If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’ve passed up on a couple of great life experiences because I’m extremely claustrophobic. You also know that I’ve used an occasional dose of one of the “‘zepam” type drugs to chemically thwart a panic attack when I’ve had to submit to an MRI tube to help keep my cancer from sneaking back up on me. Nevertheless, I live each day with a lurking sense of dread about any situation I get in that might constrict, hem up or crowd me in any way.
As I’ve posted recently, I’ve been looking for some kind of post-cancer challenge that would require me to get physically fit through a several-months-long training regimen. I’ve already dramatically altered my diet and after 4 months as a full-blown vegan, I’ve settled into a 90% vegetarian and 10% flexatarian diet that has helped me drop 25 pounds. Jill and I joined the YMCA and we’ve been taking full advantage of the new John P. Thayer YMCA downtown facility by attending every exercise class they have to offer. We’re sore much of the time, but we’re both seeing positive changes in our middle-aged bodies.
The challenge that I’ve taken up is a 265-mile kayak paddling trip from Columbus to Apalachicola down the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola rivers to the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve got until late October to be physically ready and mentally prepared to tent camp for 14 nights. One of my biggest fears about kayaking was conquered yesterday on the river at Blanton Creek Landing in Harris County. Since I don’t own my own kayak yet, I have been borrowing one from my new kayaking friend Shane Jones. It is a Necky Manitou 14, a blue 14-foot plastic boat of the sit-in variety.
Several weeks ago, when I began this adventure, I started with a sit-on boat thinking that my claustrophobia would stop me from getting down inside of one of the sit-in boats. I learned after only one short 5-mile paddle that a sit-on boat is not acceptable for a touring situation. They are not efficient to paddle because they’re too beamy and wide. They are quite stable, but ponderous. My friend Gary Bayer, who is planning to conquer the Columbus to Apalachicola adventure and who is also just getting into kayaking, says that paddling the sit-on-top boat is like paddling a large log. He’s right.
So, my second time out I borrowed Shane’s Manitou and have been doing well on the several outings I’ve had over the past several weeks. Yesterday was one of the most nerve-wracking days I’ve had on the river. I attended, along with eleven other fellow paddlers, a Safety/Rescue Class. We are so fortunate to have Atlantan, John Traendly, involved with our Chattahoochee Paddling Club. John T’s credentials as a paddling teacher are too numerous to mention here. He is an accomplished paddler, but he’s an even better teacher. Yesterday, he submitted himself to all sorts of situations to simulate a paddler in trouble. He was “rescued” by at least 7 different styles of rescue and required those of us in the class to be flipped upside down in our boats multiple times to experience the terror and ultimate satisfaction of knowing we can not only survive capsizing but also get ourselves back into our boats.
The first hour of our training happened on dry land at the landing. Just before the class started, Shane walked up to me and said, “I have a spray skirt that fits that Manitou if you want it.” I thought, “Oh God, please tell me he didn’t just say that.” This was a safety class, the one class where I should take chances. The one place where I should challenge my fear because I would be in the presence of numerous people who could pull me out of danger. I declined the use of the skirt. Rethought it. And, then asked Shane for the keys to his truck so I could get it, put it on and really ramp up my anxiety level.
So I got the spray skirt, slid into it, put on my pfd (personal flotation device) and stood there in the grass watching John T. give us the lowdown on gear and techniques for rescuing and being rescued in a kayak. Once the dry part of the class was over, I decided to get into the kayak and engaged the spray skirt to see how I would feel. I slid in, placed the elastic edge of the skirt over the cockpit coaming and wiggled until I got comfortable. Not bad, so far.
John T. paired us up for the wet part of the day’s training. I was paired, thankfully, with Todd Hyatt. I will never forget this guy. First of all, he’s a ruggedly handsome fellow. A muscular body and a chiseled face that sported a couple of days worth of facial hair. He was wearing paddling shoes and his sleek, long Kevlar kayak let me know that he probably knew what he was doing out there. I had to show that I could master a “wet exit” before I could continue in class. Everyone who was wearing a spray skirt had to prove that they could extract themselves from the boat after going upside-down.
It was time. I practiced popping my spray skirt a few times on land and it was time to get wet. Just before we picked up the boat to put it in the water. Todd said to me, “Just wanted you to know that I can’t bend my left leg.” “That’s cool,” I said, “I can’t lift my left arm above my head from a skiing accident. Between us, we’ve got one whole person.”
We placed the Manitou 14 into the water and after more time than, I’m sure, Todd thought was worth spending, I flipped myself over and after about three seconds that seemed like 3 hours, I popped up to the surface and proved that I could get myself out. I got back into the boat, hooked up the spray skirt and paddled around the corner out of the wind where we would be training for the next three hours.
Here’s my favorite part of the day. I asked Todd to tell me about his leg. He told an incredible story about the life-threatening injuries he received in a South American bus crash. He was sitting in the seat behind the driver when the bus in which they were traveling drifted into the wrong lane on a mountain switchback. In the head-on collision that ensued, the driver in front of him and a woman who was sitting behind him died. He survived with multiple scars and a left leg that won’t bend. Todd and I talked about adversity, about his injuries, about my cancer and about his brother who suffers mightily with cystic fibrosis. We talked about the human spirit and how people rise to the challenges they’re given. About the ones who fold up and the ones who meet their challenges head-on and make the best of the time they’re given on this earth. I don’t know how many more times I’ll see Todd Hyatt. I’m sure we’ll be on some future paddling trips. He is one of the great people I’ve had the opportunity to meet in my life. He was there when I got to put to rest one of the demons I’ve been able to conquer. Rolling out of a kayak doesn’t scare me any more. I know I can do it and I know what to do when it happens again.
We ended the day with a Chattahoochee Paddling Club themed party. The dozens of campers below us must have heard a spirited rendition of the theme song from “Gilligan’s Island.” We had a costume contest and some good food and drink. I’ll post a link to some pictures in another post.
Yesterday was a good day. Jill, aka Mary Ann, joined me for the party and I finally got to prove to all my fellow paddlers that I do have a wife. She doesn’t know it (she will now) that I’m hoping she will be convinced to come out and enjoy this great outdoor sport of paddling. We have such a great resource in our river. And, I have found that one of the very best ways to see many of the good things the river has to offer is from the quiet, comfortable seat of a sea kayak.