Paddling perfection

Steamboat adventurers paddle New Zealand coastline

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When John Spezia's friend Sandy Shea informed him he was taking a year's sabbatical and had always dreamed of paddling a sea kayak along the New Zealand coastline, Spezia didn't hesitate.

Spezia, who teaches wilderness travel classes at Colorado Mountain College, planned a six-week paddle around the varied coastline of Marlborough Sounds Park on the extreme northern end of New Zealand's southern island. Thousands of bays and inlets there offer paddlers protection from the challenging ocean waters of Cook Strait, which separates the south island from the north island.

Spezia already owned a folding sea kayak he knew he could bring along as checked luggage. The two travelers decided it was more important to avoid the crowds of summer than to enjoy the most ideal weather, so they planned their trip to last from late April into early June 2004. Those months comprise late fall and early winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and though new Zealand is at 41 degrees south, temperate ocean currents moderate the weather on the New Zealand coast.

Spezia and Shea were rewarded with many miles of paddling through a land rich with the history and archaeological ruins of the indigenous Maori people. Spezia also found a landscape where land-use ethics and resource extraction represent marked contrasts with his native North America that were an endless source of fascination.

"It's an amazing place," Spezia said. " For me, first-hand experience is really important."

Spezia said the Europeans who settled in New Zealand have been diligent about using the region's natural resources -- they have harvested the timber from the coastal ranges, they farm salmon and oysters in the ocean. But the generous annual rainfall allows the land to heal itself. Perplexingly, the new Zealanders have introduced many nonnative species to the landscape, Spezia said.

"It's a very beautiful environment, and yet, you're aware that it's a working environment," Spezia said.

Much of the coastal zone is privately held, but government-owned conservation areas dominate the hilltops. There also are numerous vineyards throughout the region.

"The Kiwis are rugged outdoor people who run around in shorts and barefoot," Spezia said. "And they're working their butts off trying to bring the land back."

For Americans planning an outdoor adventure to New Zealand, the off-season is a good bet, Spezia recommend. American's winter is the high season in New Zealand, and the popular hut-to-hut backpacking routes are so busy that hikers are under pressure to make long treks on time, lest they lose their spot in the next hut.

Still, Spezia said, the people who operate the huts are uncommonly eager to please. He found people willing to help him ferry his extra equipment to the next point on his sea kayaking trip.

For sea kayaking novices, there are many guided trips available beginning at about $500, and travelers can expect to be wined and dined. For people contemplating a longer trip on their own, Spezia suggests purchasing a good used folding sea kayak for between $2,500 and $3,500.

The alternative is to rent a kayak at $50 a day.

Yampa Valley residents interested in an adventure in New Zealand can learn more when Spezia gives a free talk and slide show at 7 p.m. Monday at Olympian Hall.

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