Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The Paddling Tree

There are many firsts in our life experiences that will always stick with us. Most of us have at least a few memories of our first school, perhaps even of our first teacher, and memories of our first best friend. Of course there is the over romanticised first kiss, which never lives up to all the hype of movies and story books. The first car (which is a far clearer memory for most men than their first romance J), first job, first house/flat..... While all these memories will have varying degrees of importance or clarity for everyone, they all pale into insignificance for many paddlers when held against the memory of their first paddling experience. Every paddler remembers their first time on the water, vividly and usually fondly no matter how early the experience, or even if it was not such an enjoyable introduction. For each of us, there is something undefinable that has drawn us to the water, and that keeps us coming back to it. There are people who paddle, and there are Paddlers. For the Paddlers, it is not just a hobby or a fun thing to do on a sunny day, it is a way of life.  When asked by non paddlers (yes, there are such unenlightened, deprived people out there) the question “Why do you paddle?” It is often difficult to come up with an immediate answer. The first response is usually a blank gaze as the Paddler ponders “Why are they asking me such a dumb question?” It’s almost as if someone has just asked “why do you breathe?”
It doesn't get any better.....How do you explain this to a non paddler?
Ask people what they love most about paddling and you will get a broad range of answers. Tranquillity, excitement, exercise, solitude, friendship, challenges, relaxation, adrenaline, escape, nature..... the list goes on. For me, it is all of the above plus some, but one of the things I love most about paddling is the incredible diversity. There are so many ways to enjoy kayaking there is just no way it can ever get old. Unfortunately, it is that very diversity that causes the most trouble in the paddling community.  It is a sad reality that for many, diversity has come to mean divisiveness.
 It is human nature to categorise and label, to judge and compare. Most paddlers like to place themselves in a particular niche. We give each of these niches a label, and with a label comes a sense of identity. Now we have different groups of paddlers, all in their own categories, all wanting to compare themselves against others. To many, the paddling world is kind of like a tree, each person visualises their own particular niche as inhabiting one of the highest branches allowing them to look down upon the other paddlers. And so we have sea kayakers looking down on flat water paddlers, surfers & rock gardeners looking down on tourers, racers looking down on recreational paddlers, white water in a tree all of their own (probably upside down, hanging from their toes and laughing), SOTs universally sneered at, and everyone thinking the Greenland following are just crazy. Then there’s the Expeditioners who many treat with a kind of hushed reverence, perhaps looking upon them as some strange specimen that has left the tree altogether and are performing the unique marvel of walking on the ground.
The trouble is, once you have given yourself a label and a niche, it is hard to step outside of the perceived boundaries that create that identity, whether it is stepping outside your comfort zone, or just being open to new opportunities and experiences. To limit yourself to one narrowly defined category is to miss some amazing opportunities.  I have had so many unforgettable experiences in paddling, many of which I would have missed if I chose to limit my paddling experiences to just one field. Each different environment has its own beauty and excitement;
On Flat Water there is the unique beauty of gliding across mirror smooth water, your boat cutting silently through the reflected images of trees, cliffs and sky. There is the wildlife, a flat water trip is like bush walking on water, with the added advantage of getting far closer to the wildlife than possible on land – I have had amazing encounters with Wombats, Wallabies, Kangaroos, Echidnas, snakes, Goannas, Water Dragons and a host more, not to mention the birds – Wedge Tailed Eagles, Sea Eagles, Swans, Ducks, Cormorants, Lyre birds, Bell birds, Lorikeets, Rosellas, Kingfishers and many more (there was also an encounter with a charging bull that gave a particular spot on a river the nickname of ‘Bull Bend’ but perhaps a story for another timeJ). One of the most unforgettable flat water trips I have had was Lake Towada – an incredibly beautiful lake in the crater of a volcano in Japan. With clouds and mist settling on the surrounding peaks and the vivid green of the surrounding bush, we were in a world of our own as we paddled on the crystal clear water, definitely a destination I would love to return to.
On a windy day, serenity is replaced by excitement, surfing wind driven waves across a lake or putting on the power and pitting yourself against the wind, many people think I’m crazy, but I love paddling into a head wind!
Paddling with friends on Lake Towada, the rain added it's own magic to the day, surrounded us with cloud and mist.
The sea has its own mystical draw for many of us and has so much to offer. I love feeling the rhythm of the ocean swell, or the excitement of punching through a wave, being slapped in the face by spray, there is the adrenaline of surfing or the serenity of cruising on a calm day. I have to admit, I value my boat too much to have tried rock gardening, though I can easily see where the thrill lies for those who do it. I have had the joy of paddling with dolphins, seals, sea turtles, sharks, stingrays, stingarees and an amazing array of water birds. The experience of our boats being escorted by a pair of fairy penguins for about 1km one day was an unforgettable one, as was having dolphins twisting and turning upside down as they passed under our boats close enough to touch, or drifting over majestic sting rays – 5-6 feet across gliding silently through the water. Paddling along towering sea cliffs or over reefs teeming with an incredible abundance of life, or sitting alone, a tiny speck on the ocean looking out to the horizon and knowing there is nothing between yourself and New Zealand over 2000 kms away............ Ocean paddling can be an incredibly humbling experience.
Wayne resting in the shelter of Tollgate Island - A really fun day with
3 meter swell,but otherwise calm, it felt like paddling on a roller coaster.

