Some people grow up around animals – so for them, caring for a dog or cat as an adult is a completely natural, almost “expected” thing to do. Other people grow up in a city environment – and so for them, raising a family in an urban setting is no big deal. What a person considers “normal” is very much influenced by what they were exposed to in their youth. While horses can be terrifying to one person, these same animals can be deeply relaxing to another. The same can be said of climbing trees (or mountains), of camping (or otherwise spending time in the wilderness), of riding motorcycles… everything is relative.
As a child, I didn’t have much exposure to water-related activities. My mom insisted that I learn how to swim (a skill that no one taught her), so I did – but I never found a lot of joy in spending time in water. Sure, whenever our family stayed at a hotel it was fun to splash around the pool for a while – but I never really enjoyed spending a lot of time at a beach, in a lake, on a boat… and anyway, these activities simply weren’t things my family did very often.
So when I moved to Minneapolis after graduating from college, I was surprised to learn that water-based recreation is a big deal for a lot of people in the city. Minnesota prides itself on being “The Land of 10,000 Lakes” – and the metro area does provide many opportunities for people to interact with water. Additionally, many families own a cabin on a lake somewhere in the state (or just across the border in Wisconsin) – so generations of people here have grown up spending every weekend in the summer on the edge of a lake. Native residents love to boat around lakes (on everything from speed boats to canoes), immerse themselves in the water by swimming or paddleboarding, or enjoy the bounty of the lakes by fishing them. In fact, Minnesotans love their lakes so much that they spend time on them in the dead of winter, too! Some kids and adults spend hours on frozen lakes ice skating or playing games like hockey and broomball; other people take their winter lake recreation one step further and set up honest-to-goodness houses on the frozen water, where they ice fish, socialize with friends, even engage in art. These people are serious about their lakes.
But I’m not. My husband’s family does own a cabin (they are solid Minnesotans), and I have spent some time there – but the house on the lake doesn’t really “do” much for me. I’m not into boating (I have spent my fair share of afternoons on a vessel, but don’t understand the desire to be confined in a 30-foot space with other people for hours at a time), and I don’t fish (it’s against my spiritual beliefs). I learned how to ice skate my first winter in this state, and while I can do it, I prefer to be indoors on a cold day (preferably sipping hot tea while cuddling with a puppy); and I have never been in an ice house on a frozen lake, as I think it’s insane to voluntarily step foot onto ice that is covering sixty feet (or more) of frigid water.
Still, if I am to embrace Minnesota culture, I know that I need to do my best to understand this pervasive attraction to water. So I decided I would include at least one new-to-me water-based activity on my 101 list – and that is how #11 made its way into my consciousness.
As I stated earlier, I have been on a variety of boats before – everything from gentle pontoons to wicked-fast speed boats, from little six-seater canoes to large dinner cruise ships. But every time I have been on a boat, someone else has been in control. I wondered if I might find the experience more enjoyable (or at least understand the allure of water better) if I took up the oars myself? Trying my hand at kayaking seemed like a semi-easy way to find out.
I was originally scheduled to have a kayaking lesson two weeks ago. However, on that day the weather was not conducive spending time outdoors (or on a river, for that matter), so I pushed the lesson to early-August and hoped for better weather on the new date. That new date arrived this morning – and the weather was perfect for a day on the river:
Confident that I would have a much better experience today than I would have had two weeks ago, after lunch I hopped in my car and drove 15 miles east towards the river. I arrived to a kayaking enthusiast shop a few minutes before my scheduled 1:30 pm lesson, where I encountered two staff who appeared to be very flustered. Apparently many people in the city had decided they wanted to take advantage of the gorgeous weather and tool around the river for the afternoon – and just after noon the shop was slammed with unexpected requests for tours and rentals. Given how short the boating season is in Minnesota, the shop definitely didn’t want to turn any customers away – but as a result they had rented out their entire fleet of kayaks, and were now scrambling trying to figure out what to do with me and my pre-scheduled lesson.
I wasn’t worried – I was confident these two people would figure out a solution. While they scrambled to craft a plan, I excused myself to use the restroom. The woman gave me somewhat ambiguous directions to the washroom, and I found myself heading up two flights of stairs, then arriving at… a woodworking shop?
