Chris Duff has quietly accomplished some amazing seakayaking journeys, including circumnavigations of Iceland, New Zealand’s South Island and the British Isles. He once said that to him, an expedition is more of a reprieve or a retreat. “Even some of the big trips are just time to think clearly”. Chris is a modest and thoughtful person as well as a talented paddler. Here he shares with us some of his thoughts about paddling and life in general.
1983-1984 – I remember the first time I sat in a sea kayak and felt it go slightly over on its edge. I was no more than fifteen feet from the bank and must have wiggled to get more comfortable in the cockpit. The boat shifted under my tense body and then tipped way over and suddenly stopped….a fraction of an inch from going all the way over. I froze in panic, my heart racing like wild and my skin instantly turning clammy with sweat. Like so many new comers, I did what is natural- I let go of the paddle and clawed at the air for support. I don’t know why or how, but the boat didn’t capsize. I immediately grabbed the paddle, sat frozen with fear and discomfort and gingerly tried paddling again, dipping just the very tips of the blades in the water. I couldn’t wait until my first lesson was over and I could get back to dry land.
I think it’s important to remember those first five minutes of paddling and how terrified I was of tipping over in that ice-rimmed canal. Paddling wasn’t anything like I had imagined it would be. The one magazine article I had read made it sound so easy and carefree- just slide into this sleek fiberglass shell and the world would be yours to explore. Standing on the bank, jittery from my close call with a December swim, I was both captivated and very uncertain. Was this sea kayaking thing really what I wanted to do?
Now years later, I sit typing these words looking out a window where my current sea kayak rests on its side in the frozen grass. The boat is very different than the one I first sat in and ultimately purchased after that first paddle. In its greater length and narrower width I see it as a kayak designed for true open water paddling. It is a boat that fits me well and one that has taken me on long journeys upon waters I never could have imagined paddling all those years ago. It is March 2006, almost twenty three years to the day when I pushed off on my first trip- an 8,000 mile sea kayak lesson that began just three months after first sitting in a kayak. Had I known how much I didn’t know, I am sure I wouldn’t have begun in the first place- but this is true with all of life. For some, the best way to learn is to do. I was at a crossroads and a kayak, though it was frightening, seemed like the vessel that could take me forward into a new phase of my life. Two decades later, it is the sea that continues to provide both a challenge and a place for me to grow and to simply be who I am. Although I have spent years on the sea, I know I am no match for its fury and strength. I respect it and am cautious in calling it home. As playful and serene as it can be, the sea can also be callus in its indiscriminate cruelty. It is not a place for arrogance and pride. Rather it is a place that requires constant awareness and caution.
With any luck, there will other sea journeys down the road for me. Right now though its fun to revisit some of the trips I’ve done and enjoy the memories of campsites, remote shorelines, seals and sea birds, and the some of the people I met along the way.
1983-1984 I Left Kingston New York on the Hudson River in March and paddled south to Florida, across Lake Okeechobee and into the Gulf of Mexico. I then Continued Northwest to New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi River and for some crazy reason, paddled upriver a thousand miles to St. Louis Missouri. I entered the Illinois River and a canal system that led to Lake Michigan and then Paddled up the east shore of Lake Michigan to the Makinaw Straits. From the straits, I paddled into Georgian Bay then out a Canadian canal system to the St. Lawrence River. I followed the St Lawrence out to the open Atlantic and then around the Canadian Maritime Provinces, up and around the Bay of Fundy and finally back into US waters. I then headed south along the New England coastline into Long Island Sound, and then up the Hudson River to finish back in Kingston NY. Total time from start to finish was 18 months but I had to take the winter off due to ice on the Great Lakes. The trip was about 8,000 miles of paddling and a year of actually being on the water. I learned more in that year of paddling than any other segment of my life. From barely knowing what a paddle was, I developed a relationship with the sea and indeed with myself that has remained a central focus of my life. Twenty years later I am still paddling and learning- still in awe of the sea and still aware that it is only when the sea is resting quietly that it allows me to slip alongside for yet another visit.
