Monday, August 29, 2016

Chasing The Light In The Water....

"That day I entered into a life of indescribable beauty and delight. There I believe I heard the singing wilderness for the first time"
--- Siguard F. Olson

Outing #7 for us was barely short of a miracle - not the fact the our friends Jim and Jane convinced us that we needed to experience it and that the paddle was within our novice capacities to handle, but in the natural wonder that this three hour self-propelled trip on Florida's Banana River (just south of the Kennedy Space Center) became.

This was our first group paddle. 19 of us in total. It was our first estuarine paddle in water that holds about half the salinity of the nearby Atlantic Ocean as the ocean water mixes with the fresh outflow of our rivers. It was our first paddle of more than an hour and a couple of quiet water miles. It was our first paddle after sundown. But most interestingly, it was our first time witnessing the natural phenomenon of bioluminescence....

Our intrepid group of 19, pre-launch - photo: Helga Lamb

Bioluminescence occurs when, under just the correct conditions, microscopic dinoflagellates in the water "glow" an almost neon blue-green when stirred up by a paddle, the hull of a kayak or other water craft, or a fish rocketing through the water. For the scientifically curious reader, here is a brief explanation of dinoflagellates from UCSD: CLICK HERE. For those interested in the experience there are a number of outfitters in the area that offer similar tours -- just use your favorite search engine to locate one.

We put in at Kelly Park East on Merritt Island just at sunset and paddled out into the Banana River in waters a bit choppier that Kay and I are used to. Instead of using our small "starter" kayaks, I rented two bigger ones given the length of the trip and my desire to try out a bigger, more serious boat. Kay had a 10' sit-on-top that suited her perfectly and I had a 12' Perception sit-on-top that served me extremely well. 

Heading into the Banana River at Sunset. Photo by Jane D.

Florida sunsets are a thing to behold, especially at this time of year (summer) when the sinking sun is often framed and softened by incoming or retreating tropical cumulus clouds. Seeing a sunset from the water on my kayak for the first time was miracle number one for the evening. Being in and on the water gives me the feeling of being an integral part of the natural universe, and that amazing sunset was somehow connected to me -- to all of us on the water that day.

As the sun disappeared below the horizon and the light faded we paddled north, and the small lights on our sterns began to become visible. A tiny armada of tiny mariners in the biggest body of water that Kay and I had yet ventured into. Some in our group were expert long-term kayakers with slick, spear-like fast moving boats, others, like us, were beginners. The rest formed a nice bell curve of the possible experience levels between the extremes -- but we were all connected and all watching out for each other. At dusk the little miracles began to make themselves visible as light translucent blue streams and eddies formed around our paddle blades as we stroked the water.

A cellphone photo I shot as the light faded beyond my bow.

As the light faded entirely on a night with a late moonrise, under the light of the stars we all audibly gasped, oohed and ahed, as we used our paddles to paint patterns in water. Miracle number two. The bioluminescence was now a much deeper and brighter blue as the tiny plankton magicians did their thing. A small pod of dolphin passed us heading south just to our west side. Then suddenly in the shallows we were in the midst of schools of hundreds of mullet. The more experienced, faster paddlers among us chased after these speeding, high jumping fish as dozens of the one- to two-feet long fish sped around my boat the left bioluminescent blue trails behind them, making their own abstract art in the water. Miracle number three. 

Then there were the shrieks and laughter and yelps of our group as the jumping fish bounced off of boats, off of paddlers, or in ill-timed leaps of bad luck jumped into our kayaks. I had one leap across my bow. Then felt a punch in my left shoulder as one hit my bare upper arm. A bit later I needed the assistance of one of my fellow paddlers to free a mullet that jumped onto the stern of my kayak and became tangled in the bungies that crisscross the storage well. Yet another first -- a startled fish flopping around in the back of my kayak! The boat I had rented had four scupper holes just in front of my seat. The passage of the kayak over the dinoflagellates made it appear that I had four bright blue LED lights on the floor before me.

The lights of our kayaks reflected on the river -- shot with my iPhone

After paddling several miles north into a preserve restricted to non-motorized craft only we turned back for home. We detoured into the Grand Canal for a few minutes, then back out and under the 528 causeway, leaving our light paintings in our wakes as we went and continued to dodge the leaping mullet. A little over three hours later we landed back at Kelly Park, giddy with the experience that was totally new to many of us. Kay and I both survived the hours and miles extremely well despite bad hips, backs and necks. Along with several friends who were part of our group, our excitement and wonder kept us up until 2:30 a.m. talking about the experience, about the next thing to come, and about how to protect our precious and fragile water resources in a state where our leaders seem not to care. It was amazing. It was a little miracle. I want to do that again. Now.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Beginners Gear....

