I’ve recently taken up kayaking. Part exercise, part hobby, this sport is something I’ve wanted to try forever, and it’s only since relocating to Florida’s Nature Coast that I’ve been able to do so. My teacher was a friend of my mother, a life-long paddler, who never made me feel stupid or slow, and explained things with just enough specifics that I was able to perform.
We were on the river (the Chassahowitzka River, to be precise) for only a few hours, but in addition to coming away from the trip having gotten a total-body workout, I also learned some more profound lessons, that I feel can be applied to everyone, and especially caregivers.
In no particular order, here they are:
It’s normal to feel anxious. The morning of our trip, I was letting all sorts of anxious thoughts circle in my head. What if I wasn’t fit enough? What if I couldn’t handle the boat? What if I couldn’t get into/out of the boat? About the only thing I wasn’t worried about was getting eaten by alligators. But what I realized was that it’s okay to feel a little anxiety about new situations. It is, after all, your brain’s way of trying to protect you. It’s only when you let that anxiety prevent you from experiencing things that there’s a problem. Talking my fears through with my mother and her friend helped me manage my nerves, and I ended up having a wonderful time.
Don’t push too hard. Too often, we make more work for ourselves than is truly necessary. A kayak is not a canoe and pushing your paddle too deeply into the water actually slows you down and destabilizes your boat. Taking smaller “bites” of water allowed me to move my kayak more quickly and maneuver more efficiently – and I stopped feeling like I was going to capsize.
There is more than one right way. Sometimes we get stuck following a method or practice for doing something because “we’ve always done it that way.” But sometimes trying a new way of doing something helps give us a new perspective and better results. In my case, I knew one way of turning my boat, which was to paddle only on the side opposite of the direction I wanted to go. What my teacher showed me, was that I could also turn the boat by pushing the paddle forward on the same side I wanted to go.
Be present in the moment. I had my phone in a dry bag so I could take pictures of my first kayak outing, but I quickly found that learning to handle the boat and learning the course of the river meant that I couldn’t focus (no pun intended) on taking pictures. So, I didn’t try. Instead, I put all my attention on the currents, the strokes of my paddle, the shore birds on the riverbanks, and the manatees sharing the water with us. We live in a world of “pix, or it didn’t happen,” but that’s not really true. Putting the camera (or the self-analyzing part of our brains) aside to just experience the moment is often more rewarding than any photograph.
Take breaks. Even when you’re paddling a kayak there are moments when you can rest your arms and let the boat drift a bit. Not only does this let you rest – always important – but it can result in an incredible feeling of peace. I had a moment when my mother and her friend were behind me, and I was virtually alone in a wide part of the river. I let my boat drift, just paddling enough to not hit any logs, and just listened to nature. I felt such a sense of calm and peacefulness, and it was as if I had the whole river to myself for a few minutes. Magic.
Ask for help if you need it. Many of us find it difficult to admit that we need help. On the river, I quickly learned that asking for help is essential to safety and a good time. I had to have help stabilizing my boat as I climbed in and out of it (the latter, by the way, is something no one does gracefully), and Mom’s friend held my boat for me before I had learned to trust it – and myself – and needed to put down my paddle and open a bottle of water. Later, I helped my mother get unstuck from a muddy section of the water too close to shore, by nudging her boat a little.
Use the buddy system. Kayaking on a lazy river isn’t a dangerous sport, but it’s still wise to have a friend or two along for the journey. Support systems aren’t only important while paddling, though, and having people to talk to in times when we’re struggling, whether it’s physically or emotionally, reminds us that we’re not alone, and helps keep us connected to the rest of the world.
My first time paddling was enough to get me hooked. We couldn’t go this week because winds and tides (the rivers here are all tidal estuaries) didn’t mesh well with our schedules, but I’ve made a commitment to going at least once a week. I’m excited about the physical activity – who knew exercise could be so much fun? – but I’m also looking forward to learning whatever else the river has to teach me.