Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Where It Takes Us

Over the weekend, I took a group of college students on an overnight sea kayaking excursion among the islands west of Mount Desert Island. The students had planned the meals, bought and packed all the food, and even handed me a bag of home-made gorp as we packed our kayaks at the ramp.

You never know how a trip will go, even if you’re paddling alone. Add another paddler, another boat, and the variables begin to add-up. How will the personalities emerge? How well will they manage on the water? As the group grows in size, the variables become exponential. I’ve only guided a handful of trips so far, from 2 to 22 paddlers, and I’ve started to see the patterns emerge. I’m learning as I go along, tweaking the way I demonstrate a forward stroke, stressing the “let’s stay close together” part of my pre-trip briefing. No matter how much I ask people to stay together, there’s usually a few times on a trip when it feels like I’m trying to herd cats. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time messing with rudders and pedals.

We launched and took a quick spin around the cove to get a feel for the boats. Most of the students had never been in sea kayaks, but they were quick learners, and didn’t seem too concerned by the wind and waves we faced as we headed out. Soon, I paused and gave them a choice: head around an island, or over a sandbar with breaking waves. I have to admit, I was surprised when they all pointed toward the sandbar, and let out excited whoops as the waves hit their bows. One tandem even got stuck, but no worries; they tried again and made it. That seemed to break the ice: we were having fun.

The wind died-down after lunch and we made our way up the coast, finally taking a break on a small, state-owned MITA island, where everyone stretched out on the rocky ledges in the sun. I found one of the student leaders reading the MITA sign, realizing the island’s camping potential (two campers max). It would have been nice to stay there, but the group was very tuned-in to the leave no trace, low impact approach and readily suggested that we continue on to the private island where we had permission to camp.

The night was cool and clear, dark and starry. To the north, the sky over Ellsworth glowed faintly. Cooking was an involved affair with two stoves, plus my Jetboil keeping water going for hot chocolate and tea. It took a long time. But what else would we do with the evening? And everyone was having fun, eager to help-out. Breakfast went the same way.

To be sure, guiding is quite different from the paddling I’ve known, but it is also a new way of experiencing things. I keep finding myself looking at the scenery, wondering what the other people see, and it makes me see it in a fresh light. Should I point things out, give names to the features, try to let people see what I see? Yes, sometimes, and sometimes it seems best to just keep quiet, or hand over a chart when a question arises. Discovering things for yourself always seems more meaningful than having it handed to you.

Once, I found myself getting ahead of the group. They were singing, a chorus of mostly female voices, young and light, airy. The song sounded vaguely familiar. I pulled in among the rocks to slow down and let the group catch up and I listened as lyrics emerged: “Any way the wind blows, doesn’t really matter... to me...”

The singing continued as we drove back to the college in the van, towing a trailerful of kayaks. I’ve often wondered why exactly I was getting into guiding, but occasionally it becomes obvious that it can take you some places where you couldn’t go on your own.


PenobscotPaddles said...

I don't envy you taking new paddlers out on Saturday. But Sunday was a glorious day to be paddling. We visited the Porcupine Islands, where the swells kept us very entertained.

Speedbumps said...

Thanks for reading. I've just been reading your blog and found it enjoyable and inspiring. Nice to see other perspectives- I never considered paddling those canals through Bangor, but it looks like fun.