Thursday, December 19, 2013

Snow Day on the Eel River

Cold and dry was the prediction for the winter of 2013/2014 and it seems that they were correct.

Over the weekend, Jeff and I did a scouting trip to the Eel River.  We were preparing for a swiftwater safety course and expected the river to be low but weren't expecting snow.

We saw at least 20 salmon.  Some were spawning and others were waiting in pools before traveling further up the river.  We can only imagine what a rocky journey it has and will be with very little water in the river.

Bald eagles were plentiful along the river. They like salmon too.

We enjoyed the familiar sounds of the American Dipper and watching them zip about and dip into the chilly water to feed.

While this wasn't the winter wonderland (or perhaps we should say playland) that we were looking for, it sure was beautiful and we enjoyed it.  Carpe diem!

Here's a link to more of photos from our traipse about on the Eel River.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

One Vest to Rule Them All

Review of the Astral Green Jacket

This spring, Jeff ordered the new 2013 Astral Green Jacket.  It turned out to be too small for him.  His loss  - my gain (besides blue and black are more my colors than his).

The Astral Green Jacket is a Class V US Coast Guard approved rescue life jacket.  The new Green Jacket has many of the features of the old one with a few changes.  The most noticeable change being the clam-shell pocket.

The clam-shell pocket on the front is AWESOME!  As a guide, there is a lot of gear that we need to carry.  I can carry much of what I might need immediately on my person (first aid equipment, communications, camera, knife, snacks, sunscreen, ect.).  I know other boaters that carry their pin kit on them in the jacket.

The side pockets aren't as easily accessible but are other good places to stash gear.  I keep a neoprene beanie in one of them for extra warmth for me or my students.
The Green Jacket is comfortable.  Astral's techtonics allow the upper portion of the jacket to move with your torso independent of the bottom.  Unfortunately it makes most other life jackets feel like straight jackets.

The Green Jacket is a beefy jacket with lots of protection - not something that the everyday paddler wants or needs.  The protection is there for those of us who need rib and spine protection from rocks, boats, flailing students paddles, ect.  It also has the integrated rescue harness for rescue scenarios - again another feature that many paddlers don't want or need.  We recommend taking a swiftwater training course before using a rescue vest with harness.  The harness on the Green Jacket is secure and has served me well in rescue situations including quick tows in rock gardens.  I would not recommend that sea kayakers rely upon this as their primary tow system (a topic for another blog).

The Green Jacket is a deep (long) jacket that might not work for those with shorter torsos.  I find it cumbersome when I have to hop into one of our deeper/larger volume sea kayaks.  It is also has a lot of bulk in the front with the flotation panel and clamshell pocket.  I initially thought this would be bothersome but find that I only notice it when I am demonstrating certain deep water rescue techniques (cowboy scramble and heel hook).

The handwarmer pouch is a nice touch and gives you a place that is not only fuzzy, warm, and out of the wind for your hands but also a place to quickly stow items - like gloves when launching or doing rescues.  I have even stowed my towline in the handwarmer pocket situations when I needed to stash and dash (of course repacking it later).

Another nice feature of the Green Jacket is the pocket behind the clamshell.  It was designed so that paddlers could carry a throw rope on them.  I haven't tried this yet but have found it to be an accessible and secure place to stow my marine radio (tethered of course).

Overall, I would highly recommend the Astral Green Jacket for whitewater kayakers looking for a rescue life jacket.  Paddlers who are my size (5'4" and 120#) or smaller, should definitely try it before buying it - in particular making sure that the depth of the jacket does not interfere with their paddling.  Sea Kayakers should consider Astral's SeaWolf which is a very similar jacket with the added features of side entry and the option of adding a rescue belt.

PS  Astral's customer service is outstanding.  They are staffed by a bunch of paddlers who know paddling and care that their stuff fits and works for paddlers.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Review of the Jackson Zen 55

Goldilocks has found the whitewater river runner kayak that is "Just Right" - the Jackson Zen 55.

Followers of my blog and paddling career know that I have had the Goldilocks syndrome with boats - you've heard my stories and read my reviews - this boat is too slow, this boat is too heavy, this boat is too wide, yada yada yada.  For those that are interested, I am working on an overview of the small whitewater river runners on the market from the perspective of a petite woman paddler (5'4" and 120#).  Until I get it written, here's my whitewater kayak of choice -

Review of Jackson Kayak's Zen 55

First impressions - 
On the website
The promo video showed a fun, capable river runner, but I wasn't excited until I saw the specs (I am a bit of a numbers person). The Zen 55 is listed as 7'11" long and 24" wide, 60 gallons, and weighing 36 pounds.  The specs would lead one to think - a fast, lean boat.  I could get excited about this but was a little skeptical that it might be too narrow for my hips like many of the kids' whitewater boats.

