Saturday, July 18, 2009

James River at Gala - July 2009

I last visited the James River at Gala in May when the river was in flood and water levels were several feet higher. The river today was much milder with clear water and a mild current. The Gala location offers walk-down access to the James River behind a convenience store just off Route 220 between Iron Gate and Eagle Rock, Virginia. Parking is available for several vehicles, and four or five of them in the parking area were evidence of James River trippers today when I arrived.

Using my fat kayak wheels, I was able to walk my 14' Heritage Sea Dart down to the water and put in on the flatwater available on this section of the river. Paddling upstream, the first set of rapids isn't encountered for several hundred yards, making for a pleasant paddle. Exposed tree roots on the river banks were not evident at all when I visited this location in May, and the slower water was appreciated.

The first set of rapids encountered upstream are very mild. I was able to power through most of them, with the exception of the last little bit where the water was just too shallow. But it was a simple matter to hop of the boat and pull it the last ten feet in order to keep moving upstream.

A couple of small tributaries enter the James above Gala. I enjoy paddling up tributaries as far as possible before having to back down or turn around. I've learned that it's an advantage to carry a small Swiss Army knife with a saw blade when traveling on a tributary, as I often need to remove small overhanging branches.

Numerous fish were visible in the clear water as well as crayfish. The water invites you to slow down and float with the current while you gaze at the river bottom.

A couple of families coming to tube on the river arrived in the parking area as I was packing up shop. Otherwise, I had the river to myself this afternoon for an hour's paddle. View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Smith Mountain Lake - July 2009

Smith Mountain Lake is one of the largest lakes in Virginia, with over 500 miles of shoreline. It's fully developed and commercialized, as opposed to most of the lakes I visit in Virginia. I chose to visit Smith Mountain today with my family for a little swimming and to allow one of my kids the chance to paddle my 14' Heritage Sea Dart as she learns to paddle and handle a boat on the water.

Numerous marinas and boat ramps are available around the lake. We chose a lesser-developed public boat ramp on the northeastern side of the lake which offered a concrete ramp, dock, and small beach for paddlecraft. Parking was available for about a dozen vehicles. While one child paddled my 14' Heritage, I myself paddled my Mainstream Tango tandem kayak with the other child. This tandem is a large family 'yak with seating for two adults and one to two kids (or perhaps a dog). It's wide, slow, and a bit of a barge, but it paddles straight and true, is stable, and it's easy to use as a portable swim platform.

Being a Thursday afternoon, I had assumed that the lake would be relatively quiet, but I was wrong. Numerous boats and jet skis were on the lake, so we stayed in the shallows up one of the lake arms and out of the traffic.

School today consisted of teaching my elder child how to climb back into the kayak after capsizing and also learning how to turn a 14' kayak without using a rudder. But mostly they wanted to swim, so I towed the 14-footer behind the tandem while the kids swam in the lake.

In all, we paddled and swam for about an hour in a quiet, residential, no-wake part of the lake this afternoon.

Being such a large lake, one could spend months exploring Smith Mountain on a kayak. And I'm sure some areas of the lake are quieter and less developed than the location we picked today. View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Offshore Sea Kayaking in South Carolina - July 2009

Living in the mountains of Virginia, it's a special treat for me to be able to paddle my sea kayaks offshore in the open ocean off South Carolina a few times each year. My 14' Heritage Sea Dart and 17' Heritage Expedition are made for kayaking offshore, with their sleek Greenland lines, speed, and inherent stability.

Paddling offshore is an entirely different beast than poking around western Virginia lakes and rivers. One must take into account winds, currents, waves, tides, and a whole laundry list of other factors before hopping in the water and powering offshore. It's more serious, and the implications of making a mistake more fatal. So before I go, I make sure the winds, tides, etc. are favorable for an offshore outing, i.e., you don't want to head out if there's a strong offshore wind - onshore winds are much better.

I also take advantage of my boat's storage by stuffing it full of survival gear, such as a waterproof floating marine VHF radio, cell phone, survival kit with basic fishing gear, wind-up flashlight, plenty of water, food, a NWS weather radio, extra paddle, my sail, nautical map, GPS receiver, strobe light, compass, basic med kit, thermometer/anemometer, batteries, and more. I want to be reasonably well prepared should a sudden storm or unanticipated current push me far offshore.

Breaking waves washing over the bow can easily strip away items strapped to the deck, so I've learned to stow almost everything before setting out - as well as the fact that it's quite easy to capsize in the surf zone, and over the years I've lost things like hats, sunglasses, and water bottles which were not properly secured.

I typically stay within a mile or two of the shoreline when I venture offshore. The part of the coast I paddle sports several remote island sand banks as well as numerous salt marshes, estuaries, and rivers. It is great fun to explore some of the deserted islands to look for shells or to simply enjoy the solitude.

Paddling offshore is a fine location for using a sail. Although it's not necessarily great in rough conditions, my Spirit Sail can be an advantage in calmer water.

In my case, I paddle into the wind for a while, perhaps rounding an island, then use the sail on my way back to shore.

Two novice paddlers perished in the area I paddle two years ago. Apparently, two men who had little or no paddling experience rented a tandem sit-inside kayak and ventured offshore in very unfavorable weather conditions, i.e., a strong offshore wind and strong offshore current. They capsized, the boat swamped, and they were carried as far as 5 miles off the coast. One person was found still clinging to the swamped boat, while the other was never found. Their experience illustrates the danger of venturing offshore unprepared and with little or no local marine knowledge.

The dangers of paddling offshore are real, but the rewards are worth it for experienced, knowledgeable paddlers with the right equipment.