WORDS: Steve Posselt from Kayak 4 Earth.
I am 63 and I have been a civil engineer specializing in water all of my career. My passion is to try to spread knowledge and make the world a better place. Taking long trips with my wheeled kayak gives me a platform for that passion. The platform can be media, but it is often just contact with others to inspire them to continue their work. Almost every thinking kayaker will have been in despair at some stage over mankind’s war on the planet. Climate change is the big one, the one thing that overrides water matters for me, and that is saying something.
The seed for my latest undertaking was planted somewhere near Wilcannia in 2007 when I was making my way from Brisbane to Adelaide via the Murray Darling on a climate change awareness quest, but which morphed into understanding the magnitude of Australia’s water crisis and the reasons for it. At that stage, I decided that I wanted to paddle through North America from Hudson Bay in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. This was for the personal goal but also highlighting the extreme danger that global warming poses for humanity. When I learned that the next Climate Summit would be in Paris in December 2015 it was obvious that was where I had to paddle to, hopefully fulfilling my dream on the way. One minor problem was that because of seasons North America had to be from bottom to top.
My goal was to connect climate chaos by plotting a course through global locations which have experienced natural disasters outside previous experience, and thus have the implication of a link to climate change. There have been many such events that I could have incorporated but I chose:
- Canberra – The fire storm of 2003 actually contained a tornado.
- Sydney – In 2013 the bush fires started in 2013 which is much earlier than ever before.
- New Orleans – Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
- New York – Super Storm Sandy in 2012.
- The UK – Major flooding in 2014.
- France – Major drought 2011 when the Loire River dried up.
My ‘Connecting Climate Chaos’ odyssey began in Canberra on the 15th of January, 2015. The first stage was to walk the 213 kilometres from there to Lake Illawarra near Wollongong, towing my kayak on wheels behind me. The day was hot. My feet felt like they were melting, the black road was the hottest surface around but there was no choice.
Every hill is a trial of its own. To stop the kayak from jerking you take some of the load with your arms. First you put them behind and hold the harness frame, then they get tired so you hold the frame at your side until your arms cramp up, then they go to the back again. About that time a knee will falter, your back hurts and then the pain in your feet chimes in. After about a dozen or so of these cycles you start to dream about the peak. On top at last, you speed up, the pain disappears (except the feet) and you are on a roll. Then there is the descent and the knees complain, the back voices its concern and it’s time to stop for a drink. This ordeal continued for 10 days.
I finally hit the water in Macquarie Rivulet in Albion Park on the 24th of January. From there, I paddled across Lake Illawarra to the Pacific Ocean and started heading up the coast to Sydney. Everything was fine initially but when I stayed overnight at Stanwell Park big seas started to build. The morning dawned with big waves right across the beach. On advice from the local lifesavers I took the kayak back 2 kilometres to Coalcliff where there was a much better chance of getting out through the waves. Expecting a big day I took precautions, gloves over taped up hands, paddle tied to front of kayak, all equipment checked.
On launching in the gutter next to the rocks with the help of another lifesaver, Rob, I bided my time riding over small broken waves. I discovered that the rudder would not turn. Bugger. It was stuck and the foot pedals would not move. I really did not fancy my chances of a successful U-turn. I kicked hard and luckily it suddenly came loose. There had been sand in the mechanism. What a relief.
Looking back, Rob was waving his arms above his head which I took as a signal to go. I bit the bullet and took off at full speed. Cresting a metre high wave it was immediately evident that I had perhaps mistaken his signal. It really meant, “Look out!” At least three big waves, well over two metres from crest to trough were on their way in. I headed for the broadest green bit I could find and crashed over a steep lip just beside the break. Luckily the kayak still had momentum as I raced seawards and repeated the effort. The next one was touch and go. It looked like I would make it, but that was by no means certain. I crashed through the lip with the front 4 metres of the kayak in the air, white water on both sides. Thankfully after that I was through.
After turning left the wind was over my right shoulder although the swell was coming from the side. It was pretty good for an hour or so. There were some great runners that would send me scooting along, sometimes up a wave and down the back. Top speed was 16.8 kilometres per hour.
The wind came round to side on and then it got really wet and messy. Swells were about two metres, which looks like a mountain from a kayak, but there were other peaks like one metre high anthills dotted all over them. On top of that the odd breaker would come through from the side at chest height. It took a lot of feathering with the right blade to stay upright. Of course all of this wave action fills the kayak up with water because it runs in down the lifejacket and any other opening it can find. Lifting the skirt was scary except for the briefest of bailing flurries but it still had to do it every 20 minutes or so.
The Royal National Park is where the escarpment meets the sea. From Stanwell Park there are no inhabited beaches but after about seven kilometres there are a few sandy beaches that you can walk down to from the escarpment. The cliffs are rugged and very high; over 100 metres. At their base it is impossible to land when the seas are rough.
