From two decades as a woodworker I have learned that sometimes I need to approach a problem in the shop as if I know almost nothing. I need to return to what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.” To solve the problem at hand, like imagining a jig that allows me to perform a safe cut, I sometimes need to put aside habits that dull perception and assumptions that prevent me from thinking in new ways. A few days ago I had an opportunity to return to a version of beginner’s mind in relation to paddling a kayak.
Last October a local church held an auction to raise money so that girls in Myanmar could go to school. A friend who belongs to the church asked me to offer a guided paddle on Flathead Lake. Wanting to support the education of girls, I happily wrote up a description of a day-trip on the lake and submitted it to the church. After the auction, I heard who won the excursion and kept in touch with her over the winter. The night before the trip, this last Monday, I loaded Bluebird, my Current Designs Gulfstream, and Kestrel, my Perception Carolina, onto my wooden rack. I went through a long mental list of everything I might need, including some emergency gear if we got caught on an island during a thunderstorm or mid channel when the wind kicked up. The next morning I met the person who made the winning bid at her house. She was ready with red bag, sunscreen and water bottle in hand. We drove down to the local Italian deli and picked up sandwiches, drinks, cherries, and chocolate I ordered ahead of time.
On the way up to the lake I gently inquired to learn more about N’s interests and abilities, her motivation for submitting the winning bid, and the kind of experience she hoped to have. As I listened I held two paddles in mind, one to Wild Horse Island that would include a hike, and the other into The Narrows where the archipelago might offer shorter paddling distances and a little more shelter if monsoonal weather suddenly descended on us. When we crested the Polson moraine I got my first view of the lake and its conditions. Wind out of the south and a choppy surface led me to turn right at the light and go for the nearer islands, choosing safety over adventure.
As we began to unload the boats and all the gear I felt a little tension. I wanted to insure N’s safety and give her the best experience possible. I wanted to impart necessary information without loading a new paddler with anxiety. Knowing how fear blocks the integration of information, I decided on a very gradual approach. I placed both boats on the lawn, not on the shore. This way we could take our time getting ready. I tried to keep in mind how excitement and fear might vie with each other in the mind of a beginner. In response I tried to pare down instructions to the bare essentials that I gave her a little at a time: skirt first, pfd second; this side of the paddle blade faces forward, this side toward you; this is how you get into a kayak without tipping it over; I’ll adjust the foot peddles until the boat feels like it is part of you; attach the rear of the skirt, then the front, then the sides; if you happen to tip over, grab this loop, pull the skirt loose and you will roll out and float to the surface; try not to paddle with your arms, paddle with your core (a way not to get tired). While speaking I noticed N’s respiration rate go up and down. Whenever it rose I slowed down or became still.
After a few things made sense to N. on land, I decided that it was time to get near the water. We lifted Bluebird over the concrete curbing and gently placed it on the boat ramp, half in, half out. I helped N. settle herself in the keyhole, handed her the paddle and again paid attention to her breathing. I could tell that she had practice calming herself. When she seemed more at ease I returned to final assurances: the skirt will protect you from waves and drips from the paddle; the hatch gaskets will hold and the boat will not fill up with water if waves wash over the deck; we can’t prevent power boats from making waves but we can ride through and over them; its Monday, so few boats will be on the water.
Eventually I slid her in the water and encouraged her to simply hang out while I picked up Kestrel. N. sat in the shallows of the marina and waited for me. When we were side-by-side I said, Go ahead and rock side to side. Get a feel for how the boat moves. Now take a few strokes and see how it feels. When I could tell that N. sensed the initial stability of an already stable boat we paddled out of the marina and into the open water between the campground and Bull Island about 1.5 miles to the west. I rafted up with her, showed her how two boats together, paddles across each boat, felt even more stable. I said, let’s just sit here in these little waves and see how the boat responds; let the boat move a little; don’t try to freeze it; your safety is in the boat, not in being able to touch bottom.
When N’s breathing settled toward something like a resting rate I encouraged her to take a few more strokes. I tried to reassure her by saying, as we make the crossing I will stay very close to you. We are going to a beautiful bay where we will have our picnic. Let’s take one stroke and then the next.
Ever so slowly we began to advance into the channel. I slipped upwind and just ahead of her to break the effect of small waves and a little wind coming from the south. I kept N. in the corner of my right eye at all times. We paddled for several minutes in complete silence. I wanted her to find her own rhythm, to work the fear-born tension out of her body. After a long stretch of quiet I thought it might be helpful to provide a distraction. So I asked some questions about her previous adventures: When were you in Saudi Arabia? What took you there? How did you decide to become a diver? Have you ever traveled to Asia? We went back and forth, stroke after stroke.
The conversation worked like a tail wind. Before we knew it we glided over the foundation of the island and entered the green water of the first of two south-facing bays. With the sunny shore at hand I sped ahead, telling N. that I would land first and catch Bluebird as she came in.
As she stepped ashore I could tell that N. felt relief to be on land. I raised my right hand to congratulate her and got a palm slap in return. After securing both boats I laid out the picnic on a drift log. I was not surprised when she said, “I’m hungry.” She reached for half the roast beef sandwich known as The New Edition and half of the prosciutto and walnut chutney version known as Kiss. We ate the dark red cherries, tossing the seeds over our shoulders, hoping for an island orchard, and then topped things off with Blood Orange Sanpellegrino and chocolate.
We took time to digest our food and told a few more stories. Though the forecast had been good, I knew how fast weather can change and that the lake responds to the slightest change in wind velocity or direction. As soon as I could I laid out some options for extending the paddle, but trusted her own judgment when she said, “Let’s paddle back.” Again, I helped her feel settled and centered in the boat and gave her a gentle push off the beach. I turned to Kestrel, tucked myself in and sprinted to catch up. On the way back I could tell that N. felt renewed by lunch and much more comfortable in the boat, perhaps even enthusiastic about being on such intimate terms with the lake. The conditions were calmer than during the initial passage, almost glassy as we paddled east. Ring-billed gulls called overhead and an occasional ski boat passed in the distance.
I entered the marina first so that I could keep Bluebird from grounding on the course concrete ramp. I gave N. a hand as she got out and found her legs. This was a successful first paddle for her. My guest on the lake had covered the distance. She had done something new and felt proud of herself for overcoming her initial fears at being in a kayak on the largest lake west of the Mississippi, a lake that feels like an ocean.
We worked together to re-load the boats and all the gear. I kept an eye on clouds racing in from the west. The wind began to blow and within ten minutes a once- placid lake turned into a gray-green milkshake. With some apprehension we watched a paddle border stroke through the whitecaps and waves that crashed against the breakwater. N. got into the truck for shelter while I finished tying down the boats. We drove home grateful that we had gotten off the water when we did. The lake was no longer a safe place for a novice paddler.
On the way home we soaked up the beauty of the Mission Valley, the way hayfields abut the high peaks of the range. In the distance we saw lightning spear the clouds over St. Ignatius, so we turned west to take the back road through Moiese and avoided most of the storm. We drove the rest of the way talking about community theater and family, took a shortcut to her house and arrived safe and sound.
After dropping N. off I felt relief. I had not exposed a new paddler to anything like the dangers of paddling in a storm. I had not forgotten anything and been forced to improvise. I had not asked too much of her in relation to distance or time. Now I can return to my own adventures on the lake, trying not to let assumptions and habits dull my perceptions or shut the door on the unexpected. I will try to be as open as I was twenty-five years ago in Sitka, Alaska, when I took those first wondrous strokes. I feel glad that in October more girls will be at school in Myanmar.