Staying able.

April 8, 2012

After years of warning myself that if I stopped paddling regularly I would become unable to paddle, I slacked off paddling for the Fall 2011 school term. I had a heavy load and paddled only once every two weeks.  I was proud of myself for perfecting my new stroke which maximized torso rotation and minimized shoulder and arm movement. When I did paddle I had to take it easy because paddling ferociously like I used to was hurting my neck, and I usually had friends or family along anyway.

By mid-November  my left shoulder froze up. I suddenly lost my range of motion and it became so painful that a sneeze or a yawn could trigger a spasm I thought was close to making me pass out. I kept paddling but couldn’t put in at the high docks anymore and had to start using a beach put-in nearby. I avoided challenging water for safety reasons. I also devised a new way to get my boat back onto my van. The hardest part was fastening my spray skirt behind me. 

Each day the first 15-20 minutes of paddling hurt my shoulder and I could sense something popping inside it. But then it would warm up and feel much better for a few hours. I was still proud of my new stroke, without which I would have been unable to paddle at all. When various pains began radiating down my arm, and it began to feel like I was injuring my elbow and wrist, I quit paddling. Now over 5 months later, this is the longest stretch of non-paddling I’ve had since starting 7 years ago.

The MRI shows that I never injured my rotator cuff. That’s the good news. The bad news is that adhesive capsulitis can be triggered by muscle imbalances in the neck and shoulders that set up tensions among the four sets of muscles that compose the rotator cuff. The other bad news is that the pain levels become intense when the body goes horizontal to sleep at night. Soon an orthopedic surgeon will break it all loose while I’m under a general anesthetic. Then there will be some fairly intense physical therapy followed by a lifetime of taking better care of both shoulders, as well as other moving parts, not to mention the constant self-reminder that once past 50 life becomes a “use it or lose it” game.


Move the kayak, not the water.

August 9, 2011

When paddling a kayak, take the blade back out of the same hole in the water it went into. What’s supposed to be moving is the boat, not the water. Naturally, water moves and allows the paddle to “slip” backward kind of like sand slips under your feet when you’re trying to run on the beach. To mitigate this, the paddle needs to progressively dig into “new” water throughout each stroke. “New water” is water that hasn’t moved yet. This can be done with a stroke that goes progressively deeper or with a stroke that goes progressively wider. The wide option is usually more efficient. So the holes the blades punch into will look like slots at perpendicular 90 degree angles away from the boat. With proper torso rotation NO elbow action is required. This stroke is easily practiced with straight arms and locked elbows, but that puts the paddle so far out in front that it tires the shoulders and is not practical for a distance. When experimenting, use even the cheapest GPS to clock your results in speed, but true efficiency is more difficult to ascertain since feelings of tiredness and energy expenditure are subjective.

Still Rollin’ Along

January 27, 2011

Water bites? Bite it back! A big thank you to all the senior citizens I continually encounter on the water who are the living proof that at 50 I should have another 25 years of paddling ahead of me. I want to be an OLD kayaker someday. I repeat that with an emphasis on OLD. Safety is priority for anyone who wants to paddle into old age. I am a much safer paddler with a reliable roll. For safety reasons I am working on my roll every time I go out. The water is biting cold, so I dress for it and “bite back.”

What runs down hill?

December 21, 2010

Well, you know what happens every time it rains near Portland. And I paddle downstream from there. And that would be fine but I practice my roll 1 to 2 dozen times every time I go out even at night and even when it’s very cold out there. I dress warmly enough that I really need to roll every 5 minutes to stay cool during my eight mile exercise run. The water is cold enough to make my face burn but I don’t feel the least bit cold in my drysuit. Unfortunately since it has been raining a lot, the river is high and there’s probably a fairly high level of unpleasantries in it. My wife said I smelled like the stinky river when I got home last night so I went back out and hosed off myself and all my gear thoroughly. I couldn’t smell anything unusual. I am glad Portland is almost finished with their Bit Pipe project. The river should be cleaner then.

“Different Strokes” Continued

November 6, 2010

In my last post (which I actually wrote two months ago and posted only minutes ago) I forgot to mention that my experimentation with different strokes was triggered by professional paddling coach input. Since then I participated in Alder Creek’s 2nd Annual Lumpy Waters Symposium at Pacific City for three days and received input from many coaches including Shawn Morley who all advised me to use a shorter paddle. When I mentioned this to my earliest mentor he gave me a historical run-down on how the “tides have changed” in thinking about paddle length. Just 5-10 years ago longer paddles were in vogue. Recent trends could be related to the convergence of play boats and sea kayaks in the same water, specifically tide rips and surf zone.

Different strokes for different folks..

