Numerous books have been written either about Gino Watkins or concerning his exploits in the 1920’s and early 1930’s prior to his untimely death in the waters of eastern Greenland, an area which very few modern paddlers complete with the equipment of the 21st Century venture into. How much more demanding must have these travels been when undertaken in the equipment of the day?
Watkins is credited with being the first English man to be able to roll his kayak. A skill which he thought was essential to master if the aim was to supplement the food supplies with locally caught species. It was this desire to live off the land which probably cost Watkins his life, although no body was ever found his kayak was recovered and is preserved today at the Royal Geographical Society in London.
The book, which is probably easiest to acquire today, is simply called “Gino Watkins” by J M Scott. It seems that most second hand bookshops, which are searched, will reveal a copy of this book.
A less common title is “Northern Lights” by Spencer Chapman. It was the official record of the expedition in the 1930’s, which was trying to find an air route from Europe to North America. I had been looking for a copy for several years when, in the mid 1990’s, I came across a copy at a bookseller in London. The fact that it was store in a locked glass cabinet should have been enough of a signal that this was a book, which was out of my price range, but curiosity got the better of me and I needed to see exactly what it was like. Once I had regained my composure after seeing the price, it cost more than some of the cars I have bought in the past, I was able to savour the delights within. It was a joy to behold and as I opened the covers it only got better. The author Spencer Chapman had signed it, but more importantly it contained the original cutting from The London Times announcing the death of Watkins. This was before the contents of the book were reached. I knew that this was an important volume but one that I was unable to justify buying without discussing at home. Marriages have probably fallen apart for a lesser sum!
I reluctantly placed the book back in the hands of the shop assistant and left with his card in my hand and hope in my heart. After discussion at home it was decided that there could be no better Christmas present for the paddling bibliophile than this particular volume, “Northern Lights”. It was with some relief that I was able to order the book over the telephone a few days later. Today it occupies pride of place on my paddling bookshelf.
Anybody knows me is aware that I am totally lacking in any practical skills. My belief is that it is important to keep the artisan in work. So it was much to everyone’s surprise and some people’s disbelief that I decided to make a Greenland paddle.
Embarking on this journey I was completely thrown into unknown waters. I had managed to reach the ripe old of 60 and had never bought any wood in my life. It was with some trepidation that I entered the the timber yard and casually ordered two pieces of red cedar, as if it was something I did almost every day. The reality is that I wouldn’t have recognised cedar if it had hit me in the face.
One of the advantages of making your own paddle is cost. Wood for two paddles cost £20 whereas commercially produced paddles are generally in the region of £200 or slightly higher. The only problem is that I didn’t have any tools at all to work with so buying the necessary items cost just over £200. So I have to make a few paddles if there is to be any return on the investment.
If you decide to make your own Greenland paddle there is plenty support out there. I have used the really useful film that Matt Johnson has put on YouTube. Use the film in conjunction with the PDF written by Chuck Holst and available for download from Qajaq USA.
It has been a fascinating journey so far and my progress has certainly surprised some members of my family.
In the summer of 2000 I took a group of young people from Jersey to paddle the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in northern Maine. I remember sitting on the shore of one of the lakes watching a float plane come into land and drop off a solo paddler. I made a note in my journal to the effect on the 23rd June. Several years later I came across a book “Canoe Trip” by David Curran, in which he describes his solo trip down the Allagash after having been dropped off on Umsaskis Lake on the 23rd June 2000. Although we were clearly on the river at the same time, apart from that distant view I have no recollection of seeing a solo paddler again on that trip.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, so was pleased when towards the end of last year I came across a second book by the same author, “North to Athabasca”. Once I sat down to read the book at the end of last week I quickly became hooked and finished it in a couple of days. With his friend Walter they decide to paddle a river, significantly more challenging than the Allagash. Flying north into Saskatchewan their aim was to paddle the MacFarlane River, a rarely paddled river which flows into Lake Athabasca.
Actually getting to the launch site was a major undertaking and once on the river they were effectively in their own, although as is the case with many remote trips today they did carry a satellite phone.
The river flows through a pristine wilderness with all the challenges that traveling through such an area entails. Through David’s writing we gain a flavour of what they experienced, ranging from the wildlife encountered to the physical challenges involved in paddling in the Canadian north. They were clearly at home in such an area but I do have to say that I questioned their behaviour with one particular bear, if it had been me I would have been paddling flat out in the opposite direction.
At the end of the book, besides thinking I would always take a GPS with me, my overall feeling was one of envy.
It has been nearly 15 years since I last did a long canoe trip and reading “North to Athabasca” made me realize that it has been too long. It is an easy book to read, the ideal scenario would be on an aircraft en route to a paddling trip.
Just be prepared to start planning your own adventures.
Virtually every time we go on the water we should carry some basic items of safety equipment.Unfortunately, I am basically a disorganised person and finding small items of equipment from the chaos of the kayaking boxes was virtually an insurmountable problem.So the solution was to put together a small emergency bag with all the essential items of kit.It took about 3 months to source all of the things that I needed and it is true to stay that it still isn’t complete.I still search diligently in yacht chandlers and outdoor shops for that elusive item of equipment, which may provide the final piece of the jigsaw.
