By Melinda Munson
I am not a natural kayaker. This is a disappointment as I’ve dreamed of slicing through the Alaskan ocean in my own kayak since ninth grade. I’ve cherished this vision for over 20 years, until this summer, when Packer Expeditions offered free kayak classes to locals.
I don’t know why I thought I would slide into the boat and effortlessly glide through Nahku Bay’s choppy waters. This would not be historically feasible. In athletics, I have always needed to work hard to maintain mediocrity.
During high school I played sports: field hockey, basketball, track. I definitely wasn’t a star athlete — I was mostly there for social interaction and to avoid chores at home. (I had seven siblings and no dishwasher.)
Throughout the first class, just like in highschool, my brain comprehended what kayak guide Cowboy was saying, but somehow the message didn’t travel to my limbs. Maybe because I was focusing too hard on keeping the boat upright. Usually when the guides demonstrated a new stroke, I was just trying to keep my kayak pointed forward. (I was also trying to figure out how Cowboy got his nickname, but no one would tell me.)
I emailed Wyatt before signing up for the second class: advanced strokes and water rescues.
“Are you sure I’m ready for this?” I wrote, reminding him how much I struggled in the beginner’s course. “You’ll be good!” he answered back. Well, sh%$.
I woke up on the second Saturday, hoping the high winds and unrelenting rain from the night before would be enough to cancel the trip. But this is Skagway and weather is life.
There were just three students including myself. With four guides, and a PFD, that meant my chances of drowning were negligible. Add in the drysuits donated by the Rec Center, and I would probably survive the excursion.
Drysuits would have been cool in the 80s but they’re the last thing I want to put on my 41-year-old, slightly claustrophobic body. I haven’t worked out since I moved to Alaska four years ago and I’ve been visiting Kone Kompany frequently. You do the math.
One doesn’t just put on a drysuit. You remove all jewelry and cautiously inch wrists and ankles through the rubber gaskets. Make sure to pee first, because as the guides mentioned more than once, it’s not cool to urinate in the suits. (As a frequent pee-er, this was a concern, so I didn’t drink anything all day. It worked.)
I didn’t really enjoy the two kayak classes. The Packer guides are charmingly deceptive. They are all smiles and patience, full of grace and skill. They make kayaking look easy.
News flash: they are professionals who trained hard. I on the other hand, sit in an office chair most of the day and am intimately familiar with Glacial Coffeehouse’s pastries.
I made it halfway through the second class, before my toes, clad only in Tevas, started to turn white and lose feeling after I tipped myself into the Pacific Ocean (on purpose) several times.
This was expected. I have Raynaud’s Syndrome, a condition where the body thinks it’s actually colder than it is. If I’m not careful, fingers or toes will lose their color and feeling. It can take days of warming to get back to normal. For me, it’s not dangerous, just uncomfortable. I opted out after lunch break and went home to cuddle in my bed with my electric blanket, Rosie.
Lucky for Skagway, I’m a much better author than kayaker.
Writing is all I’ve got going for me. Unlike many Skagwegians, I can’t sing, or dance or produce a work of art. I am a good writer and a good critical thinker, which is possibly why I look like a stroke survivor when I’m paddling. I need to let go of myself, trust my body and move forward.
I plan on heading over to The Mountain Shop to buy some synthetic layers and booties in the event I have another opportunity to kayak. One day I might make guides Josh or Autumn proud, or at the very least, not embarrassed they taught me how to paddle. And eventually, hopefully, I’ll learn how to let go.