A few of you old timers will remember a time back when I used to post stories in the Trips Forum, that’s the one which now dwells in the Archives. I posted something like 30 stories, including the one about my near-drowning up in the Canadian Rockies. Well, I got a request from my olde buddy, Ken Sutherland, that I get back into writing these stories again. In fact, I met an old acquaintance last Sunday who asked me if I was still writing…told him no…he was disappointed. So here is both a story about the same old stretch of river I have paddled a hundred or two times and a little evaluation of my S&G Night Heron, which until this summer, I have not used much…I’ll tell you why I haven’t used it much and why I am using it all summer this year. Let’s get into the day trip report, then I’ll talk about the Night Heron. I need a title for the story, I usually base my titles upon the more interesting aspects of the day trips, so let’s word this one…
A Slalom Kayaker, Long John Silver, and a Large Old Coyote
I left for work this morning with the Night Heron tied to the Thule roof racks atop my Honda Accord. I use Thule rack because I know from real time experience that they can hold 250+ pounds and can be supremely secured to my car and never let go. As I drove though the Tim’s to grab a cup of joe for the long drive into town, I commute 1.5-hours every day, everyone stopped to stare at the Night Heron. I hear the same comments from everyone…it’s a beautiful kayak with beautiful art work painted on her decks. They also love the graphite/hexaboron nitride bottom coat, which says in white over a black background, “Time for a Guinness” with a small Guinness harp included. I drove to work thinking that I should skip work and head to the lake…I pass it every day as I drive to work. The weather forecast was for 30°C with very light winds and no clouds…not my kind of weather since I prefer 0-15°C, rain, snow, hail, or even clear skies. I made it to work just fine and plugged away at my lab work for a while, still thinking about paddling. At 1300h I informed the dispatcher that I was heading out at 1500h, I normally finish at 1600h, but I was edgy, anxious to get out there onto the river and not interested in my work.
I was in my car and gone like a shot. I usually launch at Emily Murphy Park, in central Edmonton. The boat launch area is walk-in only…my kind of launch site…right beside the Groat Bridge, currently being widened. I found my parking spot at the park and took the Night Heron off the racks. A few guys walked or drove by giving the kayak the eye and even letting me know how pretty she looks: I get that all the time. I was ready to carry my gear and the kayak within a few minutes and headed down to the river. I could see folks walking across the bridge peering down at the kayaker with the pretty kayak: yep, that’s my kayak. She’s built light (about 35-lbs) but still strong. Her coating is 3-oz glass embedded with a flexible epoxy so that she gives a little. I absolutely do not abuse this kayak in any way shape or form…that’s what the VJ, my Waters Dancing Lightning 17, is for.
I use a day skirt for the hot days and I was using one now. My paddle is a hand made carbon fibre Turbo white water thing, basically two buckets with a stick in between. The blades are elongated cup-shaped to hold a lot of water: my weapons of choice for the good old North Saskatchewan River. This river looks slow and easy flowing but it actually has a strong current so the Turbo works well for me. I wore simple cotton shorts with a heavy polyester long sleeved shirt with a zipper style neck opening. For the head I wore my usual Ray Bahn polarized sunglasses and the top knot got my old Filson wide brimmed canvas hat…best hat I ever wore…but it’s getting old, like me…both looking a little frayed around the edges these days. I got everything ready, set the Heron in shallow water, slid into the cockpit, and shoved off the gravel into the main current.
As I slowly eased the Heron around to face upstream, I increased my paddling rpms at a gentle acceleration to maintain good control and get my shoulders warmed up for the long pull upstream, I expected this paddle to last about 2-hours, roughly 1.5-hours upstream and 30-minutes return trip. Since the direct sunlight was very hot, I eased my way closer to shore where the shaded but shallower waters were. Over the years my once concave blade tips have been worn down to not-concave blade tips, angled exactly as they are when the blade ends strike the gravelly river bottom whenever I paddle through the shallows. Closer to shore, it feels cooler but it’s also closer to the rivers famously unstable high banks. I try not to get too close to these banks…they are well treed. About 15-years ago one of these trees suddenly fell just as I had passed it…the heavy trunk missed the stern of the VJ by less than one foot: I was lucky then.
As I rounded the first bend in the river I soaked in the sap-sweetened, river humidified air and admired both beast and building. The river valley is fairly deep and has many tall buildings along the top of the valley on both sides. The valley itself is protected park space, it is wide, green, full of life, and beautiful. Not long after I rounded the curve I spotted two happy pups frolicking along the river bank and someone in a kayak practicing J-turns in a short funny looking kayak. Mr. J-turn in the funny looking kayak stopped J-turning and approached me to check out the Heron. I answered many questions about the Heron and asked a few about his. Turns out his kayak was a slalom kayak…looked more like a pod with half a surf board attached to the back end. One of his pups took a liking to me and swam out to get a scratch and a pat, then it turned and headed back to better footing near the shoreline. After a 5-minute chat, I left Mr. J-turn and continued to head upstream.