The following items of equipment are contained within my waterproof bag:
Signal Mirror:A small item, which could prove to be useful if you have an accident on a sunny day.I found mine in a small French yacht chandlers.It only cost 3.00 €, so it is worth the small financial outlay.
Spare Hatches:I carry the Reed hatch covers and have used them twice so they weren’t a waste of money.
Bungee Cords:Just one set and you never know when they will be needed.Ideally for keeping some of the items in the bag wrapped up.
Multi-purpose Tool:There is the Leatherman and then there are cheaper ones.For this emergency bag I have selected a cheaper one, as there is every chance that it will damaged by the seawater. I paid 7€ for mine at a French DIY store.
Woollen Hat:I might swap this for a sun hat during the warmer summer months.
Plastic Sheet:Cut from a sparkling water bottle.The thin plastic is ideal for helping to repair a relatively large hole in the kayak.
Repair Tape:Spinnaker tape, electrician’s tape and duck tape.A selection, which should be able to sort out most needs, including repair kayaks, spray decks and tents.
Epoxy Resin:I use a French variety, partly for the challenge of translation, and partly because it is effective.It will set under water and will repair most materials.
Whistle:I have the loudest one that I could find.The literature makes numerous extravagant claims about decibels etc, all I know is that if I blow it my ears hurt!
Lighter:More like a blowtorch than a lighter.An effective heat source and according to the publicity material it can’t be blown out by the wind.Useful for a number of reasons.Just in case the gas runs out I also have a box of waterproof matches.(I also remove this from the bag before I fly anywhere)
Fire Lighters:Just a couple in case it is necessary to light a fire.
Poncho:A small poncho, which is ideal if people are cold at lunchtime.
Exposure Bag:I don’t have the traditional orange exposure bag but one, which is made of the same material as the well-known space blanket.The advantage is that it packs up very small.
Spare Food:Just a small amount.I don’t plan on getting stranded for several days in the heart of what is in effect an urban area.I normally take food, which I am not that keen on so I am not tempted to eat it. Money:Just a small amount, stored in the inevitable film container that is if you can still find one.Useful for telephones, cafes etc.
Spare Batteries:These are for both the GPS and the VHF radio.A selection of cheaper batteries is better than the more expensive variety; they only have to last a couple of hours.
Strobe:Ideal for drawing attention to yourself at night.
Wet Wipes:Ideal for all sorts of uses.
First Aid Kit:Just a few small items.Triangular bandage, skin closures, assorted plasters, wound dressing and safety pins.When I open up the waterproof waist pack it always amazes me that all of the above fits inside such a relatively small container.What it has enabled me to do is to always carry a basic level of safety equipment.It can be customized to meet individual needs and because I am always on the look out for another useful item it remains a work in progress.
The A – Z of Sea Kayaking was the first book that I published for the Kindle. The concept was very simple, write down everything I knew or I could find out about sea kayaking. It was a fascinating journey, which changed direction several times in its development. At one time I was also going to include information on some classic paddling destinations. That idea was eventually put on hold but I did include information on such varied topics as coaching, skills, weather, navigation, personalities etc.
The finished product came out at just under 100,000 words and occupied several hundred pages on my Kindle, it is still the longest book I have completed. The latest title “Coasteering: A Practical Guide” has just under 24,000 words, although it does have significantly more photographs.
Over the last week I have been revising the book and rather naively I thought it was going to be quite a simple exercise. When I first published the title Sandy Robson was just setting out from Germany on a 5 year expedition tracing the route of Oskar Speck. Olly Hicks and George Bullard hadn’t even started to think about kayaking from Greenland to Scotland, something they achieved in 2016. Sea Kayaker magazine was still in production, as were other paddling magazines, which have since disappeared.
Other changes have seen of one of the most respected governing bodies in the sport renamed. The British Canoe Union has become British Canoeing. Sadly a number of the most influential and prominent paddlers of the second part of the 20th century have passed away.
So far I have added another 5,000 words and appear to have only just scratched the surface of the significant number of changes, achievements and developments in the sport. It is amazing to see just what has been achieved in the last six years, a true reflection of how dynamic modern sea kayaking is.
So what started as a simple project has grown significantly but the plan is still to have the new edition available before the end of the year.
In 1998 I was fortunate enough to spend a few weeks kayaking in Alaska, I remember being particularly excited as it was the first sea kayaking trip away that I had organized completely via the internet.
We flew into Homer, chartered a boat to take us out and spent 3 weeks paddling back in to Homer. It was a scenically spectacular area with great wildlife and we were lucky that for the first 10 days we didn’t experience any of the rain for which the region is famous.
I came across the book “Tide, Feather, Snow” by Miranda Weiss towards the end of last year. It describes the life of somebody who moves to Alaska and lives in Homer. The book describes the Homer that we knew, I recognized the descriptions of the town, of the bars and some of the towns characters, reading it brought back some great memories of that summer at the end of the 1990’s.
It is a delightful read which reflects on the challenges of living in the largest State. Anybody who has an interest in the north or has been to Alaska will really enjoy this book by Miranda Weiss.