November 6, 2010

After years of paddling my own (evolving) way that I thought was developing the most sustainable power and speed, I began experimenting with a shallower, wider/lower angle shorter stroke that increased my speed by about .5 mph as per my GPS even on choppy water into a head wind. About that time I began feeling elbow pain in my leading arm, that turns out to be tennis elbow. Not cool. It could have also been caused by rolling too much when I wasn’t really used to it. My roll uses a backhand stroke timed with a torso unwind, and that backhand may be what aggrevates the injury like palming a basketball or picking up a bale of hay. Whatever the cause, now my paddling stroke is protectively modified by my current injury. Just goes to show that not everybody is going to paddle the same way. In fact, probably no two people are going to paddle the same way just like every person’s gait is unique.

“Hardened core” Paddling

April 29, 2010

I’m not a hardcore paddler. I don’t do whitewater rivers and won’t be purposely paddling over any waterfalls. I like the surf zone and have dreams of coastal expeditions, but nearing 50 I have no appetite for pain and the risk of injury. I started paddling after spinal injuries and disk degeneration nearly disabled me. For such problems there is no substitute for strength. Paddling a kayak awakens and strengthens all the core muscles. Every “knee-hang” becomes an abdominal crunch and every paddle stroke becomes a torso rotation. There was some pain getting up to strength, and every time I allow myself to get out of shape I can become nearly unable to paddle at all.

People go through various stages of technique, but paddling was beneficial to me long before I learned what I know now. I started paddling in October of 2005. My first winter I applied such force to my foot stops that I caused the hull of my new 18 foot Eddyline Falcon to begin cracking around the front bolts on the adjustable footstop rails. The manufacturer repaired and reinforced the hull free of charge but suggested that I must be a very aggressive paddler and that I might want to learn to steer with my knees. The tremendous force I had applied with my feet resulted in a couple years of severe foot pain, but as long as I was paddling regularly, my back spasms and sciatic pain were kept minimal. In the summer of 2006 I paddled my first solo expedition down the river to watch the demolition of the Trojan nuclear cooling tower at Goble. On the 13 mile return trip upriver to St. Helens I encountered large following waves that kept turning my boat sideways. That’s when I began to learn how effectively a the knee-hang can be in tracking straight.

My friends called me hard core because I was on the water several times a week mostly at night, regardless of the rain, wind, fog, snow, sleet and sub-freezing temperatures. My second winter I began wearing a layer of insulation under my breathable dry top. My first two winters I was so under-dressed I would have certainly died if I had capsized. But I was dealing with severely debilitating pain and it was totally worth the risk. Even in my ignorance of technique I was reaping the core-strengthening benefits of kayak paddling.

My second summer (2007) I did a solo circumnavigation of Sauvie Island. I put in at St. Helens around 2:00AM without even telling my wife I was going. 40 miles and 10 hours later, I was back home and very receptive to learning some things about hydration and carb-loading. I didn’t learn. In the summer of 2008 I paddled 54 miles solo in 10 hours to Skamokawa encountering 15 knot headwinds for 30 miles from Longview to Skamokawa. I dehydrated myself so severely that I lost between 5 and 10 pounds. My “sqeaking” wrist tendons quit hurting within a couple days when I rehydrated back to my normal weight.

In 2009 I learned over and over again what happens when I stop paddling for 3 weeks or paddle only once a week. Those core muscles weaken. The sciatic pain becomes so distracting that I cannot focus on my work, and spasms start threatening to drop me to my knees. Getting back into the boat and taking those first few strokes can be so painful that I am tempted to give up. But after the second or third outing within the same week I feel the renewed strength, and low-back pain levels quickly drop off the distraction radar.

So you see, despite the “accusations” of some of my friends, I am not a hardcore paddler. My objective is “hardened core.” I have naively jeapordized my life for it but remain eternally thankful that my intuition told me the kayak would do for me what the physical therapist had taught me needed to be done. I selected kayaking because it is an all weather sport (if dressed properly) and because I could see myself being motivated to continue consistently, whereas working out in a gymn with a bunch of other sweaty bodies might fail to keep me fascinated. It’s not always fun. I don’t always see the river otters, beaver, harbor seals, sea lions, bald eagles and osprey. But after nearly 5 years of “core-hardening” kayak therapy I have come to firmly associate paddling with freedom from pain.


April 16, 2010

Accelerate through curves. Your passengers, gently g-forced back into their seats through the lean will appreciate your finesse as a driver. But you have to slow down first. Some things in life are just that way.

Hydraulics (again)

April 16, 2010

With 80 feet exposed to wind, and only 20 feet of hull in the water, a ship must keep moving or lose all hydraulic “bite” for steering. Even slowing down can cause severe reduction in the ability for a ship to steer. This is part of the reason it takes several miles for a ship to stop. On a river such as the Lower Columbia, river pilots simply cannot stop. If it is windy, the ship will become a giant sail. Anchors and powerful tugboats would be required to keep the ship from running aground. Some things in life are just that way.

Some things in life are just that way.

April 16, 2010

I have survived seas beyond my skill level by keeping forward pressure on the bow of the kayak. Always keeping a paddle blade in the water provides stability and a constant hydraulic pressure on the hull for control. Let off the pressure and you’re at the mercy of the wind.  (My first ever blog post!)