1986 Solo circumnavigating Great Britain. I left Nottingham England after picking up a Nordkap from Frank Goodman at Valley Canoe. I took the River Trent out to the Humber River and then took a right turn. The nice thing about circumnavigations is that depending on which direction you go, you just have to keep the land on either the right or the left. Very basic navigation. The British trip took 5 ½ months and I was told at the time that it was the worst summer on record. Or course every kayaker seems to hear that I suppose. The British trip was a great learning experience in terms of paddling in lots of shifting tidal conditions and plenty of wind, plus a fair bit of shipping traffic around some of the larger harbors like Dover. I think the mileage around Britain is somewhere around 2000 miles.
1986-1996 I took a ten year break from long trips and did a lot of white water paddling and several shorter two week longs trips around the Pacific Northwest which is where I call home.
1996 Solo trip around Ireland. This is probably my favorite trip to date in terms of the people and the history of the country. I started in Dublin and went clockwise simply because that seemed to be my pattern- get the boat and gear to where I wanted to paddle and take a right as soon as I was on the open water. The trip took 3 ½ months and was somewhere around 1200 miles. I wrote a book about this trip as a way of beginning to explain what it is that I find on these journeys that continue to draw me back time and time again. The writing was a journey itself and one that has led to other writing and other paddling trips. The title of the book is On Celtic Tides and quite surprisingly, it won the National Outdoor Book Award for 2000.
1999 Solo trip around New Zealand’s South Island. If I just think of the actual paddling, the New Zealand trip had a greater impact on me than any other trip. Paddling the south island was something more than sea kayaking- it was four and half months of open ocean paddling with extreme winds, and waves on the west coast that made it quite a challenge considering how remote that coast is. The trip was somewhere around 1700 miles- counting the miles paddling in and out of the beautiful fiords of the southwest coast. I’ve never had such feelings of absolute awe while paddling along a coastline that is as rugged, untouched and as wild as the west coast. The surf- like anywhere in the world- can be almost non-existent some years and relentlessly pounding the next. I happened to choose a year where the surf was consistently big. The challenge of the west coast is that the weather can hold you down for extended periods of time, during which you have to eat. There are very limited places for re-supply so food can be a problem. And of course there’s the surf. A lot of it is dumping. You can’t see the shore from the back of a ten-footer and there is almost no such thing as a sheltered landing on most of the west coast. I broke my boat in half on a remote beach north of Milford Sound and had to get evacuated back to Milford for repairs before continuing on. The trip was extreme and fantastically beautiful. It changed me as a paddler in a way that is calmly reassuring, yet alienating because it is difficult to share the experience unless others have met the same elements of extreme. I now look as the sea with the perspective of having been pushed to levels that I hope not to experience again but am grateful for living through them and knowing what that feels like.
2003 Circumnavigation of Iceland with Leon Somme and Shawna Franklin. Iceland has been called the “Land of Contrasts” and the “Land of Fire And Ice”. I find it interesting that I have similar contrasting memories and feelings about this trip. On one level, the trip was the easiest- no wind to speak of except for one storm that hit us on the south coast, and very calm seas almost the entire 1500 miles and 2 ½ months of the trip. On the other hand it was the hardest trip for me in terms of being part of a team. I realize now that so much of what I get out of these trips is the solitude, and the silence, and the time to pay attention to the small and wonderfully simple life of solo paddling. These things are important to me and they were hard for me to find on a team trip. I have some wonderful memories of paddling with Leon, Shawna, and several Icelandic friends who joined us on short sections of the trip- the bird life, the sparsely populated coast, the endless light of summer, strangers inviting us in for huge diners, the crystal clarity of the northern waters, the blow of a whale ten miles from land in fog so thick I couldn’t see a hundred yards. These are all special memories and I am grateful for them. And yet something large was missing. I think it was the magic of solo spontaneity, of traveling silently and looking inward as much as outward. Iceland is a place I will return to- it is a small country with endless clear horizons that call for more exploring.
Chris is featured in ‘This is the Sea’.