It was already a week past the first day of spring, but it didn’t feel like it at nine in the morning on Esker Point Beach in Groton. The grass and sand were covered with a fresh layer of snow, and the parking lot was so slick with ice that I almost fell getting out of the car. The kayaks being unloaded from the car next to me seemed just a bit out of place.
I’ve always been a fair weather paddler. A few summer camp canoe trips in the wind and rain, but I’d never been out on the water when the air was below freezing. I remember one spring regatta on my college sailing team when it snowed, but it’s a lot easier to stay dry sailing a dinghy near shore than it is sitting in a kayak in open water. Fishers Island sound is not exactly the middle of the ocean, but the wind can whip up some chop out there.
I was on the beach at the behest of my colleague Steve Fagin, who writes an outdoors blog for The Day. We had collaborated in the past on a few videos, including one about making maple syrup, and he took me out in his tandem kayak when I was filming the migrating swallows on the Connecticut River. This time he wanted to take me to see the seals who spend the winter in the waters around Fishers Island. After several attempts when the weather or the tide or our schedules would not cooperate, we finally settled on a day when everyone could make it, the weather was beautiful, and the tide was low in the late morning. For four of us, it was going to be a fun excursion. For me, it was also going to be a day of work, trying to put together a coherent video despite several challenges:
Challenge #1: Staying warm. I realized when I arrived that my sailing spray suit was not the best choice, as some of out fellow paddlers donned drysuits and thick neoprene gloves. I wore sailing gloves with neoprene backs and leather palms. My hands were wet almost the minute we hit the water, and shortly after that my fingers were numb. Steve let me borrow a pair of expedition weight mittens when we got to Fishers Island. They weren’t waterproof, but they kept my hand far warmer than the other gloves. Also, I was wearing medium weight wool socks and Chuck Taylors, while everyone else wore neoprene booties. My feet were numb by the time we arrived back on shore. If there is a next time, I’m not going out without a drysuit or at least a wetsuit.
Challenge #2: Shooting and paddling. I was in the front of the tandem with Steve, so I didn’t technically have to paddle at all, but I would have felt bad if I had been a useless weight in the bow of the boat for the entire trip. So I alternated between shooting and paddling. When I went back to edit, I saw times where I wished I had shot a little more.
Challenge #3: Keeping camera gear dry. What I really needed was a waterproof housing, or at least a splash bag. This would have allowed me to shoot with a professional camera. Since we don’t have anything like that, and I wasn’t going to risk killing $5,000 of electronics, my options were limited. I packed an old Canon HV20 in a dry bag that I kept under my spray skirt. I only pulled this out when we saw the seals. The rest of the footage is shot with a pair of GoPros. I clamped one onto the shaft of my paddle, and hung the other around my neck on a lanyard. These would give me the waterproof protection, but the lenses are too wide to capture a seal unless its swimming alongside the boat.
Challenge #4: Finding the seals. We went to a rocky beach on Fishers Island where Steve thought he had seen the seals before. We didn’t see any. After hiking around for a few minutes, we got back in the boats and paddled west, where we finally encountered about a dozen seals.
Challenge #5: Steady video from a kayak. The waves were not very big, but shooting handheld with a small lightweight camera and zooming in on a distant object is hard enough on dry land. Add in a little pitching and rolling and it can be impossible to even keep the subject in the frame. I did my best to hold steady, and picked the few usable shots for the above video. Sorry if it makes anyone seasick.