Back in the kayak again—taking it up a notch in Casco Bay, Maine

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Kayaking is deceptive. It seems really easy when you rent a recreational boat to paddle around a lake, or on a flat river or sheltered harbor. And it is.   It’s mellow and fun. I’ve blogged here about the lazy pleasure of taking boats out with friends on the Charles River in Boston, and also more recently here about watching the July 4th fireworks from a kayak. These outings were super-fun, and I highly recommend taking the opportunity to paddle around in a body of water (urban or rural) when you get the chance.

Sea kayaking, however, is another story.

 

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That’s Justine Curgenven, a world-class kayaker and documentary filmmaker.  She’s circumnavigated New Zealand, kayaked the Aleutians with Sarah Outen (the first people to do so successfully) and also filmed these and other expeditions.  Just watching her documentaries– like “This is the Sea 4” (part of a series) makes my hands sweat.  It’s worth checking out if you are curious.

Last weekend, I learned first-hand both how wonderful sea kayaking is, and also how steep a learning curve it has.

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On the ocean, there are a lot of factors that you have to consider before even loading gear into the boat:  winds, tides, currents, local topography, waves, and weather conditions.  Then there is the business of knowing how to paddle in bumpy water with swells, tidal races, wind, rocks, etc.  All this is/can be fun, but it requires a variety of skills and also a lot of experience.  And of course you have to know how to get back in your boat when (not if) it capsizes in the ocean.  Many sea kayakers know how to roll their kayaks to get back upright.  Here’s Cheri Perry on her way back up.

 

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I’m not there yet.  Luckily there are both self- and assisted rescues you can learn to do to get yourself back in the boat when you do an unexpected “wet exit” (one of my favorite euphemisms of all time).

My friend Janet and I arrived on Peak’s Island bright and early Friday morning to join Tom Bergh and Liz Johnson of Maine Island Kayak for their 3-day Fast-Track sea kayaking course.  Tom is a legend among sea kayakers, having paddled all over the world (including Antarctica).  He is one of the best teachers I’ve ever met– he offers clear, simple instruction, all tailored to each student’s level.  Liz is relatively new to kayaking, but has embraced it fully and is now a licensed guide and also teaches and assists Tom in many ways in the business.  She was at my side for a lot of the course, always encouraging and offering suggestions that helped increase both my confidence and comfort in the water and my technical skills.

The course lasted three days.  We spent day one getting used to and making adjustment to our boats (beautiful fiberglass sea kayaks made by Nigel Dennis), reviewing some basic paddle strokes in a sheltered cove, and then practicing rescues near the beach in 61-degree (16 C) water, which gets very cold the longer you stay in.

Day two took us to some areas in Casco Bay with rocks, surf, and what they call “bumpy water”– waves, swells, tidal races, choppy seas.  At one point my boat washed up on a rock and I was temporarily stranded out of water.  I yelled “Help!” without thinking.  Turns out that keeping a cool head, assessing the situation, and paddling either forward or backward when the next wave comes in does the trick and gets you unstuck.  Not that I actually did any of this– I flailed about while the instructors tried to get me to listen and calm down.  However, I eventually got myself back on water again.  This happened a second time near the shore, and this time I was (slightly) more ready to deal.

We tried surfing the kayaks on breaking waves, which sent a few of us sideways and exiting wetly.  However, everyone got back in– a little scraped up and soggy, but otherwise fine.  Then we headed over to a nearby island (Cushing Island), where the water pounded the cliffs, sending waves back out to combine with the ones coming in, producing much bigger waves.  And some of us paddled into a little cove, where waves were bouncing everywhere.

 

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This was very cool.  It was also scary, at least to me.  Just being out on the ocean (even in this relatively protected area), I felt small and vulnerable.  And I was.  So I practiced some strokes while paddling further out from the rocks and cliffs.

 

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Several times on day two I thought to myself, what in the world am I doing out here?  I’m scared of this.  But at the same time I looked around me, and was overwhelmed with how sublimely beautiful it was on the water, in a boat, a part of the natural scene.

