles out of Port Hardy this August, he won't even be bringing any food or water with him. He will be living intimately with the environment and not merely passing through as quickly as possible sealed in a GoreTex drysuit.

This is an expedition that deserves to be documented and I encourage everyone to consider donating to the Full Circle Kayak Kickstart fund which will go to cover the expense of documenting the trip through photography and video.


Northwest Paddling Festival: Northern Light Paddles

 

Northern Light carbon fiber Greenland paddles come apart for storage and travel.
Northern Light carbon fiber Greenland paddles come apart for storage and travel.

I bought my first Greenland paddle from Don Beale. He makes each paddle custom fit to the paddler. You have to specify blade width, loom length and paddle length. I have a theory about why Greenland style was a little slow to catch on at first. One reason was difficulty obtaining gear. After all, the whole idea behind Greenland Style was that you have to make everything yourself to fit your own anthropometric dimensions. You couldn’t just go to your local kayak shop and buy everything off the shelf. If you didn’t know of anyone making custom paddles like Don, you had to sort through the stacks of 2x4s at your local big box hardware store for a clear piece of cedar, learn how to use a spokeshave and plane and carve yourself a paddle. Frankly, this resulted in a lot of crappy paddles being made. So probably for a lot of paddlers, their first impression of Greenland Style was a crappy paddle they borrowed from a friend. Despite that, the popularity of Greenland Style has grown inexorably, I think in large part because the paddles are intuitive to use and everyone wants to learn all those cool Greenland rolls!

How times have changed! Now you can get everything right off the shelf--modern materials, traditional design. For the Greenland enthusiast who would rather not bother with all that wood work and DIY nonsense, I recommend the Tahe Greenlander kayak and Brooks tuilik, to get started. Unfortunately, no one is making harpoons yet as far as I know.

For off-the-rack Greenland paddles there are quite a few options. Wood is beautiful but you can’t beat carbon fiber for its strength-to-weight ratio. It allows for the high performance thin blades that would be too fragile if carved in cedar. I love my Superior Carbon GP but it is a one piece and there have been times when I wished I could take it apart for travel. Superior makes a two piece carbon GP with a Lendal Paddlok joint, but at $550 it is quite pricey. It’s not surprising that they are getting a little competition from other manufacturers, including Novorca and Northern Light.

I ran into Paul Diener of Northern Light Paddlesports yesterday at Seattle’s Northwest Paddling Festival. Northern Light makes both Greenland and Aleut style blades. (I bet that Aleut paddle would go really well with my baidarka!) The blades are made of carbon fiber with a foam core. Paul talks like an engineer. He explained how pieces of Kevlar are used strategically to enhance the strength, and that the addition of foam prevents structural failure due to the carbon fiber flexing. Everything is designed on CAD and is constantly being tweaked.

The selling point of Paul’s GPs are their portability. They break down into two 36 inch blades plus a loom of varying size. You can even connect the blades together to make a storm paddle. The loom mates with the blade end and has a grippy silicone surface which holds it together. A single screw with a hexagonal socket fixes it in place. Paul says that people like to keep a spare paddle broken down on the deck. They can slip it together quickly in an emergency and the fit between the loom and the blade is tight enough to hold it together without the screw.

Detail of the joint in the take-apart Northern Light Greenland paddles.
Detail of the joint in the take-apart Northern Light Greenland paddles.

Since I always like to carry-on my luggage when flying I asked Paul if the paddles were small enough to carry-on. He said even if they could fit on a carry-on, the TSA wouldn’t allow it, because “they don’t allow anything that looks like it could be used as a club”. A quick review of the TSA Prohibited Items list will show you that this also includes baseball bats, golf clubs, lacrosse sticks, hockey sticks, and pool cues. Greenland paddles are not specifically listed but I wouldn’t bother trying to argue with those TSA morons. Hell, this just came in today: "The Transportation Security Administration stood by its security officers Sunday after a Florida woman complained that her cancer-stricken, 95-year-old mother was patted down and forced to remove her adult diaper while going through security". It is pure security theatre, a show to make people feel safe, but doesn’t accomplish a damn thing and comes at quite a price.

The Zegul baidarka on the left.
The Zegul baidarka on the left.

Check out the Zegul bairdarka! This one is made in carbon fiber and is very light. It’s 18 ft long, 21 3/4 in wide. The wood accents are a nice touch, but the deck rigging seems more decorative rather than functional. Of course, I had to try it out. As you might expect, it shows that typical Aleut character: voluminous but fast, tracks well but is not very maneuverable. It could make for a good touring kayak. Unfortunately the lip of the rear rubber hatch tended to get stuck on the recessed edges of the deck, making it tricky to close. I think it also needs perimeter lines and end toggles.

 

The Zegul baidarka on the left.
The Zegul baidarka on the left.

