Sea Kayaking with Cameras


Joe Headshot_Photo_BenWith no on-the-water experience, professional photographers, Joe and Ben, attempt an overnight, open-water, sea-kayaking trip. Cameras in tow, the two learn what it takes to accomplish a paddling and photography trip around Washington’s San Juan Islands.

This past fall I had coffee with a stranger. His name was Ben Matthews, and like me, he spent his time traipsing through Wyoming and the west capturing life with his lens. A couple hours later, jittery with too much caffeine and potential adventures brewing, Ben and I had not only hit it off, we were planning a trip together. As if planning a trip with a complete stranger wasn’t crazy enough, we both agreed on the main stipulation for the trip: we had to get outside our comfort zones. Both of us were professional photographers without much on-the-water experience. The rest is history.

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Photo: Joe Haeberle

We chose Cypress Island, a remote island part of the San Juan Island chain off the coast of Washington state. The Samish Tribe fished the island until the early 1900s, but since then, locals and government alike have left the island mostly untouched.

The second week of March, Ben and I, with four friends, set out from Wyoming for the San Juan Islands. To be honest, we didn’t have a clue what to expect. As seasoned mountain enthusiasts, we were beyond familiar with nordic skiing, backpacking, mountaineering, and fly fishing. But only one of us had any real experience with water sports—my girlfriend, Britta. She’s a sea-kayaking guide on Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but she’d never been on the ocean before, and she knew taking care of five other people while kayaking would prove itself to be difficult.

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Photo: Ben Matthews

We unloaded our gear, two tandem kayaks for the new guys and two single kayaks—one for Britta as the guide and safety paddler, and the other for whoever drew the short straw for the day. Paddling tandems would offer assisted balance, especially when taking pictures, and between Ben and I, ruining our camera gear would be an expensive rookie mistake. We held no false hope that this would be easy and dry from the start, so we insulated our bodies beneath dry wear.

Before we pushed off from shore, Britta briefly touched on a few sea kayaking pointers: paddle with your torso along with your arms, synchronize your paddle strokes with your tandem, and tips to steer your boat with the peddles.

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Photo: Joe Haeberle

A big reason why kayaking is so different than mountain sports is because you have to pay close attention to tidal patterns and wind. With unloading, gearing up and the crash course, we inevitably started off late day one. The tide and the wind were going against us. The excitement of starting our adventure couldn’t outweigh the amount of energy we were spending fighting the elements—paddling against the wind, embracing our core for extra balance in bigger swells. (Not to mention the energy we wasted battling each other in the first fifteen minutes when the stoke was strong and our egos were stronger.) Eventually, we figured out this wasn’t the slow and steady pace that we were used to when backpacking, so we decided to beach on Guemes Island, wait out the tide and conserve our energy over a long lunch.

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Photo: Joe Haeberle

See, when you’re backpacking, you can usually put your head down for a little bit and turn your brain on autopilot. In a way, it’s relaxing, and it helps conserve mental stamina. That was something we were used to. When it came to sea-kayaking, though, there was never a moment we could spend not paying close attention to balance, the tide, or which way our kayaks were going. This is why kayaking is much more of a workout; physically and mentally.

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Photo: Ben Matthews

It’s interesting how much there is to learn about new environments, even for a group of people who have spent their fair share adventuring in the outdoors. Stripped of our comfortable elements, we had to refocus how some of our fundamental skills may or may not work in a certain situation. When you’re sea kayaking, you don’t always get to control the circumstances. Sometimes Mother Nature doesn’t care how hard you’re paddling, she will send wave after wave to make you push even more. If you really want a relaxing day sea-kayaking, the circumstances have to be just right. Ben and I both noticed how close this was to mountaineering on glaciers, and how Mother Nature also doesn’t care there either. If a snowstorm comes, leaving your tent would cause frostbite, or even without a cloud in the sky, simply summiting a mountain would cause an avalanche, Mother Nature just doesn’t care. We noticed how this can translate to every day life, and that sometimes it’s necessary to pull over, take a nap, and wait until the waves die down.

Tired, wet, a little cranky (if we’re being honest), we paddled into our first campsite at dusk. If food hadn’t been an essential to survival, we might have skipped it. We scarfed dinner, set-up our tents and crawled into our sleeping bags. Ben and I had plans for a sunrise photography session—a positive attitude is crucial to handling the challenges we still faced throughout this trip and we both knew the breaking sun and a camera in our hands was the best solution to reset our minds.

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Photo: Ben Matthews

We woke up in the morning when it was still dark and hiked to a peak where we could look out onto the oceanic horizon, with a few islands off in the distance, and the sun rising over Mt. Baker. During the shoot, after watching sea lions poke their heads out of the water and float around the bay, I remembered a conversation from the night before. Many times, as a photographer, not only do you need to embrace the technical side of the camera, you need to enjoy the people around you and create a positive vibe for them. It has to be real, or the photos won’t be real. Because we were all surrounded by a beautiful sunrise and nature being its wonderful self, we all were in a good mood, despite waking up so early and getting to bed so late.

Something about nature just does that to you. Your body can recognize a sunset and all of the sudden you can’t help but just stare in awe. You forget the ache of your arms from kayaking yesterday, or how wet your socks are. And when you’re an adventure photographer, that’s one of the most attractive feelings to experience. Whether it’s the sun coming up over the Tetons in Wyoming, or coming up over Cypress Island and the Pacific beside it, as a photographer, you can’t help but start taking pictures in all sorts of ways.

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Photo: Ben Matthews

After all, this is what we came out here for. The photography made the challenge of learning how to kayak and putting in the effort to make it across the channel100-percent worth it. In fact, when you’re a professional photographer, sometimes that’s truly what keeps you going. Quite often the photographer on a trip with professional athletes has to be able to keep up, which can be very difficult, especially with a new sport or less-desirable circumstances. But when you’re dealing with that type of situation, and you get the perfect shot, that gives you enough inspiration to keep going. It does every time.
With hearts as full as our memory cards, we headed back to camp for a full breakfast, and an on-time paddle back to the mainland. After we returned to mainland, we parked and unpacked our boats, reorganized the car, and realized all we had learned. When you return from trips that challenged you, you realize what you find comfort in. Whether it’s photography, sitting around a campfire with friends, or drinking beer you had carried across the ocean, you begin to recognize parts of yourself that you might not have if it hadn’t been for the struggles.

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Photo: Ben Matthews

Editor’s Note: Guest Contributor Joe Haeberle fell in love with the outdoors during a month-long mountaineering course in Alaska with the National Outdoor Leadership School. Armed with a small Canon camera to capture memories, Joe started a photography business when he was 19 and hasn’t looked back.