Upon seeing the scene, the very first thing that popped into my mind was memories of a trip I took to India several years ago. One weekend during that trip I was guilted into taking a crazy ‘tour’ to Mysore, which ultimately ended in a small woodworking/fabric/candle shop where my two colleagues and I were basically ‘held hostage’ by our driver until we purchased a sufficient dollar amount of wares from the merchant – who just happened to be the driver’s brother. (Oy, the stores from India that I could tell….) Anyway, this woodworking shop had the exact same disorganized-yet-orderly vibe as the one in India – and I was fascinated by the random assortment of equipment, supplies, in-progress projects, and completed items strewn about the space.
After leaving the workshop area, I entered another room – which was nearly the opposite of the space I had just left. This new room was completely empty, save for two printers (or maybe fax machines?), one kitchenette against the wall, and an overturned bicycle. (Seriously. I can’t make this stuff up.)
Just past the bicycle, I saw another door – which opened to the restroom. I entered the small space, did my business, then walked back the way I came, and returned to the main area of the kayak shop – where I saw the two staff strapping boats to a trailer that was attached to a car. See, I knew they would come up with a solution! 🙂
One of the staff handed me a life vest, then told me to hop in the car. I asked her if I could put my belongings in a locker first – and then she realized that I hadn’t yet interacted with anyone at the shop. Looking very apologetic, she reached out her hand and said, “Hi, I’m K, and I’ll be your instructor today. I’m sorry for the disorganization right now…” and proceeded to tell me about the rush on boats and tour requests that occurred just 30 minutes earlier. I smiled at her, and realized I was very happy that she would be my instructor. She was a small woman, about my size in height, weight, and bone structure – and I felt comforted that if a petite gal like her could kayak successfully, then my body could manage it as well. Looking at K, I responded to her apology by saying, “No problem, it is a gorgeous day,” and re-directed her attention to telling me where the lockers were. After placing my bag that contained a full set of dry clothes in a small wooden cubby (because I wasn’t sure how “successful” I was going to be at kayaking…), I accepted the life vest, and sat down in the vehicle where the other staff person drove K, myself, and two kayaks a few blocks east to the river access point.
Upon arriving at the short trail that led from the road to the river, K and the other staff person unloaded the kayaks from the trailer. As K and her partner placed the boats on the grass, I was impressed by how pristine the vessels looked. They literally didn’t have a single scratch on them.
I commented to K that the shop must take excellent care of their gear, and she replied, “Well… actually… these boats are brand new. We got them in yesterday.” Sure enough, when I looked more closely at the boats, I saw that they still had the manufacturer’s tags on them – which K noticed as well, and quickly removed them, stuffing them in the gear compartment of the boat closest to her. Apparently the solution to finding boats for our lesson was to use brand-new inventory. Not a choice I would have made if this were my business, but fortunately I’m not in charge here. 🙂
After K, her office partner, and myself maneuvered the kayaks, paddles, and life jackets to the river’s edge, that second staff person excused himself to head back to the shop, leaving K and I alone. K asked me how much experience I had with kayaking, and I confidently answered her: “None at all.” She seemed surprised, and responded, “So wait – you’ve never been kayaking before?” I replied, “Yes – I’ve never even been in a kayak before.” For half a second I saw K look at the virgin vessels at our feet, and I can only imagine what thoughts might have been running through her head. But if she had any visions of me banging the hell out of one of the kayaks against rocks (or worse), she didn’t show it. Instead, she said, “Okay, well, let’s start the lesson at the beginning, then,” and proceeded to walk me through the various parts of a kayak.
After a few minutes of orienting me to the boat, she handed me a set of oars, and demonstrated three basic strokes: one to move forwards, one to move backwards, and one to turn. She shared a few pointers on how to complete each stroke most “successfully” (which basically entailed keeping my hands at a shoulder-width grip on the oar and keeping my shoulders square with the front of the kayak), then asked me if I had any questions. “Not yet,” I answered. “It’s all very easy to do on dry land,” I laughed lightly, “but we’ll see what questions I have once we get in the water.” I finished, smiling good-naturedly at K.
She smiled back at me, and said, “I’m confident you will do great. Okay, so if you don’t have any questions right now, let’s get these kayaks on the river!” Carefully we placed each boat into the water a few feet from shore, and K held one of the kayaks while I somewhat clumsily put my legs inside it. As soon as my rear landed in the seat, I felt the river both command and cradle the boat – and I felt simultaneously uneasy and relaxed. It was a very odd sensation. Part of me felt nervous by the noticeable power I felt from the water beneath the kayak (even on this very calm day), but another part of me felt instantly soothed by the rocking and swaying of the boat. It was as if a giant was attempting to soothe me with a lullaby. An interesting dichotomy.
