Last summer, I pushed outside my comfort zones when I began kayaking in Green Lake, where I was living in Seattle. While it’s a large lake, it’s also heavily populated, with throngs of people walking around the lake at most hours of the day. So I figured that as long as I stayed along the edges of the lake, I would never be far from help and safety.
Deciding to kayak down a miles-long river in Hawaii was another matter altogether. While there might be people paddling up and down the river, I would more or less be on my own. A lot of anxieties came up: What if the kayak toppled over, and I ended up in the river? Could I get back into the kayak? How would I get into the kayak, to start with, given my ankle issues?
I started the adventure by deciding that I was going kayaking. (As Robyn Davidson, author of Tracks, has noted, deciding to begin a journey is the biggest and most risky part of that journey.) Next, I got a guide book, to help me learn about the best (according to the guide book author) kayaking companies. My third step was calling those companies and letting them know that I had healed from debilitating chronic pain, and that I was no longer in pain, but that I am super sensitive. I would need help getting in and out of the boat, I said, and I needed to know if they could provide that service. In addition, I didn’t know how far I could paddle, and I needed the freedom to do whatever I was able.
The first company I called was not appropriate for my needs – they only offered to tie a kayak on top of a car, and then you were on your own, getting the kayak into the river and back on top of the car. However, the representative was lovely, helping me think about the best companies for my needs. I ended up choosing to go with a company that was specifically poo-pooed by the guide book I was using, because it was 10 minutes, instead of a couple of hours, away from the destination of a waterfall and state park. Actually, a 10 minute ride seemed perfect for me. And as that company confirmed, I could go back and forth, up and down the river, as I pleased. The company confirmed they would help me into the kayak, so off I went.
So here’s the thing about managing multiple health issues: There are numerous booby traps, everywhere, many of which are unpredictable. In this case, there were cats hanging out on the counters at the kayaking company – including on top of the forms we needed to fill out. I advised the clerk that I have severe allergies to cats, and I registered while standing outside the registration room, handing papers back and forth through the window. The guy was a sweetheart, brushing off the registration form before handing it to me, to remove any possible cat hairs.
Once that was done, I stood with a few other people, to get instructions on where to go in the river. Somewhere nearby, the hissing of bug repellant spray went off. That stuff is nasty, loaded with toxic crap. I didn’t know where the spraying was coming from, but blurted out, “I have to go,” and ran down the stairs. Turns out the woman was standing in the middle of those stairs, spraying herself. I stayed away for a bit. She kept spraying herself. A guy seemed to understand what was going on and asked the woman to step away. She moved into the parking lot, toward where I was standing. I asked if she could just stop for a minute, so that I could pass by her. I don’t think she spoke English, because it took some negotiating. But the guy helped again, and I was able to get past. However, she continued spraying, and the drift came over to where the group was standing and looking at the map. Ugh.
There is only so much that one can micromanage a situation, before the stress itself can cause problems in your body. So I did the best I could and let it go. Still, my right eye got affected, so I went to the bathroom to wash my hands and put drops in my eyes. Note: I carry with me anything I might need in case of anticipated health stuff. People with health issues have a lot more anticipating and planning in our lives than those without health stuff.
Speaking of bathrooms, I began wondering how the heck I would make it for two hours without peeing, especially considering that I”ve been staying hydrated here in Hawaii, where I can end up with heat exhaustion quite easily. I drank my thermos full of water, filled it, and drank it again, then went to the bathroom one last time, before getting into the kayak. Meanwhile the company representative waited patiently for me at the kayak dock. He taught me a little trick that has enabled me to perhaps get into and out of kayaks on my own forevermore: Sit down on the dock, instead of trying to get into the kayak standing.
The company representative had told me to go a certain route down the river, but instead, I put into practice my method of back-and-forth, until I get sure of my ability level: I kayaked out of the dock area, and over to the left, where I kayaked for maybe five minutes. I then kayaked past the dock area and over to the right of the dock area, then back.
