Muskrat Moments

I’m not sure which of us was more surprised – me or the snorting animal at my cockpit!

fullsizeoutput_993fI live in Chicago. It’s late enough in the spring now that the ice is gone from Lake Michigan. The water by the shore is up to the mid-40’s, it’s in the mid-30’s by the water intake stations a few miles from shore, and the ice is gone for the season instead of just for a few days until the next Polar Vortex. If you have the skills, the right gear, and you pay attention to and understand the marine forecast, you can paddle consistently now.  The cold water means you want to be thoughtful about paddling solo in much wind or waves, or practicing safety skills like rescues or rolling.


The snorting muskrat, though, surfaced next to me on the Chicago River. You can paddle the River year round. It doesn’t freeze. It’s still not a great venue to use to train for a 1800 mile paddle on the Pacific Ocean. While the water is warmer than the Lake, that’s not why it doesn’t freeze.  It’s not the current, either. There are at least two water treatment facilities whose effluent is released into the River. There are a whole lot of less-than-appetizing details about how Chicago’s effluent is treated, combined overflow grossness, and more nastiness than you want to think about that means you don’t want to practice rescues or rolling on the River EVER.

So training for a 1800 mile, 3 ½ month long paddling expedition on the Pacific Coast, starting at the beginning of paddling season, is a bit tricky if you live in Chicago.

There have been a lot of “muskrat moments” already. Surprising little unexpected moments that make you realize that this is as much a part of the expedition as the Pacific paddling will be. A muskrat at my cockpit. A lake trout pulling an enormous amount of tackle on cut line. Profound silence in the middle of the city on a morning paddle. Mink, beaver, heron, a seagull eating a fish on a dock on the River… Little reminders to be open to the moment. To the unexpected. To the delight that can show up unexpectedly when things don’t go as expected.

fullsizeoutput_994e N3yRvWW+SKiLZIy7r67OWA Mink

If the Chicago River and a muskrat can startle and surprise in an afternoon, how much more will the Pacific startle and surprise over a summer? I don’t know what to expect in terms of the unexpected – but I figure the expedition won’t go as planned.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m making a lot of plans though. I work in an environment where NOTHING goes as planned. Working outdoors with under-served Chicago youth, you have to plan for the unexpected. At Chicago Adventure Therapy, we plan our programming in a lot of detail. We have a new, inexperienced summer staff each year. They have to keep a group of youth who may never have seen Lake Michigan and don’t know how to swim safe on the water. So we plan in a lot of detail. We don’t believe for a second that any detail will go as planned.  But if you have a plan, a solid structure, you have a whole lot more to go on to improvise when the plan gets shredded. I tell my staff it’s like jazz. Jazz is the musical genre with the most improvisation. People think of it as being kind of “loosey-goosey” – anything goes…  But the fact is, jazz is the most structured of any musical genre, and jazz musicians know music theory better than any other musician. This is what allows them to be so creative and spontaneous in their improvisation.

I’m hoping that when my plans for my summer expedition get shredded, I’ll be able to improvise in the moment as well as my staff and jazz musicians.

Because I’m making LOTS of plans…!

I started years ago with charts and trip reports. I’ve dreamed about this trip since 2005, when 2 foot surf regularly capsized me, I didn’t have a combat roll, and I had no idea just what the energy in a Pacific wave can do to a paddler.  But there is no place I can think of that I love more than the Pacific coast of this country. My family is all from Oregon, and the coast was my favorite place to be. I moved to Colorado when I was just 7 years old – but I spent summers in Oregon, and spent vacations jumping waves, collecting rocks and shells, and building forts to try to withstand the incoming tide. The Oregon coast continued to be my favorite place to be.

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I got my start kayaking in the Midwest, and learned to appreciate the Great Lakes for the Inland Seas that they are. The Great Lakes are my home paddling waters. But the Pacific is my home water.

In 2008, a few years after I started dreaming of paddling the full West Coast, I nearly lost the ability to paddle at all. Two spine surgeries in 2008 and 2009 had me off the water for two seasons. When I got back on the water in 2011, I paddled poorly with a lot of pain. It took a year back on the water before I could entertain the possibility that maybe I’d be able to paddle seriously again. I spent 3 weeks in Washington taking coaching courses and leadership courses and canoeing courses – and got to paddle on the Pacific for the first time.

Dre's surgery 2 - 1 of 2Dre's surgery 2 - 2 of 2

I could paddle again. In dynamic water. I can’t begin to tell you the relief I felt at that.  The joy. The sense of incredible luck. I’ve met many people who had the same surgery I did, for the same reason, and spent the rest of their lives with a dulled mind from painkillers, walking with a cane or a walker, and one person who literally shook through her whole body. To be able to paddle again was like my life was given to me for a second time.

I started working towards a variety of skills, coaching and leadership certifications. In October of 2015, I became the 7th North American woman to earn my British Canoeing 5 Star Award. I’ve been accused by some of “chasing certifications”.  And I did work hard for those certifications, and put a lot of time, energy and money into them. They became an external benchmark of skill. An external, objective verification that an injury did not have the last say over my life. An objective reminder that despite 2 rods in my spine, 6 screws, 3 vertebra fused together – despite all this, I can reach objective excellence.

What I really love, though, is the paddling. I love Chicago paddling – the Lake when the wind blows from the northeast and kicks up surf, the Lake when a south wind makes fun bumpy water along the edges of piers, the River in the winter when the Polar Vortex throws sea smoke 20 feet up in the air, and unexpected muskrat moments. But I love most of all the Pacific Ocean.

