Thursday, August 28, 2008

Kayak Sailing in Western Virginia

The past couple of days have been cool and rainy in the Valley, with my rain gauge registering about 3 inches so far. While the weather clears, I thought I'd do a posting about kayak sailing and the system I use on my boat, since there have been a couple of inquiries.

I purchased a Spirit Sail for my kayak when I was in Ely, Minnesota a few years back on Burntside Lake. The system consists of a mast platform, an adjustable mast, and a sail.

The platform attaches to the hull via four screws & nuts or four suction cups. I have not attempted to screw into any of my hulls, so I've been using the suction cups. Unfortunately, the suction cups do not attach very well to my plastic hulls (they apparently do a better job with fiberglass), and besides, the suction cup rubber is now brittle and cracked after several years worth of use in fresh and salt water. I tried using vasoline to create suction, but even that didn't work.

So I initially used several bungees to secure the platform to the deck, which was fine in a light wind, but not so great in, say, a 20 mph breeze. The bungees weren't strong enough to keep the sail from lifting the platform off the deck and pulling it over on its side. I then moved on to metal chains to hold it down, and that seemed to work fine.

The sail itself is wonderful. After I finally hit on using chains to hold down the platform, I found that the sail picks up the wind and just rockets the boat across the water. I've been using this setup off the coast of South Carolina lately, and it works really well. A rudder comes in very handy to help steer the boat in strong winds - no doubt about that. Especially if the boat tends to weathercock in following seas. Without a rudder, one has to use the paddle to steer. The system is flexible enough to use on nearly any body of water, from the open ocean to smaller lakes and rivers.

The adjustable mast, at least when using the mast platform, allows you to arrange the sail at a 90-degree angle to the length of the boat, or at 45-degrees on either side. The sail itself also has a window.

The sail has two 'arms' that slide onto the mast. And the sail itself can be folded in half for storing, similar to tent poles. I can slide the sail into one of the kayak hatches when I'm not using it.

My 17-footer has a forward rod holder. I decided to use PVC and a couple of bungees to anchor the mast instead of using the provided mast platform. In this case, two small sections of 1" PVC pipe and a 45-degree tee, plus a couple of bungees to hold down the mast. So far so good, but I haven't tested this setup in strong winds yet, and it could very well be that the mast is not anchored strongly enough to keep the sail from rotating in strong wind. We'll see.

The only downside to the sail is that it can be difficult to slide onto and off the mast in a strong wind. When sliding it onto the mast, you need to be downwind, and once you get the first arm down on the mast, you have to be 'ready to go,' because once the second arm slides on and the sail fills with air, the boat will take off. It's not that big of a deal, just something to be aware of.

All things considered, I'm happy with the current set up, and I use it nearly any day the wind is strong enough to fill the sail.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

James River at Alpine - August 2008

The western slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains provide a dramatic backdrop for an afternoon paddle on the James River near Alpine. Several areas along the river here provide fisherman access to the river, aka you have to carry your boat down to the water in order to put in. I chose a section today with about 1000 yards of flatwater between two rapids and a mild to flat current in between.

A father and two small sons said hi as they paddled past on their way farther downstream in a canoe, otherwise I had this section of the river to myself for about 50 minutes of paddling. Since I'm not typically using a shuttle, I put in and paddle upstream to the first set of rapids, then turn around and float down to the first set of rapids downstream. In this section of the river, it takes about 10 minutes to paddle back and forth between the rapids.

The 14' Heritage is nearly perfect for this section of water. It's small enough to maneuver between rocks and rapids, yet fast enough to cover ground at speed. However, at 53 pounds empty, it could be a little less cumbersome getting off the car and down to the water.

The current is strong enough in places to practice your ferry techniques, both facing upstream and facing downstream, and the water is clear enough to peruse rocks and ledges beneath the water surface. 

