As someone who loves working out, I have always enjoyed the rowing machines available in most gyms today. Simulating the action of an actual human activity has always seemed preferable to simply lifting heavy weights. I enjoy the burn and the sweat, the mental and physical challenge of rowing. You could say that I was a bit of a rowing junkie. Hearing this, a friend of mine suggested that I take up kayaking. He insisted that it provided a far greater, more satisfying experience.
At first, I must admit, I was not turned on to the idea of kayaking. Most clips I had seen of the sport on television involved tremendously in-shape adrenaline junkies shoved into tiny boats attached to their bodies, attempting miraculous crossings of fatal-looking whitewater or navigating 20-foot drops. Worst of all, I had also seen clips of kayakers going under the water, rolling, and not coming up again. I loved adventure, but this all seemed a bit over-the-top. Kayaking was definitely not for me.
Fortunately, this perception of kayaking began to change as I was slowly introduced to the sport by friends and family. I was made privy to the fact that kayaking can be just as enjoyable, and much safer, when gliding along a glassy mountain lake or drifting with the tide on a remote beach. Kayaking is not only a sport for thrill seekers, although it certainly has elements that cater to such people. It is a way to enjoy nature, to interact with one’s surroundings, even to explore places inaccessible on foot. It allows you to literally get away, alone or with a friend or loved one, and go to a place where nothing matters but the water, your paddle, and the immensity of the sky or the intimacy of a quiet riverbank.
I also discovered that kayaks come in many shapes and sizes. They can be single or tandem. They can have skirts. You can sit on top of them or inside of them. Some are made for multi-day trips, with compartments and conveniences galore, while others are intended for a quick paddle around a lake. Some are made for the river, others for the sea. Kayaks can be expensive, but certainly don’t have to be. Whatever kind of kayak you choose, however, there is always the potential for unexpected discovery.
One of my first kayaking trips took place in the cold northern seas of Alaska. My wife and I skimmed along the banks and rocks of small islands, led by our guide to observe the quiet wildlife on the nearby banks. On one small outcropping of rock, we encountered something astonishing: starfish, clinging to the rock for dear life, and colored as brightly as a spectacular sunset. Some were fluorescent orange; others, a rich lavender. They shone against the rocks likes splashes of neon paint thrown haphazardly on a dark background. We gazed at them in wonder and admiration. Soon after, our guide shouted as a bald eagle passed overhead, landing quickly on a peak of bare rock sticking out above the trees below. He could not have been more than 40 feet from us, and we stared at him in awe. Later, we reflected upon the fact that we could not have experienced this without paddling our kayaks some 2 miles in and around the small outlying islands. A large ship would have been too big to weave in and out, while a motorboat would surely have disturbed the eagle from perching atop the rock near us.
When we returned, we were surprised by how far we had paddled, and felt a bit exhausted, a feeling which had been completely overwhelmed by the sense of majesty and adventure we experienced while paddling. By comparison, my hours spent on the rowing machine watching television felt pale and inadequate. I even felt as though I had received a better workout!
Now, it is true that while I had to travel thousands of miles to get to Alaska, I only needed to go 5 minutes down the street to get to my gym. But I have since taken my kayak to a river in the next county and to a large pond in a park not far from home. I’ve even taken my kayak out fishing, mixing paddling with casts into reeds and eddies for trout. In the midst of all of this, I’ve found that while kayaking takes a bit more time and effort, the benefits far outweigh anything I gain from rowing in a gym. I still use that old machine from time to time, but when the wind is blowing through my hair, the water is gliding by my boat gently, and the sun sets amongst the clouds of the horizon, I am thankful that I have taken up kayaking.