Sometimes in life we push ourselves. As an expedition level kayaker I enjoy pushing myself to my limits and see how far I can go. How do we know when we have pushed too far?
What happens when we do go too far?
I was already weeks into my expedition and by now my body had adapted to the strain of hours of paddling in difficult conditions. I was quite familiar with the subtle signals it would send me after a long day of paddling, after tens of thousands of paddle strokes. The cramping in my hands and the deep ache in my shoulders were feelings that I was accustomed to and by now I knew what “normal” tolerable amounts of aching and cramping felt like.
I was up late the night before at the Bay of Quinte Yacht club in Belleville with some wonderful power boaters I had met earlier trying to work out the next leg of my journey. The local knowledge provided by my hosts was of tremendous value and they warned me that Big Bay was a very wide and shallow expanse of water and could blow up waves nasty enough to strike fear into experienced sailors on 40 foot yachts if the wind was from the north or south. They provided fair warning to choose my timing and conditions with care. As always I carefully checked the wind and weather forecasts and gathered the best data I could for the ever so important decision making part of this leg. I knew full well that mistakes in the planning stage could hurt terribly tomorrow so I felt an internal pressure to get it right.
With a forecast of 10-20 knot winds from the west for tomorrow I planned to set out early enough to cross Big Bay hopefully before the waves had time to build significantly. A 10 knot following wind can really be quite useful for making distance and experienced kayakers know that following winds are the best kind, so this could work out in my favor. Use the wind to push me towards the Desoronto bridge and then hide on the lee-shore of Long Reach under the cliffs. A fair and reasonable distance to set for myself everyday is somewhere between 30-40km. As together we plotted my course I was informed that there really wasn’t anyplace to stop and camp in Long Reach itself near the 30-40km mark. I could either set Desoronto at 25km (too short) as my objective or Picton at 50km (too far). Well never being the kind of girl to shrink away from a challenge I just knew that IF conditions were right I could do the 10 hours of straight paddling and make the 50km leg. So began the internal war of indecision as I struggled with that constant question “what is the right thing to do?”
Speaking with local sailors during the day I had been regaled with tales of the notoriously unpredictable local wind patterns to be found in Long Reach. With sobering tones I had been warned that the wind in Long reach had this tendency to either funnel its way from the North or from the South regardless of what the main winds on Lake Ontario were doing. That the cliffs could create some wild winds and swirling vortexes that troubled sailors to no end and create confused waters that might give a little kayak pause for concern. If the winds got up to 20 knots and if they came at me in Long Reach from the south such a strong headwind could really make my ambitious 50km run to Picton a dangerous feat. I decided to make my gamble and go for it. Calls and E-mails had been placed ahead to the Prince Edward Yacht Club in Picton so they were expecting me and if I needed help someone would be around. I knew this run would leave me exhausted as a best case scenario and I already had plenty of experience with what happens when things go wrong so I was relieved to have safe harbor waiting ahead for me.
I started out early enough after my breakfast and shower refreshed and ready for the days challenge. The curious thing I noticed though was that in the Bay of Quinte in Belleville the winds were coming down a little more from the north than west with a bit of chill in them for this fine May day. I set out trying to find the lee-shore in the Bay of Quinte to no avail and kind of zigzagged my way through into the mouth of Big Bay. I was able to hook around the peninsula and use its protection from the building waves, and the smaller fetch to hide from the nastier breaking waves.
Once I made it to Big Island I had to turn to the East and take the waves broadside from the 8 O’clock position. The waves began white capping at around 15 knots of wind and breaking waves to be wary of as I made my forward progress with my head swiveled to the left side. I was wearing my PFD, as always, and my deck skirt so when the 2-3 foot waves decided to suddenly change from swell to breaker, I lifted my arms above and let it wash over my deck skirt and torso. The peak to peak distance of the waves was wide enough to leave no real concern for getting rolled. The start of my long day was well within my skill level and I successfully managed my way across the open shallow expanse of the dreaded Big Bay into the Narrows.
With less open fetch brought by the protection of the shores of the narrows and coupled with a slight shifting of the wind, the paddle through the narrows was lovely. The skies were clear and the sun shining down to help me keep the chill from the wind at bay. I made a few short rest stops to snack and relieve myself and ensure good hydration. I had removed my level six paddling jacket once out of danger from the big waves and had smeared myself with a healthy dose of suntan lotion for the rest of my pleasant afternoon paddle.
Hour after hour of paddling drifted by with the pleasant scenery and the familiar ache in my shoulders and cramping in my hands began to build. I did the things expedition kayakers do to ward off the body strain like finger stretching and quick shoulder rubs to keep the knots at bay. I watched men in their expensive and fancy sport fishing boats buzz past my steady little kayak, then peacefully passed under the Deseronto bridge and following the shoreline making my south hook into Long Reach under good conditions.
