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July 2022

A Little Paddle: Sanesh's Assistant Overnight Guide Course (Part 1)

Written by: Sanesh Iyer from @alittlepaddle

This post is the first in a five part series about Sanesh’s experience getting certified as an Assistant Overnight [Kayak] Guide (AOG) through SKILS and the Sea Kayak Guides Alliance of British Columbia.

Paddling from Vancouver, BC to Cordova, AK, is going to be an incredible adventure with 140 days on trip and 104 days on the water - we’ve planned 20% rest days. Something people keep telling me is “you’re going to be a great kayaker by the end of the trip!” I bet I will improve over the trip, but I’d love to go into the trip as strong as possible.

In general, I think trip preparation can be divided into three categories:

  1. Physical Fitness
  2. Gear & Food
  3. Knowledge

Knowledge is what this part of the series is about. To me, the knowledge component includes things like first aid, route planning, activity specific skills, knots, and any other bits of information that are stored in your brain and can be used to manage risk.

Vargas Island

Pretty early on in our trip planning, Nathan and I decided that everyone on the trip — originally the trip was about six people — would have to do a SKAGBC Assistant Overnight Guide course, as well as have a current 40 or 80 hours wilderness first aid course to come on the trip. This a big cost and time barrier — about 3 weeks off of my day job and $2500 CAD — so this decision wasn’t made lightly. The reasoning is simple enough, everyone on an expedition of this magnitude needs to be able to lead, with the skills to take charge and manage the group on days with harsh weather, rough seas, and injured paddlers. I have no doubt Nathan can take care of me, but I want to make sure I can take care of Nathan.

I’ve been a recreational paddler for about 20 years, having taken kayak courses at Deep Cove Kayak, and done a number of overnight personal trips over the years. That said, I have limited experience in adverse weather or technical waters, as I’ve stuck primarily to the Howe Sound, Indian Arm, and Strait of Georgia. The skills I knew I needed to build were marine chart use, sea-state assessment, and weather interpretation. The AOG course covers that, and a number of other kayak skills I wanted to learn more about and practice, including:

  • Advanced Paddle Strokes
  • Group Management
  • Safety Equipment
  • Knots, Camp Setup, etc.

The AOG course material is also available in hard copy, which I was stoked about. Less screen time.

I registered for my AOG course with SKILS in February 2022, leaving me plenty of time to study the online course content before the April 29th 2022 start day. SKILS recommends that you dedicate 30 hours to the online course. I definitely spent more than that working through it, but I’m also a slow learner. It was a lot of information to digest.

In particular, the Tides & Currents as well as Weather sections I found quite challenging. Each section has quizzes, and while I got better than 80% in the online quizzes, I wasn’t sure that I had really “got it.” There’s a clear line between having theoretical knowledge, and understanding how to use it in the field. And an even bigger line in using it to make safety critical decisions in a high pressure environment.

The AOG Part 1: Uclulet, BC

The AOG course consists of ~30 hours of online course work to be done beforehand, 4 days in the Uclulet harbour practicing skills, and a 5 day trip around Vargas Island. On the evening before the first day, I drove to Surf Junction Campground (where the course was based) after work. I arrived at 11pm, and after a little time inflating my sleeping pad, was fast asleep.

Starting class bright and early. Instructors Rowan (left) and Finn (right) ready for business.

Class started at 8am on Saturday. We met under the group shelter, and were introduced to our instructors Finn and Rowan. My classmates were awesome. Most were young people who were already full time outdoors leaders, looking to start kayak guiding. One of my peers had a PhD from Oxford and had worked in Antarctica. One was a kayak guide from New Zealand looking to certify in Canada. One was in food equipment sales. One was an ex fashion executive turned kayak expedition company owner. And there was more. The group was roughly equal parts male and female, which was cool to see.

One of my favourite parts was getting to know the group. It’s pretty cool to take this on with 9 strangers, you get to know each other very well in a very short period of time. It wasn’t always easy to get along, there were moments where I got short tempered over things like people setting up tarp lines across the tent access trail (trip hazard) or not tying up the boats when they said they would. Alas, that’s part of it. I also like to “be the change I want to see.” There’s usually something going on with people that you don’t know about, so I did my best to just be helpful where I could and hoped people would reciprocate.

