It was probably because my brother-in-law and I went to Lake Tahoe last year for his 50th birthday and, among other rollicking activities, we rented a kayak. Initially I thought it would be a lot of fun, and much to my surprise, so did a whole bunch of other people in the family. That’s how nine of us, from my 15-year-old nephew to my 77-year-old mother-in-law, ended up in a fleet of single and double kayaks, paddling from the little town of Moss Landing on Monterey Bay up into Elkhorn Slough (or, as I had no idea it was called, Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve). The saner people in the family, including my wife, were at my father-in-law’s house overlooking the slough, preparing for his 79th birthday party.
It didn’t take me too long to realize that renting a kayak on a lake and renting a kayak on a slough are actually two different events. Both have wind involved, but here there were tides involved, running out of the slough and into the Pacific.
I very quickly realized that this trip had all the potential for real crankiness. Our reservations were for 10 a.m., but I soon began to feel like I was getting on a United Airlines flight to Chicago. There was a safety video. Then there were the spray skirts, which made us look like we were wearing humongous deerstalker hats. They have elastic around the edge, which – supposedly – grips the lip around your seat in the kayak so you stay dry.
Then they kept talking about PFDs, which, when I was a kid, they called life preservers. (PFD stands for personal flotation device; don’t let anyone tell you that every industry doesn’t have its impenetrable jargon.) At least flight attendants don’t make you take out the life preservers and try them on. Then there was the paddling lesson. Only then we were we allowed to get into the kayaks.
Not that I want to open myself up for “unbalanced” jokes, but I was feeling pretty wobbly in this puppy. On the kayaks in Lake Tahoe, we sat up higher. This was different. If I leaned back and held my torso straight, I would stop wobbling, but then my spray skirt would pop off. Either I or my rudder didn’t know left from right. Did I mention there were tides involved?
Off we went, through a boat channel. Seals lounged on a sandbar on the right. Further along, on the left, sea lions had taken over a pier, just as they have at Pier 39 in San Francisco. And we weren’t even in the slough yet. The slough itself was chockablock with pelicans and shearwaters and all kinds of other seabirds I couldn’t identify. Otters were everywhere; we’d even been warned they were so unafraid of humans that they might try to climb on the kayak. I was not looking forward to having to whack an otter off my craft.
As we headed up the slough, everyone else had the advantage of being in a double kayak and thus having a paddling partner. I was powering myself. I did pretty good at keeping up, but the whole rudder thing had me flummoxed. I finally started using my paddle as a rudder, but when I put it in the water to change direction, I killed all my forward momentum.
But I persevered. It had, after all, been my idiotic idea to go kayaking (although I did later try and blame my stepbrother, who opted to help set up the party). And something wonderful happened.
I realized I was out on the water on my own. There was a nice breeze, and it was quiet. If you put the looming towers of the Moss Landing Pacific Gas & Electric plant behind you, all you could see was water and marshland and aquatic animals. I stopped worrying about figuring out the rudder. I was just … floating along in solitude. I not only lost all track of time, I even lost track of the rest of the group.
I decided it was no sin to turn around and head back down the slough toward the Pacific and to the dock. Because I was now headed in the opposite direction, the current was with me. It turned out the rudders did actually work. Even though I’d been out for more than an hour, I paddled like a master kayaker, with strokes strong and accurate.
It turned out to be a nice sojourn, and I was newly grateful that there were tides involved.