I developed that tactic when I first started biking again, back in 2010. I never knew how far I could go. So instead of biking three miles out and back, I would bike out 1.5 miles, then back to where I started, then go 1.5 miles in the opposite direction, for a total of six miles. I then expanded from there – three miles out and back in one direction, three miles out and back in another. That enabled me to always be close enough to my car and safety at any given time. Similarly here, I stayed close enough to the dock that at any given time, if something happened, I could pretty easily swim back.
The biggest issue I found was that I was on the verge of heat exhaustion, about 40 minutes into my trip. I was afraid. Nobody else was on the river at that time, and it was blazing hot. So I kayaked back to the dock, filled my bottle and drank water a couple of times, went back to the bathroom, and got back in the kayak. I was thrilled and delighted that I was able to get out of the kayak safely, with no pain. I did it slowly and carefully – tying the rope through a hook, to stabilize the kayak, throwing out my stuff onto the dock, then hoisting myself (ungracefully, but fuck it) onto the dock. I did have fear that the boat would move out while I was hoisting myself up, and that I would end up in between – not yet hoisted up, but not having a solid bottom. However, I was pleased that I was strong enough to be on the dock before the boat moved out from my feet.
I was similarly thrilled and delighted to get myself back in safely. It was the first time I had gotten into a kayak all on my own. It’s possible I had gotten myself into a kayak 16 years ago in Kauai, which was the first time I kayaked, before I had half the health issues I have today – most notably, prior to the ankle and knee injuries that make getting into and out of a boat a dicey prospect.
Doing things slowly and carefully enables us to do them, period. We live in a world where we are pressured to do things 100% or not at all. We must push back against those confines and carve out the space to do our thing on our terms and timelines.
Once I got back into the boat, fully hydrated, I felt much better. I started to kayak towards the state park and waterfall. Along the way, it occurred to me that I could douse myself with water whenever I got hot. And that’s how I made it the rest of the hour-plus trip, without having to come back for more water: I just kept splashing myself with water, then brushing the water through the holes in the kayak (which keep it from getting water logged and tipping over).
I passed the state park and kept kayaking down the river, to a place where it became shady and peaceful. There was a beach to my left, where a bunch of people were hanging out and swimming. I decided to dock – the next level up in my adventure. It seemed like a pretty easy area, because the rocks created an incline that would stop the boat, then provide the platform to get out. However, rocks can be challenging for my sensitive feet and ankles, and in this case, they were slippery. So again, I moved slowly. And I did it! I docked the boat and got out. I also walked carefully along the slippery rocks, getting my grounding with each step before taking another one, and I walked myself into the river, where I had a refreshing swim.
When the other people started heading back, I left too. I liked the security of having other people there, in case something were to happen. It was challenging to get back into the kayak, but I did it! I then kayaked down a beautiful and shady stretch of river. I saw a bee struggling. I am allergic to bees, but I couldn’t bear to see it struggling to live. So I turned around my kayak, picked up the bee with the paddle, and used the other side of the paddle to angle towards the bushes, where I shook the kayak paddle and hoped the bee landed on a leaf.
I decided that was my cue to turn around. It’s always important to conserve energy to get back, especially since I never know when I’ll push past my threshold and then be completely unable to do anything – not just tired or worn out, but physically unable to walk, bike, or in this case, paddle. So I headed toward the dock again, realized I still had strength, and then basically went back and forth for the remaining 20 minutes until I had to return the kayak.
When I was ready to return the kayak, I saw that the guys were spraying all the kayaks that had been returned already. Given the combination of noise, abrupt movement, and dirt surely flying off those kayaks, I decided to keep paddling around until things quieted down at the dock. When I returned, nobody was there. I once again carefully positioned the kayak near the dock and hoisted myself out. When I was on the dock. I stood up, took my camera out of my bag, and snapped a selfie while yelling triumphantly, “I did it!”