By: Tom Bamonte
Right about now, in houses throughout the Midwest hundreds if not thousands of paddlers are rediscovering the pleasure of snail mail. They have come home from work or the unemployment office to find waiting for them the Canoecopia Gazette, the official guide to Canoecopia, the world's largest paddlesports festival, which will be in Madison, Wisconsin on March 11-13.
Just as Canoecopia marks the beginning--or at least the hope of the beginning--of the paddling season, the Gazette whets our appetite for Canoecopia, the high holy days for midwestern paddlers. The Gazette is filled with surveys of new gear, inspiring trip reports, and chatty articles on all sorts of paddling-related topics. There are some nice nature photographs and lots of pictures of cute kids and smiling adults. You can always count on an article from Darren Bush, who heads Rutabaga, the outfit that sponsors Canoecopia, complaining that he didn't get enough paddling time the previous year but that it is all good anyway. You savour the Gazette, thinking back to how much fun you had at past Canoecopias and counting down the days to the next one.
The Whys of Canoecopia
Why is it worth making the journey to Madison in often chilly early March for Canoecopia? Image a huge exhibition hall packed full of boats and gear and outfitters where everything is at least 15% off. You can easily comparison shop and sometimes find stuff on sale at even deeper discounts. Keep an especially close eye on the Rutabaga sale table. I've gotten good stuff for half off or more.
Both inside the exhibition hall and in the hallways outside there are commercial and civic organizations (including CASKA) with booths. The booths feature mounds of paddling-related propaganda for you to snag for later reading and folks willing to talk about paddling destinations and techniques. You can learn so much at Canoecopiea by just wandering around and asking questions, feeling stuff and hopping in and out of boats.
But there's more. Canoecopia offers over 150 presentations on a wide variety of paddling-related topics. Many of the presentations are Powerpoint travelogues and how-to demonstrations. There are also real-life demonstrations in a pool and participatory sessions on paddling techniques in an open area in the atrium. Some of the presenters are world-renowned paddlers and some are the folks you paddle with on the weekend. Rutabaga encourages local paddlers to be presenters. For the cinematically inclined there is a day-long festival of paddling films on Sunday.
On top of the formal program of presenters are plenty of informal opportunities to learn a lot. For example, I noticed on page 42 of the Gazette that Kokatat is holding three drysuit gasket replacement demonstrations this year. With a trip coming up where we'll be relying on gaskets for over two weeks straight this will be useful stuff. Canoecopia also the kind of place where you can bounce your questions off of the perfect stranger next to you. People tend to be both friendly and helpful.
Some Hows of Canoecopia
I've attended Canoecopia for about the past five years. Here are some tips:
First, if at all possible try to spend at least two days at Canoecopia. Not only will the extra day(s) mean you won't feel rushed but you can spend a night or two in Madison, which is a really fine town. (Visitor information here.) If resources are an issue you can usually find a motel for $50 a night and there is a hostel for even cheaper accommodations. The CASKA Yahoo Group is a good way to get or share a ride. An alternative to buying food at the event at convention hall prices is to stop someplace like the Willy Street Co-Op and pick up some good carryout. The University of Wisconsin typically is on break Canoecopia weekend so there is no difficulty getting into downtown restaurants and clubs.
Second, once you are up there you don't have to spend a lot. You can get a three-day admission and parking pass to Canoecopia for just a smidgen over $30. Once inside, there is no obligation to buy anything. I went two years running where just about the only thing I brought home was a couple pairs of Teko socks. Your results may vary, as did mine in other years!
Third, Canoecopia is an opportunity to sell your boat or buy a used boat. The parking lot is filled with vehicles with boats on top festooned with For Sale signs and contact information. If you are in the market for a pre-paddled boat troll the parking lot. At a minimum, make sure your boat rack is on your vehicle just in case. You never know where your covetous eye might land.
Fourth, there is a Bike-o-Rama right next to Canoecopia. There is no admission charge and you might find some deals on bikes and biking gear if you aren't all shopped out for paddling stuff.
Finally, for sports entertainment there used to be the Wisconsin girls high school basketball tournament on Canoecopia weekend, but that is not the case this year. One option on warm days is to to watch the cluster of ice fishermen on Monona Bay chance fate on the diminishing spring ice. You never know when the lake will claim one of those pesky fisherman who have been depleting the water of fish all winter.
A Guide to Presentations
People graze through the presentations for personal reasons. Some want advice on paddling techniques. Some are looking to live vicariously through the "I was up a creek without a paddle" sort of of travelogue. Some want to increase their knowledge about camping, navigation and first aid skills. Some just want a dark space for a 45 minute nap.
Here's my highly personal guide to this year's presentations.
First and foremost, we should support the Chicago area paddlers who are presenting. This year's crop includes:
--Alec & Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin are doing a pool presentation on T-Rescues. This is a follow-up to their excellent article on the same subject in a recent issue of Sea Kayaker magazine. (Saturday, 1:00 p.m.; Sunday, noon)
--Tom Lindblade is doing a timely presentation entitled "From Killer Dam to Whitewater Park," which is about the new whitewater park in Yorkville, Illinois that adds a great new dimension to Chicago-area paddling and has prompted the return of the Geneva Kayak Center store. (Saturday, 9:30 a.m.)
Some other presenters and presentations that I'm keeping an eye on include, in no particular order:
Steve Scherrer. Steve is doing a land presentation on "Understanding Boat Design" (Saturday and Sunday at 11:30 a.m.) and pool sessions on boat control and rolling (Saturday, 2:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2:00 p.m.). Steve is wise and witty and I learn a lot from his presentations.
Stephen Brede. "Solo Canoe Circumnavigation of Lake Huron." Stephen paddled around Lake Huron in 2009 and had a tough but successful Lake Michigan circumnavigation in 2010. I bet he goes for all the Great Lakes. Stephen is a thoughtful guy and a writer, so this should be an interesting presentation. (Saturday 9:30 a.m.)
Keith Wikle. "An Introduction to Surf Kayaking." Keith is a pill and has a prankster spirit. In the same spirit I want to attend and ask a rookie question such as how he pees in his boat just to see his response. I also expect to learn a lot. (Saturday, 11:30 a.m.; Sunday 10:30 a.m.)
Nancy Uschold. "Fog, Ferries & Fjords-Paddling Newfoundland." Nancy is co-owner (with Sam Crowley) of Sea Kayak Specialists in Marquette. She has been quietly building an impressive paddling resume and I'm certainly interested in Newfoundland paddling. (Friday 5:30 p.m.; Saturday 2:30 p.m.)
John Browning is a well-known Milwaukee paddler and instructor and is doing multiple presentations on topics including navigation and wilderness first aid. I going to be sure to make at least one of them.
Shawna Franklin & Leon Somme. "Safety and Rescue: Defining a New Standard." Shawna and Leon run Body Boat Blade in Washington and are well-known instructors and adventurers. They will be showing a new Sea Kayak Rescue Film. A don't-miss presentation. (Friday, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, 12:30 p.m.)
Ben Lawry runs a variety of hand's-on sessions on how to paddle effectively in the upstairs atrium. Over the years I have participated and observed many "a-ha" moments when people first understand that you paddle from your core rather than your arms.
There's much, much more. Find your way to Canoecopia and plunge into a truly invigorating swirl of people, presentations and, yes, shopping. Don't forget to stop at the CASKA booth and introduce yourself or help staff the table for an hour.
CASKA Booth at Canoecopia (Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin & Lyn Stone)