I love water. I drink it by the gallon. I find it soothing in the shower. I enjoy hearing it drum on the roof during summer rains. I even—don’t tell anyone—appreciate using it, warm and soapy, to wash dishes.
Just don’t ask me to dunk my head under the stuff. I like to keep my essential elements in their proper places: water is for drinking, air is for breathing, and I prefer my nose to have free access to the latter. (I developed this firm belief long ago, during swimming lessons on chilly June mornings at the Gregory municipal swimming pool, under the inexperienced tutelage of a teenage boy who kept his blue-lipped little charges in line by threatening to duck them.)
I also tend to believe that little plastic boats are meant for toddlers to play with in the bathtub. If, theoretically speaking, I ever wanted to learn to paddle a kayak, I would be inclined to do so at Rapid City’s own little Canyon Lake, on a summer evening so calm that the resident mallards could use its still water as a mirror. Not in anything larger or more active. Rapid Creek, say, or the Missouri River, or Lake Michigan.
And certainly not an ocean. Oceans have waves. And seaweed. And sharks. Besides, that immeasurable quantity of water is more than I care to get personally involved with.
How on earth—er, on water, then, did I ever wind up out on the Pacific Ocean in a flimsy plastic kayak?
The friend we were visiting in beautiful and charming Santa Barbara, California, had planned the kayaking expedition, and I couldn’t think of a graceful way to say no. I merely hoped secretly for some small act of God—not an earthquake or anything, but maybe a thunderstorm (drought-stricken California could use the rain, after all)—to prevent it. I was like the bride who knows perfectly well she’s making a serious mistake, but she doesn’t know how to back out once all the family members have been invited and the bridesmaids’ dresses have been bought.
God chose not to act. So I ended up on a beach on Santa Cruz Island with a dozen other people who all seemed absurdly enthusiastic about the idea of paddling along the rocky coast in shallow plastic boats.
Learning I would be in a two-person kayak with my partner, equally inexperienced at paddling but at least able to swim, helped. The wetsuit helped. The snug-fitting and reassuring life jacket helped. The guides’ patient, thorough instructions helped. I especially appreciated the part about “you don’t have to go into any cave or channel you’re not comfortable with.”
None of that did anything to alter the fact that, if we tipped over and went under water, I would probably lose my contact lenses and spend the rest of the outing unable to see the front end of my own kayak.
But we didn’t tip over. We managed the paddling with an astonishing degree of coordination. We saw harbor seals and sea lions and dozens of coastal birds. We negotiated the inside of a cave. We learned one can hold a kayak in place by grabbing a stalk of kelp and using it as an anchor. We got safely back to the beach after an hour and a half, with no harm other than tired arms that felt more limp than the kelp.
Am I glad I did it? Yeah, probably. After the fact, it’s always gratifying to know you did something you were afraid to do.
Was it fun? Um, well. . .
Okay, I did grudgingly began to consider the possibility of the potential that, with some practice and some kind of solution to the contact-lens issue, kayaking might eventually begin to be sort of fun.
At least on Canyon Lake.