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November/December 2005

Essential National Park Skills: The Ultimate Park Pass

Write your own ticket to new adventures with these 10 territory-expanding skills.

The Park: Acadia

The Skill: Paddling past surf line

The trickiest-and most dangerous-part of sea kayaking this archipelago off the Maine coast is navigating the surf break without getting tossed from your boat. Follow these steps and you’ll soon be exploring the tiny islands, quiet bays, and craggy cliffs along Acadia’s coastline.

The Launch

>>> Scout the surf for lulls and locations where the waves don’t break hard. Avoid sandbars and rocks.

>>> Guide your kayak to the water’s edge perpendicular to the approaching waves. Climb in a few feet from shore and secure your spray skirt.

>>> “Walk” your boat forward on your knuckles if there’s no one to push you off (don’t lose your paddle). Then paddle as fast as you can, staying perpendicular to the waves. The boat’s position and speed are your allies in punching through surf. When you’re about to hit a wave, lean all the way forward to avoid getting flipped, and hold your paddle along the gunwale. Once the wave passes, resume paddling, glancing back periodically to establish position.

>>> If you do flip, head back to shore and start over.

The Landing

>>> Time your approach to hit relatively calm water. To do this, chase the last wave of a set, keeping your boat at a slight angle to the rise. (Do not come in perpendicular; it increases your risk of getting flipped.) Lean into the wave to avoid rolling. You may be able to ride the wave to shore using your paddle as a rudder. If you’re headed to an island, land on the leeward (less windy) side.

>>> If the waves are breaking offshore, simply paddle in until the kayak runs aground and hop out on the ocean side of the boat to avoid having the kayak bump your shins. If waves are breaking directly on the beach, though, you’ll need to exit quickly to avoid getting hit and pulled back in by the next wave. Best advice: Practice quick exits on dry land.

Stay Safe:

Carry and know how to use navigation equipment and nautical charts; fog can roll in quickly. If you’re not confident about your paddling skills, hire a guide.

The Park: Rocky Mountain

The Skill: Navigating off-trail with GPS

The trails leading to the shimmering waters of Ypsilon and Crystal Lakes make fine out-and-back trips. But with a GPS receiver and basic map-reading skills, you can create a five-star loop by linking these two high alpine lakes with about 4 miles of cross-country hiking. Bonus: You can bag a 13,000-foot peak while you’re at it. Here’s how.

>>> Scope out a possible route using a 1:24,000 USGS topo or mapping software that lets you identify cliffs and other hazards.

>>> Then highlight easy-to-identify landmarks (a meadow, the confluence of two creeks). Use a map tool such as Corner Rulers ( to plot the coordinates for those points. Or plot the waypoints in the mapping software. Load them into your GPS unit and mark them on your topo.

>>> Note landmarks like rivers or a prominent ridge that can serve as “handrails”-visual boundaries that help keep you on track.

>>> Use the GPS’s “go to” function to guide you cross-country; a directional arrow on the screen points to your next stored waypoint. Confirm your route frequently on the map.

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