Kayak Lessons

One of my very favorite activities is paddling a kayak. When I was growing up, my family had a cottage on a lake in Vermont. We had a clunky rowboat and a fluorescent green canoe and I spent a lot of time out on the water in these two boats. But there was something about kayaks that caught my imagination! I would watch them, low in the water, gliding along the surface and imagine what it would be like. I added “learn to kayak” to the list of things I wanted to do in my lifetime.

It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I first climbed into a kayak. My now partner, Tom, invited me to paddle with him and his children. We rented kayaks on Lake Union in Seattle and, to be honest, I was a little nervous the first time I got into a kayak. I was used to the roominess of a canoe and the cockpit of the kayak seemed so very, very small. The staff at the rental shop gave a quick bit of instruction about how to get into the kayak and how to paddle and off we went. Within moments, I was hooked!

We continued to rent kayaks for a few years when I decided I really needed my own boat. Ask me sometime about how I “manifested” my first kayak. It’s a good story but I won’t get into it today. After getting my own kayak, I was showing it to a friend, a boat lover, who said “This will be the first of many.” I denied that that would happen but, within a few years, Tom and I had put together a rather eclectic “fleet” of kayaks. Single kayaks, doubles, a triple. Some perfect for lakes, some better suited for the tidal waters and currents of Puget Sound. Some with small cockpits, others more open and roomy.

During this recent stretch of beautiful weather, Tom and I are paddling as often as possible. Last summer, we got in a kayak only once as Tom recovered from surgery and prepared for chemotherapy. It is an absolute delight to be back on the water! Perhaps it is the break I had from kayaking or a function of my DRE-mind that I now frequently look for metaphors for living in my day-to-day activities. (Curricula and the Time For All Ages have to come from somewhere, after all.) As I recently paddled amid the boats, paddleboards, seals, and gondolas on Gig Harbor, I found myself considering the lessons provided to me by kayaking. Here are but a few.

Proper preparation makes for a more successful experience: Tom and I have a mental list of the things we always take with us when we kayak. Some items are for our comfort like snacks and a small cooler with beverages. Others are for safety like a sponge and bilge pump to get water out of our craft and a whistle to summon help should we need it. In addition to having the right equipment, it also helps to have everything ready to go. I am reminded of the term mise en place used by restaurant chefs. That is the process where they prepare as much as possible ahead of time and have it within close reach before the mealtime rush begins. They can then then easily and efficiently work through the busy times. Each year, we gather all our kayak gear together so it easy to grab whenever we want to go out. At times, we leave all the gear in the back of the car and sometimes, even, leave the kayak on top of the car so we can get back out on the water as quickly as possible. The outings always go more smoothly when we’ve prepared up front.

Trial and, especially, error is a part of life: It feels like we are constantly figuring out the best way to do things. Lifting a 60+ pound kayak into the carrier on top of the car or getting in and out of the kayak from different launch points often requires we try different ways of accomplishing the task at hand. This is especially true as our bodies age and don’t bend, flex, or lift the way they used to. It’s the error part of trial and error that is the most humbling. Sometimes our efforts fail. The kayak hits me in the head as it drops too fast for me to stop it when we unload it from the car roof. One of us ends up in the water trying to get out of the kayak after our bodies, stiff from paddling for a couple of hours, refuse to do what we want them to do. But we keep tweaking our techniques and keep figuring it out. We aren’t going to let these failures keep us from doing what we love. And we give thanks that we haven’t yet found any videos posted online by people who have witnessed these sometimes comic moments.

Communication is key: When I paddle in a double kayak with someone, it is so important we communicate our intentions to one another. If I am heading in one direction and my partner in another, we end up working at cross-purposes. Taking the time to agree on our direction allows us to paddle as a team and gets us to our destination with much less effort, each of us doing our own part. When we focus together, we can really get moving and it is a real joy!

It’s important to stay centered: Sometimes when Tom and I are paddling in a double kayak, from the stern seat, he will point out to me that I am not sitting in the middle of my seat. Years of coddling an achy hip cause me to sometimes sit askew. But when I am sitting off-center, the kayak doesn’t track easily. It pulls to one side. It is harder to steer. I now try to stay very aware of how I am seated in the kayak as remaining centered keeps us on course.

There are times when one must “lean-in”: As important as being centered is, there are times when one must lean-in, shifting one’s weight to one side. The focus of my paddling combined with the participation of my body helps turn the kayak, especially when conditions are a little rough. That extra focus makes a big difference.

Challenges are unavoidable and can be a great gift: I try to avoid paddling on days with high winds. But I do paddle when the wind is light and sometimes stronger winds come up unexpectedly. There are times when I find myself fighting against the wind. It requires I paddle harder, use my muscles more, and take few or no breaks so I don’t lose any progress I’ve made. And, to be honest, it can feel really good! Having the wind in my face, using my body in ways that challenge me, and working hard is exciting. It builds confidence in my abilities. And, when I reach my destination, having put everything into getting there, I take great pride in the accomplishment. Taking on challenges can be incredibly invigorating.

It can be good to drift: There are times I need to take a break from paddling. My arms get tired and need a rest. Putting my paddle down and enjoying the feeling of just drifting for a bit is rejuvenating. I enjoy the sun warming my face, the beauty of the waterway, the gentle rhythms of the waves and currents. As I drift, I remain aware of where I am and am ready to pick the paddle back up when needed but that feeling of letting go for a bit helps me return to paddling with increased strength and energy. Identifying those times when I can let go for a bit helps me to be more effective as a paddler.

My connections feel deeper when I put myself smack-dab in the middle: I lived in Seattle for decades before that first outing on Lake Union. I frequently drove past Lake Union on I-5 and would notice the lake and the activity there but felt no connection to it. Once I started paddling on Lake Union, however, I felt a connection, a feeling of ownership, to the lake and to the city that I had never had before. I now knew what it felt like to be amidst sea planes finding a free spot to land, to paddle through the Montlake Cut where I had a close-up view of the Husky rowing team practice, getting glimpses of the houseboats and the lives of the people who live on them, gliding past fishing boats and ships in dry-docks reminding me of the importance of the city’s commercial maritime connections. Just seeing the downtown skyline from the vantage point of the water has given me a view I would not have gotten otherwise. Whether I paddle in urban areas like Lake Union or Tacoma’s Foss Waterway or undeveloped spots where heron, otter, muskrats, and osprey make their homes, those views of life on and next to the water are ones I don’t get without putting myself in the middle of it.

The beauty is that the lessons never seem to end. Each outing in the kayak provides new opportunities to learn and grow and serves as inspiration that I can carry from the context of one activity to another. These lessons don’t just apply, of course, to my time spent in a kayak. They serve as good reminders of how to move through life with ease, acceptance, and joy.

The sun is shining, the water is calm. Time to paddle. . .

Nancy Slocum, Director of Religious Exploration
Nancy Slocum
Director of Religious Exploration