 

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My fear bobbed alongside my love of the seas and islands and birds and animals (yes, we saw dolphins and a seal).  And that was, in the end, okay.

Day three took us further out– to “the outside” as Tom put it to us.  We crossed shipping channels, used our compasses to plot headings to and from various islands in the bay, surfed a tidal race (I only hit someone else’s boat once– sorry, Humphrey), and crossed through some eddy/current/something scary to go around another island to here:

 

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Janet (in the blue hat), tried out some of the rock gardens by the cliffs, while I bobbed around and paddled in the swells with Liz.  This time, though, the love outpaced the fear.  It was fantastic to be out there, expanding my “safety box” (as Tom put it) and increasing my confidence and pleasure.

After lunch on a beach and more compass navigation lessons, we headed back.  The wind was up and the area in the above photo had turned really choppy and agitated.  I felt like I was paddling in a washing machine.  Humphrey, an experienced paddler (and husband to Liz, the instructor), stayed alongside me, trying to distract me by discussing legal theory (as he’s a lawyer and I’m a philosopher).  I was concentrating hard on paddling straight, compensating for all the chop, but was smiling– both at his kindness, and at the marvel of nature I was smack in the middle of.

We had a last lesson on towing another boat, and then headed back to the beach.  Janet is in the foreground, and I’m grinning behind her.

 

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I learned a few things over the kayak weekend.  First, I now know what I don’t know about sea kayaking, which is almost everything.  I’ve got a long way to go.  I also learned that fear can bob alongside pleasure and fun.  And finally I can choose in what ways I push myself out of my “safety box”.  I will be pushing, though, as there’s a lot of water out there to see and explore in.

I talked with Liz this week about her own history and views on sea kayaking. One of the things she likes best about it is the sea kayaking community.  “I find people to be incredibly welcoming. I’ve participated in several different sports, and they tend to be quieter, cerebral. I’ve appreciated that they’re not competitive.”

Liz on fear: “I get scared a lot. We have our safety box within which we feel comfortable. To grow we have to push out the edges of that box. [For example] these are bigger waves. This wind is so strong, I can hardly paddle back. It’s scary. Pushing your boundaries.  Just surfing a wave when we were out got my adrenaline going. [It was] a scary thrill.”

Liz told me that women are actually well-equipped for sea kayaking: “Women don’t have a disadvantage sea kayaking; our advantage is that our center of gravity is lower. This is a huge advantage in a boat. We are more flexible than men—keeping hips loose, maintaining balance—this is really key. We develop upper body strength, too.”

One problem (and this is no surprise to readers of this blog) is that gear manufacturers don’t tend to make boats and gear for women’s bodies, especially ones who are smaller or larger than the average male kayaker. “One hard thing is finding a boat that fits well, especially for smaller women. I’m 5’8” with small frame. The contact you have with your boat is important for maneuvering it, and giving you confidence.”

I agree with her; as a woman who is larger, finding a boat that fits me well is a challenge.  However, when I get my own kayak, I’ll want to get it custom-fitted (to make sure it’s tight enough to have good contact and control, and also comfortable for long distances).

I’ll close with this from Liz about why we sea kayak: “The boat is the vehicle for getting out there, learning about yourself, learning about nature. Everything else is secondary to getting out there.”

Yes yes yes!  I’m going to scale up that steep learning curve, one stroke and one wave at a time.

Readers, what have you done that had such a steep curve?  Do you like those kinds of activities?  I’d love to hear about your experiences.

 

 

 

 

 

My thoughts on 600 km in 6 days

If you’ve been following the blog recently you know Sam, Sarah, Cate, Susan and I participated in PWA’s Friends For Life Bike Rally. 

I had some assumptions about how the week would unfold that I hadn’t really unpacked before the rally. I assumed I would be riding with members of my team. The skill and pacing of each rider was so different this didn’t happen. 

Instead I rode alone most days most of the time. I was pleasantly surprised at how relaxing riding alone on a supported ride could be. I found a pace that felt sustainable and kept it. 

I had assumed I would get slower as the week went on. Instead I kept a steady pace and other riders got faster as the week went on. 

