Sea Kayaking and Whitewater: Roughing it With Scott Berry and Nigel Dennis

By Mary Fairchild
What could be better than kayaking the Apostle Islands?

Yup–having Nigel Dennis join you.

In order to get better acquainted with rough water this year, I started to look for opportunities to get familiar with whitewater kayaking.  This past week, I opted to get out on Wisconsin’s Wolf River and follow Scott Berry, another expert in kayaking, for a couple of days on my way up to see Nigel Dennis at the Inland Sea Kayak Symposium which is now located in Washburn.

1.  Sea kayakers going through a tide race at North Stack, Anglesey, Wales. (small tide race)
2.  The mouth of the Indian River, Delaware. (med. tide race)
3.  Nigel Dennis at North Stack Cave:  Stacks of Rockhopping–Holy Island, Anglesey: “…They’ve all cut their teeth in the Tide Races and Overfalls around Holy Island. If you can paddle comfortably in these waters, then you can almost certainly hold your own anywhere in the world.”

If a fast current is constricted by a headland jutting out into the sea, or a channel between an island and the mainland, or it flows over an undersea reef, bar across a river mouth or rocky sill across the mouth of a fjord, it can behave just like a whitewater river.  Expect tide races, which are often fun; tide rips which may be fun; and possibly overfalls. (10) 

Tidal race (or tidal rapid) is a natural occurrence whereby a fast moving tide passes through a constriction resulting in the formation of waves, eddies and hazardous currents.

Paddling with Nigel Dennis around Oak Island, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Nigel Dennis began sea kayaking at the age of 23, and within 3 years had completed the first circumnavigation of Britain, with fellow kayaker Paul Caffyn. The following year, in his kayak circumnavigation around Australia in 1981/2, Caffyn had to contend with a tropical cyclone which nearly swept him off a small offshore islet in the Coral Sea, raging surf, tiger sharks which frequently bumped into the kayak in the Gulf of Carpentaria, crocodiles, sea snakes and three sections of sheer limestone cliffs. To overcome the three 100+mile plus long sections of cliffs, he used Nodoz tablets to stay awake and Lomotil to keep his bowels dormant during these overnight paddles. The longest stint along the awesome Zuytdorp Cliffs in Western Australia, took 34 hours of continuous paddling. (9)

Nigel’s expertise to lead others soon led to the Cape Horn expedition of Rebecca and John Ridgeway in 1992 which included a camera crew and was televised.  Rounding Cape Horn requires ships to press south to 56° south latitude, well into the zone of fiercest winds. These winds are further exacerbated at the Horn by the funneling effect of the Andes and the Antarctic peninsula, which channel the winds into the relatively narrow Drake Passage.

The strong winds of the Southern Ocean give rise to correspondingly large waves; these waves can attain enormous size as they roll around the Southern Ocean, free of any interruption from land. At the Horn, however, these waves encounter an area of shallow water to the south of the Horn, which has the effect of making the waves shorter and steeper, greatly increasing the hazard to ships. If the strong eastward current through the Drake Passage encounters an opposing east wind, this can have the effect of further building up the waves.  In addition to these “normal” waves, the area west of the Horn is particularly notorious for rogue waves, which can attain heights of up to 30 metres (100 ft). (8)


Our group putting in in the morning fog.

Using his practical experience in demanding conditions while at sea, Nigel built his own fleet of kayaks and the first Anglesey Sea and Surf Centre was started (UK Sea Kayak Guidebook Anglesey).  Nigel’s first kayaks were built to withstand the constant use and abuse by groups that would use them at the center.  He designed strategic day hatches which allowed easy access while paddling, and his keyhole cockpit design, which compared with the original very small ocean cockpit, allowed for faster entry and exits.


Eila Wilkinson and Nigel Dennis gearing up two of his kayaks for our tour–her purple Pilgrim and his green Explorer.

Nigel’s kayaks have been adapted and modified for expedition use, and then tried and tested in severe weather conditions and extremes of temperature. (5)

On Friday, I drove my car into Bayfield to visit Juddith Lokken Strom (link to video featuring her), owner of Greunke’s First Street Inn. This is a bed and breakfast where I usually stay on my kayak expeditions. Greunke’s has been accomodating guests for over 140 years including John F. Kennedy Jr. and his kayak group in 1995.  Other noteable visitors include Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Bridget Fonda and Billy Bob Thorton. Juddith wondered why the symposium moved. It had once been great for her business.
Bayfield Wisconsin: “… there are some troubles in paradise. Sky-rocketing property taxes and utility bills are making it harder for folks to live here year round. The population has actually dropped inthe last ten years, the town could lose its only grocery store… there’s still no Wal-mart…, no McDonalds.. no traffic lights..” Bayfield Wisconsin: the best little town in the midwest?

