LoCo 2010: A sea kayaking event and not a Mirage in sight! [80]


The LoCo Roundup is an annual sea kayaking symposium of which Ginni Callahan is the driving force.  The event takes its name from its venue: the Lower Columbia River which forms the border between the north-western USA states of Oregon and Washington.  This year’s LoCo was the fourth and extended over a full week during August.

I decided to attend the symposium after participating in a short training session Ginni ran for the NSWSK Club’s instructors soon after this year’s R‘n’R.  I got so much out of that session that I felt I would benefit greatly by attending LoCo.

The headquarters for LoCo is Ginni’s Slow Boat Farm, a 10-hectare rural property on Puget Island, approximately 60km upstream from the mouth of the Columbia River.  This year close to 60 kayakers from different parts of the USA and as far afield as Brazil and Australia camped on the property.

Experience wise, the mix ranged from novices through to British Canoe Union (BCU) 5 Star award (of which our nearest equivalent is Advanced Sea Skills).  High profile paddlers included Greenland Rolling experts such as Cheri Perry (who features in This Is the Sea 1) and her partner Turner Wilson and Helen Wilson (who has had articles published in recent editions of Sea Kayaker and Ocean Paddler magazines).

The focus of the symposium was skills development (both hard and soft) within the framework of the BCU award scheme.  Sessions catered for the full spectrum of those attending and were conducted in conditions ranging from benign flatwater (in the sloughs and river adjacent Slow Boat Farm and at the Skamokawa Paddle Centre approximately 15km downstream) through to 1-metre surf at Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast.

There were a couple of assessment sessions for those aspiring for various BCU awards.  Other on-water activities included some graded trips and a demonstration of Greenland Rolling.  The symposium concluded with a games session where some outstanding individual skills were on display (Ginni beat all comers in the stand-up Noodle Jousting Competition).

Despite a very active on-water program there were plenty of things happening elsewhere.  The general format of the day started with a briefing immediately after breakfast followed by training classes mostly scheduled to conclude around 3.30pm but usually going well beyond.

Many of the on-water sessions were conducted in the waters around Ilwaco near the mouth of the Columbia River. This involved a reasonable amount of travel time getting to and from.  Dinner was followed by a slide presentation on different aspects of sea kayaking (Ginni’s presentation covered her trip to Australia earlier in the year and included her time at R‘n’R).

Meals for the event were prepared by a local caterer using local produce.  They were generous and wholesome.  Early risers could join a yoga class conducted by a seemingly rubber-boned Cheri Perry and paddlers feeling a bit stiff at the end of a day’s activity could have either a Swedish or Thai massage.  There was heaps of socialising and many friendships were formed.

My general observations and impressions of the event include:

The paddling environment

The Columbia River is the largest river in the USA to flow in to the Pacific Ocean.  Its headwaters are high in the mountains of the Canadian province of British Columbia and 2,000km from the ocean.  Its catchment is said to be about the same size as France (the waters of Australia’s longest river, the Murray, travel a little further but in a far lesser volume and at a much slower rate).  Large ocean-going cargo ships ply the Columbia as far as Portland, 170km inland.  At its widest the river is close to 14km and it flows in to the Pacific between two jetties (North and South) which are 3.5km apart.

The bar formed at the river mouth, where winter swells jack up to more than 8 metres, is often referred to as “the graveyard of the Pacific”.  The phenomena in the Columbia’s estuary give kayakers plenty to think about: fast running currents peaking near 5 knots in spring tides, very cold water (a dry suit is the most common form of kayakers’ outer wear, even in the summer months) and wind against tide.

As well as the cargo ships there are plenty of other  man-made hazards with which to contend: small recreational fishing boats abound; derelict wing dams, in the form of wooden pilings spaced closely together, act as dangerous strainers; wooden pilings, sometimes submerged during the tidal cycle, have the potential to capsize; long jetties (Jetty A has a notorious reputation) built from large rocks (we would probably refer to them as sea walls) constrict the tidal flow and generate tricky tidal races.

Place names within the estuary such as Dead Mans Cove, Shipwreck Beach and Cape Disappointment strongly suggest it is an environment not to be messed with.  This is where much of the LoCo 2010 on-water activity in which I participated took place.

The kayaks people were paddling and the kit they were using

It was interesting to see that British-branded kayaks dominated with NDKs (Romanys and Explorers) by far the most popular.  Other British kayaks included Valley (Nordkapps and Aquanauts) and Tideraces (paddled by Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson and yet to be seen in Australia).  Of the North American brands there were a couple of Wilderness Systems kayaks (I paddled a hired Tempest 170 RM), a few of Sterling’s Illusion model and a smattering of Current Design’s composite models.

One kayak turning heads was the Boreal Design-built Maelstrom Vaag which is soon to be released in Australia.

The Greenland Rolling fraternity mostly used skin-on-frame boats.  There were two beautifully crafted Cohos.  Boats built using composite materials formed the largest proportion and kayaks with skegs far outnumbered those with rudders.

A hands-free pump does not seem to be a requirement for sea kayaking in the US.  I didn’t see a kayak with an electric pump.  Most carried hand pumps.

The toggles on many of the kayaks were connected by a single strand of cord – a simple way of preventing finger entrapment in gnarly water and surf recoveries.

No one, besides me and a couple of novices, seemed to use a paddle leash.

The favourite Euro style paddles were Werners – mostly with a crank shaft.  There wasn’t a wing blade to be seen!  The incidence of Greenland paddles was much higher than we have in the NSWSK Club.

Body-mounted tow rope systems incorporating quick release buckles were the norm and thick (8mm) tow ropes were preferred.  I didn’t see any kayaks fitted with boat-anchored towing systems.

Coaches, instructors, assessors

The highest level coaches and assessors at LoCo 2010 were all BCU qualified.  It seems that the BCU award scheme is held in much higher regard than its American Canoe Association counterpart.  I participated in three different one-day classes as a student: Coastal Navigation, Performance Paddling (our Basic Skills), Foundation Safety and Rescue Training and a 3-day 4 Star Leadership Training class (our nearest equivalent being Sea Leader or Sea Guide).

I gained a lot from observing the teaching style and methods of the coaches involved and came away from each session with some very useful teaching tools and some tips on improving my own personal paddling skills.

I also had the opportunity to participate as an observer on the assessment process of aspirants for the BCU 4 Star Leadership award.  The exercise was conducted over two days and involved trip planning, risk analysis and on-water group and incident management.

Different assessors were used each day and at the end of the exercise they conferred to make their judgement on who would receive the award.  It was a pretty rigorous examination of the candidates’ trip leading abilities and of the four presenting themselves for assessment only two passed.

During this exercise it was interesting to observe the general approach to on-water group management.  Because of the challenges presented by the environment, group spread was much tighter than we allow on our Club trips.  Other than a contrived incident, it rarely exceeded 50 metres!

Trip planning

So much of the trip planning in the Columbia River revolves around the current in the river and its estuary.  Vital information includes the times for slack water and when peak flow occurs and its related speed and direction (expressed in degrees).

Swell size, direction and period are also considered as are wind direction and speed.  In gathering this information, paddlers throughout the US are extremely well served by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (the equivalent of our Bureau of Meteorology).

I returned home from LoCo 2010 having achieved much more from the event than I had expected.  Apart from benefitting from watching other instructors at work, I picked up some BCU awards and credits which will encourage me to continue working my way up through the system.

Other commitments permitting, I intend to attend LoCo 2011 which runs from 9–18 September.  It would be great to have some fellow NSWSK Club members along with me.