Life's a Paddle

“Today we will concentrate on our exhale. In the west, when we find ourselves in a difficult time in our lives, we think that we need to introduce something new to bring positivity. We very rarely think the opposite, in that we don’t think to let go of those things causing distress instead of bringing more on. So with each exhale, release those stresses, pressures or negatives.”

I watched the sweat from my forehead drip in an almost constant stream onto my yoga mat. My instructor’s words still fresh in my head reminded me to overlook my stresses and my dramas. As I exhaled, I decided not to let how noticeably unfit I am upset me. Instead, I forgot about cycling and how lost I’ve felt for ages, and suddenly found myself in that room. All I had to do was breathe. And that’s all I thought about.

Two hours later the sweat on my forehead turned to hail. Just as Isaac and I pushed off from the beach into Cadboro Bay, it began to hail. The sky was dark and the hail hard. I hadn’t known until this moment that it actually hailed in Victoria. We yelled at each other and laughed. We asked what the fuck we were doing, as we started to paddle. The hail was fun to us, and despite asking what we were thinking, we didn’t consider turning around.

As a couple of inexperienced kayakers nothing felt natural. Neither of us had ever been on one in the sea, and I have a slight fear of the massive, unforgiving and relatively unexplored bodies of water. The hail-storm quickly subsided and we pushed on, marvelling at massive beach-front houses and wondering what the hell people need 5000 square feet for.

Our plan was to paddle the short distance to Discovery Island, which is behind the Chatham Islands, explore it’s shoreline a little, and then head home. It was a windy day, so we weren’t sure if we would make it there, and decided to make the call once we entered open water and could assess the winds. We followed the shore of 10 Mile Point until we were almost directly across from the point on Chatham Island that we planned to aim for.

Once we were about a third of the way across, we excitedly determined that we could make it. The wind must’ve died down. It was pretty wavy and there was still a decent breeze, but it certainly was manageable. “I hope we didn’t speak too soon!” I yelled to Isaac.

Fifteen minutes later my heart rate was high. Over the wind and the waves I couldn’t hear Isaac. I was drifting away from him, further and further north. If I missed the Island, I would drift into the Haro Strait and could only hope that the winds and currents carried me to San Juan Island in the U.S. As hard as I paddled, I continued to drift in the wrong direction. Fuck! Isaac’s going to die. He feels resposnsible for me and will die in his efforts to save me. Shit. I won’t make it.

I was too scared to suggest that we turn around. I was determined to make it. I was also afraid that I would capsize if I tried to turn around. My shoulders and arms ached and I started to panic. I was tiring and my fear of my drama increased. This couldn’t be happening. We didn’t have a phone to call search and rescue. I was over half way now and had to get to the island. If I turned around now, the distance would be too far for me to make it back to shore before exhaustion took over. Now I was worried that if I made it to the islands, I would be unable to make the return trip.

As I started to panic and my anxiety that has been relatively manageable as of late reminded me of its presence, I thought back to my yoga instructor’s words. I had to survive. There was no time to panic. I exhaled, and pushed away all anticipation of the journey home. Not making it was not an option. I reached further into myself with each dip of the paddle. I recalled my friend, Sarah Outen (Check her out she's super cool) , who circumnavigated the globe in a row boat, kayak, and on a bike. She would always call on her ‘invisible peloton’- everyone she knew and loved – during a time of distress, and they helped her through. I didn’t call on my peloton, but I asked Sarah to share her strength with me.

I breathed. I paddled. And I made it.

I wanted to paddle on to the shore of Discovery Island and rest, but we aren’t allowed on the island because of an incident in recent months between the island’s resident loan wolf and a visiting dog. The wolf swam there. I have nothing but respect for it. I wonder if the wolf remains there out of fear of the swim back.

The wind was coming from the south, so we tacked along in the shelter of the island’s shores as far south as we could to allow for the anticipated drift on the return journey. I felt entirely aware of my capabilities, and feared that I wouldn’t make it. As we neared our departure point, I knew that I had to survive. If I wasn’t going to make it back to the beach from which we had started, that was okay. I just had to reach the shore again, wherever that might be.

Leaving the island was the hardest part. Naturally, I didn’t want to leave the relative security of land behind. But to make it more difficult, we had wound up in a small inlet that offered a four foot wide exit. It was as if at least half the ocean was flowing through the rocky channel that we had to go through. On the far side, the water was about six inches higher. We had to paddle uphill against a very strong current. On the other side of the rocks you could hear waves crashing against the rocks.

Isaac went first and made it with relative ease. I paddled as hard as I could and got half way. It was like trying to get up the world’s fasted downward escalator while wearing roller blades. Halfway up I stopped moving forward. I paddled faster and dug as deep as I could. I reached the top and stopped moving forward again. I’m so tired. If I can’t get through here, I can’t cross to Victoria. I thought.

“I’m going back!” I yelled. I lifted my paddle over my head and shot backwards between the rocks, scraping the sides as I went. On the other side out of the rushing water, I couldn’t see Isaac. I listened to the waves and currents on the other side and felt panicked. A million thoughts went through my head. The most prominent thought was that I am too weak. Again. I calmed. I breathed. I exhaled every negative thought. I’m not weak. I decided.

I paddled as hard as I could and made it through. I dug deep and my shoulders screamed at me, but I made it.

We continued into the sea and I watched as waves crashed over the bow of my boat and into my chest. It wasn’t as bad as we had anticipated though. We relaxed. We still had a long, hard effort paddling into the head wind, but now I felt I could make it.

A sense of familiarity suddenly came over me. I could see the finish line from the second we left the island and I had the wind against me. From riding on the open prairies of Manitoba I knew the effort it could take to fight the wind towards a finish line that you could see for hours. I remembered my ride with Terry last August and how much I suffered. This was similar. Like then, I would survive this time too.

We did. We got back to shore. As soon as it was over, it was funny. We had been ambitious, and in danger, but perhaps it wasn’t as extreme as it had seemed.

Kissing the beach. Happy to be on land.

Kissing the beach. Happy to be on land.

We drove home and it felt almost surreal to be in a car, on a road. The last 2-3 hours, I realized, were a near- perfect mirror of where I find myself right now.

When I started riding my bike, hail didn’t matter. Everything was fun and I was determined. When the going got tough, I could always push on. Turning around when nothing was in my favour was never an option. Eventually, when I started to anticipate what was to come, I began to fear for my future. My anxiety started getting in the way. At some point, I forgot how to breathe. Now though, I’ve gathered myself. I’ve made it through the roughest water, and I’ve learned to breathe.

We spend so much time and energy fearing something before it happens. We become absorbed by the anticipation. We lose focus on the task at hand when we start to worry about something else. I made it yesterday because I realized that I could only take one step at a time. To get to the island required my undivided focus on paddling. I couldn’t fear the return trip before I completed the outbound leg.

I will try to save my fear of the scary moments for when they happen. I won’t be afraid of the future until it is the present.

Will Smith says it well:

I strongly suggest reading Sarah Outen's brilliant books "Dare to Do" and "A Dip in the Ocean".

Giving time for my sea legs to adjust to being off the boat. Just realized that the Bay looks super calm here...

Giving time for my sea legs to adjust to being off the boat. Just realized that the Bay looks super calm here...