In 2005, Washburn became the first eco-municipality in the United States. Eco-municipalities aspire to develop an ecologically, economically, and socially healthy community for the long term, using Sweeden’s Natural Step framework for sustainability as a guide, and a democratic, highly participative development process as the method.  After checking in and getting our wrist bands on for the symposium, we headed over to the opening reception where we were led to do hand motions to the French song Frere Jacques.

Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.

We were charmed by the research that had been presented to us about the influence of the French, the English, the Metis voyagers, and the Anishinable people who, in particular, continue to call this area their home with reservations at Red Cliff (pictured above) and Bad River at both ends of the Wisconsin shore.

The following morning, while kayaking the Wisconsin shore, Nigel Dennis and I noted the newly expanded Red Cliff Casino on the the beautful shore of Lake Superior. The only casino with a view of the Apostle Islands…

Brother Jacob, Brother Jacob,
Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?
Morning bells are ringing! Mornings bells are ringing!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.


Wolf River Rapids; Scott Berry of Bear Paw Adventure Resort .

Standing waves can be surfed on a river all day long and provide great practice.  The northeast corner of Wisconsin is known as the “cradle of rivers” where headwaters of the Wolf, Pine, Popple, Oconto, Peshtigo, Deerskin, and Wisconsin rivers originate from. Along the Wolf River, the Bear Paw Adventure Resort, in White Lake, Wisconsin, has been open since 1994.

At Hansen’s Rapid, Scott demonstrated how to side-surf a hole.  When it was my turn he climbed a rock right next to it and when I paddled over he took my paddle away and had me do it without the paddle while he was nearby to catch me “just in case.”  Most people trust their paddle for balance here and it usually sinks.  He had me stick my hand down into the wave to feel the current below it.

It was fun to just play follow-the-leader because I didn’t have to think about it all and I could just “do it” since I saw Scott before me. Scott Berry has 20 years of paddling and extensive river rescue experience. He hosts ACA Swiftwater Rescue Instructor’s Classes at Bear Paw and is a fully certified ACA Swiftwater Instructor. He is also a volunteer firefighter for the Town of Wolf River and a volunteer on the Wolf River Search and Rescue Squad.

On June 7, 2007, a  tornado moving at 50 mph with wind speeds of 160 mph wiped out the resort.  Fortunately, no one was hurt. Owner Jamee Peters rebuilt with new co-owners Scott Berry, an instructor, and Craig Knapp, who had been a guest when the tornado hit. They reopened a year after the tornado (6)

As soon as the boy scout group finished their training at their bridge on Boy Scout Rapid, we ferried across and I surfed a very small wave for the first time.  We paddled back and forth at the foot of the rapids, angling our boats slightly upstream.

It was really fun to just follow Scott and mimic his moves.  We had ample practice with our draw and rudder strokes as we eddy hopped and aggressively zig-zagged through boulders always moving faster than the current or slower as we ferried forward and backward to find our lines.  Whether you go faster or slower than the water you are in control. Stop paddling and you are now moving at the waters speed. The water is in control and will do what it wants with you.

The river was low and we had some technical rock gardening at times that would not be there if the the boulders were covered.  We scouted down the river to see where the current was the strongest.  Where there’s a train of waves, the water is the deepest and we’d cruise right through them.  Sometimes, however, a boulder can mimic a wave and the ride gets a bit bumpy by surprise….

Bear Paw teaches paddling and skiing and rents mountain bikes as well.  Their accomodations include chalet suites, rustic cabins and a campground. The Wild Wolf Inn , overlooks the Wolf River, and has a great view of Gilmore’s Mistake and great sandwhiches, too.  Both nights I had servers who grew up with Scott Berry and could not say enough good things about him.  Katie, in particular, shared how he not only spent time teaching her how to paddle, but ski as well…

1.  “Whitewater Paddling Strokes & Concepts,” Eric Jackson; 1999.
2.  “Sea Kayaker Deep Trouble,” Broze & Gronseth; 1997; p. 130.
3.  Bear Paw Adventure Resort
4.  Inland Sea Kayak Symposium
5. Surfline, “Nigel Dennis Kayaks.”
6.  Midwest Weekends Bear Paw review, “Whitewater Kayaking 101,” 3/11.
7.  Wausau, Scott Berry bio.

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