Monday, December 7, 2009

An Interview With Ward Swan - Great Outdoor Provision Company

Ward Swan, a paddlesport expert with Great Outdoor Provision Company, recently sat down with Durhamblogger to answer some paddling questions. (DUAC): "Give some of your paddling background and experience. When did you get started? What got you interested in paddling?"

Ward Swan: "Thank you for the opportunity to talk about boating in North Carolina. Interacting with water has been a long term obsession of mine. As a kid, when my family went to the lake house the canoe was my source of freedom. When in college I became a raft guide on the Chattooga Ocoee and Nantahala rivers and I saw that there was MUCH more that this sport can bring. Later while reading Tim Cahill’s, Jaguars Ripped My Flesh my eyes opened wider. In this book he has several stories. One story described a paddling trip in Alaska among seals and orca. This was done in a boat that was new to me; a sea kayak. I knew that I had to get involved with this. I have been active in pursuing paddling in all its forms from that time (1989) to the present.
My path has taken me through special interest of Greenland style kayaking and sprint kayaking. I still like whitewater but I don’t have the interest in running hard rapids. Surf kayaking was addictive to me when I lived in Charleston. My current paddling obsession is freestyle canoe. Look it up on In most of the above mentioned aspects I have been through instruction, instruction training and instructing. I like teaching. This led me to work on the side for H2Outfitters, a sea kayak school in Maine. Not only do we teach basic and advanced skills of kayak touring we guide trips of various difficulties up and down the eastern seaboard and beyond.

For me, advanced paddling does not involve outward expressions of bravery in the face of adversary. Instead, the inward trajectory of discovery fortifies the competence that allows for successful exploration. Put another way, the Zen of paddling provides more satisfaction then the machismo of paddling."

DUAC: "What are some recommended paddling areas in North Carolina?"

Ward Swan: "North Carolina has so much water to enjoy. Each time you go out it will be a different experience. I can go on a hiking trail that I traveled as a kid and see the same rocks at the same places each time. Paddling offers few opportunities with concrete reminders. Each time you go out the water is different. A spot that was out of the wind one time may now be bouncing one foot waves. The very “trail” that you are on is alive with shifting activity. The warm water of summer ripples easily where the sober winter water resists such frivolous activity. With the diversity of the North Carolina seasons even the local pond will provide an adventure. I live in Winston-Salem and take advantage of the unnaturally warm waters of Belews Creek Lake in the cooler seasons when I need a work out.

Our local paddlers (of the Winston-Salem area) enjoy the Dan, New and Yadkin Rivers. All are easily done in most types of boats. In the Durham area boaters have long enjoyed the lakes of Macintosh and Jordan (at Farington boat ramp) and the diverse challenges of the Haw.

When I want to do some overnight activities I usually look further to the coast. My favorite paddling in the world is on Core Sound. This is a stretch of water is in between Ocracoke and Beaufort, NC. While not wilderness, there is a glorious lack of people. While the sound is pretty far across, it is not deep. In fact there are usually many opportunities to get up and stretch when your kayak runs aground a half a mile away from “land.” The clear water here makes it more like a touch tank where the shells, crabs Horseshoe crabs and clams are within reach of the adventurous. Word of advice for winter time paddling here; don’t try to sneak up on ducks that are sitting on the water. Not only are they plastic, there’s usually a guy with a gun nearby. Steer clear.

Another overnight destination is the Roanoke River. This paddle trail is managed by the Roanoke River Partners and consists of platforms that one can reserve. The black water river is beautiful all year but especially in the fall and winter. The owls of the swamp really change the meaning of “night life.”

DUAC: "What are 5 tips can you give to persons who are interested in getting started in kayaking? What gear is essential? What gear is more "nice-to-have?" What research you should do prior to purchasing a kayak?"

Ward Swan: " 1. Get rid of that “starter boat” mentality and understand what it is about paddling that interests you. I can really help a person who has a clear idea of how they are going to use the boat. When someone says they want a “starter boat” I then ask what their next boat will be. If they want to get into whitewater for example, then the $400. Rec Boat that they are looking at will not help in their interest, just delay. There is nothing about the “starter boat” that will carry over to white water or touring/sea kayaking. If you want to use a kayak to fish, then there are special tricks and shapes that will increase your enjoyment. If you have kids that have short attention spans then there are boats that will make swimming much easier. Understand elements of your interest and activity and your boat choice will be easier.