Much of the rock in this part of the James River is folded and faulted, and rock layers cross the river with a steep dip of around 70 degrees, producing abundant ledges. A couple of hundred years ago, crews apparently blasted channels through some of the these ledges for river boats.

Rains from the remnants of Tropical Storm Fay are forecasted to raise water levels by at least a couple of feet over the next several days, with up to 8 inches of rain possible. We'll see about that. But at least the rain will be more than welcome.

I shared this section of water with a family of ducks today:

Train tracks border this section of the James River, and it's not uncommon to have large coal trains steam by you once or twice during a cruise. Some of these trains are approaching a mile long, on their way from the coal fields of West Virginia to points east like Richmond and Norfolk.

I sometime pause in a back eddy just to listen to the rapids for a while. View a short, 15 second, video clip of the rapids on this section of river:

View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Lake Douthat - August 2008

A cold front and the approaching remnants of Tropical Storm Fay provided a canopy of clouds plus the threat of showers & storms during an afternoon outing today at Lake Douthat, a 40 acre impoundment in Douthat State Park in Bath County, Virginia. Calm winds allowed for a glassy smooth water surface on this small, oval shaped lake.

Lake Douthat is a full facility state park in Virginia, meaning that it offers a public beach with bathhouse, camping, a camping store, boat dock with ramp, restaurant, hiking trails, playgrounds, and more. I paid a $2 daily access fee to park my vehicle at the boat ramp for a couple of hours of paddling (fee required from Memorial Day through Labor Day). It was relatively quiet for a Monday afternoon in August, although there were a couple of small fishing boats on the lake, hikers on the surrounding trails, and several families with kids on the beach.

I spent about 50 minutes on the lake today, which consisted of one complete lap of the perimeter and one roundtrip down the center of the lake in my 17' Heritage Expedition. Tucked in a narrow, scenic valley, this lake is about 40 minutes from my home and is a good destination for a quick afternoon paddle, and a great spot to bring the kids and the tandem. Any beginner kayaker would feel safe on this lake, and, in fact, one of the local outfitters holds Kayaking 101 lessons in this very spot.

The lake is surrounded on two sides by steep mountains, with a concrete and rock dam on one end, and inflow stream on the other. It's possible to paddle right up to the dam and look over, thanks to a concrete lip preventing boats from going over the edge - at least when water levels are low, as they are now.

Water is backed up about 25 yards into the inflow stream before it gets too rocky to proceed any farther upstream:

Bedrock in this area of the world consists of folded shales, sandstones, and limestones, all part of an ancient continental shelf folded, faulted, and thrust up into the atmosphere during the formation of the Appalachian Mountains some 400 million years ago. Erosion has now exposed the very core of this ancient mountain range.

Douthat is a small, but pleasant lake. Perfect for a quick paddle or family getaway.

View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Mill Creek Lake - August 2008

Mill Creek Lake is a 189 acre lake just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Amherst County, Virginia. It's one of the largest public access lakes in the region with a concrete boat ramp, dock, picnic facilities, playground, bathroom, and plenty of parking. It's also one of the most scenic lakes in the region, sporting sweeping views of 4000 foot peaks along the Blue Ridge.

I arrived on a Saturday afternoon after a 32 mile drive from the southern Shenandoah Valley over the mountains and into the piedmont where the lake is located. This lake allows small fishing boats in addition to paddlecraft, and there were about half a dozen fishing boats in the lake. A husband and wife with two SINKs arrived as I was pushing back from the dock.

The lake has four 'arms' to explore with lots of little coves and secluded spots. To do one complete circuit of the lake would probably take a couple of hours or more. I tend to explore one of two of the arms, which takes about an hour, before packing it up and heading back home. This lake is also large enough to kick it into overdrive and get some good exercise, something my 17' Heritage is only too happy to accommodate. I need to bring along a GPS receiver for one of these cruises to see how fast this boat can go, but I estimate at least 5 knots, perhaps more. This boat is 4 inches narrower and 3 1/2 feet longer than the 14' Sea Dart, and while that make it slightly harder to turn, the payoff is increased speed and the ability to cover much more ground in your allotted time. Stability seem to be about the same as the 14' Heritage.

