Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Do Not Go Gentle . . .  

To commemorate his 80th birthday, former president George H.W. Bush parachuted out of an airplane some 13,000 feet in the air. Pretty daring.

To commemorate my 65th birthday, I also took on a dare. I floated in a red 16-foot kayak on Monksville Reservoir in Ringwood, New Jersey.

Not the same, you say. Not even close!

Let me explain some of the parallels and the contrasts. I would bet that the last time Mr. Bush jumped out of a plane, he did so successfully. As I recall, he even made a successful parachute jump at age 20 during World War II when some bad guys were shooting real bullets at him. So another parachute jump without bullets must have seemed like child’s play to him, even at 80.

The last time I kayaked some three years ago, I ignominiously flipped over and found myself underwater looking up into my boat. Undeterred (well, only slightly deterred), I scrambled from under the overturned kayak. I managed to flip the boat back over, but it was filled with too much water to bail out. My peaceful sail near my currently uproariously laughing wife (was there no empathy to be found!) was interrupted. Only somewhat daunted, I dog-paddled myself and the boat to shore, where I managed to persuade a sunbather to help me pull the boat onto dry land and dump out the water inside. Then I got back into the kayak and tried to pretend that all was normal as I paddled back to the boat rental launch.

President Bush had cameras recording his safe return to land and a supportive family cheering him on. I had that same laughing wife recording everything mentally, and she was sure to tell everyone we knew about the incident. While it is true that, unlike President Bush, I was never in a life-threatening situation, was he ever in fear of dying from embarrassment!

So is it any wonder that I had not returned to kayaking for three years? And I might have stayed away longer, except that Audrey gifted me a kayaking “discovery activity” as part of my 65th birthday present. I guess she figured that if I was going to drown while kayaking, I should at least know how to paddle correctly before my demise. She was even coming along for the ride and possibly to take a picture as I went over.

Our lesson on Labor Day featured two guide/instructors and one other paddler, who probably didn’t suspect the danger possibly at hand. Both Audrey and I had worn bright shirts for the outing. The lead instructor thought that was a good idea. “At least we won’t have any trouble spotting you in the water,” she quipped. (Still no empathy!) She also proudly proclaimed that no one had ever overturned during one of her lessons, which smacked of hubris to me.

So many kayaks, so much potential danger!

We donned our PFD’s (portable floating devices, aka life jackets), and Audrey made sure I was snuggly strapped in. (She did care.) We learned proper paddle techniques (or PPT, as we kayakers might say) on land, and then headed toward the boats. Audrey’s was a 14-foot recreational kayak. I was given the 16-foot craft, noted for being a little wider and a lot more stable. Flipping this one over might be a challenge.

I made an almost graceful entrance into the boat, aligned my butt and back in the seat, planted my feet firmly on the foot rests, and began paddling—a little right and a little wrong. The instructor noted that how I handled the paddle could influence how quickly and smoothly I went places and how likely I was not to overturn. I spread my hands slightly, loosened my wrists, moved my body to about 10 degrees less than straight up, and tried to pivot my “core” without rocking the boat. So much to remember in order to have “fun.” Amazingly, it all worked. I paddled around one part of the reservoir, went under the overpass to the other side, made a circle that was a little wider than everyone else’s (not just because of lack of skill but also because by choosing a wider, longer boat, I had sacrificed some maneuverability for stability—a worthy sacrifice).

We kept this up for over an hour. Then, thankfully, we headed back toward dry land. Just one more hurdle to overcome—emerging from the boat without falling butt-first into the water. More instruction from the guide, and I was up, out, and striding toward shore. Take that, George Bush! And I did my birthday ride solo; Mr. Bush sailed down from 13,000 feet tethered to a guide, the wimp!

So I had conquered kayaking—at least for the time being. But could I rest on my laurels? Later that day, Audrey, looking over the L.L. Bean adventure guide, asked with a straight face, “So do you want to go on a three-hour, full moon kayak sail in two weeks?” Could she be intent on collecting my life insurance now that I’m an official “senior citizen”?
The two candles on my cake are a 6 and a 5. Oh my!

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