Posts Tagged ‘sport’

White Water Wilderness Canoeing

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010


Over the past decade, we’ve been indoctrinated by the green revolution. It’s all the rage. We’re supposed to do the Earth good by cultivating an awareness of our ecological footprint, somehow averting the climate crisis. Unfortunately, most modern Americans are cut off from the kind of first-hand wilderness experience that might actually have an impact on our psyches. With the exception of Alaska, our most northern frontier, we don’t have much access to the great planet that our lip service seeks to preserve, at least not in the same sense that we did two hundred years ago. But this isn’t true for all of North America.

Canada is our continent’s most underrated nation. Despite having a deservedly low-key reputation on the international scene, it’s the world’s second largest country after Russia. For many young Canadians, a summer canoe trip through Canada’s vast stretches of wilderness is a rite of passage, and for the more adventurous, this means forgoing the domesticated rivers and lakes of cottage country to pursue the deep unruly waters of the far north. In the summer of 2008, I accompanied seven of my favorite Canadians on a grueling, month-long canoe expedition. This adventure exposed me to the great spoils of wilderness that the green revolution seeks to keep us from plundering.


Our journey began on a vast, cerulean-blue lake in Quebec, approximately thirty-five hours north of New York City. We set out armed with maps of a route that no one had ever attempted before. If all went well, in four short weeks we’d come to the James Bay of the greater Hudson Bay, where the tides of the Arctic Ocean would lead us to the community of Waskaganish, the heart and capital of the Aboriginal Cree Nation. Our plan involved navigating three lakes and five rivers in canoes loaded to the brim with all the supplies that we would need, including every ounce of food and drink necessary for the survival of eight people over the course of a month.

With no other human vessels in sight across the endless lake, our first day on the water we paddled for hours under the late July sun. But this serene beginning soon gave way to endless stretches of challenging whitewater and over twenty-five portages (or over-land travel), which required us to carry all of our canoes, supplies, and equipment across difficult terrain. Although my friends were experienced canoeists, I’d personally never paddled any serious whitewater; the longest canoe trip I’d undertaken was ten days. I knew it would be arduous, but the truth is, I had no clue. By the end of the first two weeks of our journey, my face was so swollen with black fly bites that I was literally unrecognizable.


Although we were canoeing in one of the most beautiful countries on earth, the terrain that we passed through was not. The taiga is rocky and barren; the boreal forest of the north has evolved to withstand the extreme cold, and the summer months often bring rain. Needless to say, it was no vacation. But on the hot, sun-bleached days, when we paddled through gut-wrenching sets of churning whitewater, it was always worth it—unless, of course, something went wrong, which it seemed to often enough, given the technical sets and inevitability of human error.

After scouting the sets, our most experienced pair of paddlers would blaze a trail through the course, with all of us observing their fate. If they were successful, each boat would follow suit one at a time. Each canoe, regardless of who was in it, dumped at one point or another, sucked down the river in the paddlers’ attempt to navigate set after gushing set of whitewater. Rescue missions involved fishing each other out and into a waiting canoe before corralling renegade boats, equipment, and other supplies. Soaked to the depths of their bones, the dumped canoeists would take their seats at the bow and stern, and once again we’d take off, four canoes moving swiftly down the river. Sometimes, we fished. But it didn’t take long before we’d lost almost every single fishing pole to the rapids, and suddenly making the catch of the day wasn’t the first thing on our minds; we were most concerned with survival.


Leadership is crucial to team survival in wilderness scenarios, and this was a particular challenge given the range of personalities that we had along for the ride; there was no shortage of arguments on our journey. But somehow, we survived. Our meals were well earned and meticulously planned, thanks to our friend and teammate Heidi, who labored for weeks before our departure organizing quite possibly the tastiest canoe-tripping menu imaginable, which included falafel, curries, and stews.

Across vast sets of rapids that cut through rocky gorges and fast-flowing rivers that led us inches from churning waterfalls, we paddled onward. There were near escapes from black bears and, on one set, a dumped canoe literally wrapped around a boulder in the middle of a river, spiking fears that we would lose the boat entirely. Somehow we managed to save it. I spent much of the trip with my heart in my throat and my stomach below my knees, but I’ve never felt more human in my life. Resolute in my capacity to survive, yet keenly aware of how insignificant I was to the world at large. After paddling over 600 kilometers, we made our final journey across the rising waters of the Pontax River to the mouth of the James Bay, where we waited for the tides to come in before paddling into Waskaganish. I’ll never do that exact trip over again—I’d be crazy to—but Canadian canoe tripping is surely the kind of adventure that the green revolution seeks to preserve, and proof that putting our lip service to work is a very good idea, indeed.

KiteSkiing: A New Way to Hit the Slopes

Saturday, March 6th, 2010


I grew up around a handful of lakes and miles of dark pines on the outskirts of the Adirondack State Park in the Black River basin, a spooky little corner of New York State. It’s about five hours to get to the City, but there‘s no bus or train service to take you there. The North Country has some bizarre claims to fame; for instance, a famed child actor from the seventies works here as a large animal veterinarian. But these days, this place is most famous for its wind.

Tug Hill gets the most snowfall east of the Rockies, and is also home to the largest wind farm east of the Mississippi. This combination of snow and wind power creates the perfect environment for winter’s latest fringe sport: snowkiting.