"It is life, I think, to watch the water. A man can learn so many things"
--- Nicholas Sparks

Last time we talked about our "starter" kayaks, and they have served us well now through 6 outings in the last 3 weeks. We have kept to the quiet water of Saint Johns River tributaries and coves for the most part with a few forays into mild swells in the river of about 6 - 8 inches. Our confidence and skills grow with every outing. Today on Goodby's Creek in Jacksonville, we had our first Manatee encounter. S/he stayed at a distance, but quite obviously followed us the last quarter mile back to the boat ramp. Nature is an amazing thing, and one of the major reasons we find our way to the water as often as we can... but on to today's topic.

Kayaking, particularly for novices, is about more than a boat and a paddle. As with anything else there are rules (the U.S. Coastguard has some requirements), and just plain common sense. RULE #1 is to stay safe! Know what to do if you accidentally get your kayak swamped (we watched numerous videos produced by the American Canoe Association -- ACA that you can find here:   ACA Videos a really excellent resource!) Thankfully I am a safety boy, and my mentors are long term safety advocates who have caused me to always think "SAFETY FIRST"...

MISTAKES: Our first mistake (and I think the only one so far) was to cheap out big time on our first Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs). We bought a couple of those bright orange Mae West style life vests at Walmart for $5.50 each. Cheap, Right? Yep -- and they meet the USCG requirement of having a PFD on board...

But they fit poorly (we just stowed them in the storage well on the back of our kayaks), are incredibly hot to wear in our north Florida 90+ degree heat, and are not designed for paddling. So we quickly upgraded so that we felt comfortable heading into deeper, more open water with high quality paddling PFDs.  I ordered an Onyx PFD via Amazon -- taking a chance that I had sized it correctly (I did), for about 60 bucks. Kay found an Astral "Linda" for women at Black Creek Outfitters, where we had a credit to spend -- it cost about $95. Clearly much more pricey than the simple life vests, but I am not going to skimp on safety gear -- particularly PFDs, that could easily, next to your kayak, be the most important bit of gear that you own.

The other USCG requirement is a whistle that is loud and can be blown if and when you get into trouble. I ordered two good nautical whistles from Amazon for a few dollars each. (Amazon Prime membership is a blessing -- and it's my favorite way to shop -- I hate malls. Free 2-day shipping on everything that qualifies for Prime. That more than pays for my annual Prime membership). The whistles fasten to the zippered pockets in our PFDs as pictured above (those rectangular orange things).

Now that we had the safety issues pretty well covered, we turned to the need to protect stuff from the water (cell phones, car keys, snacks )

HINT: Don't take chocolate coated protein bars with you in the 95 degree heat!

For our cell phones I ordered (yes, Amazon again) two water tight carriers with neck straps (less then $10 for both):

Kay doesn't like wearing her's around her neck, but keeps it sealed in a waist pack. I keep mine on my neck, outside of the PFD. It's is difficult to operate the phone while it's in the bag so it needs to come out for photos, but my trip app ("Route" - $4.99 from the Apple App Store) works great. It maps our routes via GPS, tracks speed and distance and elevation, and "talks" to me (I have it set up to report every ten minutes) about my current distance and average speed. It reports much more at trips end and lets you automatically associate pictures with your trip, make notes, name the route, check your speed at any point on the trip.... good tech.

I knew that I would need a large dry pack because eventually I will be confident enough to take my good camera gear with me. So while it's overkill for now (again ordered from Amazon) it does keep my (non-meltable) protein bars dry and my car keys safe.

The clips at the top make it easy to secure on the seat strap or a bungee cord.

For the sake of our comfort in our small starter yaks with molded plastic seats, I ordered two water repellant stadium seats. These have worked great, but tend to slip around a bit when they get wet on the bottom. Still well worth the $10 or so investment for both.

And the last thing that I can think of right now is to get a simple neck strap for your glasses. It would be a shame to lose a pair of $500 designer sunnies into the deep... I ordered six pair for $7 at Amazon. The only caveat is that if your stems are wide at the ends, these probably won't fit -- but you do want the fit to be snug.

So that's it for today. With a little luck the next installment will be a report of our first night paddle with highly experienced friends on Florida's Space Coast Banana River. We are under the threat of tropical weather, so we shall see how it goes. Hoping for the best! Happy paddling y'all!!!!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Our "Starter" Kayaks...

"There is no life without water"
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (Discovered Vitamin C -- or is that Sea?)

About a month ago, we went to visit Kay's sister and husband down in metro-Orlando. L started kayaking a few months before we did on the beautiful, quiet-water lakes in the area. She has a small, 8' sit-inside kayak and an 8' sit-on-top. She took us for a spin in the northern chain of lakes, launching into Lake Virginia on the Rollins College campus. I took the sit-on-top as it was my first time ever paddling a kayak (I've had some experience in canoes over the years), and I was concerned about getting in and out of the sit-in boat with my bad hip. Kay, who had been out on the lake during a recent previous trip to visit L stayed on shore while the two of us paddled out.