Of course there is the exhilaration and adrenaline of white water, planning your course, guiding your boat through an exciting rapid and the thrill of being upright at the end. I remember a hilariously fun day many, many years ago when, bored with the grade ones and occasional twos on the river we were paddling, we decided instead to paddle Up each of the rapids. Lining up on each one, picking our route as we approached, then paddling like crazy to inch our way up the rapid and into calm water again. We got some rather strange looks from other paddlers that day, but we had a hell of a lot of fun J Kayaking a river in flood in Borneo tested, and found my limits in white water (a poor choice of guide and very unsuitable boats certainly added an element to that experience, as did the flooding which amped the river up a bit from our expectations), I did make it to the end, a little shaken perhaps, and can’t say I regret the trip having been given the chance to push myself and test my limits, but I can definitely say I prefer rafting to kayaking if we’re going for adrenalin. My hat does go off to the seemingly crazy paddlers who have developed the skills and experience to tackle rapids and drops that the rest of us would see as suicidal.
The Hawkesbury Canoe Classic, (a 111km ultra marathon on a tidal affected river) has given me a great appreciation for long distance events and I have a wish list of events I would love to tackle when time, finance and fitness allow, the fact that many of these events regularly have participants in their 60s inspires me and reminds me that I may not make it to these events as soon as I would like, but it will never be too late to reach for those goals. The Hawkesbury is held at night which adds an extra dimension to the mental endurance needed in this race as you find yourself spending many hours alone on the river, often in complete darkness. I am hoping the trials I have faced on this river will help prepare me for some of the tougher events on my list.
With our strange 'rubber hoodies' and an obsession with rolling,
for some reason other paddlers find the traditional crowd a bit odd.
Then there is the Greenland paddling skills, those who haven’t been bitten by the Greenland bug usually think we’re a strange bunch, it is hard for them to understand, and hard for us to explain. But for many of us, there is a strong draw to history, culture and tradition. Learning about the history and culture that created the kayak adds depth and richness to our paddling experience. I have a strong respect for tradition and believe the origins of any skill should be acknowledged. Kayaking originated in Greenland and the Arctic circle, we may have changed and adapted it to suit our recreational uses, but I still believe in giving credit where it is due, to do otherwise is to rob a people of an important part of their identity.  It may be pointed out by some that we no longer use kayaks to hunt seal or whales, I still find the traditional skills fascinating and a lot of fun to learn, and the rolling is unbelievably fun J.

As I have said, there is an incredible diversity in the kayaking world, I consider myself fortunate that I have had the chance to experience so much of what it has to offer. I am certainly not an expert in any field, but simply have a love of paddling. Even though there are some areas of paddling that may hold less appeal for me, or some that are beyond my skills, I like to think that we are all Paddlers. We may find different ways to enjoy the water, and we all have differing skills or preferred experiences, but we are all united by one thing – we are passionate about paddling. The water is a shared passion between us all whether it be sea, river or lake, and whether the paddlers themselves are rough water thrill seekers, calm water cruisers or somewhere in between.
So maybe it’s time to climb out of the tree and really look at other paddlers, not as someone to compete with or compare against, but as a fellow paddler who shares the same passion for the water. Stepping outside your comfort zone can add so much more to your paddling, for many this simply means being open minded to other paddlers, or other types of paddling. Next time you start a conversation with a paddler, don’t start with ‘what type of paddling do you do?’ Try ‘What do you love about paddling?’ You may find they enjoy all the same things you do, just in a different way.


  1. An excellent post Mel. It would be great to see more people take the view that paddlers are paddlers regardless of flavour. I recently competed in a race on Sydney Harbour (Summer Series Rose Bay) that a range of paddler-types including ski paddlers, OC paddlers, SUP paddlers, sea kayak paddlers and even a fishing kayak paddler! The banter on the water between "codes" was friendly and fun, and everyone had a great time. It was awesome to see the mix of types that day all enjoying the water together. Cheers, FP

  2. Enjoyed this post immensely. When I'm introducing new paddlers to either OC or kayaking I try to emphasise the importance of the journey, fellowship with other water users, waterskills and just a brilliant way to be part of the natural world. I come from a school of thought in NZ that says "if it floats we must be able to paddle it somewhere!" and have a heap of fun trying! Cheers

  3. Unfortunately Mel, where there is passion there will be division; it's human nature.
    If an individual is highly motivated and interested in an activity he/she will try to convey his passion to others. Of course if one is passionate about a particular style, his/her style if of course "the best". One needs to just look at religion; there are very few human behaviours more passionate than that, and look at all the drama that causes.
    Of course there are religions/individuals that are more tolerant of other creeds and even on the water you will find the militant individuals and the ones of "Buddhist" approach: live and let live :-)

  4. Very interesting article. Can be expanded to include all forms of watersports like diving (wreck, reef, black water, etc) to other human activities such as flying (power, glider...) I believe our true wealth is in the experiences and friends we make in our journey through life.