When the weather was nice, we moved outside to soak up the sun.

We got right into the course work, over the next 4 days we spent roughly 50% of our time under the group shelter working on theory. Lots of this was carry-over from the online course, inclouding tides, currents, and weather. It was starting to sink in. Finn and Rowan are surprisingly good artists. Their whiteboard and sand drawings really helped me understand some of the more complex weather phenomenon. In particular, I appreciated the explanation of the cyclical nature of frontal systems and how the shapes of high and low pressure fronts differ and how that manifests in different weather.

We spent the rest of our time in “Classroom Bay,” just outside the Uclulet Harbour. We practiced our basic and advanced strokes, as well as a number of rescues. I really enjoyed this time. There were a number of skills that I felt improved very rapidly, just because I had an hour to dedicate to practicing them under the critical eyes of Finn and Rowan for advice. In particular, I gained a lot of comfort edging the boat (leaning it over to turn) and my skulling (paddling so the boat moves sideways) improved a lot. I’m far from a master, but I did go from “I only know the theory” to “I can do this, and I know more clearly how to improve.” That’s a really big step for me. It’s really worth investing time in practicing these skills. It’s not as fun as going on an adventure, but it’s rewarding and makes the adventure safer, easier, and more fun.

Classroom Bay, just outside of Uclulet, circled in red.

We also learned a number of rescues, two of which were absolutely new to me; the “Scoop” and the “Hand of God.” If someone is injured and cannot get back into their boat, the “Scoop” is the rescue to use. You flood the boat’s cockpit to get it lower into the water, so that person can get in more easily. Nathan is unlikely to capsize unless he gets injured, so this one is a good one to know. The “Hand of God” is terrifying. It’s used to right a capsized boat where the person is still inside and has not surfaced. It’s likely that a person in this situation is unconscious or trapped. Bad news. You execute this one by quickly pushing down on the hull to help right the boat, grabbing the cockpit combing (rim) and trapped persons life jacket, and pulling them upright. Everything happens fast. I was happy to perform it successfully on a few different sized people, but I really don’t want to ever need to use it. Even in a controlled environment I felt my adrenaline kick in. These two rescues are going to make me a better paddling partner for Nathan for sure.

So, I don’t want this to be a ‘Gear Post’, but I do want to mention one thing, which is my new dry suit. I’ve never owned one before, and I got in contact with Alex and Leah at Orange Canoe Drysuits, based in Port Moody, BC. They do custom, made-to-order drysuits. I have a weird body shape, broad shoulders, and most drysuits that I tried on didn’t fit well. For 140 days, I figured the investment was worth it. In my first video call with them, they were pretty quick to catch on to my uncertainty around options. This included single zipper vs. two zipper (one for entry, one for the toilet) and gasket material. Neoprene is supposedly more comfortable, but latex is more water tight. They were kind enough to lend me a drysuit for the AOG, and even sewed on one neoprene and one latex wrist gasket so I could try both! I was super pumped to have this for the course, knowing I’d be spending a lot of time in the water practicing rescues.

Warm & dry after a morning of kayak surfing.

It was during this time in Classroom Bay that I also made my biggest error of the trip. I got out of my boat to use the restroom, which of course involved unzipping my drysuit. I did not zip it back up (my fault entirely, not a gear issue, to be clear). The next time I capsized myself to do a rescue simulation, my drysuit flooded. Drysuits are meant to keep water out. When water comes in, they also do a good job of keeping it in. It’s cold and uncomfortable. I pulled up to shore, drained it, and zipped it properly. There were a few lessons learned here.

There are 5 safety checks to do with a group before leaving a harbour, I have a sixth, checking the drysuit zipper. A flooded drysuit is a recipe for hypothermia, and makes getting back into a kayak much harder. I used my emergency toque to warm up while on the water.

I bring 3 sets of clothes, I’ll cover this strategy in more detail in my gear post, but this is exactly why. I soaked my day clothes, and needed to use my emergency clothes. The next 3 days it rained, so it was hard to dry my clothes. While this was a big error, I learned a lot, and it also validated my approach to packing and response to a potential hypothermia situation. My Orange Canoe drysuit kept me bone dry every other day, including while surfing. I’ll just be more careful to make sure it’s zipped up!