On the showroom floor
The Zen 55 looked like the right size.  True this is a very subjective statement but having paddled many different river runners over the years and looking at others, they always look too big.  My fear that the Zen 55 was a kids' boat was alleviated when I sat in it and fit.  It fits like my favorite pair of jeans.

On the water
River Running - The Zen 55 danced on the water for me as we boated the Chili Bar Run of the South Fork of the American River.  The boat continued to feel like my favorite pair of jeans and moved with me - where and when I wanted to.  The planning hull carved into and out of eddies and glided nicely on waves. The hull was sporty and playful yet stable.  I liked the way the boat rode through the wave trains.  The volume felt well balanced and the handling was very predictable.

Rolling -The Zen 55 was easy and effortless to roll.  This may have been one of the easiest boats that I have ever rolled.

Ocean Rock Gardening - A day rock gardening and surfing in the ocean on the Mendocino Coast reaffirmed my thoughts that this is a great river runner.  For this type of paddling my craft of choice has been a Necky Jive because it is fast and surfs well.  In the Zen 55, I continued to have that solid body boat connection and was able to maneuver the boat and make directional changes when riding pour-overs.

I also really appreciated the Zen's volume for predictable resurfacing from holes.

I'm not sure about the Zen 55 on an ocean wave yet.  As expected the Zen 55 was slower than the Jive, and  the stern volume was a bit contentious when caught by the foam pile.  More work and testing on this to come.

Outfitting - The outfitting is easily adjusted and comfortable.  Obviously Jackson Kayaks have put a lot of thought into outfitting.  Here's a link to all the features of their outfitting.  I appreciate that there are no ratchets to corrode and bulkhead adjustments are simple and even possible to adjust on the fly with Jackson Kayak's corded system (no more crawling in kayaks and wrestling with the adjustment brackets on bulkheads).
Footrest/bulkhead adjustable from the seat of the kayak with one pull on a rope.
The smaller cockpit size of the Zen 55 is really nice compared to other river runners.  It makes for a more comfortable body/boat connection.  The shorter cockpit length makes it so that smaller paddlers can use drier, more implosion resistant spray decks without having a wrestling match to get them on.

The original position of the backband is way to high for my liking so I re-routed the adjustment cords so that it would sit lower.

The foot room is ok in the boat for me in my booties but too tight in my Keen Gorge Boots.  This is not an uncommon problem and one that I will solve by carving out notches for my heels in the center pillar.

Other Sizes - I have not seen other paddlers in the Zen 55; however, quite a few of our students have been paddling the Zen 65 and 75 on the river and in our Whitewater of the Sea Adventures (ocean rock gardening).  Both Jeff and I have been amazed at the beginner friendliness of the Zen - stable, maneuverable, fast, and easy to roll.

Jeff has become a huge fan of the Zen too.  Here he makes the Zen 75 sing on an ocean wave.

Would I recommend the Jackson Zen 55?  YES!!!  My favorite thing about the Zen 55 is that it is fast and responsive.  The design and outfitting are well thought out and work for a smaller paddler.  For me, it handles like a performance sports car instead of the ho-hum Toyota Camry feel of the other river runners that I have paddled.  Even though it is sporty, the Zen is quite stable and confidence inspiring.  The Zen's edges will carve into an eddy or on a wave but aren't grabby in chaotic water.  It is predictable and fast for making moves and super easy to roll.

For those looking for an easy to roll, beginner friendly boat for learning to whitewater kayak, the Zen is it. The Zen is stable, maneuverable, fast, and easy to roll.  The Jackson Zen is the first whitewater kayak that comes to mind when students ask for recommendations for a river runner or ocean rock garden kayak.  The Jackson Zen is also a very capable performance craft for river running up to class IV and playing in ocean rock gardens.

I am at the top of the weight/size recommendations for the Zen 55 which is probably why is it such a sporty kayak for me.  If you are taller than 5'4 and/or over 120 pounds, you might want to try the Zen 65.  I have sat in our 65.  It feels too big but will paddle it and share my thoughts - if I can tear myself out of the 55.

These are my overall impressions of the Zen.  Fortunately the Zen 55 seems to fit the hard to fit smaller paddler but also there is the 65 and 75 to accommodate a wide range of paddlers.  If you are in the market for a river runner, definitely check out the Zen.