After 14 years of dreaming, I’m finally doing it. I’ve developed the skill to do it safely. I’ve overcome injury that could have kept me from doing it. And I’m not getting any younger.

So I find myself training in Chicago spring for a 1800 mile paddle on the Pacific. I’ve had several muskrat moments already. I hope I have a lot more.



For those who like the details – some of my prep so far…

Charts: I’ve downloaded all the basic charts from NOAA. My husband stitched them into one pdf for me, and I’m in the process of annotating them with the places that other folks (Freya Hoffmeister and Matt Krizan so far) have stayed. I’m hoping to figure out a way to print these annotated charts – but my guess is I’ll end up pringint the regular ones and annotating them by hand. I’m OK with that – for me, repetition helps me remember things.  SO I feel like I get a better sense of the coast I’ll be paddling.

Food: I borrowed a food dehydrator from a neighbor, and I’ve entered the world of drying food. I specifically thought I wouldn’t go this route… (Jazz and muskrats – I keep telling myself jazz and muskrats…) Random bits I’m thinking about:

  • On shorter trips, I’ve been able to take fresh apples with me, along with cheese, nuts, and meat snack sticks. This works really well for me – its lets me snack with several small lunches, it gives me a fair amount if protein, and it sticks with me. But for a trip this long, most of those foods are too big for the amount of calories, and they won’t keep as long as I need them to. So I’ve been experimenting with other breakfast and lunch ideas.
    • Breakfast grains – I’m looking for high protein grains that I can cook with very little fuel. I’ve tried quinoa, oats and bulgur so far. If I soak quinoa a long time, and then boil it briefly and let it sit again, I can cook it without much fuel time. It sticks with me better than the other two, and apparently has better protein. I like the other 2 better. I’m still experimenting.
    • Dried applesauce! It’s like a fruit roll-up. It works really well in my breakfast grain – it works better than dried fruit
  • Red lentils! – I didn’t know there was a difference between red and green. Red lentils are super tasty – and if you soak them for a while, all you need in order to get them cooked properly is to bring them to a boil
  • I’ve dried a bunch of types of meat – I’m trying them out in various meals, without going through them too fast, to see how well they keep. (I included Italian sausage, which has a lot more fat than they recommend in dehydrated meats – it’s the fat that will go rancid)
  • My daily rhythm is going to include putting food for me next meal in a water tight container after finishing a meal.
  • Lunch – I want to try some version of crisp bread, granola bars or protein bars with ground nuts or nut flour in them – the ground nuts or nut flour will pack the same nut calorie and protein punch as nuts, at a lot less space.

Health: I still need to make a doctor’s appointment to talk with my GP about the possibility of carrying some antibiotics and maybe some strong pain meds with me. I’ve also sometimes had inconvenient bouts of vertigo – I’ve developed some good ways of keeping it in check, but I want to talk with my doctor about meds to ward it off if it rears its ugly head.

It hit me like a ton of bricks the other day that if I sustain an injury in the next 2 months, this expedition will change dramatically. It will start later and be shorter, or be postponed to another year, or…  Thinking about vulnerability also made me realize how minor things can become a big deal. For instance – I have a small cut on my palm. I don’t know how I got it. Because I’m on the water every day, it’s healing slowly. On the expedition, it would be easy for that cut to get infected; easy for an infection to become a major deal, and this minor cut that I don’t even remember getting could become a trip-ender. All of a sudden I’m paying a LOT of attention to taking care of myself and to systems to maintain really good hygiene on the trip!

Women’s stuff: Guys, if you’re one of those men who gets super uncomfortable when women start talking about which pee devices we like, then this section isn’t for you.

  • Peeing: Women – you know how you end up a little bit damp after using a pee device? I bought a pair of those “pee underwear” to see if they keep things a bit dryer. I’ll keep you posted. Also – I expect there will be times when I can’t land. I’m a little stuck on this one. I’ve heard people talk about using sponges. It sounds a bit challenging in a drysuit. So does getting up on the back deck to use a pee device, in order not to try to use it sitting down with the tube facing up… I think both of these may need practice – but the water on the Lake is cold, and the water on the River is nasty. So practice will likely prove challenging, to say the least… Here’s hoping for places to land most days. There’s a military base where you can’t land for a good 40 miles or so – yikes!
  • Periods: I thought about just going back on birth control, and using it to get rid of any periods. I don’t really like that option – I’m weird about messing with my cycle. But I also don’t particularly want to carry a bunch of tampons – and carry out a bunch of used tampons… So I bought a menstrual cup to try out. I’ll be able to tell you in a couple weeks what I think of it.

Training: How do you train for mileage before the expedition starts? And how do you train for the Pacific here in Chicago? I’ve opted to put the focus on getting on the water regularly. On the weekends I’ll start building a little bit of mileage. Mostly, I figure being on the water consistently will do a lot more than it seems like it would. I can report that paddling 5 days a week, a t the beginning of the season, with very little mileage, has made me more tired and more hungry than I would like to admit! And each day there’s a different part of my body that’s not super comfortable – a shoulder one day, a wrist another, my hips another. I figure consistent time on the water is the best way to avoid strain on my joints when I start the expedition. After just 10 days of this “training regimen,” my state of mind has changed along with the state of my body. I’m looking forward to the daily rhythm of paddling, and to being in the moment pretty much every moment of the day.

~ Andrea Knepper  | April 10, 2019

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