Notes from Interview with Mercia Sixta

January 2019 by Susan Jensen. Mercia Sixta is a founding member of SKABC. She is a past president and organized the Coast Kayak Symposiums from 1985 - 2005. I started our conversation by asking her to tell me about the symposiums.

About the symposiums: “We had been teaching ourselves how to do things, reading out of books”. From fledgling days Mercia and Gary taught themselves skills". She recalls “sitting in a kayak with a book at Crescent Beach learning how to roll...It was so much fun...we’d go out and roll 50 times..." We decided to put on a program of not only kayaking skills but outdoor and survival skills… instruction included Strokes, Rescues, Navigation. Plus we had parties and bonfires. It was a lot of fun.”

Although Mercia was in the kayak industry, the idea of the symposiums was “to have it run by recreational paddlers, not run by the industry” or about certification. It was friendly. “The point wasn’t to get a piece of paper”.

The first location was Camp Alexandra by Crescent Beach -- but it turned out that it was too open to the public. “We had stuff stolen.” With people getting equipment stolen they looked for another venue.

The next venue was a camp on the Sunshine Coast. But there were 300 stairs down to the water. That year we had 50-60 people and everyone got tired out just hauling boats to the water.

Finally they started holding it on Thetus Island at Pioneer Pacific Camp. “It was fantastic… we’d have 500 people”. 400 boats would be loaded on the Britannia in Vancouver. It cost $250 (in the early years) for 5 days which included the boat trip to Thetus and food. Everyone had to work. Top instructors in the province taught for free and kept coming back. Instruction expanded into 20+ topics going on at once -- in water and on land.

“It was an opportunity for people to meet from all over the province and get involved. It was huge.”

The food was catered. There was a dining hall but almost everything was outdoors. The camp had a swimming pool and cabins. Peope also stayed in tents. We also connected with people from Bellingham.

About the industry’s involvement in the symposiums: Mercia organized 50 rental boats for the weekend. They let a couple of people from Nimbus come and told them “you can come but if you’re selling you won’t be back”. One year Seaward came to supply the boats but she overheard them selling and asked them to leave.

The last Coast Kayak Symposium was in 2005. “I killed it because I couldn’t find anyone to take it over”. She said that the kayak industry wanted to take it over but she didn’t want to let that happen. The idea had been to run it so “people could choose what they wanted to do.” After the symposium years Mercia did some travelling.

Next, we talked about her earlier kayaking years. Mercia started kayaking in the 1970s. Her first kayak was a German-made Hammer. She didn’t like it so after a month, she got an Eskie, which was made in BC.

She and Gary were at the first meetings of SKABC (then called VOTKA) in 1978 when they met at Pacific Press room in the Sun building. She recalled that Heather Harbord was president for a year then got a job in Powell River. Then Gary was president for one year. She noted that in the early years they had honorary members including Derek Hutchensen and Rick Hansen. She mentioned notable member Roz Rickard who paddled from San Diego to Hawaii in the early 80s.

In the late 1970s’ Mercia and Gary took kayaking courses through the British Canoe Union instructional program when it first came to the province. (1978-80) Derek Hutchenson came in a few times to instruct.

“We were never interested in anything like certification. I don’t think it makes the sport safer... Certification never did what it was supposed to do...people are afraid to fail... Since we didn’t like certification we had to put a training program together ourselves”. Originally Mercia, Gary and the executive at the time started developing course material right after they did the BCU course. We took what we liked and left out what we didn’t like from the program. “Camping skills, as well as how to survive off the sea, fishing, were all part of the program... There was no failure.”

Mercia talked about being part of a group in BC to look at certification. She said that some of the people involved who wanted to make money off of it, and that interest in certification was more part of the English culture in Victoria. “We fought it for years... We ignored it... We never had a fatality or problem or accident. We had skilled instructors willing to pass on information and knowledge for free”

I ask Mercia about the local debate in the early days I’d heard of about Norkapps vs. Kleppers:
“Norkapps and other English-made boats couldn’t accomodate the amount of gear we carry in BC.” She said that Norkapp paddlers were going for maybe one overnight -- they weren’t campers. Our boats in BC are wider -- we used bags to pack gear in and use for floatation. Also, Norkapps didn’t have rudders, but for paddling we do here in BC in currents, “having a rudder can make a big difference for a lot of people”.

I asked Mercia about some of the club events and traditions she might remember. She was in SKABC until 1994. In those days they didn’t have the Spring Fling or Mayne Event, but did go to Errol’s place on Mayne Island for training programs. He had a kayak rental business. They had Thanksgiving and sometimes Easter Weekends at Errols’s. At Christmas we had turkeys and a potluck at a local hall. “Then we’d have a bottle auction to raise money to cover the rental of the hall”.

I asked her if SKABC had insurance in those days. She said they had insurance for the symposium, but not for the club at first. “We had a waiver and that was it”. Then in the mid 80s, “there were some lawyers on the exec” so they got insurance. “Nobody wanted it…. We wanted it to be as simple and open as possible.”

During her time at SKABC, they had a paper newsletter -- It was sent by mail and available to be picked up at meetings. Gary, who was an architect and designer, created the original club logo.

I asked Mercia about the old Trips Hotline -- this wasn’t something they had during her time in the club. “We’d advertise a trip and people would phone if they wanted to go. If we didn’t know the person they’d have to give them name of a person who knew them so we could see if they could do the trip... we told a lot of people they weren’t ready or had to wait a year.” She added that wet suits were mandatory for any trip or course.

She asked me what pools SKABC uses for training these days and said they used Bonsor pool.
“We’d booked 11:00, 12:00 and 1am and the programs would be full”. She remembers being at the pool from 11:00pm to 3am some nights.

Mercia left SKABC in 1994. She worked in the Fraser Valley and founded PIKA (Pacific International Kayak Association). “The distance to come into Vancouver for SKABC events was too great for a few of us out there. The sport was growing and there was a lot of opportunity”.

She also founded CORK (Creative Options for Recreational Kayakers) for people with disabilites with programs in Squamish. Some people who took their training went on to join PIKA trips.

I had asked Mercia about the club getting political in the early days. At the end of the interview she said she remembered one thing from the late 80s related to politics: - the protection of Haida Gwaii and licensing of the aquaculture industry in Haida Gwaii, Sunshine Coast, Broughtens, Prince Rupert. “The government was issuing licenses for fish farms. We heard about it and tried to stop it”. She explained that the needs of the fish farmer were also what kayakers needed. “And the fish farming fellows didn’t want us on their turf”. The government asked the club to come up with sites that were suitable for fish farms and sites for camping. People who worked on this project were the club executive and people who wanted to be on the committee, lead by Ray Pillman who was the chair of Sport BC and Georgia Straight Alliance.

Additonally, SKABC also put outhouses in a few places including the Broughtons and the Broken Islands. The club used to have Christmas paddles in the Broken Group. “Natl Parks wanted to take down the buildings that were there”. She talked about members clipping trails on Clark Island and times that they met Salal Joe, who refused to leave his home so parks let him look after the islands.