If you have experience with the Zen 55, please share them with me in the comments below or send me an email.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Learning to Fly

Do you ever see athletes in action and admire the grace and fluidity of their movements?  They make it look so easy that we often forget the hundreds and hundreds of hours that they spend working to train their bodies and minds.  Movements that are seemingly effortless really have taken considerable amounts of effort to become effortless.

When I started paddling in 2007, I wanted to surf ocean waves.  I watched Jeff and others.  I admired the beauty and grace of their movements - how they danced on the waves. Of course being an analytical thinker, I studied their movements.  I analyzed  the specific components of how they surfed - wave selection, where they caught the wave, strokes that they took to get onto the wave, and how they maneuvered on the wave.  It helped that I had my own personal coach as well.  Buy him a tasty beverage after a surf session, and he would answer my endless questions.

I was sidelined with a non-paddling injury for much of 2008 and again subjected to watching and learning.  In 2009, I focused on dialing in my boating skills - strokes, bracing, rolling, controlled launching and landing in the surf, and rock gardening.

In 2010, I started to surf kayak.  From rock gardening and controlled surf zone drills, I developed a reliable roll in dynamic water and an understanding of the pulse of the ocean and the surf zone.  A Mini-Mako that had been in our stable became my steed for the surf zone.  It was my first waves with the Mini-Mako that I felt the speed and elation of flying down a wave (admittedly it was probably a 3' wave).

While I had some magical experiences with the Mini-Mako, it was surfing the Necky Jive that gave me the confidence to drop in on steeper waves, to learn control of my shore side edge, and to rudder on my shore side.  The Jive really does auto plane on to a wave, but then it is the surf pilot who makes it dance there.

Fast forward to 2013, I am starting to dance on the wave.  I continue to enjoy the challenge of the puzzle of figuring out our local shore breaks and am gaining the confidence to drop in on our local reef breaks which can extol penalties in pain and broken boats for mistakes.  I don't want the adrenaline rush of surfing big waves.  I want to dance on the wave - climbing and dropping, cutting back and flirting with the foam pile, floating off the top of it, and racing down the line to make the next section.  I continue to develop my skills in the Jive, but we decided it was time for me to move into an high performance surf kayak.

October 2013, a Valley Rush 2 joined our fleet.

 Day one - I was thankful that I didn't swim.  I spent a lot of time upside down and missed more rolls in one session than in a couple of years of boating.  The reality that this is a big step hits me, and I have the choice to give the boat over to Jeff or to buckle down and learn to paddle it.

Day two - a few outfitting changes and I am comfortably rolling it.  Now determination has set in.  I am going to learn to surf this boat.  I set up a training schedule for myself.

Day three - I am starting to fly down the face of waves.  Despite tripping over my edges, the elation of flying down a wave boosts my spirits and gives me the confidence that I can learn to do this.  I am starting to have fun.  Day four - I am flying down the wave and almost outrunning it then starting to make the boat move around.  The Rush 2 is so responsive - there is a reason why it is the boat of choice of many of the best surf kayakers in the world.

Day five - I finally feel like I am surfing.  I have miles to go but I would venture to say on this particular day I caught better waves and had more dynamic maneuvers on the wave than the board surfers that I was out with (again one has to realize that it was a 2-3 foot day with the occasional 4 footer).

Day six - I can't wait - maybe this morning . . .

I share my progression for those who think that learning to surf is something that can be achieved in a class or in a first year of boating.  Some individuals of course learn faster or slower than others depending upon a lot of factors.  I am not a school of hard knocks type of person, and my livelihood requires that I remain injury free so I tend to take things slow and minimize risks.  Also as a teacher, I understand the importance of developing a foundation of fundamental skills for injury prevention and higher skill development.  The analogy that one has to learn to crawl before walking and learn to walk before running is very true.  Research shows that skipping those steps in development often leads to difficulty with other skills down the road.

I encourage those that are learning to surf kayak to develop a solid core of fundamental skills, learn control in the surf, learn the etiquette (or don't go out where others are), practice in a location where the waves and surf vibe are friendly, and find a good coach (I am so fortunate to have Jeff).

As I teach kayaking and surf kayaking, I share my learning progression for students to know where I am coming from.  Both Jeff and I not only continue to hone our personal surfing skills but also our teaching skills.  I can empathize with the student who is tentative about putting in a shore side rudder because it wasn't long ago I was tentative about those shore side strokes.