I happened upon one of the largest Beaver lodges I've ever seen in one of the secluded coves. Notice how it continues back up into the trees:

Mill Creek is near Lynchburg, VA. This part of Virginia has been very dry this summer, with Lynchburg recording its driest June and July on record, and only recording a trace of rainfall for the entire month of August so far. Water levels in the lake were the lowest I've seen, easily a good 1-2 feet lower than they were earlier this summer. Watch and listen to a short (15 seconds) video of lake water cascading down the spillway pipe on its way out of the lake beneath the dam:

Mill Creek Lake makes for a very pleasant afternoon cruise. View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Friday, August 22, 2008

James River at Arcadia Landing - August 2008

Today was a beautiful day in the Valley, so I decided to head out to Arcadia boat landing on the James River with my smaller 14' Heritage Sea Dart. The boat access here is primitive with space for about a dozen vehicles, but only carry-down access to the river and no facilities.

When I arrived, there were two recreational kayakers coming off the river, and I waved to three canoes passing on their way farther downriver. Otherwise, I had the water to myself. This river access requires you to carry your boat over a bar of rocks (see picture) and put in as you wade into the water. I sometimes just carry my kayak from the car down to the water, other times, like today, I use my fat wheels, which have no problem negotiating the smooth rocks. It is possible to unload about half way down to the water from the parking area, but if you do, four wheel drive is recommended - the hill is much steeper than it appears in the picture.

The river access point drops you right in the middle of a mild Class I riffle, and you can either paddle upstream or down. I typically choose to paddle upstream until I encounter the first set of rapids, then turn around and float down past the boat landing, continuing downsteam until I encounter the next set of rapids.

The current is usually gentle enough to paddle in either direction. Water visibility is perfect, meaning that you can see the bottom of the river in nearly any location. I noticed that the water level in the river is several inches lower than when I visited Arcadia in June, exposing several rocks and ledges. Fortunately, the water is clear enough to see shallow rocks and edges so one can alter their paddling stoke and avoid striking them.

While some of this is typical of the latter half of the summer season, this particular summer has been very dry - my weather station recorded just over 2 inches of rain in June, 3.4 inches in July, and only 0.6 so far this August. Many of us are secretly hoping that the remnants of Tropical Storm Fay sit over us and rain out next week.

As summer winds to a close, it's possible to see fall color just beginning to appear in the trees. I spent about 45 minutes or so on the water before it was time to pack up and head home. I highly recommend Arcadia Landing for those looking for a quick paddle, and I intend to return here at least one more time before the paddling season is over.

View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lake Robertson - August 2008

Lake Robertson Recreation Area contains a small lake of about 40 acres in Rockbridge County, Virginia. I arrived on a mostly cloudy Thursday afternoon and found that I had the lake to myself, as is mostly the case on weekdays. 

An easterly flow off the Atlantic, thanks to a high pressure system in New England and Tropical Storm Fay in Florida, provided upslope clouds today, keeping temperatures comfortably in the upper 70s during the time I was on the lake. A 5-7 mph wind gave me the opportunity to test the sailing rig on my 17' Heritage kayak.

Lake Robertson typifies the small fishing lakes in the greater western Virginia area - a small lake behind an earthen dam with good boat access and beautiful scenery. Paddle-craft and small fishing boats are the only types of boats allowed on these lakes, making for a relaxing paddle. There are a couple of picnic shelters on one side of the lake, and that's about it as far as development is concerned. 

I did two laps of the lake today which takes about 40 minutes, depending on the boat and how hard one paddles. The 17' Heritage is quite a bit faster than my 14' model, so I'm able to cover more ground, and if I push it hard, I can get from one end of the lake to the other in just a few minutes.

