Wednesday, April 20, 2005
I recently went kayaking in Richardson Bay between Sausalito and Tiburon. It was a pretty paddle through marinas and moored sailboats with a view of the San Francisco skyline. It was more urban than my normal jaunts in Tomales Bay but serene in a different way.
I rented a fiberglass Necky kayak for the first time. The model was designed for slightly rough seas. It was most stable when it was leaning just off-center... either leaning into an approaching wave or onto one that just passed. Sailboats are designed the same way. They are more stable in a stiff wind then they are upright. Not knowing this (they explained it all to me when I got back) I went about trying to keep the boat balanced on center. The result of my efforts was that the smallest wave or gust would push me off center making me feel like I was about to tip. As I was paddling, I was constantly shifting my hips to keep as centered as possible... a losing battle given the kayak's hull design. I paddled a bit in the shallows near the beach to try to get comfortable. As I finally ventured out into the Bay, I was immediately hit broadside with a strong gust blowing what little confidence I had right out of me. I continued to paddle out with short, light, cautious strokes... clearly not as committed as the direction of my kayak. The uneasy feelings continued and I contemplated bringing the boat back. I looped back into a marina where the water went calm again. After calming myself, I decided to head out for the Sausalito houseboats, my intended destination.
All of this made me think about what many solo adventurers must think as they are leaving civilization behind and hiking, paddling or sailing into the wilds beyond. In particular, it reminded me of a lecture by Ben Saunders that I saw at this year's TED Conference. Ben cross-country skied from Russia to Canada via the North Pole. He mentioned that he had those feelings as his family and support teams took off in their helicopters after dropping him off in the already remote reaches of Northern Russia. Later, he realized that he was the only person in an area the size of the United States. I imagine that this is only a cool thought to have after you have finished the journey and are telling stories at some pub surrounded by friends. In the moment, they can only generate fear and uncertainty if anything goes wrong. He has a cool website with some great photos of his journey and links to other outdoor adventurers. His most frustrating day was when he skied 14 hours across drifting ice only to realize at the end of the day that he was almost 3 miles behind where he started. Anyone who has had any kind of solo back-country experience has probably contemplated the feeling of being truly alone... but to be alone at the North Pole, that's amazing.
So, at the risk of sounding like I'm equating my experience in Sausalito with Saunder's experience in the Arctic I'll return to my story. The feeling that I was about to tip over continued for the majority of my trip. It was only on the way back that I started to get comfortable in the slight lean the kayak was designed for. I made it to the Sausalito Houseboats and had several close encounters with seals as I passed their haul-out spot. My tension was ultimately relieved in an encounter I had with a sea lion and sea bird. As I was drifting towards a sea lion in front of me, he dove under. Just as I reached the still-swirling eddies created by his dive, a sea bird came up in the same spot directly under my bow. My heart skipped a beat because I thought it was the sea lion. But I wasn't half as scared as the sea bird as he tried to figure out what my kayak was and then noticed that it was moving. It's moments like that when you realize that even when we city slickers are scared being out in nature that the vast majority of wildlife is more scared of us (often for good reason). The moment made me laugh, forget the tippiness of the kayak and at peace in the moment.