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Resurrection: Kayaking Through the Mid-Life Crisis

by Penne J. Laubenthal

Birthdays are often opportunities for self-examination and reflection. Some birthdays provoke more introspection than others. A couple of years ago I decided it was time for me to "live deliberately," in the words of Thoreau: " to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Thoreau built a cabin in the woods; I bought a kayak.

My daughter, always wise beyond her years, declared that I did not actually want to kayak, I simply was enamored of the idea of kayaking. "Be that as it may,"  I said, and the next day I was at Wiley Outdoor Sports with my pal Susan.

"How do you want me to handle this?" Susan asked." Should I talk you out of it or talk you into it."

"Oh, talk me out of it," I said "because I have made up my mind."

After clambering in and out of a dozen kayaks, I plopped down into a bright red beauty and declared it to be "cute as a bug." The extremely competent but barely post adolescent manager of the sporting goods store had never heard a 12' kayak referred to as "cute as a bug." I feared the seriousness of my intentions might be in jeopardy. Behind me, Susan was mouthing "Buy it." So much for talking me out of it.

"I’ll take it," I told the manager. " I’ll pick it up tomorrow."

I returned the next morning along with my mentor for all things biological, resident kayaker Dr. Christopher Otto, and within the hour we were crammed inside my Honda CRV–12' Sundance and all–and headed for Elk River.

"You can let go of the kayak." Chris admonished me. I had a death grip on the prow with my right hand as I maneuvered in and out of the traffic with my left. " It is not going anywhere."

"Next time I am tying it on the roof rack," I declared, although I had no plans to transport such unwieldy cargo ever again.

I learned a great deal about a kayak in the first few days. The hole where you sit in a kayak is called a "cockpit" not "the hole where you sit." The covered storage area in the stern is called a "bulkhead" not "the other hole." The gentle stroking motion that propels a kayak silently through the water is called "feathering." There is no word for the banging and splashing noise I made with my paddle. Furthermore, there is an up and a down to a kayak paddle. I was paddling with mine upside down.

When Chris pointed out for the umpteenth time that I had the paddle reversed, I thought of an incident twenty years ago when I was training for a quarter iron man triathlon. I purchased an $89 Huffy bike at K-Mart, took it to the Athens College parking lot, lifted it out of my Toyota, climbed on, and immediately fell flat on the asphalt. About that time, a P.E. major wandered by and pointed out to me that I had the front wheel of the bike turned completely around. Fortunately, the seat of the kayak faces only one direction and there was no danger of my confusing the stern with the bow.

I did not become an expert kayaker that summer, but I did become proficient at terrifying the wildlife, sending the great blue herons squawking across the water and the small green herons scuttling for a safer perch. The white egrets and wood ducks flapped away at my slightest approach and even the lazy turtles slid from their sunny logs and took refuge under the green water. However, I persevered and was making substantial progress until I found myself being swept down the river in the grip of a sudden storm. At the mercy of the elements, I despaired of ever touching land again. 

One afternoon last week  I resurrected my kayak from the dry dock graveyard to which I had banished it following the storm and  paddled down to a friend’s boathouse where my river sisters were gathering for a picnic. At the end of the evening, my friends, like loving Lorelei, stood on the deck of the boathouse and tossed wild flowers in the water, serenading me with "Kum Ba Ya" as my kayak and I disappeared into the twilight.

That summer twenty years ago when I competed in the triathlon, I had something to prove, if only to myself. One of the gifts of time is that one need no longer prove anything to anyone. According to recent statistics, I can expect to live to be 92. I spent the first half of my allotted years building a career; I plan to devote the time I have left to crafting a life. The kayak is my declaration of independence from the marketplace and my passport to the natural world—that paradise from which I came and to which I will eventually return.

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