I had assumed I was a relatively weak rider. I found out that the training rides I’d done had me well prepared for hills and wind. I rode in a headwind that others found grueling and was nonplussed. I rode in torrential downpours. I did longer distances faster than I’ve ever done. 

I was surprised how busy the schedule was. Setting up and tearing down campsites each day got harder as the week went on. I didn’t sleep well, despite early bed times I’d wake up after only a few hours of sleep. 

I was SUPER CRAMPY on Day 3 but otherwise being on my period was an annoyance more than an actual issue. 

I had a very difficult ride on Day 5. I checked my times and I was the same speed or faster than Day 4 but I felt like I was crawling along. 

But by the morning of Day 6 we were all a bit giddy. 

I made new friends.

I doubted I could do the distance. I’m so glad I tried something scary. It was an incredible experience. 

Bike Rally Day 5: Photos, #F4LBR

My favorite bit of the rally route, Long Sault Parkway

OMG, I forgot to share photos from day five of the rally. That might be because the route alternates between boring, the road leading up to to Long Sault, and breathtakingly beautiful, the parkway itself.

Here’s some more day five photos, all from along the parkway, including some I scrounged from other team members.

Bike Rally Day 6: Photos, #F4LBR

We made it! 600+ kilometres later, Switchin’ Gears, the Friends for Life Bike Rally team headed up by Sam and Susan, are in Montreal.

It was a long, hot day. It was our day to serve breakfast which meant reporting for duty at 5:20 am. (That’s so we get to eat first before serving food.)

The other notable day six adventure is regrouping in Lachine so we can all ride in together on the Montreal city bike paths, slowly, single file. Hard work to stay together but it makes for an impressive site.

Next up, shower, dinner, and the celebration party. Woohoo! 

Team members looking tired at lunch

Sarah gets roped into another team’s pyramid


Sarah joins a pyramid! Playing while we wait at Lachine for the sweeps and the last riders to come in

All the bikes in Montreal!

Sam and Cate, dancing, happy to be off their bikes

Susan, in Montreal!

Natalie, happy to be here!

Our bags, finally out of their Rubbermaid bins

Who are you calling superhuman?

Feminist friends, hello! This is my first regular post for the blog, although I’ve been guesting for Sam and Tracy for a while now. I’m honoured to have been asked to join the community, and will be contributing on the last Friday of every month.

(I also write weekly at The Activist Classroom, my own teaching blog. If you are a teacher, if you’re a performer, or if you’re just interested in issues in higher education, please check it out!)

For today’s inaugural post I’ve been inspired by the debate ongoing on the blog this week about disabled and non-disabled experiences in relation to fitness and wellness. Tracy shared some thoughts on this on Tuesday, and invited responses to the question of whether or not this blog, fitness-forward, is inherently biased toward non-disabled bodies. A range of compelling commentary has emerged.

I am a non-disabled amateur athlete (cycling and rowing) and professional theatre scholar at Western University; for me, the overlap between work and sport happens when I think critically and politically about how bodies perform, are received, and are expected to behave in social space. (Sport is, after all, a form of spectacle, a kind of performance!) So when performance work related to sport crosses my desktop or TV screen, I get especially excited, and I want to share my thoughts about it.

This week, serendipitously, exactly such a performance appeared in my Facebook feed: it’s Channel 4’s trailer for Team GB (Great Britain) ahead of the Rio Paralympics, titled “We’re The Superhumans.” Here it is:

 

I was living in London during the 2012 Olympics when the first “Superhumans” campaign emerged; for that year’s Paralympics, the slogan was “Meet the Superhumans”. (Channel 4 was the official broadcaster of the 2012 games and the agency 4creative was the marketing brain behind the campaign.) This earlier campaign was designed to address, head on, the ablest stereotype that disabled bodies are “freaks of nature”; here is a description of the project’s ethic, which comes from a case study of the campaign prepared by the advertising association D&AD (the campaign won an award from D&AD):

In August 2010, two years before London 2012, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary called ‘Inside Incredible Athletes’ – its first Paralympic-themed programming. This was supported by a marketing campaigned called ‘Freaks of Nature’ designed to challenge perceptions of disability in sport and encourage viewers to question their own prejudices.

