The other day I was flipping through old photos and came across a picture of my friend Dana standing on the beach with a couple of Nordkapps, watching the surf. The beach is at the mouth of the Pic River on the Canadian shore of Lake Superior. The surf had just given me an epic beatdown.
It was November. Dana and I drove up to Pukaskawa National Park to spend a couple days paddling before meeting friends at the Gales of November Rendezvous. I think the year was 1995. I was still living in Green Bay and working at Life Tools. I had just sold my NDK Romany and purchased a new Valley Nordkapp. This was my first trip in the boat.
That morning we hiked the boardwalk over to the beach near the Pic River to look at the surf. We were camped near Hattie Cove in the park. The wind was blasting and air temperatures were in the 40s. The surf looked good from the beach. Not too big. Fun sized.
We suited up, paddled out the protection of Hattie Cove and rounded the point. Lumpy waves rolled in from the south across the full fetch of the Big Lake. It took about a half hour to paddle past the mouth of the river to the outside of the surf zone. I could see surf breaking out ahead of us and rumbling toward the beach. I watched the waves for a couple seconds, picked one that looked good, and took off to catch a ride.
Now, at this time, I had a pretty high opinion of my skills as a sea kayaker. I was 23 years old. I had a couple seasons of whitewater paddling under my belt. I had a solid eskimo roll. I was 23 years old.
I dropped in on that first wave and it was big. Bigger than expected. Well over head. Double over head. The Nordkapp took off down the face for a second and then the wave abruptly steepened. It broke. Hard. The nose of my boat speared downward toward the bottom. The stern lifted. I stood on the foot pegs. I started to cartwheel.
It’s quite a thing to cartwheel an 18 foot sea kayak. Dana said later that he saw my boat go end over end once. Then cartwheel from left to right across the wave. Then go end over end a second time.
In the cockpit I was trying to roll. I had the worst ice cream headache of my life. My bombproof roll had gone to shit. I set up and tried to roll but was knocked back over by a breaking wave. I tried again. No good. I was pinned back on the deck and starting to slide out of the cockpit. I had enough air to try another roll or to swim. Not both. I swam.
When my head popped up I was about 100 yards from the beach. The water was freezing. It would have been bad enough if I had been wearing a wetsuit or drysuit, but I had skipped both of these and was paddling in fleece, a drytop and waterproof bibs. Now I was swimming in forty degree water in what amounted to street clothes. It was all I could do to hold onto the toggle at the stern of the boat and let the waves hammer me toward shore.
By the time I hit the beach I was pretty well hypothermic. My hands weren’t working right. I had trouble unsnaping the chin strap of my helmet. Dana and I tucked out of the wind in the sand dunes, broke out a thermos of hot tea and put on puffy jackets over our paddling gear. I was wet through but my fleece clothes drained quickly. I started to warm up.
The surf session was over for the day but the beatdown had just begun. A half hour later we were getting back into boats to head back to Hattie Cove. Dana slid into the cockpit of his boat and carefully picked his way through the surf to the outside.
I wiggled down into the small ocean cockpit of my Nordkapp and tried to line myself up to get off the beach. A series of waves came in and washed me sideways. My second try was little better. I cleared the beach but couldn’t break through the wall of water that hit me seconds later. I was caught up in the foam pile and dumped well up on the beach in a pile of logs. On my third try I managed to break through the first set of waves. The second set jacked up in front of me and broke before I could paddle off the top. The wave surfed me backward for an instant and then cartwheeled me toward the beach. I bailed out but my legs caught in the cockpit and I was dragged up onto the beach by my shins.
I don’t remember how many times I tried to get off the beach before I finally made it through the surf. I don’t know how I eventually found a way out. By the time I did I was exhausted, freezing and shaken. I had trouble holding myself steady in the Nordkapp. It felt frighteningly tippy in the waves reflecting off the point near Hattie Cove. I had gone from expert to basket case in less than two hours.
I remember being afraid. And wondering if I would ever feel steady in a kayak again. That would pass in time.
I’m 46 now, and my 46 year-old self knows why The Big Lake gave me the beat down that day. I was inexperienced. I was overconfident. I didn’t know enough about surf. I didn’t dress for conditions. I was paddling a challenging kayak.
I know that now. Back then I just needed a beer. As luck would have it, I would get one. That night Dana and I drank all the beer on Neil Young’s tour bus.
But that’s another story.
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