My paddling day started by 8:30 am and it was now approaching dinner time. I had made it about a third of the way down Long Reach when the winds began to build from the south, slowly at first but building quickly. After about 7 hours of paddling and 35km into my 50km day I knew my goal was within reach because what’s another 15km? I can do it no problem.
Before long I realized I was seeing whitecaps everywhere. The 2-3 foot waves
were steep and often breaking at the tops with short peak-to-peak intervals, the
wind was pushing the water hard. With dread I felt certain the winds were up to
20 knots from the south now. The nose of my kayak was constantly burying under the next wave and washing water up to my deck bag. My senses alert and carefully tuned to the world around me, the adrenaline starts to come up just a little
as I have to brace my kayak occasionally. My hands, already sore, grip the paddle tightly as I have to pull each stroke hard to advance in the face of the wind. No more resting for a sip of water or a snack I cannot let go of the paddle for even a moment. Now 8 hours into my 10 hour day I have been caught by the moody headwinds of Long Reach. There is no safe place nearby to land and camp for the night and I must finish my run to the safe harbor awaiting me in Picton.
Like a marathon runner who has been running already for 7 hours and has to run the last 3 hours uphill I know my reserves of energy are being rapidly depleted. The headwinds are sapping my strength and making every paddle stroke a painful chore. Yet still I push on as I must, I cannot simply stop in the waves and surrender. My inner stubborn strength bubbles up as I fight to conquer this beast. I am strong and I know I can do this yet at the same time I know I am now pushing myself way past total exhaustion. I have myself, my fear, and my kayak all under control but there is a cumulative effect that will take its toll upon my body as my exhaustion deepens.
The wind is strong and my frustration grows and I soon start talking to her pleading for mercy. I yell into the wind asking mother-nature for some respite from her relentless bluster and moody water. I paddle hard and ignore the pain, encouraged by the fact I am still making forward progress, however slow it may be. The tears start to form and I can feel myself crying with total exhaustion and frustration with how uncooperative the weather has been at the end of my gamble. The one thing I needed for this day to be successful was no headwinds here in the reach. Still I paddle on.
Eventually about an hour before sunset I slowly make my way into the protection of the Picton harbor and look around from my low vantage point in my kayak for a place to land. They knew I was coming yet I see nobody at all around. I have been locked into my sitting position in my kayak for the last three hours of my struggle and in my exhausted state I am uncertain if I will be able to get myself out of the
cockpit. I find a sufficiently low floating dock and haul myself out of the kayak in such pain and with such effort I start to cry again. My exhaustion is so complete that I cannot stand or really do anything much to help myself other than lay on the dock crying. After 15 minutes and still nobody in sight to assist me I know I am on my own and I must push more. I get to my hands and knees and crawl to the kayak and get it hauled up on the dock and secured enough to be safe. I reach for my trusted jar of peanut butter always kept behind my seat and start to eat, my body desperately needs fuel.
The sun is setting and now the temperature is falling below 10 degrees Celsius and in my totally exhausted state my body starts trying to conserve what little energy it has and cannot generate enough body heat to fight the cold, I start to shiver. I have been here many times on this trip and I know from painful experience I am starting to get hypothermia. A completely exhausted body is not as resistant to the effects of the cold. The recipe for my recovery is a simple formula I know well, food warmth and rest and I need them fast or I will be in trouble in a hurry. The urge to simply curl up in the fetal position and sleep is strong and in the past I had given in to the desire and it always ends up badly, I must keep moving. I tear open my front hatch and pull out my only warm dry clothes and pull off my paddle stuff and pull the cotton sweats on and climb back into my wind proof paddle stuff and get back into my PFD, two inches of Styrofoam insulation is more helpful than you’d think.
I open the back hatch and pull out a dehydrated meal and the camp stove and stumble my way up to the yacht clubhouse praying please let the washroom doors be open, I must get out of the wind. Much to my relief I find that shelter awaits and I collapse on the floor in the hallway shivering and totally exhausted I cannot function anymore. About an hour of rest passes on that floor in tears before I can start to move again, still nobody in sight. I am able to get outside and start cooking the food I had brought with me knowing how desperately my body needs fuel but I use up more energy with the effort and start to shiver again, I am still fighting of the tendrils of hypothermia that are clutching at my core. I get the hot water poured into the ration pack and stow the cooking stuff when a car drives up and catches me like a deer in headlights stumbling back to the building.
The power boaters from the last yacht club this morning were worried about me and called ahead to a friend to check on me. The off duty firefighter quickly assessed my condition and concluded I needed an ambulance. I tried to be pleasant in my weakened state as I argued against his plan from the floor and tried to get him to understand I didn’t need a doctor to prescribe food and rest. My onlookers had never seen anyone so exhausted before and were quite certain I needed medical attention. I was rather proud that I had not only survived the 54.5km run of my long and painful day and beat the headwinds but this time I did all the right things to recover myself when I landed. Soon I will eat the warm meal I made and sleep in my warm sleeping bag and in the morning I will be ready to go again.
Perhaps today I have pushed too far!
By Alexis Right