To clarify, kite skiing is one form of snowkiting, which basically just means using a kite and wind power to travel across snow or ice. It’s not just for skiers; boarders can do it too. When I first learned of the sport from local radio, the possibility of gliding over snow via kite power alone seemed too titillating to pass up.


It didn’t take me long to find local snowkiting guru Jan Brabant. For the past twenty-five years, Jan has been running TI Adventures, an outdoors outfit in Clayton, New York. After moving across the country to Colorado, Jan never expected to find himself back in his native North Country, but once he returned he realized how much raw potential the region had with its unspoiled whitewater, lake effect snow, and miles of trails tucked away from the masses.

Jan isn’t exactly your average ski-resort type. In addition to his passion for kayaking and snowkiting, Jan is a former opera singer. He taught me that, like dancing, snowkiting is a musical sport; there’s a real sense of timing and choreography. In short, it’s a waltz.

My kite skiing lesson is held on one of the largest freshwater bays in the world. Jan and his assistant, Jackie Pitts, have arrived before me to set up. After scanning the length of the bay from the boat launch, I spot “camp” in the distance: a royal blue igloo-like structure typically used for ice-fishing. I trek out across the frozen bay with skis and boots in tow. Jan and Jackie are unfolding the kites and drawing out their 100-foot lines across the ice. Once a kite is launched, these lines will keep it reined to the rider’s harness.

My lesson is entirely dependent on one key factor: the cooperation of the wind. Outside our igloo, Jan secures a pole with a wind sock attached. You’ve probably seen one of these before at the airport; the sock is a conical piece of textile that gauges the speed and direction of the wind.

Before I strap on my skis, Jan teaches me the basics. Apparently, there’s a magical zone in the sky called the “wind window.” Mastering the wind window is the key to snowkiting. Essentially, it’s an invisible half-dome up above your head, which goes from from 9:00 on your left to 3:00 on your right. The power and pull of the wind is best captured when the kite runs to either side of the neutral zone (12:00), keeping it central but steady in the sky. Letting the kite go without having a clear sense of how or where to redirect it might mean getting thrown in the air or knocked to the ground. A good helmet is vital.

Like Jan suggested, snowkiting gives you the sensation that you’re dancing with someone, but the way my partner throws me around makes it seem more like we’re grooving to a punk rock waltz than a classical one. When I lose wind power and my kite drifts innocently to the ground, I get discouraged, but looks can be deceiving. Behind me Jan yells, “It’s live! Live kite! Live kite!” and not a second later, the kite is air-bound and I’m gliding serenely across the ice again.

At its best, there’s a certain Zen to snowkiting, even at its most fast-paced moments. Kites were, after all, invented in 478 B.C. by the Chinese philosopher Mo Zi. If you’re not into the ski-resort vibe, you’ll be pleased to discover that snowkiting is an entirely different beast. You don’t need fancy skis or a lift ticket to be a snowkiter. So if you want to give it a try, find your own local guru and do what Jan told me: “Go out and explore. Make your own tracks your own way. And remember not to forget the waltz.”

Gunning From The Top Of The Driveway. By James Sullivan

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

Yet it wasn’t all doom and gloom. We loved the primitive first wave of video games. We loved our first portable cassette (cassette!) player. And we really loved the rise of the NBA, led by a generation of superhuman athletes wearing signature lines of Converse hoop shoes.

There had, of course, been some incredible basketball players in the days of the canvas high-top, when virtually every pro player (and virtually every kid) wore Chucks. But the game changed exponentially when Cons went leather in the ‘70s. Suddenly, we all wanted to dunk; we all wanted to drive the length of the court and take off from the top of the key, finishing with a majestic fingertip roll.

By the end of the decade, I was spending countless hours, even on frigid days, imagining outrageous buzzer-beaters and punishing my misses with foul shots. One day my mother’s car was in the way, so I found the keys and backed it down the driveway – with the door open. It took months of foul shots to work off the ugly sound of the door catching the rock wall and crumpling like a tin can.

I played most of my one-on-one against a quiet, distracted kid from the end of the street, a lanky, stork-like guy who was easily six inches taller than me. He was a soft-touch lefty shooter and, against me, anyway, a shot blocker worthy of the nickname Tree. But playing against him forced me to change my game. Over time, I became adept at fallaway jumpers and, my specialty, a quick stop-and-pop from the corner. In my beloved white leather Converse – blue star, blue arrow — I learned to work the angles, to hustle after missed shots and grab position on rebounds. For a few summers, I held my own, until the kid shot past the six-foot mark on his way to the 6’ 7” or so that he ultimately reached.

Later, I played a lot of pickup games with my high school buddies, some of whom were on the team. In college, the regulars from my building included a couple of big guys who’d reached the states with their high school teams. Sometimes I got my clock cleaned. Sometimes, though, I’d surprise everyone by making five or six baskets in a row. Few things in life satisfy as much as the thoop of hitting nothing but net.

Competitive basketball isn’t a lifelong game for a vertically challenged guy who knows that five-ten might be bending the truth. But I still get excited to lace ‘em up, and I’ll never turn down an open shot.

And outside, there’s a nine-year-old boy in his Chucks, gunning from the top of the driveway.

James Sullivan is a Boston-based writer whose most recent book is The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved The Soul Of America. James has also written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Rolling Stone, The Boston Globe, and Learn more about James at