about bliss

Sunday, July 27, 2008

paddling inward

"To sit on an island, then, is not a way of disconnecting ourselves but, rather, a way we can understand relatedness," Gretel Ehrlich, "Islands"

Months ago I signed up for a five day kayaking adventure in the Apostle Islands, a National Lakeshore in northern Wisconsin. When I signed up, I didn't know the others who would be joining me on this adventure--a group of students and colleagues--very well. New to Wisconsin, I had heard that the Apostles were stunning, secluded, and stuffed with wildlife--especially bears. Between relatively unknown tripmates and potential wildlife encounters, I had much to fear.

I had little kayaking experience, but a good bit of adventure experience, backpacking the Appalachian Trail and summiting Longs Peak. I missed my adventurous streak--something elemental to my survival, which had wilted as I became a creature of habit, of worries, of virtual and indoor worlds.

siskiwit lake

Out on Siskiwit Lake, seated in a bright red kayak, my heart skipped a beat as I prepared to tip myself over and execute the requisite wet exit that would be used in emergencies. tuck, tap, pull, and push, I chanted, as I flipped the boat and flailed out of the cockpit and bobbed to the surface, anxious but accomplished. do something everyday that scares you, said Elenor Roosevelt.

rafting up on Lake Superior

As we took to Lake Superior the next day, I found my balance as I wiggled in my seat, and tested out various paddle strokes and leans. We paddled to the mainland sea caves, huge outcroppings of sandstone that have been etched and carved by wind and wave. Angling my boat between towering sandstone cliffs, I worried about darkness, enclosure, and waited for the panic response to kick in. As my eyes traveled up the crack between the rocks, I saw white birch, abundant foliage, and azure sky above, contrasted to massive rock on each side, and gently undulating water below. My eyes filled with tears at the hushed holiness of the sublime space where beauty and fear mingle.

mainland sea caves

Cave after cave offered new vistas, striations of rock, ledges with hungry baby birds with wide open mouths, and green moss. The deep hollow thunk of water meeting rock intensified as the weather shift and the wind stirred up more, bigger waves. It was time to return.

Sleepy from heavy paddling, I laced up my dry shoes and headed out for a hike to lost falls, a play of dense foliage, falling stream, and slick rock that reminded me of twelve mile creek, on the outskirts on Great Smoky National Park, my favorite moment from the last real foray on the AT in 2004.

Sleep came swiftly and soundly that night, and the next morning we packed up for our three mile water crossing. We stopped in the quaint town of Cornucopia for lattes and fresh blueberry scones before heading to the launch point. Butterflies kept me company as I stole peeks at Sand Island in the distance--with so much cold, deep water in between where we were and where we needed to be. As we packed out boats with gear for two days on the Island, the waves grew and the wind shifted, and our paddle would take a bit more effort. In an hour and a half we reached the sandy beach of our campsite, and we set up camp.

A group of us set out for the Sand Island Lighthouse, where we played on slabs of sandstone and watched deer stalk the privy.

J, J, and H play on the rocks

After dinner we shared revelations around the campfire, until we were called away by a dramatic red moon rising over the distant horizon.

We ventured our in boats the morning to see the island sea caves, and played a game of chicken--tossing floppy rubber chickens at one another on our paddles. A lazy afternoon of beach yoga and gymnastics helped stretch my tight muscles and relax me for the six mile round trip paddle to York Island. The lake was gentle until we rounded the tip of the island and faced reflective waves. After an intense twenty minutes of strong paddling, we landed on a shore of coarse sand. We slurped large wedges of watermelon and noshed on ubiquitous granola bars before heading back into the western sun.

I was determined to catch one sunrise and so crawled out of my tent the last moment to absorb the changing colors and dramatic cloud formations of a sunrise to the East and an inexplicable rainbow to the West. Everyone was quiet and reflective as we tore down camp, shimmied into our wetsuits and spray skirts, and slid into our cockpits for the last time. Tranquil, glassy waters that reflected the puffy clouds accompanied us back to the mainland. I tried to stretch the moment as long as possible, but with each paddle stroke moments became memories and the island faded into the distance.

We cleaned, unpacked, and lingered over good-byes, knowing that this particular group would not be together again. The strong camaraderie, lighthearted teasing, in-jokes, pirate songs, shared moments were becoming a memory as well.

As we sat together one last time to share our moments from the trip, all I could think was how strong and alive and whole I felt. After a year of great challenges, I had shrunk to a tiny, scared version of myself, hovering indoors and afraid of life. The ever-changing Lake, the steadiness of rock carved by wind and wave, the power to propel and right myself with my upper body alone, filled me with a remembrance of strength, of perspective, of a natural rightness, and a renewed awareness of the constant impermanence of life.

I can soar like an eagle, undulate like a wave, arc like sandstone shaped by water, be pristine, remote, and at once accessible to those willing to make the arduous journey inward.

dharmagirl, ready for adventure

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your amazing experience, Jessica!!