To paddle…. perchance to dream
In which an overweight editor finds his Kayak groove...
I moved to the South Carolina Lowcountry approximately a year ago, a pretty big change from the previous 15 or so years spent in the Midlands of the state, most of that time as the editor of South Carolina Wildlife magazine. Being editor of SCW was a wonderful job, with just one exception. You might assume that the editor of a magazine covering wildlife and the outdoors would be constantly in the field, having lots of adventures, but in fact, the opposite is true. Editing a magazine is a more-than full-time job, and most of that time is spent indoors, squinting at a computer screen, working over story manuscripts and looking through endless photos. There were a few opportunities to get outdoors for photo shoots and the like, but overall, it’s a sedentary job, and after eight years, I’m here to tell you, my waistline was showing it.
But I’m turning over a new leaf down here in the Lowcountry, in this beautiful place, surrounded by water, and friends, that leaf is going to involve a kayak. I need to lose 25 or so pounds (like a lot of us – you know who you are), but what I desire is to glide through the edges of the saltmarsh, elegantly, like the folks I see here on local rivers, eating up the miles with a smile on my face. I want to learn the ropes of kayaks, the skills and techniques of masters, so that one day I might launch my own, free to explore the creeks and saltmarshes and inland waters and maybe...just maybe…catch a fish. For dinner (grilled, not fried, my chubby friends).
I got a little help with that quest recently, from some members of the Sun City Hilton Head Kayakers Club. These are not your stereotypical retired folks, this I will tell you. As a quick glance through the trip pictures on their Facebook page shows, they are an active, engaged and pretty darn physically fit bunch, who know how to have a good time on the water. Just the kind of people I need to get to know! So when club VP Nancy Stills contacted me saying they’d really like to have someone from the SCDNR’s Office of Media & Outreach to come and speak to a meeting, the answer was of course, yes. And having learned from my boss that I was a novice yet eager-to-learn paddler, the invitation to speak was quickly followed up by another i to come along on an outing with them and get some basic instruction.
Needless to say, I jumped at the chance, and last week met the group near Dale for a morning paddle on a splendid spot at the top of St. Helena Sound, Wimbee Creek. I already knew a little about “the Wimbee” – both the creek and the vast salt marsh area surrounding it – thanks to the Roger Pinkney’s recollections of the place in an essay he penned for SCW a few years back in our special “First Light” Issue (January-February 2012). Parts of that essay were incorporated into Roger’s novel, "The Mullet Manifesto” (which I never miss a chance to plug – no bookshelf of great South Carolina literature is complete without it, and you’re welcome in advance).
Anyway, needless to say, I was eager to finally be able to get on the water there. (The Wimbee Creek Landing features a nice boat ramp and a fishing pier that was part of an old Southern Railroad trestle where the tracks once crossed the creek. Immediately to the left of the landing (if you’re looking across towards North Williman Island and the Hollings National Wildlife Refuge, is a small slough known as Briars Creek, wide enough at high tide for a fairly large group of paddlers to spend a morning exploring, and calm and flat enough to be the perfect location for me to soak up some basic kayaking basics from some very experienced paddlers.
I met my crew at the landing well after the tide had turned. Club Secretary and trip leader Bill Dickinson was nice enough to loan me a kayak to use AND to give me some great tips about getting in and out of the boat safely and other basics, and Nancy Stills helped me refine my technique of the basic strokes needed to make the kayak go (sort of) where I wanted it to.
Clothes and gear: Apart from your boat and paddle, the number one a must have item when paddling is a wearable, coast-guard approved PFD that fits you well. Kayaks are fairly stable craft (some designs moreso than others) but all can be turned over if you try hard enough. Getting back in a kayak is a learned skill, and it ain’t easy. If you go over near an oyster rake or in deep water, pulling it to shore to get back in isn’t always an option. Even if you’re a strong swimmer, the buoyancy afforded by a PFD makes getting back in the boat in open water a LOT easier. Bottom line – it could save your life. You’ll also want a whistle somewhere handy. It may feel silly, but if you get in trouble or need to signal an oncoming boat, a good whistle can make a heck of a lot more noise than you can on your own. It’s also the law.
I burn easily, so in addition to a generous coating of waterproof SPF 100 on my face and back of my hands, I like to wear a long-sleeved t-shirt while on the water, and those modern, lightweight nylon “fishing” shirts are just the ticket. While good old cotton works just fine for sun protection, it won’t dry out nearly as fast if – make that when – it gets wet, and that can get uncomfortable on a long paddle.
When paddling around shell rakes or rocky bottoms, shoes are also a good idea – sport sandals or something else that’s lightweight and drains well. In this part of the world, I’d add bug spray and a lightweight nylon neck gaiter to your kit. A gaiter can also provide good sun protection and wearing one can actually help lower your skin temperature. It’s also a welcome barrier against the clouds of no-see-ums that populate the ACE Basin this time of the year.
When it was time to get in the water, Bill Dickinson walked me through the right way to get in a kayak in a rocky area or one with a steep drop off without scraping up the bottom of your boat. With the kayak parallel to the shore and floating freely, place one hand on either gunwale and slide one leg in first. Then sit your butt down firmly in the seat before raising your other leg into the cockpit. It takes a little getting used to, but this technique is actually very easy, particularly if you have a partner to hold your boat in place. If you’re by yourself, it can be accomplished by using your paddle as a sort of outrigger to hold you steady.
One by one, our large group of paddlers pushed off and made their way into the creek. With the tide running in, the paddling was fairly easy, and this gave Nancy Stills some time to help me hone my paddling technique and show me the basic strokes needed for turning the boat sharply and backing up. Fairly intuitive, and not so different from the canoe strokes I’m more familiar with, but it’s great to have someone with experience who can watch what you’re doing and give you some pointers.
The main thing to remember about paddling a kayak (after making sure the blades of your paddle are facing the right way) is to sit up straight in the seat, keep your arms extended fairly straight and to use “torso rotation” to extend the paddle on first one side and then the other, pulling from front to back and letting the blade come out near your hips. Don’t make the mistake of “rowing” the paddle using your arms – it’s very inefficient. Your trunk muscles are much stronger than your arms, and using proper form will allow you to paddle farther, faster and with much less fatigue. Another upside to this is that it’s a great workout for those core muscles involved. In fact, for a certain somewhat overweight magazine-editor-turned-outdoor-blogger who loathes the gym, is bored by running and isn’t masochistic enough for crossfit, but who’s nonetheless looking to drop a few pounds and regain some lost strength and flexibility, it’s kind of the perfect exercise.
So the fitness angle is great, but in truth, they had me at “on the water.” There’s simply nothing like being surrounded by the saltmarsh, at eye level with the spartina grass, with herons and egrets attending their fishing chores around every bend. You can’t get this view of things from a 16-foot power skiff. And speaking of fishing, maybe if I keep developing these skills, I’m hoping my next step will involve kayak fishing! It’s good to have a dream, and mine involves a sit-on-top kayak, a lightweight bait-casting setup and a big red drum. I know it’s out there somewhere with my name on it. That’ll make a great future installment for the S.C. Natural Resources Blog, so keep reading.