K quickly joined me in the water, and directed the two of us to a small alcove along the river bank. She watched me practice the three stroke I had “learned” on the shore just moments before, and once she felt confident that I could maneuver the boat somewhat reliably, she took me a bit further into the river.
Even though the river’s water level was low and the day was calm, as K and I ventured further from the riverbank, I felt the powerful current begin to move the kayak in directions I preferred not to go (i.e., into deeper and deeper water, further and further downstream). While I remained calm, I was once again reminded that bodies of water (rivers, lakes, oceans) are forces not to be trifled with. Large expanses of water can be fun to watch (spray crashing against rocks, waves rolling onto a sandy shore) – but I don’t feel comfortable being at their mercy.
Still, there were several times during the lesson where my boat was responsive to my paddling and I felt more “in control” of it – and during those moments I felt a deep sense of calm and peace. I think I would really enjoy living on the edge of a small, calm lake, and having a kayak to paddle in mild conditions. Maybe one day in my future I might purchase a large piece of property on a body of water, and build a cozy little home there. I could outfit it with a yoga studio and teach lessons and hold meditation workshops… I could raise therapy dogs and play with them off-leash on the acres of land…. I could set up a little office with a huge window that looked out on the beautiful wilderness and write for hours a day…. Ah, my dreams. Maybe one day…
Interestingly, the river is what has kept K in Minneapolis. As we both became more comfortable with my kayaking skills, I began asking her questions about how long she has been kayaking, working at the enthusiast shop, teaching lessons…. Through the course of my queries, I learned that while K grew up in northern Minnesota, she left the state at age 18 to go to college in New York. She has two Master’s degrees in the humanities – one from a university in Colorado, the other from a school in Amsterdam. She returned to Minnesota two years ago after completing the second Master’s degree because her parents live in a suburb west of the city, and as a newly minted graduate with eight years of higher education under her belt, she had a massive amount of student loan debt that she needed to begin repaying – and her parents kindly offered her a rent-free place to live. Initially she was unhappy being back in the Midwest, but then, “… I took a boat out on a whim one day, and fell in love with this river. This water is what made Minneapolis suddenly feel like ‘home’ to me.” Such is the power of nature.
(And to answer the questions above: K has been kayaking for three years, working at the enthusiast shop for two years, and teaching lessons for a year.)
For the final ten minutes of our time together, K and I paddled around the side of the river, and she showed me various hazards to be wary of on this specific body of water. “Strainers” (i.e., objects in the river that block the passage of larger objects but still allow the flow of water to continue; they are dangerous because the force of the moving water will pin an object [or person] against the strainer and then pile up, pushing the thing/human under the water [which is obviously bad….]) were one serious hazard to keep in mind, especially when the river was high. Currents and eddies (i.e., swirling currents that form when the main current meets an obstruction in the river, like a big rock) were another condition to be on the lookout for. And then there was the (hopefully) obvious caution not to run into man-made items in the river – things like barges and bridges. Noted.
As K and I went downstream and then back up, she encouraged me to loosen my grip on the oars a bit. “Be lazy,” she advised. “Kayaking is meant to be done for several hours in a day; you don’t want to wear yourself out after just thirty minutes.” As K called out my tight hands and determined face, I heard the echo of past teachers in my life advise me, “Don’t worry about being perfect,” as well as one of my personal favorites: “Try less hard.” After meeting me just an hour ago, K had already honed in on my Achilles heel. My oh my, how personal traits and tendencies have a knack for showing up in all sorts of settings…
Sixty minutes after we began, K and I arrived back at the same spot on the river’s shore where we had started the lesson. Another group from the enthusiast shop was just about to enter the water as K and I stepped from our kayaks, and she generously offered to let me join their tour for more practice if I wanted it. A very kind gesture, but I was ready to be done with kayaking for the day. So we walked the boats up the small path to the access point, called for our ride back to the shop, loaded up the trailer, and returned to the small office. I retrieved my bag of dry clothes from the small locker, happy that I only needed the towel to dry my feet (and nothing more). After a few computer issues, I paid for my lesson, thanked K for her time, and walked a few blocks up the road to my car – where I rolled down the windows, opened the sunroof, and inhaled the fresh summer air as I felt the stable security of my vehicle’s wheels turning over on the road.
I likely won’t seek out another opportunity to kayak – but, should I get lucky enough to buy a home on a lake, I will absolutely get myself a boat.