 


Northwest Paddling Festival 2011: Expedition Paddling Tips from Rob Avery

Kayakers enjoy a view of the Seattle skyline from Elliot Bay at the Northwest Paddling Festival 2011.
Kayakers enjoy a view of the Seattle skyline from Elliot Bay at the Northwest Paddling Festival 2011.

I slept in late this morning but decided to drag myself out of bed to show up at the first annual Northwest Paddling Festival in Seattle. I used to be a big fan of the local kayak symposiums until I realized that I had taken so many classes that I was taking the same classes over and over. I thought maybe the instructors were getting tired of seeing me. I imagined them thinking, "Dude, you really need to stop taking classes and start getting out there paddling on your own!" I still enjoy the symposium atmosphere though. I like running into people I know and checking out the latest crazy gear and kooky kayak ideas the vendors are trying to sell to the gullible and uninitiated. This year I give the grand prize to the catamaran type stand-up paddling thing made by Easy Rider. It was so new the rep couldn't even tell me  much about it or even what the hell they called it. From the brochure I grabbed I figured out it was called the "WaterWalker Glider". You stand up with one foot placed in a hole in each hull, paddle it like a SUP but steer a rudder with your knees. The winner of the race that morning was using one. Optional features included the lightweight and waterproof Torqueedo 403 electric motor with lithium battery and solar charger. I did not see that it came with cupholders.

The Easy Rider "WaterWalker Glider"
The Easy Rider "WaterWalker Glider"

There was one presentation I really wanted to see: Rob Avery's talk about expedition paddling tips. Rob is a kayak instructor who runs Kayak Kraft kayak school on Bainbridge Island. He recently completed an expedition in the Aleutian Islands and is planning another trip again this year. It turned out today that he forgot to bring his laptop so he said his presentation would have to be a casual “fireside chat” without slides. A few of us sat around in folding chairs in the tent as he talked.

He started by discussing the importance of navigation skills and reading the weather. Information about tides and currents are important but in some areas you simply won’t have any, or the information you do have may be wrong. You may not have a weather report. How good are you at predicting the weather by looking at the sky? Mark your location on the chart with a grease pen as you go. Then there is the importance of "adequate reserve". Suppose you can’t land at your planned spot at the end of the day. Can you paddle another 10 miles to the next landing spot? With that in mind, if you plan to paddle 20 mile days, you should be able to paddle 30 miles a day. Expeditions can consume your life both before and afterwards. A two week trip actually may take 6 weeks of your life, including two weeks before in preparation and two weeks afterwards to wind down from it.

Then we got into the "nitty gritty". A long narrow tent is much easier to find a spot for on a beach than a round one. Alpine tents will serve you well on the stormy, rugged BC coast. He likes MSR. Synthetic sleeping bags are better because they still work when when wet. Although it compresses very well, the down in down−filled bags will clump up with moisture and becomes useless. A sleeping bag liner helps keep the moisture from transferring to the bag. Although those Kelty tarps are light and affordable, they aren’t waterproof. Try to select gear that will have more than one use. Paddles can serve as poles for a tarp, for instance. Don’t bother using a stuff sack for your tent: stuff it right into the ends of your kayak. Bring duplicates of critical gear, like 2 cooking stoves plus a repair kit. White gas is a more efficient fuel in terms of space and BTUs per pound for cooking and, unlike isopro, the fuel canisters are reusable. Bring two days of water, 4 liters per person per day, minimum. In areas where fresh water is unavailable you will have to bring more. Treat wild water with a filter or just bring it up to a boil to get rid of the pathogens. Using a water filter rather than boiling will save cooking fuel. Mix in some protein powder into your morning oatmeal. It will keep you full longer. You only need to bring two sets of clothes, one for paddling in and one for sleeping in. Wool is the best for base and outer layers and it won’t stink even after wearing it for several days straight.

Then the presentation ended and it was time for questions. I asked what was burning on my mind: what do you do about human waste? I’m used to designated campsites and composting toilets where I don’t even have to bring my own toilet paper. He said out in the real wilderness you just dig a hole in the intertidal zone and burn your toilet paper. He brings toilet paper but apparently seaweed makes for a good substitute, Turkish Towel specifically, because of it’s bumpy texture. I suspect the broad leaves of bull kelp would work OK too.

Of course you don’t want to just dig a hole in ecologically sensitive areas. While in Baja, for instance, we brought along a portable toilet and packed all the waste out. A turd buried in the desert would dry up and last a hundred years, maybe more! We were only out a week though. Practical considerations must be taken into account for longer expeditions. So here is expedition kayaking’s dirty little secret and the sad fact of human existence: No matter how righteous we are about low impact and leave−no−trace techniques, or gush about protecting Nature’s beauty, we all end up shitting on Her in the end.

Amazing variety in the new sea kayaks available for demo at the Northwest Paddling Festival.
Amazing variety in the new sea kayaks available for demo at the Northwest Paddling Festival.