Outside Insight | Charting New Waters: Creating a Cross-Branch Paddling Community

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, we highlight a cross-branch paddling trip and the camaraderie and skill-building that grew out of it.
Sara Ramsay Sara Ramsay
Volunteer Development Manager
May 05, 2020

In the Pacific Northwest, year-round sea kayakers are a tight-knit community. These brave individuals don their drysuits in all conditions and relish in the opportunity to paddle big waves during winter storms. They seek adverse conditions to build their skills, growing more confident in their ability to explore wilder and more remote places.

The Mountaineers sea kayaking community is no exception.
Paddlers travel up and down the Puget Sound, along the coast,
and up toward British Columbia in search of adventure. Like
many of our activities, each branch of The Mountaineers has
their own style of paddlers and a distinct sense of community.
But our sea kayakers are unique in the way they’ve built
community across branches. More so than other activities,
our paddlers – students, graduates, and leaders alike – travel
and learn together throughout the club.

Sparking community

In the fall of 2016, Mountaineers leader Tom Unger made two
decisions that shaped his relationship with The Mountaineers
paddling community. First, he pitched a presentation for the
annual Leadership Conference about forming compatible
groups. Second and simultaneously, he decided to start
organizing expedition-style sea kayaking trips through The
Mountaineers. He began working on his presentation using his
Cape Scott plans – a two-week trip around the northwest tip of
Vancouver Island – as an example.

Tom’s story is similar to that of many Mountaineers. He joined
the club shortly after moving to the Seattle area, found some
partners, did a few private trips, and then let his club activity
lapse. It was a good run, but his partners eventually moved,
changed interests, or otherwise got busy. So he reengaged
with The Mountaineers to meet new people and rebuild his
community.

And as he worked on his Leadership Conference presentation,
Tom thought there might be some good partners out there
who he hadn’t met yet. As it turns out, he was right.

The ripple effect

The Cape Scott trip was a success, and several of Tom’s
presentation attendees signed up to join him. Of this group,
four members – Tom, Karen Cramer, Charlie Michel, and
Barney Bernhard – completed another expedition together the
following summer, picking up where the Cape Scott trip ended
and paddling 200 nautical miles south from Quatsino Sound to
Tofino. In 2019, Charlie organized a two-week trip to the Hakai
Protection Area in Canada. Tom and Karen also co-led a trip
with Charlie down the coast of the Olympic Peninsula
that same year, a particularly committing trip because of the
rocky coastline and frequent surf landings. Each of these trips
brought members together from several branches.

The Cape Scott group has learned together and developed
new skills to share with the club. After a private trip to
Mexico where he learned to kayak sail, Charlie returned to
Washington with an idea to integrate that tool into the group’s
coastal expeditions. The group trained one another before
developing a curriculum to train others. They engaged with
other Mountaineers at events like Paddler Development
Weekend, an annual weekend of clinics designed to advance
skills and build community across branches, and went into
every trip with the goal of learning as much as possible. Each
outing stretched their skills a little further and bonded the
group a little closer.

Reflecting on their trips together, Tom, Karen, Charlie, and
Barney all talk about kayak sailing as a highlight of the past
two summers. In Barney’s words: “On our first day as we left
the protection of Quatsino Sound, feeling the full force of the
open water and wind, we raised our sails to experience the
most exhilarating sea kayak sailing of our lives. There were
huge seas and the strongest winds we'd experienced thus
far in the trip. We were able to cover 23+ miles in a day with
exhilaration, versus 16 miles of agony.”

180627_027 (1).jpgSea kayak sailing. Photo courtesy of Barney Bernhard.

The value of connection

The beauty of Mountaineers trips like these is that they create
space for new connections and partnerships. In 2016 Tom
pushed himself to go outside of his comfort zone and find new
partners to paddle with, and that trip fostered community and
shared knowledge. As Charlie put it, “Doing these trips together has connected us; the bonds remain strong and establish a basis for collaboration on other sea kayaking topics.”

The Mountaineers are social people, but for each of us, there
is a limit to the number of individuals we can know and
feel connected to: our branch, our class, our mentor group.
Each provide a small sea within the larger ocean of The
Mountaineers.

Meeting new people can be challenging, especially in the
context of outdoor sports, which bring elevated risk and consequences. Building camaraderie with a core group is
comforting and rewarding, and it’s a valuable resource. But as
our goals and styles grow and change, it’s helpful to remember
the large ocean of Mountaineers in which our smaller groups
come from. For any trip or class you want to lead, and for any
style you want to do it in, there are probably others who share
your same interest and passion. Across our seven branches,
there are always potential adventure partners ready to
connect – you just have to be willing to test the waters.

KICK-START YOUR OWN COLLABORATION

Want to meet folks from other branches but unsure how?
Try these:

Attend org-wide events

Attending an org-wide event is a great way to meet new
people and have fun while you do it. Our Leadership
Conference, BeWild events, film festivals, and speaker
series all draw crowds from across The Mountaineers.
Come, get inspired, and make connections!

Take a course with another branch

Taking a course, clinic, or seminar outside of your home
branch is a great way to get to know new peers in a fun,
educational setting. You’ll have the chance to discuss
shared experiences, skills, or goals – which could lead
to a shared adventure. Already taken plenty of courses Consider instructing!

Adventure with other branches

Want to snowshoe with folks from Foothills (our branch
along the I-90/I-405 corridor)? Climb with the Kitsap
Mountaineers? Or paddle in Seattle? Sign up for a trip
with a new leader! All of our branches also host open
houses throughout the year, with committee members
present to represent their community.

Connect with our paddlers

Interested to dip your toes into The Mountaineers paddling community?

Everett, Kitsap, Olympia, Seattle, and Tacoma each offer a Basic Sea Kayaking Course each spring*. Learn more on our Course Overviews page.
*Please note that most Basic Sea Kayaking Courses are suspended for Spring 2020 due to COVID-19.

Inspired to learn more about surfing on the coast?

Co-organized by the Seattle and Tacoma Branches, Surf Zone and Beyond is a 6-day event held at Hobuck Beach. This event includes a combination of trips and clinics, and attendees will have the opportunity to take a Surf Clinic and a new 2-day Open Coastal Clinic. This year’s event is July 30 - August 4, 2020.

Want to dive in a little deeper?

Paddler Development Weekend (PDW) is an annual weekend of instruction and socializing at beautiful Deception Pass State Park. Mountaineers kayakers come together from around the club for two days of clinics designed to advance paddling skills in a variety of conditions and build a community of experienced paddlers. Save the date for this year’s event on October 2-4, 2020. 

Special thanks to Tom Unger, Karen Cramer, Charlie Michel, and Barney Bernhard for their help in the creation of this story.

MAIN IMAGE by charlie michel.


This article originally appeared in our Spring 2020 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.