“The intention was to change people’s attitudes and to do that we needed to take them on a journey,” Walker says. “‘Freaks of Nature’ was intended to challenge by turning the meaning of the phrase on its head. The idea was that if great athletes are considered exceptional and different, why not apply the same standard to Paralympians?”

The concept and the attitude it encapsulated provided an important part of the foundation for the campaign that would become ‘Meet the Superhumans.’

I remember feeling incredibly ambivalent about “Meet the Superhumans”, billboards for which were plastered all over London during the summer of 2012. (Although, notably, they didn’t start appearing in full force until the “main” Olympics had closed.) On the one hand: what a great idea, to reclaim the idea of the “freak” and rebrand it with the kinds of superlatives we reserve for only the most powerful among us. On the other: to call someone “superhuman” is necessarily to imply that, on some level, they are not entirely human. It’s a double-edged sword – especially for those who have historically battled the gross prejudice that they are indeed not quite human.

Meet the Superhumans

A still from the original “Meet the Superhumans” campaign, 2012.

Obviously, the first campaign had its heart in the right place, and I salute it for that reason. But I am also glad Channel 4 didn’t stand still when it returned to the “superhuman” handle for 2016, and instead chose to rethink some of the first campaign’s assumptions.

What do I like about the new campaign? A couple of things.

First, I love that it’s jazzy, warm, enormously fun. (Damn, it makes me want to dance!) Singer Tony Dee belts out the Sammy Davis Jr. song “Yes I Can” with tongue in cheek and twinkle in eye as 140 disabled people, athletes and not, pass across the screen, dancing their way through life, sport, art, and more. In case you thought you might want to pity these folks, well, don’t. Don’t gasp in awe, either! They know that’s your impulse, and they have no time for it. They are too busy swinging and grooving – and getting on with doing stuff.

Second, I appreciate that the emphasis in the new trailer is not only on exceptional sports figures, but on humans of all kinds doing ordinary human things, from brushing teeth to flying a plane to bouncing a baby. The affection the camera produces for these quotidian acts isn’t sentimental, either: the pace and the cheek (lots of winking!) of the music balances a certain amount of awe with plenty of “whatever”. (As a non-disabled person, I’m astonished to see a disabled person fly a plane – just because I never have before. Now I know!) In fact, the music yanks us quickly from “awe” to “whatever” and back again deliberately, as it punctuates the shifts with pauses and percussion, drawing attention to them. That call-and-response style has the effect of reminding us to stop being so awed already, and instead to regard all the stuff we see in the trailer as, well… pretty normal for the people on the screen – who are all pretty rocking human, after all.

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Tony Dee grooves it out. Channel 4 spotted him on Youtube!

What doesn’t work so well for me? I would really like to see a couple of vignettes in the trailer that include both disabled and non-disabled bodies working together. The trailer rightly makes disabled bodies its focus, but it doesn’t take the opportunity to show collaboration across bodily difference, which is a shame. (The only non-disabled body in the piece, as far as I can see, is the cranky headmaster who tells the young wheelchair athlete he “can’t” – only to be proven definitively wrong, of course.) If we are to think more globally about access to and opportunities in social space for all human bodies in the future, representing cross-ability collaboration is essential. It gives the firm impression that all human bodies count equally, and helps to demonstrate that equal access doesn’t mean “the same thing for all of us”, but rather “different stuff according to our needs that lets us all do the same things to the best of our abilities”.

There’s a “fait accompli” feel to the trailer that is, of course, part of its jazzy, groovy feel, but that also covers up access issues in troubling ways. It’s reasonable to argue that it’s not Channel 4’s job to show us the complexity of ability politics in a trailer that is designed to get a predominantly non-disabled population to regard bodies with other abilities more positively and fairly; one thing at a time. But it’s also reasonable to argue that it *is* their responsibility not to make disabled lives seem somehow “naturally” easy in a world biased toward non-disabled subjects and their bodily experiences. Because that just ain’t true.