I admit to feeling just a bit nervous at first, but soon found my water-legs and became quite comfortable, quite quickly (despite the tentative appearance of my first launch -- shown below:

After getting some basic paddle stroke instruction and circling around close to the launch site we set off into the lake, heading east a quarter mile or so into the canal between Lakes Virginia and Maitland (to the north). Through the several hundred yards long canal we passed onto Maitland and paddled offshore of its west shore, staying out of the boating lanes occupied by much bigger and faster craft. Then we headed back through the canal where we were caught by a tour pontoon boat -- so I learned to steer quickly to the side under a bridge while they passed. Then it was back through Virginia to the very short canal into Lake Osceola. In Osceola we encountered a group of about 20 paddle boarders having a lesson from an instructor at Orlando Water Sports. We lead the very friendly and talkative bunch back through the canal and into Lake Virginia, then headed back to the launch site. I had a total blast and felt very much at home on the water in L's small, stable kayak.

L then took Kay out for a brief paddle in Lake Virginia. Kay seems to have taken to it as a naturally as well, but doesn't like to press her luck with her back and neck issues, so kept it pretty short -- 10 or 15 minutes before coming back in.

It only took one time to hook me, and I was determined that we would own our own kayaks when we returned home. Since we were both so comfortable as novices on L's 8' Lifetime Daylite kayak we set out looking for a pair, knowing they are very affordable. We found them online at a major internet retailer for about $350 each, then Linda's husband found the identical boat at a Walmart close to our home for $168! So we reserved 2 of the 3 boats they said they had in stock online. The next morning I had an email from the store cancelling one of them because two of the three had been sold before our order was processed. Wanting two, we went to another nearby Walmart where they had two for the taking at $148!! $20 less than the other store. I called the first store and asked them to cancel the one boat at $168, which they did (and refunded the full purchase price) -- so we loaded the two new kayaks in the bed of our pickup, bungie corded them tightly in and headed home.

Yes, these are low-end, inexpensive kayaks with molded plastic seats (we bought two waterproof stadium cushions to help with that -- they work perfectly), but we are delighted with them for now because 1) if we decided that kayaking wasn't for one or both of us we were out very little money and could certainly sell them for close to full purchase price,  2) they are light weight (32 pounds) and easy to transport in the bed of our truck for short, no-highway jumps to the Saint Johns River, and 3) they  are very stable, easy to get in and out of (even with my bad hip), and they track well enough for us to learn the basics in. So THINK AGAIN when you read in the kayaking books and forums for beginners when they tell you to buy the most boat you can afford -- you don't need to do that, IMO. Better to go cheap, but sturdy (or rent a time or two) than to spend $500 - $1,000 for a starter yak. We will likely upgrade eventually as skills improve, but these two little kayaks have been a blessing for us here at the start of our 60+ on-the-water adventure.... See you soon!!

Friday, August 12, 2016

A Place To Begin....


Welcome to my new blog. My name is Paul Garfinkel. I live in Northeast Florida and am retired at 63. My wife and I recently took up kayaking after spending some time with friends in the Ocala National Forest near Juniper Springs and later trying our very first paddling test using my sister-in-law's boats on the northern chain of lakes in central Florida. We fell in love with being on the water -- a natural thing as I have been an environmental advocate for many years and a Florida Master Naturalist. 

Being very interested in learning everything I can about those things I love, now including paddling, I set about looking for information on kayaking for folks over that "certain age", but came up largely empty. Oh, there are sites that that hit on issues related to older paddlers, but nothing specifically dedicated just to folks like us. So since we are at the very beginning of our journey on the water I thought I'd try to provide that resource.

On the Saint Johns River at Mandarin, Florida - second time out

I am no paddling expert and make no pretense of having any special knowledge. But I do have resources --- including friends who have been paddling for decades, so why not document our path from total rookies to, well, whatever lies ahead. We will certainly make mistakes and learn from them, and we will have many more successes and revel in them.

So by way of concluding this little introduction, I have flexibility problems and a bum right hip, but am otherwise in great health. I start nearly every day with a 4 mile walk. My wife, Kay has degenerative disk disease in her neck and back but is also a regular walker. We both love camping in our lightweight 17" Coachmen trailer. Florida's State Parks are amazing.  She'll be contributing to the blog as well as we move along. I expect that we're pretty typical of folks our age with an interest in being outdoors and active as much as possible. I'm also a pretty advanced photography hobbyist, which should come in handy for a project like this, though I confess that I am not yet confident enough to bring my good gear out on the boat. What we have right now are iPhone shots. Florida offers so much in terms of quiet water paddling opportunities and wilderness (for now at least)....

I'll do my best to be timely with installments of "Kayaking Over 60", including regular reports of our outings that are currently happening about once or twice per week. The next installment will be about our "training" kayaks, what we bought, why we chose them, and how they're working out for us. Hope we can interest a few like minds along the way.

To the water!!
On the Saint Johns River at Mandarin - second time out