David Johnston is screaming like a school girl at this year’s Storm Gathering. A dozen eager hands release the stern of Johnston’s kayak, launching it off Snug Harbour’s six-foot-high pier. For a moment the boat arcs gracefully through the air, and then the bow dives into the cold, clear water.
The kayak enders, submersing Johnston and 12 feet of gleaming red and black fiberglass beneath the harbor. Briefly, a Darth Vader sticker and Union Jack behind the rear hatch are all that is visible.
Johnston’s head and body resurface first, like the conning tower of a submarine. He is grinning and laughing his high-pitched laugh. The Snug Harbour Dock Launch Competition is a Johnston favorite and already a Storm Gathering classic.
Wind, waves and fun at the 3rd annual Storm Gathering
We are assembled in a sheltered nook 20 kilometers northwest of Parry Sound, Ontario, for the third annual Georgian Bay Storm Gathering. It’s mid-October and the combined water and air temperature in degrees Celsius barely scrapes the double digits in the morning. Yet some 50 paddlers have traveled from as far away as Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and Victoria, British Columbia, to get together for one last weekend of sea kayaking before winter sets in.
Nearly half of them are now cheerfully hurling themselves off the Snug Harbour dock. Leading the charge are Johnston, Storm Gathering’s energetic creator and co-organizer, and Tim Dyer, 25-year veteran owner of nearby White Squall Paddling Centre and fellow event ringleader.
The running Storm Gathering joke is that Johnston and Dyer started the event as an excuse to go paddling in wind and waves with a bunch of experienced paddlers. Like any good myth, this one is half true.
In 2007, Johnston and a friend were looking for alternatives to sanctioned certification courses as a means to develop advanced paddling skills.
“We considered traveling to the U.K. or California, but we were too cheap,” recalls Johnston. Their solution was to rent a cabin in Tobermory, Ontario, fly in an accomplished instructor, share the cost with half a dozen friends and go paddling. The following autumn, Johnston partnered with Dyer to grow the idea into a public event and Storm Gathering was born.
“The goal of Storm Gathering is to build a community,” says Johnston. “Sea kayaking is like rock climbing or whitewater paddling; you can only reach a certain point on your own before your skills plateau. We’re connecting paddlers with each other so they can progress.” Where other symposiums focused on drawing in new paddlers, the Gathering targeted committed kayakers with the lure of challenging conditions in a safe and supportive environment. According to Johnston, the timing for such an event was perfect.
“You would never have been able to run this event five years ago,” he says, citing the recent availability of good, affordable drysuits; recognition of sea kayaks as true rough water vessels by the press and public; and skyrocketing interest in rolling brought about by the popular Greenland-style paddling trend.
Like any new event, Storm Gathering has had its share of growing pains. Both the inaugural year and the 2009 gathering suffered from uncooperative weather: Flat calm and bluebird skies for three whole, stinkin’ days.
“I told Tim [Dyer] that if it is calm this year, we are done,” Johnston tells me Thursday evening. He’s smiling; the historical weather data he studied to find the dates with the best chance of strong winds on Georgian Bay is finally paying off. This year’s weekend forecast is much more promising: 20- to 25-knot winds and waves to three feet.
Day One – Friday October 15
Forecast: Strong wind warning in effect, wind north 15 knots, increasing to 20 near noon.
“Most of you tell yourself, ‘Some day I want to try this.’ This is that day—we’ll try anything,” Johnston addresses the circle of still-groggy faces gathered post-breakfast in Snug Haven Resort’s spacious log lounge. He’s introducing the weekend program: four loosely structured on-water workshops, padded with dry land discussions, presentations and generous allowances for goofing around in boats, soaking in the resort hot tub and sharing stories. One of this morning’s sessions is called Attack of the Savage Rocks.
Two hours later, I’m watching a delicate-looking woman getting hammered against the rocks. Together, her matching drysuit, PFD, helmet and shiny new kayak comprise an investment of at least $4,000. The sound of fiberglass on granite grates my ears as kayak and occupant are dashed between polished stone and curling wave. She keeps her wits, pushes off and escapes.
She doesn’t cry. Betty Wang, like the other participants I’ve met here, is grateful for any learning experience, even an expensive and potentially painful one. She read the registration disclaimer: Please note that due to hard rocks and big waves, there is a good chance that boats, paddles and gear will get damaged, broken or lost.
At day’s end, only a few paddlers are too tired to race to the adjacent harbor for Johnston’s dock launch competition. When the line-up for falling off in boats starts to resemble the nearby Hwy 400 artery on a summer long weekend, people who celebrated mid-life nearly a decade ago leap like lemmings into the harbor. Johnston and Dyer—radish and mango drysuits clashing like cymbals—run hand-in-hand off the end of the pier, literally into the sunset.
Day Two – Saturday October 16
Forecast: Strong wind warning in effect, wind north 10 knots, backing to southwest 15 late afternoon, then increasing to 25 late evening.
“Just give it everything you’ve got and get them the hell outta there.” Tim Dyer is debriefing a rough water extraction scenario in his inimitable soft-spoken yet hard-hitting way.
The surprise scenario is a Dyer classic that sets the eight participants in his workshop scrambling to retrieve his “unconscious” body from the over-turned kayak, and then holds them in rapt attention as the challenges of the mock rescue are addressed.
In the millpond calm of the morning, the conditions might be contrived, but the learning is not. Reality is dirty, demanding and unpredictable—just like Dyer’s workshop.
The second day wraps with a fresh fish feast and uproarious gear auction at Gilly’s Restaurant in Snug Harbour. Afterwards, participants stagger back in the blue light of a neatly bisected half moon to Snug Haven’s cloister of cozy cottages. The cottages each house four to five participants, making them a social affair— building community—as well as a practical answer to the sub-zero evenings.
This year, dubious bunk assignments have seven instructors—business adversaries outside this gathering—sequestered in a single cabin, sharing dish duty while guarding trade secrets.
Day Three – Sunday October 17
Forecast: Strong wind warning in effect, wind southwest 20 knots, backing to northwest 20 early morning, risk of waterspouts.
White horses gallop through the four-kilometer-wide passage. Kayaks alternately disappear amid, and emerge from, the rolling sea. A snorting giant, foaming at the mouth, consumes Snug Harbour light. Moments later, the cheerful red and white dollhouse reappears on the horizon and I adjust my wind-blown course for it, continuing methodically toward the goal.
A flash of blue at the edge of my vision catches my attention. I turn my head to see Stewart Todd, a tirelessly enthusiastic new kayaker, ripping across the face of another long roller. Todd’s return journey from the Snake Islands is 30 percent longer than the rest of ours as he zigzags across the channel, pursuing waves like a hound on a scent.
The storm has finally arrived at Storm Gathering. Cumulous clouds are piling up in the western sky and the forecast is calling for a risk of waterspouts and exponentially increasing winds for the rest of the week. Too bad tomorrow is Monday.
Back in the harbor, we’ll huddle in circles and swap tall tales involving harrowing rescues, near misses and half-mile surfs before packing vehicles for the long drives home. So, I ask Johnston, are you still thinking about calling it quits next year?
“No way,” he grins, “We’ll be back.”
Virginia Marshall is the former senior editor of Adventure Kayak magazine.
Gathering for a storm. | Feature photo: Virginia Marshall