Just Bring Your Own Bag


October 15, 2017 Comments (2) journal

Talking Kayaks

The last few posts would seem to indicate that I am even more immersed than usual in plastics-related subjects. While it’s true that I do spend an inordinate amount of time on all things plastic, there are other things to keep aware of, quite apart from polymers. Shifting slightly, we could talk about the fact that Puget Sound salmon are on drugs. Or perhaps we could have a discussion about the NFL protests and whether the players or the President is right or wrong. (Soccer players in Germany have made up their minds already.) There are any number of subjects that are worthy but for some nagging reason, I just feel like there are some things that need to be said about sea kayaking.

(If sea kayaking is not to your interest, and you don’t particularly care about whatever, I want you to know that it’s ok. I will undoubtedly be back to plastic tomorrow. Please check back.)

So, kayaking. What triggered it today for me was an article I saw by Tim Shuff about how sea kayaking is suffering because of too much emphasis on “education” and not enough emphasis on adventure. As a guide and instructor for many years, I couldn’t agree more. (I know… ironic.) The main points in the article were similar to ones that John Dowd, the Godfather of Northwest kayaking, raised in an article he penned years ago, and they are that when kayaking was just gaining traction, it was built around by-guess-and-by-god, trial and error adventure and that a hyper-awareness of safety issues and an obsession with certification have damaged the activity, for many.

I watched that happen. From the time when I started, late 1980’s, it was always a surprise what was around any corner, and every paddle stroke carried us all closer to the edge. The magazines carried us to places we’d never even heard of and the idea that kayaks were for freedom was fairly universal. From the guide/instructor perspective, that rationale slowly changed, and a premium was placed on “professionalism,” including additional expectations of certification: WFR, ACA or BCU certs, even Leave No Trace. There was always another cert or recert on the calendar, often taught by people who might not have had much expedition experience but coached well enough to pass. And there were some who lived for these programs, who wore their merit badges proudly, proclaiming to all who were within range their specific level of paddle sports mastery. Some of them were pretty good paddlers and some of them weren’t but that isn’t even the issue; it was the system itself that proceeded to suck the adventure out of sea kayaking.

“The same phenomenon of credential overproduction has befallen society as a whole. The world is now so full of highly educated people looking for somewhere to sell their expensive knowledge that it’s hard to break into just about any field, even with an advanced degree. It befits those who hold the credentials to convince everybody else that they’re necessary.”

It’s a good article, strongly recommended. Thumbs up on this side of the aisle.


2 Responses to Talking Kayaks

  1. Kathleen Grimbly says:

    Kayaking began for me in 1983, guiding in 1987 and outfitting & guiding in 1989. I love edgy places where things are happening; where currents roil into land, channels collide and funnel, long fetches build swelling waves and herring, up the food chain to whales, feed. John Dowd’s book was all I knew of kayak instruction at first, and 34 years of paddling experience and rubbing elbows with professional paddlers support his basic premise as I understand it:
    you can learn the mechanics of kayaking in a week (well, minus the full suite of Greenland rolls, for most of us) But acquiring the awareness of kayaking seamanship is a lifetime pursuit.
    I’ve experienced the range of kayak trainings, from being offered a certification having not left a protected harbor to spending an entire day in 5 ft. surf with the instruction “go in and out” while the instructor stood on the beach laughing. And the instructor trainer who’d spent so much desk time he couldn’t demonstrate upper body rotation. “You can fix that” I said. “I know” he said insipidly. I’m either un-trainable, or not a true believer, or maybe a lifetime of teaching has made me a pedagogical snob.
    But enough about me. The factors I see killing the paddle industry today include certification, which, as in the e.g,’s above, has not resulted in standardization or skillful pedagogy. (My favorite quote from one colonizing trainer: “My wife has an MA in Ed and says this syllabus is crap”) The ski instruction industry started out hiring instructors with superb technical skills until they realized students weren’t learning, having fun or becoming life long skiers. Now they teach instructors how to teach by having fun and engaging students, which I see as the same thing: if people are engaged, they’re having fun. My least favorite quote from aforesaid training: “You KNOW about the Beaufort scale?!” This kind of arrogance and lack of respect for people’s love and experience of the sea is the opposite of early day’s egalitarianism: if you paddled and loved the sea, you were a respected community member.
    The lack of emphasis on seamanship and judgement relative to skills training and piles of expensive gear has sent most folk to Costco boats and SUPs. (Ah, Audrey Sutherland, how we miss you) Everyone does not need a full dry suit 15 rolls and a boat you can jump on without breaking. They need the judgement and awareness to be prepared paddling where and how they want to paddle. And they need instructors who are willing to listen to their needs, goals, experiences AND LEARNING STYLE, rather than defining same. (Though I’ve gotten some great boat deals from people pushed into what didn’t work for them) Which reminds me of Justine Curgenven’s reply when I asked how she paddled a 55 nm crossing: “A comfortable boat”…which I believe includes all levels of comfort.
    The most dangerous element of levels is that the starred ones have singular authority…kind of like authoritarianism, eh? This played out in a nearly deadly instructor training on the Columbia bar where an instructor with extensive local knowledge deferred to the stars, they went out when and where he knew they shouldn’t be, and no fun was had by all. We all make mistakes. Butt this was not a mistake. This was a symptom of authoritarianism, imposed on a joyous activity.
    Finally, though fewer people are expeditioning, more become arm chair expeditioners, and fewer people are paddling, I suspect just as many or more are dying paddling as in the glory days, cementing the public opinion that kayaking is a dangerous activity best left to nut cases. In the end, it isn’t about instructor levels or stars, it’s about whether people take up life long paddling, love and care for the sea, and live to do it.