So that’s my verdict on “We’re the Superhumans”: better than last time, inspiring and loads of fun, but not perfect – and more work remains to be done. (Luckily, the 2020 Paralympics are just around the corner!)

I offer this reading in full awareness that, as a non-disabled woman, I’m part of the demographic Channel 4 is targeting and trying to warm-and-fuzzy, and that my embodiment makes my position as a reader partial and imperfect in any case. Which is, of course, why I’d love to hear YOUR take on the trailer, too. Please share in the comments below!

Kim

Milo the Dog and Pokemon Go (Guest Post)

M and Pby Carla Fehr

“More like Pokemon NO.” This Facebook post of mine inspired a chorus of hating on Pokemon. The most common meme was a picture of a big toothy dog with the caption “Come into my yard and you’ll catch an Ibitechu.” But they misunderstood what I meant. I tried to play Pokemon that afternoon. The server crashed. I was sad. No Pokemon.

I mostly play in the company of Milo the AwesomeDog, my German Shepherd. He and I walk, for miles, every day. Pre-Pokemon we had our regular routes through the neighborhood and had fallen into a bit of a rut. But now, we are exploring new streets and paths in search of Pokestops and Pokemon. I had always mixed obedience training into our walks. I still do, but now it looks like this: I see a Rattata, and put Milo, my actual big monster, into a down-stay while I capture the virtual little monster. Milo gets a cookie and I get experience points, and we head off hunting again.

I like to track things. I cross off days on my calendar before holidays. I have a spreadsheet to keep track of how many words I write everyday. My phone counts my steps, and the kilometers I walk, and the number of floors I climb. It even puts all that information in a chart. That’s a good phone. Pokemon Go counts all sorts of things too. I earned a Jogger Medal for the first 10 km I walked while playing. It takes 2 or 5 or 10 km of walking to incubate an egg, which, when it hatches gives you a Pokemon or some sort of virtual goodies. It keeps track of these things in lists and charts. That’s a good game.

I live in a neighborhood with lots of seniors. I first opened the Pokemon App about a week ago. There was a Drowzee in my front yard and I was wandering around trying to figure out how to catch it. Lloyd from across the street yelled over, “What the heck are you doing?” So I wandered across the street and sort of hung my head while I told him what I was playing. He barked out a laugh. His grandkids are big fans. Henry was there too. He worried, “I don’t know if I like this. People wandering around at 4 o’clock in the morning, getting in trouble.” I told him that if I was out getting in trouble at 4 AM it wouldn’t be with Pokemon. That got a laugh. In fact, nothing short of a natural disaster would get me out of bed at 4 AM.

This morning I walked outside to get something from the car. Lloyd yelled over, “What level are you on?” I yelled back, “Five!” He’s cheering for me.

Friends from work play too. I have a weekly Pokemon play date/walk with Milo and our friend Shannon. We amble through one of the prettiest neighborhoods in town, which just happens to be full of PokeStops. She’s been playing much longer than I have and is showing me the ropes. I think of her as my Pokementor.

Pokemon folds right into what keeps me healthy and happy: walking with Milo, exploring my town, chatting with neighbors, and hanging out with friends.

During the workday Carla Fehr studies the relationship between social justice, and science and technology. She spends most of the rest of her time learning about and working on dog training, dog sports, and all things German Shepherd related. She also squeezes in time for crafting, baking, piano lessons, and afternoon naps.

Bike Rally Day 4: Photos, #F4LBR

Today we left Kingston and biked to Johnstown, 110 km total.

Highlights were a steady tailwind, some magnificent downhill stretches, lovely lunch at Brown’s Bay park, fast riding along the 1000 islands parkway bike path, and lots of “fastest 10 km” and “fastest 40 km” for the Garmin users among us. Oh, also it was sunny but until the very end, not too hot.

Susan and Cate in their matching Flying Monkeys bike jerseys

Sarah and me in matching Canberra Vikings cycling jerseys

Team Switchin’ Gears at lunch

More of the team at lunch

Now we’re settled into the campground at Johnstown. Tonight is the night of the candlelight ceremony where we celebrate those who have been helped by the Toronto People With AIDs foundation, honour our history, and share stories.