Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Reflections on Water: Waiting to Inhale

Occasionally when I’ve been working too hard and haven’t gotten out for any Northwest adventures, I post personal essays.

I recall no panic or fear as I looked up at the cloud-covered sky through the layer of water above. Instead of gazing down into the pond at rainbow trout darting through wispy clumps of green algae, suddenly my gaze was reversed skyward.

 It was peaceful beneath the water’s surface, surprisingly so. Then arms reached down and pulled me out. My 8-year-old brother David had the presence of mind to act quickly when he saw his 3-year-old little sister underwater.

My parents must have been horrified—I remember their strong reaction contrasted dramatically with the soothing underwater world. Soon thereafter, the whole lovely landscaped pond area of our front yard—the upper pond, the waterfall crossed by a wooden bridge, and the larger lower pond—was enclosed in an ugly cyclone fence to prevent me from falling in again.

 Maybe because I had no fear during my tumble into the pond or because I was born under the sign of Pisces and raised in Troutdale, I was never afraid of water. Loved to pull on my galoshes and run outside whenever there was a driving rain. Spent hours in the swimming pool with my brother trying to outlast each other treading water. Thrilled in jumping into lakes and ponds and pools and rivers. My father called me the little waterdog.

 It makes sense that I call swimming laps my mental and physical therapy.  During an evening lap swim in college, a lifeguard at the pool had to yell at me to stop swimming because it was time to go home and go to bed. I’d lost count after 100 lengths.  The water enveloping me felt like freedom.

The first time I was in a sea kayak I felt a whole new level of freedom and wonder. Sleek and trim, close to the water’s surface, the kayak revealed new watery dimensions. As I glided over the glassy calm saltwater of Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island, neon orange and violet sea stars clung to the rocks just below the hull of the boat, within arm’s reach. 

But just like the other elements, water can lull, and then turn if you’re not respectfully cautious. It happens all the time—people don’t pay attention, don’t take appropriate precautions, think they are immortal, and suffer the consequences.

So I, too, had a lesson to learn about water.

It was at a swimming pool in a basic kayaking skills class. We were shown how to “wet exit” in case of a capsize.  I wasn’t afraid the first time I went over. I just tipped sideways until the kayak rolled upside down, then rolled forward, pulled the sprayskirt around my waist loose from the combing around the cockpit, and did a somersault out of the boat. I popped up to the water’s surface, flipped the boat upright, and hauled myself back in. 

Then it was time to try again. Hanging upside down in the kayak, I yanked on the front loop to loosen the sprayskirt, expecting to again tumble easily out of the kayak.

Nothing happened.

I was still hanging upside down underwater, sprayskirt enclosing me within the kayak cockpit. I yanked the loop again and again. Then I panicked. For the first time, my lovely watery cloak felt all wrong. I needed air. NOW.

I tried to get upright for air, frantically clawing the water with my arms. Shot through with adrenaline, I managed to jerk and stroke to get the kayak sideways and my face above the surface for a brief gulp of air before the boat dropped upside down again. A trainer finally noticed my panicked splashing and swam over to flip the kayak upright.

I got the attention of the whole class as the woman who was the example of what not to do, how not to react. I should have pulled the loop forward to loosen the sprayskirt from the cockpit combing rather than straight upward.

Although rattled, I did force myself to get back in the kayak and do it again—correctly.

When I was a small child, I probably hadn’t been underwater more than a few seconds before my brother hauled me out.  I've read that babies (and therefore small children?) instinctively know to hold their breath for a few seconds underwater.

So over 30 years passed before I finally learned I’m not amphibious.

Water still beckons me—I swim laps and kayak as often as possible. But now when I first get in the kayak cockpit and pull the sprayskirt securely in place, or if the wind and waves pick up, I remember that fear. I have to stifle the brief flashes of panic and calm myself, knowing I can call on my training to read the situation and react appropriately.

The view is lovely from both sides of the watery looking glass, but I prefer being on the side of the sky.


Anne said...

Boy do I remember that. You are right, the chain link fence was not attractive, but it was necessary. And after awhile I just didn't notice it anymore, at least you could see through it!

Lynette said...

I enjoyed your essay on your blog…thanks for sharing

Anonymous said...

I very much used your blog to immerse myself in beautiful, often thought-provoking prose and pictures about the natural world. I consciously saved it, like I would a fine chocolate, for my last morsel of pleasure before immersing myself into a mitigation plan for the day. Thanks for the always delightful break!

Jill said...

Thanks Lynette! And having my blog compared to fine chocolate is the highest praise!

Seanna said...

A good essay for a newbie kayaker to read!