Trev & Mark’s Big Adventure [52]

The Inaugural Paddle Polaris Kayak Challenge

By Mark Berry

The inaugural Paddle Polaris kayak challenge was held on Lake Eucumbene over the weekend of 7-8 December 2002.

Huw Kingston and his cohorts devised a fiendishly clever event format, based on his popular Polaris mountain bike orienteering series.

Two person teams were required to navigate and paddle around the lake, over two day-long legs, accumulating as many points as possible and returning to a designated finishing line within the specified time limit. The team with the most points and least time penalties gained over the two days was declared the winner. The NSW Sea Kayak Club produced a small but enthusiastic turnout with Trevor Gardner and myself competing in the Vets class, and Sundra John and Stephen Lewis competing in the Single Men’s class (I’m not sure how Salo would take that). David Whyte, Dave Winkworth, Ian Phillips and Rob Mercer provided support as safety paddlers as well as being entertaining company at the campsite.

Neither Trevor nor myself had competed in this type of event before so agreed not to take it too seriously and just enjoy paddling the lake. Friday afternoon I picked Trevor up from work at five. Our preparation and training had been meticulous; Trev had just come off a 36-hour shift and I had been locked inside studying for the past 8 months and had put on 10 kg of fat reserves. Neither of us was anywhere near organised. We were lucky to get this far, however, as I had picked up my new Mirage 530 the day before and only just beat the F3 freeway closure on my return journey due to bushfires. Trevor had a carload of gear sitting on the ground when I arrived. After observing the huge mound being loaded I asked him what he was bringing, “everything” was the reply. This proved to be an ominously accurate appraisal. Don’t let anyone tell you that Nadgees aren’t good packhorses because what went into that boat was mind-boggling.

Apart from trying to second-guess giant suicidal marsupials along the Snowy Mountains Highway our journey to Old Adaminaby proved uneventful. On arriving at the Rainbow Caravan Park Huw Kingston informed us that the gale force winds, which had blown consistently for days, had abated only four hours previously. Following registration and scrutineering we organised our tent site and sat down to plot grid references onto a 1:50 topographic map of the lake. For those unfamiliar with the format of Polaris events, on arrival competitors are provided with a series or grid references (controls) that must be plotted onto a map. After paddling through the start gate on the first morning they are given a list showing which controls are active and each of their point values. Because of their critical importance we took our time plotting the controls and didn’t hit the sack til 01:30 am.

When the alarm went off at 05:45 am the following morning the thermometer was just nudging 3 degrees. Freshly brewed coffee cleared the fog of sleep deprivation from our brains allowing us to organise and pack the kayaks. Competitors were required to carry all their food and camping equipment for the two days, although Trev managed to load more gear into his Nadgee than he had packed for 11 days in the Whitsundays two months previously. We quickly found that Lake Eucumbene’s shoreline is not particularly kayak friendly. The water’s edge consists of lines of rocks protruding like broken upturned teeth waiting to graunch the gel coat of loaded kayaks. A judicious application of helicopter tape saved the 530 from the worst of it.

Following the briefing competitors hit the water and paddled to the start gate where we each received the control values and grid references for the night’s campsite. It was the first time I had paddled my new Mirage 530 and it was full to the brim with gear. Fortunately the 530 proved to be a very sweet kayak, loaded or unloaded. Trevor and I chose our route for interest rather than the value of control points and headed down Addicumbene Reach, which provided a series of inlets along its north-western edge offering excellent paddling and ending at the dam wall. This route also provided some protection from the nor-west winds and, theoretically, would have us paddling back towards the campsite by lunchtime.

At our first control, Grace Lea Island, we realised that both of us had forgotten how to use a compass. Trevor’s years in the military doing kick-arse field survival exercises and my aircraft and bushwalking navigation skills had faded from years of neglect, dementia and the insidious influence of Global Positioning Systems. Our clumsy attempts at taking a compass heading off the map brought an initial look of disbelief from the control marshal, followed by scarcely concealed hilarity. Initial indications of navigational ineptitude were quickly confirmed when we mistook a low uncharted island for Teal Island and spent 30 minutes searching for the control and cursing the organisers for forgetting to put it out. What we soon realised we should be doing was navigating by dead reckoning and tracking our paddling time between controls. At least we solved that problem early in the event or it could have been really ugly.