Eventually the coastline curled left and the wind went back to coming over my right shoulder. The wind and waves subsided as I came into Botany Bay and I started to relax. At no stage had I been anxious or really concerned but it has to be said that the experience was something much better in the past than the present. There probably aren’t many people who enjoy being pummelled towards a 100 metre high lee shore by two metre breaking waves in a gale.
The next stage of the journey was on foot from La Perouse to the Sydney Opera House. Pulling my kayak on its wheels to Rushcutters Bay I then paddled to the Sydney Opera house to meet a host of well-wishers that included Bob Brown, the former Leader of the Australian Greens. The kayak was retired as another that I was to be using for the remainder of the journey was already on its way to Houston, Texas, USA.
I flew to Texas to pick up the kayak and then drove to New Orleans. The next exciting bit was arriving at the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Pontchartrain but to find out about that you will need to either check out my website www.kayak4earth.com or stay tuned for the book which is ¾ written. For now, I am going to skip ahead to the Mississippi. The dubious honour of being the only person silly enough to paddle up the Lower Mississippi in a flood is all mine. Great.
The Mississippi in flood presents problems you don’t expect. Who would have thought that you can paddle for three hours with no bank? The edge was just the tops of trees with the shoreline somewhere in the distance, maybe a kilometre away and absolutely no chance of getting to it. Where do you pitch a tent? It means if you see a hill three hours before sunset you have to stop, just in case you don’t find another one before dark.
On good days the visibility was fine but some days the fog would last all day with visibility cut to around 30 metres. The length of a barge is twice that and a train of barges on the bank could be half a kilometre long. That means you creep slowly up river slogging your guts out for maybe 45 minutes with no idea when the train might end.
Another big problem is presented by training walls known as dykes which angle out from the bank at about 45 degrees. Their purpose is to deflect low flow water into the centre of the river to scour the channel enough for tugs pushing trains of barges. I didn’t see any dykes because the water was way over the top of them but I did see their effects. Often they would create log jams which would force me out into the strong current. This excerpt from my diary is about one such episode.
“A big log jam jutted out into the river. White water rushed past. Not wanting to think about it I paddled hard towards the edge. Crashing into the white water I was thrust 30 metres into the river in a second. Two seconds it was 50 metres as the rudder responded. Paddling desperately I had held my ground but only just. I crept back towards the log jam just holding my ground. About 3 metres out there was a standing wave. That gave me enough to inch forwards. Go, go, go. With every ounce of strength I had, the kayak inched forward. The top of a small tree was 30 metres ahead and just inside the line of logs. Got to make that. Got to make that. Got to make that. It echoed around my head. The carbon wing blade flexed in the water as I paddled like a man possessed. Past the point of no return I was above the log jam. A broken blade, even maybe a missed stroke, and that could be my last. The river was rough, it was ugly and I was bouncing like a cork. This was committed. No way back. The tree under the water started to break the flow, I was winning. Thirty seconds later it was all over, I was through. Tricky was not the word I would have used. It was a bastard! Never, ever again do I want to flex a carbon fibre wing paddle.”
In the end the Mississippi broke me. There would be no paddle up to Canada. My personal dream was shattered. Instead I bought a bicycle and rode it across to the Atlantic, just 1400 kilometres away on the other side of a mountain range, paddled up to New York, and then caught the Queen Mary 2 to England.
In England I paddled from the Severn River on the west coast, through the canals, down the Thames, across the channel to France, down the channel (called La Manche on that side) to the Seine River and followed it to the Eiffel Tower. You are not allowed paddle a kayak in the French shipping lanes in the English Channel. The answer is to go from Dungeness with a support boat that picks you up and carries you through the shipping lanes and then you paddle to Boulogne (pronounced Bolloin). That gives you the same paddling distance as if you had paddled from Dover to Calais. The cost of this support is more than $2,500 so it is not cheap.
The truly memorable, big emotional moments of my trip included:
- Starting at the Gulf of Mexico
- Entering the Mississippi
- Arriving at the Statue of Liberty
- Seeing the Eiffel Tower
- Coming home
Sadly, the Paris terror attacks on November the 13th, 2015 made it impossible for me to go to the COP21 Paris Climate Summit. I waited and hoped that we could show that we are unafraid. Alas, no chance. No marches in Paris. My input was the kayak and its journey. That was the focus of the narrative and where I could make a small contribution.
Was it worth it? I think so but others can judge. Unfortunately when you let the media know the trip is about climate change they turn off. An agreed appearance on the Today Show was called off and that is a show that had me on for a far lesser trip. This was par for the course just about everywhere I went. Only local media were interested, but what was really important was that almost every person in every country was fascinated and concerned and I thank them for that. I hope my efforts have helped to shine a light on the climate change and that people power prevails in the end.
Stay tuned for the book. There is plenty in the diary on www.kayak4earth.com and if you have the time you might enjoy reading about my “Previous Trips” on that web site. I also have an after dinner type presentation that I am assured is pretty good.
Time to start planning the next adventure? Maybe. Better still, perhaps it’s your turn.