One side of the lake has a rocky shoreline consisting of limestone. A large beaver lodge is located on this side of the lake, tucked inbetween two large limestone outcrops:

The end of the lake farthest from the boat access is marshy and shallow (second picture, in the distance), and it's not unusual to see small and very large turtles sunning themselves on logs near the marsh. The dam drains from the bottom via a gated spillway located behind the earthen dam:

They usually draw down the lake in the fall, cutting off boat access until spring. Lake Robertson is only about 15 minutes from my home, making it an attractive destination for a quick paddle. A slight breeze allowed me to do a little sailing using my new rig. However, it wasn't quite enough of a breeze the keep the sail furled and provide a good test of the rigging, so I continue to wait for a stiff breeze.

View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Stone House Lake - August 2008

Stone House Lake is a fishing lake in Amherst County, VA of about 50 acres or so. This is my second time visiting this small, secluded lake. I arrived on a Wednesday afternoon with my 17' Heritage Expedition, which is, admittedly, overkill for this sized lake, and I had the water to myself. This lake has a concrete boat ramp and wooden dock, allowing for easy water access. 

I purchased this kayak last month, and this is my fourth time using it. It's quite a bit larger than my 14' Heritage Sea Dart and sports three rod holders and a rudder. I find it to be much faster than the 14-footer and only marginally harder to turn. In fact, I don't need to use the rudder much at all. I'm looking forward to taking the 17-footer into the ocean and doing some kayak sailing - the rudder will no doubt come in handy while sailing, something I've missed when sailing with the 14-footer.

Stone House Lake makes for a nice, quiet, hour-long cruise. There is a farm on one end of the lake, and that's about it. The rest of the lake is surrounded by woods and hills. I spotted numerous turtles sunning themselves on logs and one young spotted deer.

I've been experimenting with using the forward rod holder as an anchor for my sailing rig, a Spirit Sail. The rig is designed to attach to the hull via screws or suction cups. I've been hesitant to drill into the hull to use the sailing rig, and the suction cups do not attach themselves well to the plastic hull. Up until now, I've been using bungees and chains to hold the rig in the wind. With the rod holder, however, I've decided to experiment with 1" PVC tubing (see the pic above). So far, so good. It works well and holds the rig. Now if only I can find a really windy day and put it through a real test. View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

James River Above Snowden Dam - August 2008

The James River upstream of Snowden Dam provides about a mile or so of flatwater for kayakers and other paddlers to enjoy. Farther upstream there are rock gardens and rapids preventing further access without portaging. Depending on water levels, it's possible to paddle upstream through the first couple of Class I riffles before turning around and floating downstream.

I frequent this part of the James River quite often using my 14' Heritage Sea Dart or my 17' Heritage Expedition. I also like to bring along the kids in our Mainstream Tango Tandem, aka the family truckster, and let them tube, swim, and play around in the water. This time of the year, the water temperature is usually in the 70s.

The public concrete boat ramp above Snowden Dam provides access to the river for small boats, canoes, and kayaks. There is parking for about a dozen vehicles. After putting in, one paddles into the James River from a tributary, then continues upstream under the Appalachian Trail bridge following a railroad track upstream for as far as you can go before encountering rapids.

This part of the James River travels through a cut in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the ridge on either side of the river rising to 3000 to 4000 feet above sea level. The current is small to nonexistent, especially below the last rapids, making for an easy paddle for most kayakers. Wildlife consists of frequent birds, turtles, and the occasional deer in the adjacent woods.

This part of the James River is a popular take-out spot for paddlers coming downriver from Glasgow (running the popular Balcony Falls) and points above, so it's not unusual to meet whitewater kayakers and canoeists on the river. View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

This is the inaugural blog of Virginia Paddler. I intend to blog about flatwater kayaking in the greater western Virginia area, with occasional tours elsewhere in the nation. I welcome your comments and questions!