The real focus of this first half of the AOG was hard, technical, knowledge on and off the water. We spent *lots* of time at the campground learning about tides, weather, currents, and orienteering. A lot of this content…. Realistically, you could pick up a book or watch YouTube videos to study the theory. And I’m pretty good at self-studying theory. The SKILS online course was a nice balance of detailed and informative while being concise, but left me asking questions like:

  • What does this look like in real life?
  • How does this affect my decision making process?
  • How does this relate to that other phenomenon? How do they interplay?

Being on the “West Coast Vancouver Island South” (the Environment Canada marine forecast region, you’ll get familiar with that one on the marine radio weather channel quickly) brings it alive. Especially with two experienced guides. All of a sudden you can touch and feel the theory. The theory’s water soaks your tarps. The theory’s rays warm your skin. I’ve made a career for myself building and learning from computer models, but it’s all grounded in reality. I love walking into the workshop or factory floor or lab to touch, feel, and build an intuition to guide my theory.

Beautiful view and learning opportunity to see the weather moving in.

Finn and Rowan seem to always have an eye on their environment. They’re hyper aware multi-taskers. They really took every opportunity to help you build your intuition. They’d often pause a lesson and say something like:

  • Do you feel that breeze, what direction is it?
  • Does that line up with our forecast?
  • Are you sure?

Questions and guidance to build intuition - you can’t get that online. You can’t get that from a book. You need to do it. I’m really glad I put so much time into the SKILS online course, it let me focus my time at the AOG on learning from Finn and Rowan to build my intuition.

Hand of God is scary. Even in a controlled environment. If there is one reason to prepare, it’s to avoid needing to use this rescue.

Tides and Current calculations are straight forward on land, but suck to do on a beach in bad weather in the early morning, and suck even more to do on the water. They are relatively unchanging. There is absolutely no reason to not do these well in advance. Nathan and I have already been considering them in our route planning process.

Weather is a finicky beast, involving the ability to combine the Environment Canada forecast, local knowledge, and first hand observations to make informed decisions. I’m not really a good note taker - I learn best by listening, not reading or writing. I have to make a habit of writing notes on the weather as I see them, to help build my intuition. The AOG really improved my confidence here, and I now have a better knowledge and understanding of what I need to work on. I’ve been practicing interpreting the Environment Canada weather forecast regularly to keep this skill sharp.

There’s plenty of ways to be a better kayaker that do not involve kayaking, or being outdoors at all! Physical fitness — specifically mobility and flexibility — as well as knowledge — specifically weather — are the big ones for me. I’m REALLY stoked on this. These are daily things I can do to prepare for the trip.

Even if the AOG had just been 4 days in Classroom Bay, I think I would have gotten most of the learning I needed to out of it. I am stoked at how much learning and intuition building we did in this part of the course. That said, there were another 5 days to put this in practice!

Stay tuned for Part 2!

More About Sanesh

Sanesh self-identifies as a mountain biker. When asked why he is going to paddle to Alaska, his response is “every day is leg day, so I wanted to do something to work on my triceps.” Sanesh is South African born (Cape Town), but grew up in North Vancouver, BC (Lynn Valley). He has a long standing love of spending time outside, and loves all forms of bikes, camping, kayaking, snowboarding, and most recently ski touring. He sucks at skiing. And that’s the fun, learning something new. Sanesh worked in the mountain bike industry for over a decade, including as a guide and instructor for 3 seasons. He guided everyone from children to professional athletes. His proudest moments in cycling are building bikes for FEST events and watching kids he coached turn cycling into a lifelong pursuit.

Sanesh holds bachelor’s (BCIT) and master’s (McGill) degrees in mechanical engineering, with a specialization in advanced materials manufacturing and simulation. A highlight of Sanesh’s academic career is his time at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland (for professional and outdoor adventure reasons). Sanesh previously worked in composites for aerospace/space but has shifted to greener pastures and currently works as Senior Analyst at a world leader in Carbon Capture technologies.

Sanesh has explored a number of mountain ranges, including Swiss Alps, French Prealps, German Black Forest, BC Coast Mountains, Island Ranges, Chic Chocs, Laurentides, Yandang, Adirondacks, and Whites on skis, bikes, and feet. Sanesh’s kayak experience is limited to the South West BC coast. He is stoked to do a little more paddling.