And here I am now a little tentative about a new boat but learning to fly.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


The swell rolls in toward the bay.  As it hits the northern point, it encounters obstacles - ROCKS!!!  From 100 yards away, I see the wall of water rolling toward the rocks.  Giddy with anticipation, my eyes track the water and my mind envisions the ride.

Wah-boom!!!  The swell hits the rocks and washes over them ending in a chaotic washing machine of churning whitewater.  I envision myself in my sea kayak riding with the wave over the rock and into the melee of whitewater.

We paddle closer to take a look.  The tide is low and mixed swells are washing over the rock.  Most of the swells are not quite big enough for one to cleanly run a 15' sea kayak over the rock.  Jeff hops on one of the bigger waves and bombs over the rock in an 11' whitewater kayak.

I move into position and watch and wait.  And watch and wait. And watch and wait.  It is work to stay in position.  The swells aren't big enough to cleanly ride over the rock but are strong enough to create surges as the water rushes around the rock and rebound into and out of the nearby sea cave.  Draw stroke, draw stroke, draw stroke, reverse paddle, reverse paddle, draw stroke, reverse paddle, reverse paddle . . . still watching and waiting.

As I work to maintain position, I am reading the water - trying to gage its direction, size, and pulse.  The sizes of the waves are mostly the same, but some have a longer interval and more water.  It is one of these thick waves that I need for a clean ride.  In a plastic sea kayak, many kayakers would enjoy a wave that bounced and bumped them over the rock.  I am striving for precision and honing my water reading, timing, and paddling skills.  I want a clean ride.

As I maintain position, I angle my boat so that I can see out to sea but also so that I can counteract the surging of the water around the rock when I go for my ride.

The swells are mostly wrapping around from the North West or are coming straight in from the West.  However as I wait and watch, a wall of water rolls in from the South.  It is the perfect size and I am tempted, but I know that my angle of approach is incorrect.  That wave would definitely stuff me into the higher part of the rock.  I refuse to visualize the consequences beyond that and watch the southern swell explode over the rock.

It is work, and I am becoming impatient.  The urge to just try one of the smaller waves is strong and the work maintain position is constant.  Smaller waves continue to roll through with the occasional one that possibly could put me over the top smoothly.  Knowledge of the consequences of a mistimed wave stays my position and shores-up my patience.  This feature is called Nick's Nightmare and has been a nightmare for many besides Nick.  Today, Nick is quietly sitting on the outside watching.

Bryant and Jeff are patiently waiting as well.  I feel bad that everyone is waiting on me.  However, these guys are my paddling posse.  We get as excited about each others rides as we do our own, and I know that they want me to get "The Wave of the Day" (or at least my wave of the day).  Both Jeff and Bryant had amazing rides at Chicken Point and now it is my turn.

And now, my readers are patiently reading my blog waiting for me to catch my wave.

A bump comes along.  It doesn't look much larger than the others but is drawing more water.  I am working  harder now to maintain my position and see that my elevation has changed.  I am looking at a wall of rock in front of me rather than the top of it.  I know that this is my wave and paddle straight at the rock.  Just moments before my bow hits the rock, the swell rises beneath me and I am hurling over the rock and down the other side.
sea kayak rock gardening mendocino
Rocking the Valley Gemini SP. Photo by Bryant Burkhardt
My heart is in my throat for a moment as my boat plunges into the gaping hole that has opened up at the bottom of the rock.
Plunging into Nick's Nightmare.  Photo by Jeff Laxier
I keep my weight forward to continue my forward momentum.  This feature preys upon fear and will suck tentative paddlers back over its falls.  My 15' sea kayak submerges but continues its forward momentum to escape the jaws of Nick's Nightmare.
Escaping the Grasp of Nick's Nightmare. Photo by Jeff Laxier
Mission accomplished.

No boats, marine life, rocks, or paddlers were injured in this sequence of events.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


My apologies for all who follow my blog for my lack of blogging.  This year seems to have been a whirlwind of on and off water activity.  Overall, I have to say that Life is not good . . . it is GREAT!!!  Here's a little of what's been up and what to look forward to in my blog in the remaining months of 2013.

