The Traditional Gathering

Yesterday was our wedding anniversary. Every year it falls on the same weekend as The Traditional Gathering in Minnesota. This year my good lady suggested we celebrate our wedding anniversary a week early so I could go north to The Gathering and she would go south to Nashville, with a girl friend, to spend time at the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame.

The North Lights Qajaq Society (NLQS) consists of a cadre of friends who conceived of The Gathering nearly a decade ago, they have kept it alive since. The NLQS is affiliated with Qajaq USA, which in turn is affiliated with the ACA, under whose rules the event is run to enable it to be insured.

This year The Gathering took place at Lake Carlos State Park near Alexandria Minnesota, which is about two and a half hours North West from our home. We all stayed at the Group Camp Site. The group site consists of five sleeping cabins and a large centrally located main building with group kitchen facilities.

Flying the flag

I stayed in a cabin (small house) with the majority of the other mentors. The facilities were great with simple beds, showers (with warm water) and bathroom facilities.

The event mentors where made up of a collection of local mentors with the addition of Helen Wilson and her husband Mark Tozer. Helen is a well recognized Greenland rolling mentor having competed in the 2008 and 2010 Greenland Rolling Championships and won numerous Gold Medals both times, she also produced a DVD titled Simplifying the Roll which does an excellent job of introducing people to the correct body mechanics of the Standard Greenland Roll. Mark is a BCU level 5 coach hailing from my home country, you can read more about Mark’s and Helen’s background at their website you can also purchase Helen’s DVD through their website. The local mentors helped with numerous aspects of traditional paddling and kayak building including rolling, strokes and maneuvers, harpooning, paddle making and rib bending.

Rhett and Tony

The days events were split into four sessions. The first session was the whole morning with either rolling or strokes classes. The early afternoon was a repeat with the inclusion of a harpoon throwing session. The late afternoon was a series of on land talks and demonstrations of paddle and kayak building and then the evening session was either movies or a talk.

In contrast with the Michigan Qajaq Training Camp (Qajaq TC) I went to last month, The Gathering had considerably more structure and scheduling. One other difference was that Qajaq TC was catered and The Gathering was not, so a substantial portion of the evening was spent in the kitchen cooking and socializing.
The rolling sessions were led by Helen who started the group on land with a round-robin discussion of what we all wanted to achieve. Everyone then jumped into the lake (sans kayak) and Helen performed her by now famous floating body mechanics demonstration, she showed the effect of knee raises, head pushing back, and torso rotation, while floating on her back and having someone hold her feet.

Helen demonstrating the mechanics

Helen then worked with each paddler in their kayak, and the local mentors (myself included) worked with anyone who was interested in some assistance. There were always at least a dozen people starting the classes so the four of us (Helen, Renee, Pete and I) were kept busy. The three hour sessions quickly wore people out and they thinned down to just a few folks after a couple of hours. This allowed the mentors to take turns jumping into our own kayaks and try a few rolls.

Helen working with Lucia

On Thursday morning I was delighted to find that my summer of practicing forward finishing rolls paid off and I was able to easily perform forward finishing clenched fist rolls, something that had been eluding me earlier in the year.

Renee and I worked for a while on elbow rolls. Helen had demonstrated how she performs them, with a very tight twisting setup that she holds until she comes to the surface then aggressively pushes her back down towards the bottom of the lake and finaly rotates aft. I was able to get closer to success following her pointers, but I think I need to work on some more flexibility, as I don’t seem to be able to push down nor hold the twist long enough. What I did work out is that my leading shoulder is too high and I need to work on holding it down. This is true also during my hand roll so rather than keep failing on the elbow roll I am going to go back and work on improving my shoulder angle during my hand roll.

Renee hand rolling

Lake Carlos had very clear water, possibly due to the Zebra Muscles that have infested it. The water temperature was cool, and the air temperature was mild. Working in the water for 3 hours was chilly so I wore a one piece fleece suit under my dry suit. We experienced bright sunshine and strong gusting winds, a fun combination as long as you were dressed appropriately. Speaking of dressing Helen gave me a great piece of advice about wearing socks in the dry suit even on hot days – they stop the funk from developing caused by sweaty feet.

Happy Helen

As well as the focus on traditional rolling and strokes, The Gathering also has a focus on harpoon throwing. Jeff Bjorgo was the Harpoon Range Master and he worked with the other harpoon mentors to school people in the correct throwing technique. They then ran a hotly contested competition involving slaying, or trying to slay, Styrofoam seals secured around a course.

Tony takes aim

On Saturday afternoon I took a couple of hours and joined Jeff Forsyth’s and Dave Hamilton’s strokes class. It was a windy affair making communications tough and many people were struggling to maintain control of their kayaks. Technically I think that was my first ever kayak class. We spent a good deal of time learning about the effect of wind on the kayaks and what helps or hinders them turning. Lots of practice with bow and stern rudders. Once the class was over I went back out with Jeff and we ran through a few stroke linking combinations which was eye opening and a great time. Afterwards we had a brisk paddle back to camp, straight into the wind and waves getting many facefuls of spray along the way.


I think that of all the participants at The Gathering there were only a handful that I had not previously met and mentored either at my own rolling sessions, or at Qajaq TC. It was nice that I was amongst so many friendly familiar faces, but I also liked the anonymity and newness of Qajaq TC.

Cooking at The Gathering was something I had no previous experience of. Mentoring all morning and or afternoon and then coming in tired, and then having to cook was painful at times. I had prepared in advance by bringing frozen food I had cooked or purchased earlier. Cornish pasties, Chicken Chili, Pulled Pork, Soups. One evening I went wild and grilled steak, zucchini and microwaved a baked potato.

Renee working with Sandy

On the water there were many first rolls, and many new rolls. I especially liked working with people’s forward finishing rolls, lots of satisfying firsts achieved there. Seeing someone make progress on his or her rolls has become as satisfying to me as making progress myself.

Colorful kayaks

I didn’t get to work with Mark Tozer, but I did get to listen and watch as he and Helen gave a slide show on the final night. They described their recent trip to the East Coast of Greenland, where they guided a group of kayakers. It looked wonderful and both Mark and Helen did a terrific job of bringing the trip alive and helping educate us on the culture and history of the area they paddled. I would love to take that trip with them one day. They are repeating the trip in 2014 so watch for the announcement and sign up quick as it will be very popular. You can read their trip report here.

Now it is back to the daily grind for me. Only a few days until Wednesday and the next rolling session to look forward to. The summer is drawing to a close in Minnesota and soon paddling and rolling will become a chilling occupation.

I look forward to negotiating with my wife to see if I can return to The Gathering again next year.

If you are interested in learning more about The Gathering you find read about it on the website here, and you can read about (and contact) Helen Wilson and Mark Tozer at their website here.
Additional photographs from the event are located here.

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