27 July 2008

Life in technicolor, pt. 2

It's fitting that my maiden kayaking voyage should be in a fjord in Iceland.

We were a multi-national group: Germans, French, Australians, a few North Americans. The outfitters were Icelanders. Some of us had kayaked before; some of us (me!) hadn't. As I've always been pretty athletic, learning new sports doesn't worry me much. It also helped that before I booked the trip, I asked my children, both of whom have kayaked at Catalina Island, how difficult it would be.

The son took one look at my arms and said, "You will have no problem, Mom."

So, other than the fact that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, I was unfazed.

The bus picked up our group in Isafjordur, and transported us through a mountain (literally. I've never been in a tunnel quite like this one: very long and a single lane for two-way traffic. It was pretty...exciting) to our destination, Onundorfjordur. There we met with the outfitters, who more or less tossed us a variety of rain gear and lifejackets, none of which matched or was even the same sort of thing. To say that we were all somewhat colorful when garbed in our motley would be an understatement.

A young man helped the older couple to my right to get set up in their kayak, and I waited patiently for him to finish. He vanished. I waited. To the extent that I could, I suited up as I'd seen him instruct the others to do, but when he finally returned, he gesticulated wildly that I was all wrong, ALL WRONG! I was completely confused. Eventually, with a bit German, Icelandic and English we determined the little skirt that would cover the opening of the kayak was on inside out. Dear God! So much arm waving for so little.

But then the real fun began. Rudders. What rudder? Oh, I couldn't touch the pedals with my feet? What pedals? Detach skirt, get out of kayak, deal with pedals (obviously Gargantua had ridden in this kayak before me). Get back in, reattach skirt. Oh, they hadn't placed me close enough to the water; this was a fiberglass kayak and I needed to be closer. Detach skirt, get out of kayak, help little man move the kayak closer to the water. Get back in, reattach skirt. Paddle? Detach skirt, get out of kayak, locate a paddle. Get back in, reattach skirt.

I figured I was probably getting a better work out trying to get ready to kayak.


Oh and by the way, the bespectacled young man gestured, keep your knees pushed out to the sides of the kayak so you don't capsize.


Finally, whoosh! I was in the water, bobbing like a big fiberglass cork. After a couple of false starts, I got the hang of the paddle, and I was off, heading out of the protective cove and into the open water. The worried-looking birds--I still haven't figured out exactly what they are--joined by some gulls, swooped in to check us out. We were clearly quite unimpressive.

I paddled out, rather pleased with my success, trying to keep up with the rest of group and not hit anyone. I was not in the mood for bumper kayaks, especially not on very cold, open water.

I'm not wild about open water, and while a fjord isn't the ocean--though I can certainly vouch that it's salt water--it's not exactly a pond. When you're sitting in--in--a bobbing red cork, it seems a lot bigger than it looks when you're sitting on the bus. But there I was, highly focused, paddling away, steering with the rudder, bouncing over the waves--waves? Oh, yeah, waves!--moving at a pretty good pace. I stopped for a moment to get my bearings, regroup and enjoy the scenery.

Then I turned around.

Big mistake.

I really had come a long way from the cove. A long, long way. I was sitting in the middle of open water, the wind suddenly picked up, and I belatedly realized that the waves were now resembling the wake of a moderately fast boat.

I allowed myself about 2 seconds to fall into an absolute panic (I know, Jack on Lost says you get five seconds, but I decided I couldn't allow myself the luxury of an extra 3 seconds. The waves were starting to crest at near a meter and I was rapidly dropping behind the group). I took a deep breath, reminded myself that there was no shore so far away that I couldn't swim to it if things got really desperate, and that we had two guides kayaking with us and a third in a dinghy with an outboard motor.

I paddled.

I didn't learn until it was all over that two experienced kayakers dropped out about half an hour into the proceedings, finding the going to be too difficult. I didn't hear until later that another of the experienced kayakers likened the conditions to white-water rafting. I saw the guy who flipped over, but one of the guides got to him before anyone else. One of our party told me that the world reduced to a 10-ft. square, the space he could see in front of him. It's a pretty accurate description of how I felt. I kept an eye on the colorful dots of my fellow kayakers, and that and the water was my world for the next hour as I paddled steadily to catch up, doing battle with both wind and ever-increasing white caps. Not having ever kayaked, I had no idea what it was supposed to be like, but I felt ok, and I knew realistically that I wasn't in over my head. But I didn't turn around again.

And I paddled across that whole damned fjord and then some.

It's fitting that my maiden kayaking voyage should be in a fjord in Iceland.

As I approached the far beach, I saw one of the guides and one of my fellow kayakers. I wasn't sure what was going on--I hadn't been given an ultimate destination for the trip--so I paddled toward them, the waves working for me rather than against me, finally. As I neared the beach, I saw that the water had cleared to a deep tourmaline green, but I didn't have much time to enjoy the color because the guide grabbed the end of my kayak and pulled me ashore. I popped off my skirt, and hopped out of the kayak. I was tired, but pleasantly so, and didn't really hurt too much anywhere. Despite the communication breakdown at the outset and my own momentary panic, the experience had been pretty exhilarating.

When we were in Manchester, D. said to me, wide-eyed, "I couldn't live your life. Even the good parts are chaotic!"

At the time, I was a bit puzzled by her assertion. Yes, my life is busy, and carefully choreographed so that everything that needs to be accomplished is. I live to a pretty stringent schedule, but I don't feel like I do any more than anyone else.

But her comment came to mind as I stripped off my motley.

My life is Iceland by kayak.

I have to admit I saw her point.

Update 8/10/2008: A photo! In the far distance, you can see a line of buildings. That's where we started. The beach below where this photo was taken was where we ended. The water looks deceptively calm. I won't post the photo taken of me at this place, but the wind was blowing so hard my hair was standing straight up, which is a little more accurate representation of the weather conditions.

Go listen to some good music: "Life in Technicolor" from the album Viva la Vida by Coldplay.

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