Terrestrial pursuits - yes those that know me know that I am as at home in the forest and trails as well as on the water.  This summer and fall, I have almost religiously mountain biked twice a week.  Bombing through the forests of the Mendocino Coast is one of my favorite things in the world.  It is also great for fitness and mental clarity.  In September, one of my riding buddies and I ventured into the Sierra Nevada's for a change of scenery.  Hole in the Ground Trail near Truckee was one of our best rides of the season.  Rock gardening in granite on two wheels was challenging and fun.
Hole in the Ground
Also in September, I enrolled in a semester course in dendrology - the study of wooded plants (trees).  Learning the nuances of tree identification and scientific names has definitely been stretching my brain.  A new game that I have started is mentally reciting the scientific names of the plants that I see when mountain biking up a long grade.  Yes, I admit that I am a geeky science nerd.
Can you name this plant?
Of course, fall is mushroom season on the Mendocino Coast.  Another new game for fall is the post-ride weigh-in.
Boletus edulis
Of course followed by post-ride refueling with food from the forest.

And fresh veggies from the garden

On the water, I have done a lot of guiding and coaching this year.  The positive feedback from my students about a specific technique or tip that I have helped them with has been really exciting and stoked me out on coaching paddlers.  Like my days in the classroom, I have tried to find that one key skill that a student needs to accelerate in their learning - it seems to be clicking for me in my coaching.
No hat, no helmet - definitely a rare moment.
All summer, our beloved Black Pearl (Valley Gemini SP)was in the shop so I was back in my Valley Avocet RM for teaching.  I got to do a couple of fun sea kayak trips including paddling the stellar Area 10-13 with friends Jim and Tess but most of my play time this summer and fall has continued to be surfing my Necky Jive.  Yes, the Jive has been my go to surf toy as Jeff and I search for an hp surf kayak for me.  This summer I worked up to dropping on bigger, steeper waves.

In October, Jeff and I once again ventured north to Pacific City, Oregon for the 5th annual Lumpy Waters Kayak Symposium.  I dare say that this was the best one ever.  The weather and paddling conditions were excellent, the students were open minded and eager learners, and the coaching staff was top notch.
Sunny, warm, and small surf on the Oregon Coast for Lumpy Waters.
Of course, I am a bit excited to share that 3 new toys came home with us from Lumpy Waters.  Stay tuned for my reports on them.  First will be my report on the new polyethylene Valley Gemini SP.   It has inspired me to want to rock garden and surf more in a sea kayak and has lit a fire under Jeff to finish up the repairs on the Black Pearl.

So this is a little of what I have been up to and why my blog has been a bit quiet.  Yes, I have been learning lots and have lots to share.  Some gear reviews are next on my plate for blog posts.

Life isn't good - Life is GREAT!!!  Thanks for reading and hanging with me on life's adventures.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Sea Kayaking Mendocino's Area 10-13

At the end of August, Jeff and I took a day off to play with our friends Jim and Tess.  We sea kayaked a stretch of the Mendocino Coast that we call Area 10-13.

Area 10-13 has some of the coolest sea caves to kayak in on the Mendocino Coast.
Delving into the darkness.
Many of the sea caves are tunnels that cut through the headlands.
Jeff traveling under headlands instead of around them.
Multiple opens make for interesting paddling.  One of our favorites is called Lex's Labyrinth.
Tess exiting Lex's Labyrinth.
Some of the caves have play features.  This cave has a fun wash-over.
Jim Kakuk styles it in his Tsunami X-15.
This arch leads to a hidden cove.
The gang returns from a lunch break in the hidden cove.
But the day wasn't all about kayaking through spectacular sea caves, we enjoyed each other's company, a beautiful day, and exceptional wildlife sightings- including porpoises and river otters.
A river otter hunting for lunch.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Woman on Water

Please forgive the lack of writing this month/year.  I truly have been a woman on water.  Most recently my adventures have been teaching and guiding on the Mendocino Coast for Liquid Fusion Kayaking.  As summer begins, we have become quite busy.  Today I had a couple of moments to reflect on the magic of what I get to do.

Our dry and mild wildlife watching kayak tours are popular with families and first time kayakers.  After one of my tours this week, an 8 year old told me that he loved kayaking and it was his best day ever.
Fort Bragg Mendocino Coast Kayaking
A dry and mild family kayak trip on the Mendocino Coast
We also had a 64 year old tell us the same thing.  Today we had a mother and 3 daughters out rock gardening on our Whitewater of the Sea Adventure.  Mom got the biggest ride of the day.
Rock garden whitewater kayak Mendocino
A wet and wild ocean kayak adventure on the Mendocino Coast

I can't wait to hear what the 3 brothers say.

Whether mild or wild, each day brings new adventures.
I encourage everyone to live outside the box and get out on the water.
Valley Gemini Sea Kayak Mendocino
Cate in her Valley Gemini SP Sea Kayak.

Or in it!!!