BY PAUL LASK

Eric Ross slapped his paddle blades against the water as his kayak started to tip. He couldn't control the wobbling. The boat turned over. Eric vanished.

"Are you okay?" shouted Kenan Gibbs, a retired medical transporter.

"It's cold, man. Really cold," Ross said, now holding onto his overturned hull.

"All right, Eric. Just stay calm and hold onto your boat. I'm on my way."

The crisis unfolding on the Willamette River was only a drill. Gibbs, one of nine "kayaktivists" in training on this spring afternoon, was roleplaying the rescuer in a mock-capsize scenario. The scene was orchestrated by Ross, an organizing director with the Backbone Campaign.

Last July, his Seattle-based activist organization drew worldwide attention for its role in a daring protest at the St. Johns Bridge in North Portland, which for nearly two days blocked the passage of an icebreaking ship headed for Arctic oil drilling.

While Greenpeace organized the repellers dangling from the bridge, it was Backbone and the Mosquito Fleet that supplied the kayaks and training for the flotilla blockade that helped stop the MSV Fennica at water level.

More than a year later, the leaders of the kayaktivist movement have new, ambitious plans to disrupt local waterways. They want to take their demonstrations a step further—by protesting not the distant drilling in the Arctic, but shipments of fossil fuels from Pacific Northwest refineries.

Mosquito Fleet field organizer Graham Clumpner wants to see teams of paddlers "trained up" and readily deployable for larger-scale demonstrations, like blocking oil tankers moving through the Pacific Northwest.

The Mosquito Fleet is seven years old, with no headquarters but a string of members "from Coos Bay to Bellingham," Clumpner says. It has expanded in the last year to over 20 aquatic-based activists, five of whom he says are former US military.

In the short term, they hope to join or create regional public demonstrations roughly every six weeks through the end of summer. They were paddling with banners under the Burlington rail bridge during Stop Oil Trains Week in July, and boating alongside Quinault Indian Nation crude oil protests near the Westway Terminal in Grays Harbor.

These smaller demonstrations are part of their larger goal "to halt the export of oil, gas and coal in the Pacific Northwest," according to their website. Mia Reback of 350PDX, an allied group, sees current climate science as necessitating such large-scale objectives.

"The lofty ambitions of the climate movement are grounded in the scientific reality," Reback said. She noted the 2015 Paris Climate Conference agreement that set out the international goal of reducing global warming by more than 2 degrees celsius in order to avoid climate catastrophe.

"The public is tired of incremental change," Reback noted. Activists believe they need to make it known to local refineries that business as usual can no longer continue.

But that will take new bodies in the kayaks—volunteers who have never spent significant time on the water.

"I don't trust anyone not scared shitless by what we're doing," said Jade Summers, Mosquito Fleet trainer co-teaching with with Ross.

Kayaktivist demonstration in the Willamette River this May. (Paul Lask)
Kayaktivist demonstration in the Willamette River this May. (Paul Lask)

Which was why the Backbone Campaign and the Mosquito Fleet had organized a training session on the Willamette in May, beneath the spires of Cathedral Park in St. Johns.

Gibbs emptied water from Ross's overturned kayak by pulling it across the bow of his own and rocking it back and forth. He'd stored Ross's paddle in his cockpit for safekeeping.

Prior to the exercise Ross had wrapped his dreadlocks in a tail for better maneuverability; he patiently bobbed in the water (as a rule everyone wore personal flotation devices), waiting while Gibbs talked out instructions to himself.

"After emptying, right the kayak," Gibbs recalled aloud.

Many of the activist kayaks had been altered into protest vessels. Deck lines—the sections of webwork of bungees and ropes that crisscross a kayak—were duct-taped down or removed. "The Coast Guard will come at us with long hooks," Ross had explained. Deck lines made for easy snatching.

"Always keep the law in front of you," Summers said, showing the volunteers on shore how to perform a "fake paddle," a technique which was what it sounded like. Kayaktivists were encouraged to dip the blades in the water, but not propel or reverse, ruffling the Coast Guard or sheriffs by giving them the illusion of fleeing.

Nearly 10 months after the Fennica standoff, Ross was still bitter toward the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. Sheriff's deputies had been too aggressive, he felt, yanking kayaktivists out of the water in the chaotic last minutes of the protest.

"We were very, very disappointed in the law enforcement, who created an unsafe situation," Ross said. Coast Guard boats "escorted a foreign corporation through U.S. waters and limited our access to the waterways."

Many of the paddlers had little to no experience on the water, let alone performing assisted rescue operations on altered kayaks.

Even the instructors were essentially newbies. Ross and Summers themselves had only been paddling for a year, both introduced to kayaking during the weeks leading up to the Fennica demonstration.

They began another assisted rescue, this time with Melanie Rios, a retired permaculturist who had been watching Gibbs's performance closely, now playing the part of the rescuer.

Maybe it was a sign of the scale of their ambition, but the mood at the end of the practice was fatalistic. In more ways than one, Rios was preparing to capsize.

"If we're going to go down," Rios said, "I'd rather go down singing with my friends."

Kayaktivist training in the Willamette River this May. (Paul Lask)
Kayaktivist training in the Willamette River this May. (Paul Lask)