Paddling is more than what we do, it’s who we are—or more like who we were. The following essay on Northern Michigan kayaking was written by contributor Aaron Peterson, and was featured in the March 2014 edition of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
A paddling buddy once told me that kids are like orcas—beautiful in pictures, best admired from a distance and most likely fatal if you get too close. I used to think this was funny—but now I know it’s mostly true.
My wife and I are standing on a frozen Lake Superior beach that winter has wiped as clean as the kids’ butts we’ve been tending to lately. We have a date with each other, the first one in months, but more important, we have a date with the water—the first time we’ve paddled together since before our oldest child was born four years ago.
It’s March in the North Country and still very much winter, but I’m burning Viagra blue as I watch her dress in layers of polypro, Gore-Tex with latex cuffs, and—good gawd—those knee-high neoprene boots. Gulp. A heatless spring sun tosses its rays across the near-freezing water, but right now she’s looking hotter than the Bahamas. What you need to know is that we fell in love on the water one fateful, star-crossed and kayak-crazed summer half our lives ago. Paddling is more than what we do, it’s who we are—or more like who we were.
Hoisting the boats hip-high, we crunch through rotten, knee-deep drifts down to the water’s edge. In the distance I hear a county plow truck scraping along the highway, but on the water all is still. Our cores are like jelly donuts, and the boats seem unsteady. I’m flapping the paddle wildly with little to show for it, like a baby bird falling from a nest. I’ve paddled solo a bit since the kids came, but it was always in a fog of guilt thick as stink on neoprene. A few miles go by, and now we’re falling into our old rhythm, matching strokes and talking easily. The beach fades behind us. We talk with hope about the upcoming summer. We will hire more babysitters. We will guilt trip the grandparents. There will be more paddling.
We’re getting out to the point now. It’s a northwest-facing stab of sandstone cliff that gathers ice like a car seat gathers crumbs. Our bright boats are swallowed whole in the hushed kiss of brash ice whispering an endless parable of change. It’s a tale of winter’s dwindling youth and the lake’s growing wisdom. In the back of a sea cave, meltwater plip-plops a lecture on glaciers and patience. I close my eyes and see birthday cakes, a used tandem kayak, salt-and-pepper eyebrows and smile lines. The water is electric cold, but I dip my hands to the cuffs and hold them there as long as I can.
On the paddle back, we’re trying to figure out how four years passed so quickly. We decide child rearing can be like hypothermia—it’s no big deal at first, you’re just a little cold and wet, but then that becomes normal and numb, and by the time you need to do something about it you can’t. You can’t rely on your friends to help because let’s face it, they’re already goners. You just glubglubglub down into the orca-filled waters of minivans and soccer practices, dance recitals and dental appointments.
We pull off the water at dusk, drive into town and get a good meal and a better room at a place we’ve only seen from the outside. She’s looking at me like a girl I used to know, and I’m wondering if I have enough energy for a few more strokes. We were paddlers. Now we’re parents, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be parents who paddle. Today we shook off the chill of a four-year bout with hypothermia and kayaked like it was the first time. But tonight we’re not taking any chances: I’ll be dressed for immersion.
Cold Weather Paddling Tips video from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Visit ShopMyNorth to purchase the 2014 March issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine