23 November 2015

Losing Sight of the Shore: Kayaking Lake Michigan

A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.
~ William G.T. Shedd

he kayak leaned drunkenly to the right. I braced my legs against the sides as a small swell raced towards the hull.  My paddling grew fast and sloppy, as if I could hear the sound of banjos and I angled the kayak to avoid getting side-swiped.  The small swell rose up and lifted me about two feet above the shoreline before dropping me like a roller coaster. 

My mouth became a desert and my muscles ached with near panic.  Those two exhilarating hours spent with Johnny Wolfe on the glassy Rappahannock a couple of weeks ago seemed a lifetime ago; as the next wave battered my boat, I wished that I’d asked him to teach me how to roll back upright. But I’d sworn to everyone that it was a skill I wouldn’t need -- river paddling didn’t seem to call for it, I’d never seek out white water and I assumed this trip would be along the same lines. 

Now I was being bested by a lake.  A lake!

Granted, a lake that is 118 miles across and 307 miles long and with riptides strong enough to pull ships down 923 feet to its murky bottom.  6,000 ships to be exact – many of them the tall, masted ships of the 18th century and 19th century. Superior’s got nothing on this freshwater sister. 

Lake Michigan never gives up her dead either.

I wasn’t stupid – I had watched the ocean-like waves pound the beach all week, stood knee deep in the shallows every other day for the sheer thrill of feeling the frigidity, and listened to my Wisconsin hostess and friend tell tales of tourists whose kayaks had been swept out far from shore, their bodies resting undiscovered hundreds of feet below the surface.  I had the utmost respect and awe for Lady Lake Michigan and treated her like the siren of the deep she is.

But even crashing waves and angry, rainy skies couldn’t dampen the hunger to get out on the water.

My friend Diane was with me at the writers’ retreat by the lake and had river kayaked as well.  Although not quite as keen as I was, she was game to go out on the water once the waves died down to a whisper.  And at first, it looked like it would be a good trip for both of us. 

Diane’s kayak was a sit-on-top that lay flat on the water and had self-bailing scupper holes in the top to aid in stability.  Mine was a long, sleek sit-inside ocean craft, designed to cut through waves and go a long distance on the open water.  Usually, one would wear an attachable skirt in this type of kayak. I did not.  So it was my own miscalculation that kept filling it up with lake water every time a wave hit it.  As it continued to rock from side to side and the swells got higher and stronger, my shocked brain could only repeat two mantras:

I don’t know how to roll back up and I cannot lose sight of the shore.

Being denied air as I panic and hyperventilate is one of my greatest fears.  Now I could add drowning in the middle of a gigantic body of water surrounded by a blank horizon to that list.  But panicking would only increase my chances of rolling. So I forced myself to breathe deep.  In. Out.  In. Out.  And I began talking myself off the ledge.

Hey, a year ago, you swore you would never ride in a plane smaller than a 737, and you rode in two bush planes and a float plane.  And you never pictured yourself walking in hip waders through shallow rivers to stand six and half feet from a several pound grizzly bear yet you did just that.  And then just a few months ago, you swore you would never kayak and then you swore you would never kayak alone, but you’ve done all of that. You can do this.  You have on your life jacket.  You know the basics. You aren’t going to drown.

The wind.  The waves.  The adrenaline.  It all faded as I concentrated on using the skills Johnny had taught me.  But learning to angle over waves caused by the wake of a speedboat are a far cry from waves caused by fierce north winds sweeping across the lake face and building riptides.

But I was not about to become a jewel in Davy Jones’ locker.

There are so many stories of whales and sharks getting stranded on beaches, unable to get back in the water; trust me, they would have no trouble getting off the beaches of Lake Michigan.  I paddled my way up on to the sand, began to climb out and another strong wave crashed into me, soaking me and sucking me back in to the lake.  Maybe the Lady of the Lake just really liked me and didn’t want me to leave.  Diane finally had to come over and hold the kayak on the beach so I could get out without risking a runaway boat.

It was the shortest kayak trip ever and a part of me regrets not having the courage to lose sight of the shore. 

As we walked both kayaks back to the cottage, I realized my error.  By staying so close to the beach, I trapped myself on the wrong side of a sand bar – a sand bar which made the waves higher and stronger.  If I had forced myself out past them, I would likely have discovered a calmer ride and we could have stayed out longer.  But I don’t regret knowing my limits and following my gut.

And I walked away from the world’s most oceanic lake with a new goal: to stretch myself once again.  Once warmer weather returns, you will find me back out on the river learning to roll. 

River water never looked so good.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

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