1. Remember first grade. Remember that teacher, I think her name was Mrs. Jones, and how she would tell you "sit down, NOW!" Just do this and you'll be fine. In shallow water, place each hand on either side of the kayak opening (facing forward in case you wondered!), more or less above the back of your seat. Put one leg into the kayak, stretch it, and while balancing the kayak with both your hands, sit down. Then get your other leg into the kayak, too. Oh, and try not to forget your paddle on the shore before you do that or you'll have to repeat the whole thing or paddle with your hands (or ask the guide to hand you the paddle.)
2. Live your fantasies. At least if you're a guy - ever wanted to wear a skirt in a kayak? That's your chance. Here, the skirt attaches to the kayak and stops the icy, 32F water from getting inside. That's really helpful. Your guide will show you how to do that and after a little practicing you will have acquired another very practical skill.
3. You just need to figure out how to paddle. Hold the paddle horizontal, shoulder high, with your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. Your goal is to sit straight, and do kind of an 8 movement with you arms. Enter the wide part of the paddle into the water as forward as you comfortably can, sweep the water back, and repeat. Are you moving? That's a good start!
4. The paddle is not your only friend; it's your best friend. Do not hold onto it like you're afraid to lose your only friend, or your arm and shoulder muscles will hurt real bad very soon. Hold the paddle gently, with a soft grip, and it will be your best friend in the water.
5. Missing those Pilates classes? Whether you're a total wimp or a Master Of the Weight Machine, your core muscles are still your strongest. The key to paddling long hours, and then doing it again the next day, and the next one, until that bush airplane comes back to pick the group up and return it to civilization, is to use your back muscles and abs to do much of the work in paddling, not your shoulders and arms. Doing this is a key to happiness in long arctic kayaking expeditions, and will cut your medical bills (Advil) significantly.
6. What happens if your kayak flips over? We've all heard about how to roll a kayak if it flips over. I'm going to borrow here what Jim, my guide on an Elsmere Island Kayaking expedition, said: "what about rolling? Real simple, don't flip over." The water is really, really cold. Can you flip over by mistake? Sure, if a Walrus decides to check the kayak out (kidding). But if this happens your arctic suit or your dry suit (you'll be wearing one of these depending on the outfitter you're traveling with) will hold you for enough time until your guide pulls you out. That's a lot easier to learn than rolling. In all my years of Arctic and Antarctic kayaking expeditions, I have never seen anyone flipping over.
This, of-course, does not include the time I flipped over, when my partner to the kayak had, well, an un-gentle exit. Why did I smile while pumping the freezing water out of the kayak with my boots flooded with ice water? That's my nature - I see a camera, I smile!
7. Keep a low profile. This way the Killer Whales won't see you (kidding again.) Many people have the tendency to use their paddle as a flag. This is very inefficient use of your paddling energy. The rule of thumb is that you should try to lift the side of the paddle that's not in the water no higher than your corresponding ear. In Antarctica, they have this thing called Katabatic Wind. This is wind that comes roaring down the valleys and because of temperature differences it becomes real strong real fast. When you paddle in front of a valley and this wind comes roaring at you, lifting you paddle turns it into a nice little sail, and will make you know the inside of the ocean real quick. Just paddle low, into the wind, and you should be fine.
8. Enjoy the view. You are one of very few people ever to visit this region. And everything that you see will likely not be there in twenty years, from many icebergs to glaciers to Polar Bear. I'll write about global warming some other time, but trust me: these are beautiful, breathtaking views that you'll see. Absorb them.
9. Don't forget to get back home. You're paddling in the Arctic Ocean, or the Antarctic Peninsula. The views are amazing. You have a camera. It has 16 gigs of memory and you're going to make use of every single byte. Just remember this: if you keep taking pictures, you don't paddle. If you don't paddle, you'll never get back home. True, at one point your guide might wake you up, but just try to be a good team player and paddle once in a while. Of course, you can take the back seat of a double kayak, make paddling sounds, and keep taking pictures while your partners does the work. Unless that's your spouse, it might even work! I'll write more about photography in a future posting of this blog.
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