I should mention that most of the way upstream thus far was peppered with various ducks swimming in mating pairs and birds flitting in and around the bushes and trees along the way. I had not seen any large ungulates or even any beaver, which is unusual…there is always a beaver swimming around somewhere around the area I was at. Anyway, it wasn’t long before I saw some sudden splashing at the shoreline about 200-meters upstream. Must be dogs, too big to be anything else…but hey, isn’t that a canoe…yah, looks like a canoe…so it was likely dogs splashing up the water a bit…I still couldn’t tell what was making all the splashes. A few minutes later I see the splashing stop and a dude becomes visible, and another person, then they are positioning the canoe and hopping in. They start to paddle toward me, I am thinking they are just trying to get away from the shallows for better stroking and control in deeper water so I angle the Heron toward the center of the river…they adjusted course to intercept me. I figured they wanted to see the Heron so I relented and straightened my course to follow the shoreline toward where they now floated.
If I was a praying man, which I am not, I would have had just one prayer for what was about to come. My prayer would have been, “Lord, why did you let me see it? Why did you not provide bleach so that after seeing what I saw I could have bleached my eyes and brain clear and clean of that vision?” Simple prayer no? I don’t ever ask for much in this life….I don’t. As the canoeists approach me, I see a woman, about my age, managing the bow end of things, and an older dude sitting spread-legged at the stern. Hmm, I think to myself, the sun is blaring hot and this guy has no shirt on…dumb, but he does appear to have something silvery on his skin, must be titanium dioxide, good sunblock stuff. Hmm, I think to myself, the guy must be wearing a Speedo, I don’t see any shorts on him and his belly is big enough to hide a Speedo. We start chatting about the Night Heron, I hear how beautiful she looks…but I’m thinking, maybe this dude is wearing one of those g-string things because I see no evidence of any clothing on him at all. Our boats swing around until they are parallel to each other and the dudes spread knees turn to greet my vision. Holy fuck! He isn’t wearing a Speedo or a g-string thingy, he’s stark naked…these flaccid thoughts run rampant through my brain as I attempt to maintain a calm center and chat about the topic at hand. In my head I was thinking, mister, I give you the native name, Long John Silver. They were from Holland, just visiting Canada, enjoying their time here. We talked about the Guillemot web site for a bit, then I politely excused myself because I was on a tight timeline to paddle then get home.
I got back into my upstream rhythm and arrived at my turnaround point, the pedestrian bridge at Hawreluk Park. There, I paused to drink water (hydrate for you younger ones), then I turned the Heron to head downstream back to my put-in point. Heading upstream, I paddled the southeast side of the river, mostly in full sun, downstream, I switched to the northwest side of the river, where most of the shade was. I followed that shoreline with not much to think about, stopped at one point to remove a floating plastic bottle from the water, and basically just doodling along very uneventfully.
Part way into the final curve before I was back to my starting point, a large beige/orange colored dog suddenly peered from atop a high back to look straight at me. Oh, I thought, there’s people up there probably picnicking. The dog looked strangely like a coyote but was large for a coyote, it stood there looking at me for a few seconds while I stared back at it. Then it turned and I saw the big bushy tail, caused me to think coyote, but so big, I’ve not ever seen a coyote that big…part wolf/part coyote? Maybe, it’s been known to happen before. It ran along the edge of the high bank for a few seconds before turning into the heavy forest of the valley and disappearing into the dense foliage. It’s too bad that I did not have my big camera with me, I would have had lots of time to get a few good photographs of this beast. From this point on, it was just a few minutes before I turned the bow toward my put-in point and headed for shore. It was a very nice day for paddling, an interesting day for sure…never know what I’ll have to face around that next bend in the river. Now, if you will excuse me, I gotta go find the bleach…the eyes get it first, then the brain.
Oh yes, the Night Heron. I built it something like 10 years ago but never really used it very much because it felt tippy, I handled it gently because I usually had my big camera with me and I didn’t want to drown it like I did 5 other big cameras…so I preferred to use the VJ, my super stable expedition kayak. Well, the VJ is down for restoration. Like me, she is cracked, a bit rickety, has worn joints ground down to the fillets, and looks generally banged up…like me. So the Night Heron is my main ride for the summer. I built her S&G style with a low rear deck and a high front deck. Keyhole cockpit opening, 3-oz glass on both sides of the hull and only one side of the deck. She has one storage compartment accessible via plastic dial type opening on the rear deck, completely closed in at the front. Automotive paint, metal flake, varnish and clear coat compliment the deck art I added. She looks pretty and she IS pretty but as I have now learned, she loves to be pushed hard, lots if hull pressure is good. Don’t get me wrong, at slow speed she’s easy to handle, but at full throttle she loves to rock. I am very used to how she handles and fear not if I lean into a turn or just rock her side to side as I pull hard on the paddle blades. I am not sure if I can go back to paddling the VJ without thinking how sluggish she will feel at 52-lbs and wider. Nick, I am thrilled that I have the pleasure to paddle your Night Heron design.
Robert N Pruden
May 28, 2019