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CASKE 2000 Expedition Journals

Were we ready for our kayak expedition?

Often people ask me how many years of kayak experience I had prior to planning or doing this expedition. My answer seems to shock most of them, and I'm sure the ones who smile do it in disbelief. My first kayak experience was in April '98. Two years of planning CASKE 2000 didn't include any time on the water and so with five months before the expedition departure date I had to pack in a lot of training in a hurry.

To the same question, Luke would answer that he had been a dozen of times in a sea kayak on the great lakes. That's all the experience our team had. Insane, crazy, suicidal, we've heard it all, but some actually ask "Why?" The reason I chose a kayak was because the itinerary takes us through various rainforests. I have been in various jungles before, and walking through the jungle isn't easy. Add to it carrying loads of equipment and covering long distances and you quickly realize that the waterways represent the only solution. Indigenous people were the first to understand it and most have settled along or in the proximity of river banks. Sailboats can't reach them. Some people fly small airplanes to the last runway and charter motor boats. I decided that arriving on my own power was important to the first impression I would give to native people. I was also happy to find a way more environmentally friendly than a motor boat. I had had a few dugout canoe experiences in Indonesia, but quickly abandoned this thought as dugout canoes wouldn't protect all the gear we needed and wouldn't perform well on the open sea. I was left with only two options, a full Canadian type canoe or a kayak. Considering the distance and possible sea condition we would encounter, kayaking was the only way.

Although I had never sat in one of those narrow crafts, I knew I would like it. When I first moved to Seattle, I took a class to become a rafting guide and always observed the kayakers with much interest. They flew by us, ran holes, and turned back to surf against the current. I could easily picture myself trading my large cumbersome rubber raft for a quick little plastic boat, but my finances at the time didn't allow me to start a new sport so I just stored the idea in the back of my mind for a few years. When people ask me if I knew how unstable kayaks were before planning to use them to carry sensitive gear, again my experience in Indonesia taught me that long and narrow meant unstable. I will always remember one of the first days I rode a dugout canoe with my adopted Mentawai family in Sumatra. Martinus, his wife, son and I walked through the jungle to collect full baskets of durian fruits and bananas and walked back to the navigable part of the river. There, Martinus' mom and his young daughter were waiting for us with a perahu, a long canoe dug out of a single tree. We loaded it with all the durians and bananas and everybody climbed on board. Martinus and I being the heaviest (55 and 78 kgs respectively) boarded last and were to sit in the middle. The canoe was too narrow for my hips. I couldn't touch the bottom as I was uncomfortably stuck on both sides. With a smile Martinus told me to kneel down which I did while he was holding the perahu. His mother and daughter were standing up, one at the bow and one at the stern. They started to push us with long bamboo sticks. Skilled with an amazing sense of balance, I had often seen Mentawai people standing up and leaning on their bamboo sticks to push their canoe full of products up and down rivers. I had even sat in a wider dugout canoe before, but this time my kneeling position was uncomfortable and after fifteen minutes I had to release some of the pressure on my legs. I had no idea that a single move from the odd tourist would capsize the full boat. All the family went swimming among the fruits spread out all over. It was a humbling experience that made me respect all long and narrow crafts. It also made for good stories each time a new member of the family visited us.

In Japan during my last year of expedition planning, I knew very well that we couldn't learn the necessary kayaking skills by ourselves in such a short period of time. On the other hand we couldn't afford the extensive professional instruction. I approached John Gray who goes by the nickname of Caveman. Founder of a leading eco-tourism company in South East Asia, his kayak and sea experience is outstanding. He first turned me down because he thought that with zero experience kayaking we couldn't be serious about embarking on such expedition. I tried to convince him that both Luke and I were great and versatile athletes and our goal was too important to give up. We would go with or without his support, but we were aware of our total lack of kayaking skills and very much needed his support. For months we exchanged emails between Thailand and Japan. Caveman tried to convince us to quit, I tried to convince him to train us. He asked me to read the book "We survived yesterday" (recommended reading) about a harrowing expedition down the Pacific coast of Baja, which I did and commented back. Then the ultimatum arrived. Caveman agreed to train us if we could arrive in Phuket the first week of April 98 and swim one thousand meters of open water in less than fourteen minutes without breaking our stroke a single time. That was it. If we could swim, he and his kayak course director Dave Williams would train us for free. I received that email the last week of October 97. It was good news but it was far from being a done deal. Luke had participated in a few triathlons and was a decent swimmer. I was an average breast stroke swimmer, excellent with fins, good underwater, but I didn't know how to crawl. I had five winter months of work, expedition planning and website designing in which to fit swimming lessons and training to become a competitive swimmer.

Most of my friends only commented with the word Impossible! Only Luke encouraged me. We had trained together. I had done it cross-country skiing and had nothing to lose. I asked my friend Steve, a swimming instructor to teach me the basic stroke and correct my bad breathing technique. The first week of November 97, I couldn't swim fifty meters without stopping once completely out of breath. The task was going to be hard and my last winter in Hokkaido wasn't going to be on skis. Luke was swimming the thousand meters in pool in twenty one minutes and I wasn't crawling. We went to the pool three to five times a week. By December I had covered the distance for the first time in twenty eight minutes and had reduced the time to twenty four minutes before Christmas. In January Luke was at sixteen minutes and I was at twenty. In March Luke was closing in on fourteen minutes and I was approaching sixteen. All our training had been limited to the pool.

We left Sapporo in a snow storm on April second and flew to Phuket at the hottest period of the year. Caveman took us to swim in the beautiful bay of Nai Harn.

We spent two months in Thailand. Caveman lectured us about the ocean, meteorology, currents, waves, swimming and other seamanship. During that time we paddled daily, usually with Dave Williams and his Friend Roy, learning all the basics and beyond. Even my first eskimo roll in a real situation lead to a big learning experience. We did a mini-expedition including a thirty five mile crossing and made great friends, but a skill we barely had a chance to touch was surf kayaking. We trained a few days with Dave, but at that time of the year surf never gets big in Thailand. This led us to San Diego in search of experience in the waves.

From Japan I had contacted Ed Gillet of South West Kayaks in San Diego. We wished to fine tune our expedition and surfing skills with the master in the field. Ed got his fame from crossing solo and unassisted from California to Hawaii in 1985. It is an incredible challenge nobody has yet repeated. No one could explain better than Ed himself what that experience was like. I invite you to read it on his website.

We paddled a few weekends with Ed and saw that mastering surfing skills was possible. We just needed more experience on the water. This is why I chose the Sea of Cortez as the first stage for CASKE 2000. The wind can blow very hard, but the surf is always more gentle than on the Atlantic or Pacific coast. The Sea of Cortez is our training ground with all the gear.

After a certain level of skills and experience, like Ed says, it comes to one thing: "Do you have the mind to do it?" I think that unless you try you will never know. If you have the mind to try and plan well, you will probably do it.

I want to express my gratitude to all the people who helped us train for CASKE 2000: Steve Strugnell in the pool in Sapporo, John "Caveman" Grey, Dave Williams and Roy Bachmeyer in Phuket Thailand and, Ed Gillet and the staff of South West Kayaks in San Diego.

by Jean-Philippe Soule (view profile)

Read our profiles: Jean-Philippe Soulé and Luke Shullenberger


If you liked these stories, you will find many more in our other journals:

CASKE 2000 Expedition Journals by Jean-Philippe Soule and Luke Shullenberger