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September 28, 2006

Paddlefest Primer

story & photos by BENNETT BARTHELEMY

When my boss aphoto of sea kayaker on Humboldt Bayt Center Activities, Dave Nakamura, asked me to jump into one of their sea kayak classes so I could pump publicity by penning a piece for Paddlefest (Oct. 14 and 15) I was a touch apprehensive. Center Activities happens to be the main sponsor of this year's Humboldt Bay aquatic shenanigans, but my apprehension had nothing to do with ethics. Having nearly drowned four times, I prefer engaging water in a controlled, closed environment, like a swimming pool.

I knew standards were high for Center Activities instructors because both my wife and I are employed in their rock climbing program. It still helped to learn that my two guides for the Mad River Slough Tour were Tara and Victor, who had both logged hundreds of miles kayaking the frigid waters of Alaska -- Tara guiding kids (she claims she didn't lose a single one) and Victor employed as a sea-kayaking backcountry ranger in the Chugach (who had kayaked in 25-degree temps, dodging ice blocks).

Instruction was helpful. The paddle has an up and a down, and the sprayskirt goes on before the splash jacket. Once out of ear- and eyeshot of the logging deck and gunnery range, it was well worth the initial apprehension. The $1,300 piece of plastic I was bowlegged-ly wedged into (an aquatic cowboy?) was my conduit to another world. There was new life in full motion, and color everywhere. Explosions of sandpipers moved as one being in crazy twisting arcs around us. A harbor seal surfaced next to my boat while marbled godwits flew together like structured confetti. Belted kingfishers clicked back and forth, and sharp-shinned hawks hunted. Yellow daisy-like flowers grew in splendored abundance, spending half their time beneath briny water at high tide. We paddled past abandoned oyster farms, now home to no-less industrious throngs of shorebirds. Perhaps the most intriguing sight was the ghostly trunks of stately Sitka spruce growing directly out of the stark Lamphere sand dunes, stretching branches phantasmagorically through swirling fog and snatches of cobalt blue sky.

So while gliding softly through the slough I resolved to attend this year's watery wiliness, whereby I might manage to mitigate my hydrophobia. We fear what we don't understand, right? It is all too easy to marginalize cultures not our own, which is why we have the Peace Corps, read Joseph Campbell and go to Paddlefest. All my scholarly sentiments (as well as the fun-loving hedonist) were urging me to acquaint myself better with this activity I had learned to eschew by dint of prejudice.

photo of sea kayaker on Humboldt BayMy next attempt at horizon expansion was via a sojourn around Trinidad Head last month. It actually did more to dampen my enthusiasm. My mantra was, ignorance is bliss, but this only works if you can stay blissfully ignorant. My friend Ben is a class V river boater and is at home on the water as I am on vertical stone. I am captivated by the idea of engaging improbable wild places and being a kind of circuit between worlds -- stone and ethers, sea and sky -- so I signed on for the adventure.

Once water-borne, we passed a returning armada of verbose paddlers decked out in helmets and the latest gear. They commented to me on my choice of a non-spray-skirted river boat and obvious rusticity with the activity. I realized then that Ben and I were coming from wildly different perspectives on what is `mellow.' His response to my waxing apprehension? "You'll be fine, just stay close to shore in case you flip." Little comfort, given that the water was frigid and the only shore was the wave-lashed vertical cliff of the head and the intermittent jagged sea stacks. Ben chose this moment to casually confide that in winter he enjoyed heading out into triple overhead storm-surf at College Cove, by himself, with only fins and wetsuit. The next instant my heart nearly stopped when another kind of fin bobbed up from the depths right in front of my boat. My mind screamed shark. Ben yelled, "Harbor porpoise!"

I managed to keep my boat perpendicular to the large swells, and only flipped when we rode the head-high waves into shore at College Cove. I was thrilled. I kept hold of the paddle and quickly got a hand on my boat after a powerful, sand-grinding ejection. From my dour glower, Ben must have thought it prudent to keep a safe distance and let my resentment freeze with the numbing, icy wind on shore. Despite wanting to kill Ben for so lackadaisically turning me loose in the tumultuous sea, I secretly felt a twinge of jealousy and admiration as he stayed in the surf-zone, expertly carving the faces of the waves.

So I had now seen two sides of kayaking -- bravely battling breakers and sublimely skimming sloughs. I was hungry for more. Paddlfest seemed like a good place to start the next phase, but what could I expect? Dave and Adrienne, who are this year's event coordinators, assured me that it would be advantageous and apropos for any individual who seeks to dabble or already derives more singular sustenance from aqueous endeavors. There would be local guides and guiding companies present, skills clinics, events, company reps with free demo gear, prizes to win. I would also be in good company. Last year, 1,500 people attended, all attuned to a similar aquatic frequency, a mass meditation of Poseidonic potentials, if you will.

After being a "local" for over a decade it's now time to begin exploring a bit more of Northern California's unique and enviable plethora of possibilities for liquescent latitudes. I will no longer curse the rain. Instead, it will be a mnemonic to re-engage in the celebration of a watery-world. Why should dolphins and river otters have all the fun? The magnificence of Wild and Scenic Rivers and the avian aeries of the Coastal Monument beckon. New potential for inspired transient trajectories tempt transcendental territories. Edward Abbey said it best; "There is beauty, heartbreaking beauty everywhere."

Check out for more info on the event.

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