Lake Eucumbene is a fascinating place to paddle. Many of the inlets have scores of dead trees protruding, or almost protruding, through the lake surface. Manoeuvring through these semi-submerged forests provides an eerie reminder that the lake, which is four times the size of Sydney Harbour, is only a very recent manmade creation and towns like Old Adaminaby lie buried not far beneath. On arrival at control 4 in Sanctuary Inlet we found that the organisers were playing on the spooky theme using an inflatable crocodile as the control checkpoint.

In our rush to get organised for the event we had purchased a cheap set of textas for marking controls on the map. This proved to be our biggest mistake of the weekend. Whilst the red worked reasonably well for the control points the blue used to indicate which ones were active appeared as just a faint smudge. It wasn’t until we had paddled half way up Wandella Inlet to control that we realised it was inactive; a 45 minute diversion. This cost us a 40-point control in Billyo Cove. We tossed up whether to go for Billyo Cove anyway but took a conservative approach and headed back towards the campsite, picking up two more controls on the way. This was a good decision in the end because penalties for arriving late were brutal.

The 15 km slog to the campsite at Wattledale Inlet was into an increasingly strong nor-westerly wind. In my flabby, couch-potato, state the final 5 1/2 km up Providence Arm, after almost 8 hours of continuous paddling, proved excruciating. We arrived with 13 minutes to spare and managed to carry the loaded kayaks up the hill and through the finish gates before collapsing in a heap on the ground. There was a certain satisfaction in kicking back with a cold beer and watching the final contestants struggling into the campsite on the last of their energy reserves in an attempt to beat the time penalties.

Huw and his team didn’t let us off that lightly though. He arranged a backward/forward race where contestants had to paddle backwards 500 metres across the inlet and then race forwards back to the campsite. I couldn’t be enticed, even with the lure of excellent prizes; however, Trevor, Dave Winkworth and David Whyte upheld the honour of the Club. Anyone who doubts Dave Winkworth’s consummate ability with a paddle needed only to have watched him almost catch the eventual Polaris winners, who had a 2 minute head start in a Mirage double, in his Nadgee. The guy is awesome, although he assures me that there is no truth in the rumour that Nadgees go faster backwards than forwards. The Nadgee crew then dazzled the crowd with an exhibition of rolling in the 14-degree water.

Rob and Ian turned up just before dark and Saturday night provided an entertaining mix of sea kayakers, orienteering enthusiasts and locals all attempting to outdo each other with wild and fanciful stories. The funniest one I heard came from the locals and centred on the annual Adaminaby duck race, where the local police close the highway while townsfolk race rubber ducks down a creek from one end of Adaminaby to the other. I’ve got to see that for myself.

Overnight the nor-westerly wind strength increased to a point where Providence Arm was a sea of whitecaps on Sunday morning. Club members were raring to go in these lively wind-waves but many others were not comfortable with the conditions. At the 07:45 am briefing Huw chose to continue the event but limit it to the protected western section of the lake; however, with forecast increasing winds, and after discussions with the SES and Waterways safety crews it was decided to cancel the final day’s competition with the previous day’s results determining the overall winner. We still managed a decent paddle back to the Rainbow caravan park at Old Adaminaby in a 20 knot tailwind; pity I didn’t have a sail.

Organisers put on a great lunch for the contestants and support crews, which was followed by prize giving. Overall winners were Gillean Hilton and Rob Russell in the double Mirage with an awesome 360 points. The NSW Sea Kayak Club gave a credible performance with Sundra and Steven taking out third in the single men’s division, and Trevor and I winning the single veterans. As Trevor pointed out this was the first time he’d won anything for being old. Great prizes were on offer, including an $1,800.00 Perception kayak and a 5 day family ski holiday at Selwyn Snowfields, which were spot prizes. A trout was auctioned off with the winner also receiving free air tickets on Horizon Airlines.

The inaugural Paddle Polaris Kayak Challenge was an outstanding event. The professionalism and experience Huw Kingston and his team carried over from their mountain-bike series was obvious. Rules were strictly adhered to and the safety of competitors was paramount. The navigating component provided an extra dimension for competitors who may be jaded by events that rely on outright speed. There were plenty of fast paddlers speeding off in the wrong direction over the weekend. The overnight camp also allowed competitors to socialise in a relaxed atmosphere. For those of you considering attending next year’s event I thoroughly recommend it and for those not considering it I can only say that you will miss one of the most enjoyable kayaking events of the year. Next year will be at a different venue, which will be published a couple of weeks before the event, so do yourself a favour and make sure you’re there.