2. Unless you are going for a high performance boat in either touring/sea or whitewater kayaking, don’t over think your boat. The vast majority of the boats sold today are for the “Recreation market.” (That’s short for all those people who are not “serious” enough for white water and feel frustrated in a longer boat.) Because “Rec.” is the largest market out there, manufactures invest in producing a confusing amount of boat designs, all aimed to the same person. For me the major rec. boat performance design choices are length and width. I’ve had people agonize over two boats, one with a crease in the hull design (chine) and the other did not. In the end, the more relevant decision was how comfortable the seat was or the color. Rec. boats are supposed to be an easy way to get into paddling with the least amount of skills. If you over think the choices then you are going against the intent. Besides, if you think you will only have one boat in your paddling career then you are probably mistaken. It is the nature of paddlers to pursue better boats. The nice thing about boats is that most people I know would say that the value of enjoyment they bring quickly equals the cost of the boat.

3. Budget for Boat, Paddle and PFD (lifejacket). There are three things that ALWAYS are with you every time you go paddling; Boat, Paddle, and PFD. You don’t pick up your boat with every paddle stroke. And few people wear their boats. I always recommend to get the lightest paddle you can reasonable afford. A heavy paddle can wear you out just in the activity of changing paddle stroke sides. You can usually tell a significant difference between an $89 and $150 paddle with out having to go to the $400 area. But I will tell you that there is an added enjoyment to the stiffer lighter paddle. I also recommend a PFD that you can forget about when wearing. If you are having to futz with your jacket all day long to be “comfortable” then you are no longer paddling, you are “lifejacketing.”

4. Don’t become dazzled by dollars. Craigslist and ebay are great places to learn about the boats. There are many “great deals” out there. But after seeing what people have bought in a “great deal,” I feel that many (dare I say most) of the boats in this category are inappropriate for the person or use that that person wants. I don’t begrudge a customer who truly found a good deal. But when they come in talking about the Whitewater C-1 that they just picked up to go fishing on a lake I can’t hide the disappointment that I feel. And I can’t hide the horror to someone who wants turn their super cheap rec. boat into a heavy duty whitewater boat. There is a lot of safety built into the design of a whitewater boat. On a different note but similar thought; there is a friend of my wife’s that found a GREAT deal on a Wood and canvas Oldtown canoe. She used it on the Eno River to cart her dogs. I offered a trade to a new boat that would be more appropriate and more costly by far then what she paid just to save her antique boat. She refused. Then, frustrated in paddling a dedicated lake boat on a river, she cut holes in the bottom and turned it into a planter. I cried.

5. Consider instruction. If you have a whitewater bug or a sea kayak interest then getting instruction BEFORE you buy can change dramatically what boat you end up with. This costs money but it often gives you a season’s worth of education and experience in a pretty short amount of time. In whitewater it can bring you up to being a functional paddler before you have to go out on the club trips. Private business, public recreation, colleges, and clubs are great places to get some education. Great Outdoor Provision Co’s staff is a source to get some pointers in the store, on the water or at the pool.

DUAC: "How can the Great Outdoor Provision Company help both novice and expert paddlers?"

Ward Swan: "Great Outdoor Provision Co. seeks to facilitate the process by understanding the above issues and interact between the consumer’s wants and the available products. Like my fellow staff I ask several questions to help sharpen the focus of use for the boat. I pride myself in making the right match regardless of the type of paddling. The only way to know if it was correct is to maintain a relationship to see how it is going. Through this relationship we (the customer and I) can tweak the understanding of what’s needed and fine tune the next step.

Some of the practices of Great Outdoor Provision Co. that promote this include:

Some “demo days” where one can get out and sample some of the boats that are serious contenders to take up residence in your garage. And one should take the opportunity to try out boats that you may have no business being in at all. Have fun and explore.

Also Great Outdoor Provision Co. gives the customer the ability to return boats if, after a trial period, the boat proves insufficient to the customer’s intention. Sometimes the boat that felt great for 15 minutes at a demo day doesn’t feel good for four or more hours. If you paddle the boat like you might return it then you can, easily. Take care of it for the first few times. There is some small print on this so come by the shop for details. But it is our intent to get you in the right boat so you can have fun.

Great Outdoor Provision Co offers 10% off paddling accessories for the a YEAR after the boat purchase. This gives you a chance to try the boat and then figure out the doo dads that will match your interest. We don’t offer too many “package deals.” Instead, this program allows you to make your own, over time.

The above are universal to all Great Outdoor Provision Co. locations. Each shop, however, will offer a little different types of programming. The best ways to find these schedules are to visit our Web site. Check out our blog too to find thoughts and trips from our staff and customers."

DUAC: "Thank you Ward for taking time out to share your expertise on the sport of paddling!"

Ward Swan: "Once again, thank you for allowing me the space to talk about paddling."

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