We stood mesmerized at the expertise and seeming confidence of these park visitors. They busily went through their routine and then slipped in their cockpits, and with a few powerful strokes, glided away and disappeared into the horizon on the water. Amid the rocky crags and cold Superior water, we wondered where they were headed and what their itinerary held in store for them. It was as if they were disappearing into some secret territory, members of an elusive club with private backstage access.
The second of these pivotal moments occurred as we labored up the Rock Harbor shore over the harsh rocky climbs at the end of our week of hiking. As we slogged up the trail, a park ranger slid into view, effortlessly advancing ten feet at a time with every paddle. We called out to her and she pulled her turquoise 18 foot boat along side us. She was out for a day trip, bundled in her dry suit against the chill, and exuding and absolute confidence despite her young age and solo status.
And it was then that I knew... I knew what he was going to say before he even asked it. It wasn’t a matter of IF we would kayak the isolated waters of Isle Royale, but WHEN would we become kayakers and return to Gichigoomie’s grasp.
I can’t say it wasn’t a natural fit. We already had all the gear for backpacking, and really the only contrast between the two is a dry sack. In the 2 seconds it took for me to agree to buying the boats, it was as if my soul cried out “YES” with my extensive swimming background and my life-long status as a water baby.
Kayaking lakes in Indiana would be easy, safe, a walk in the park, but the elephant in the room that kept me awake at night was the persistent fear of the isolation, unpredictable weather, and frigid 36 degree temperatures of big water, the Great Lake.
I silently stewed and worried as we took steps to prepare for our 3rd return visit to Isle Royale. My confidence in my boat grew with every paddle; I honed in my gear and got the feel of the water and my boat’s responses to each paddle stroke. But inside, I fought down a sense of dread, too embarrassed to voice my fear. Even as we booked our passage on the Queen, I struggled internally. What if we had an emergency? What if we had rough weather and were trapped alone for days? What if a small misstep sent us into the water and we soaked ourselves in the chilly water? I have never tolerated the cold, and Isle Royale can throw a cold chill at you that drives deep into your bones. The fog can coat everything you’ve packed in just enough moisture to inhibit drying out or warming up. The bigger my husband’s plans for our trip got, the more I stewed.
Even as we unloaded our beautiful, sleek, long boats off the ferry and drew a small crowd, I felt like a fraud. I, now, sorted my gear and went through my well-honed in routine, but in the back of my mind the questions still simmered. Our first plans should have evoked some calm. We had hired a boat to transfer us safely around the unpredictable waters of Blake Point, where the convergence of oppositional waves chop up boats and put paddlers into a washing machine of waters that are notoriously tricky. However, as we scuttled around the Point, waves 4-5 feet tall crashed to and fro with force.
As the captain dropped us off, I inwardly wanted to call a time out, pack back up, and tell her it had all been a mistake. What had we been thinking? Did she know we were not experts? That our dreams exceeded our skill level? But this is what we do for love, and I’m a member of the fiercest type of loyalty, and so I swallowed my nerves and doubt and faced my fears head on.
The first paddle was cold and choppy. I paddled furiously just wanted to get to our destination and feel the relief of checking off our first challenge. At camp I reveled in the comfort of dry land and a night of no stress. Our biggest day was ahead of us, looming above like a mountain, ever present and impending.
Day two brought blue skies and calm waters and as the sun soaked my skin, my confidence grew. The calm solitude was so comforting. What I had anticipated would feel terrifyingly lonely actually brought tranquility and peace, exactly what God intended nature to offer mankind. I grew confident with the quiet and independence with each stroke. We pressed on, eager to explore the next stretch of open water. We set our sights on the far anchor of land and shoved off powering our adventure with inner curiosity and zeal for exploration.
In the sketchiest of moments as the waves built up, I trusted the power of my own drive and marveled in the physical ability to motor oneself through such a hostile and formidable foe. I learned to work with the water, to feel the lake pick up my boat and drive it forward or sideways without panic. I rested assured in the boat’s ability to stay righted. I set a determination to power through the distance, to reach the other side without balking out.
And by the end of our week long paddle, I felt I had earned the impressed looks of the hikers we -too- had once been as we paddled in to the harbor. As they quizzed us on what unknown adventures lay across those deep, dark waters, I knew I had conquered my fears and grown as an individual. I had earned the badge of courage that so enthralled me when we first set sights on those kayakers years before. We had done what few people lay claim on and experience, and we had trusted in one another and the hearty grit of determination.
And as we walked Snug Harbor, eating the glorious food of the park store waiting on the ferry to load, I saw the next two kayakers unload their pretty boats. Impressive as it was, this time I noticed what I had missed before. The slightest hint of unease was on their brows. Their gaze caught the horizon and that big water and they held the gaze for just a split second - mostly unnoticed. I smiled to myself. I had seen. And I knew inside that soon enough, they would return to this same spot, battle-hardened, experienced, and deserving of an ice cream at the park store.