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Fighting the Surge – A Lesson in Solo Paddling

My knees betray me and release their hold on my cockpit as I try to roll up my kayak. I consciously force them back into the thigh braces as I set up for yet another attempt. After seven or eight tries I’ve lost count, and almost stop caring. The coach in my head keeps saying, “Don’t you come out of your boat, damn it!” but the former college swimmer in me, egged on by burning lungs says, “Last chance, dude, and then we’re punching out!” I strive for calm as I attempt one more return to the world of air-dwelling mammals, but I can tell before I’m even halfway up that I’m not going to make it.

Heading into the Surge Narrows. Photo by Shari Galiardi

My practiced form goes to custard. My head breaks the surface of the water first like it’s day one at pool roll clinic, and I slip back under. The instructor in me can fully articulate what I’m doing wrong—but there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. I pull the spray skirt with complex waves of emotion, relief, panic, and self-reprobation—promptly turning one bad situation into another. But for the moment, I can breathe freely, liberating the facility to curse myself aloud.

Sea kayaking in areas with high tidal flow, strong currents, and tight constrictions is a passion for me. As an ocean and whitewater paddler, I am drawn to areas where the differences between the sports blur. Skills in one transfer directly to the other until the difference narrows down to boat length, keel shape, and salinity.

In search of some play spots and a little Salish Sea wildlife paddling, my wife and I find ourselves on Quadra Island, British Columbia, just a short ferry ride from Vancouver Island. In the aptly named “Surge Narrows” the flooding tide runs through a series of islands creating some interesting waves, rapids, and holes that recreate a Class III river. The tricky part here is that the features within this tidal constriction constantly morph, surging and retreating along with the strongest flow of the day’s incoming tide.

In the surge. Photo by Shari Galiardi

My better half, a self-proclaimed “fair weather paddler,” is all too happy to leave me alone to my surf or rough water sessions, joining me occasionally from shore to watch or shoot carnage photos. She has just waved goodbye from the overlook to retrace the 2-mile trail back to the launch when I say to myself, “Okay, one more wave.” I’ve been going hard at this play session for over two-and-a-half hours. I am utterly exhausted, but this one wave hole just keeps getting better and better as the tide changes. I go back in for another surf and soon find myself upside down and unable to roll back up.

Self-admonishment for my current predicament doesn’t last long as I take stock of my options. I am out of my boat, alone, with the current quickly carrying me toward the open bay. For the moment, a very large eddy behind a thin fin of rock about 35 yards away becomes my immediate plan B. “Never get separated from your gear,” my inner coach reminds me as I retain both boat and paddle. I am not desperate enough to ditch everything and just swim for it…yet. With a good ferry angle to the current, I wedge kick with everything I’ve got toward the eddy. After a few moments of uncertainty, I feel the current shift as I cross the wide eddy line. Some more kicks and I reach a barnacle covered rock, slide the boat in between a few others nearby, and panting, haul myself out of the water. I try to catch my breath, but more than a few minutes pass before I’m able to rise and empty the boat. I’ve been in the 40-degree water for less than three minutes including the roll attempts, but I am completely shattered, shockingly so. I am unspeakably grateful that I chose to wear the dry suit.

Every time I go out onto the water by myself or with others, I face an assessment of risk. It’s the risk and the unknown that makes adventures worth doing. To be sure, things go wrong even under the best of circumstances, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore the obvious warning signs. Ultimately, I can only count on myself to save my backside and I have only myself to blame when I do something stupid. Balancing risk with desire is called judgement, and fortunately for us, our judgement can improve along with our experience.

View from Chinese Mountain, Quadra Island. Photo by Shari Galiardi

Intentional decisions to stack the deck in my favor are a routine part of getting ready to go out, and this case was no different. I had gathered good information on the narrows, checked the timing of the tide, ate and hydrated well, created a good plan with my wife, and donned insulating layers under my dry suit. I brought my typical guide gear, PFD, towline, VHS radio, paddle float, extra water and food, even my “last resort” rescue flares. Rolling back up after a capsize was the least of my concerns when I took to the water as I haven’t missed a roll on either river or the sea in years. In this instance, my preparation for the worst had made the difference between a short frantic swim to shore and possibly something much more epic.

If I’d gone with another paddler, I’d probably be buying her or him a six pack. If I’d listened to my body instead of my ego, and paddled back to the launch when I knew I was darn near cashed, I’d probably buy one for myself. I still would have had a great day either way; but I wonder how many injuries have happened right after someone said, “Just one more?”

Indecision. Photo by Shari Galiardi

I am still going to paddle by myself in both rough and calm water, and I’m still going to seek out areas that offer spicy paddling; but I am going to add another item to my checklist. I’m calling this my “just one more” check. If I even hear myself thinking “just one more”, I’m going to stop and say, “Hold on now, remember the Narrows?”  Then I’m going to head in, call it a day and go look for that cold one.

David Hutchison and Shari Galiardi are a traveling freelance writer / photographer couple who set-up their basecamp in the North Cascades for 2016. Both are outdoor and environmental educators who have explored, volunteered, and worked across the country for the past four years. Along with many other places they now call home, the Pacific Northwest has a special place in their hearts.

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