Next month I'll be taking a group of teen girls camping for a week.
We'll be going to Valdez (pronounced Val-deez, not Val-dez) which is about six hours from Anchorage and right on Prince William Sound. Back in 1964 the town was destroyed by a tsunami and rebuilt slightly to the north and Valdez gets more snowfall than any other place in Alaska. At least I'm pretty sure I've heard that--if not, it's right up there at the top of the list.
We're going in July to take advantage of another bonus the town has to offer: sea kayaking.
Having never been to Valdez or been kayaking when we began planning the trip almost a year ago I was really excited to try something new and adventurous and since February we've been training to prepare ourselves.
One of the things that we would all have to do is escape from an overturned kayak. I knew this was coming, we've been waiting for it to get warm enough to do it outside, and while I'm looking forward to the trip the idea of doing this emergency training really scared me. I've been dreading it for weeks.
It sounds funny to say I was scared but you need to know first that Alaskan water, even in the summer, is cold. Lakes here--assuming they're not fed by glacial streams in which case they'd hardly be above freezing--just don't warm up that much. So knowing that I was going to be strapped into a kayak then upturned (still strapped in) then left to disengage myself and float to the top made me pretty nervous. Being cold, wet and slimy--three things I fear beyond reason added to the fear of drowning. Great.
Assuming I made it that far and didn't drown I'd then be expected to upright the kayak and climb back on board, bail out my craft and once again secure myself in my seat. And what's more, it wasn't just me that would be doing this, I had 11 girls ages 12-18 who would be doing it too and whose parents wanted them back safely at the end of the evening.
Most of the girls were pretty nervous about the whole thing but I knew that what we'd be doing was really quite safe. We'd all have PFDs and two boats of trained kayakers standing by but still--scary.
Last Wednesday we headed out to Goose Lake and it was as if the planets aligned. Someone was seriously looking out for me because 1) We had the best weather we've had in about three years that week and the temperatures on Wednesday were as great as you'll ever get in Anchorage and 2) you won't believe it but I was sent a full-body neoprene wetsuit to review by Aqua Sphere. No joke.
When it was my turn I zipped up, put on my life vest and spray skirt and carefully got in. A spray skirt is a contraption that you wear just like a skirt where the "hem" is elasticized and fits very snugly around the lip of the opening so water won't crash in on you and soak you from the waist down. It's not only important for keeping dry but in the event of an emergency (such as we were going to simulate) you'd need to be able to find the release tab underwater so you can free yourself.
My partner and I paddled out to the other two kayaks waiting for us and after a few last minute instructions we began rocking our kayak. Back and forth, back and forth and on the third time we went over. The water crashed all around me and in my panic I grabbed my nose to keep the water out. Of course I'd be needing that hand for the escape so I had to let go and when I did water poured into my nose while I was upside down.
I opened my eyes but it was dark, murky and green all around me. Then I remembered the training and my hands went to my sides where they found the lip of the opening, then I slid them around to the front, following the lip, until I came to the release tab sticking up just like it should be. I grabbed it and pulled and the quick panic came "What if I can't get out of the seat? What if I get stuck on something?" but once my spray skirt was released I arched my back like I'd been taught and my life vest did all the work. I popped up like a cork and grabbed a breath before wincing at all the water up my nose--all in a matter of seconds that felt much longer.
My partner had had a similar experience but was having a hard time not panicking so I tried to comfort her while still trying to get out of the water as quickly as possible--after all, when we're in Valdez the water won't be as "warm" as it is at Goose Lake.
I had seaweed wrapped around my foot and tried not to get completely disturbed (I have a slight fear of swimming in the ocean or in lakes where I can't see my feet and where strange creatures bump into you under water and sea weed wraps around you to drag you down into the depths . . . .) while I talked my partner through the job of heaving our kayak right side up.
The hardest part is getting back in. Those kayaks are slippery and round and there aren't really any good places to get a hand hold so you have to be able to wrap your arms around the stern as tightly as you can, then throw your leg up over the hull so that you're on your stomach, facing aft, arms and legs wrapped around the kayak for dear life. Then you probe with your feet until you can find the hole and squinch yourself backwards along the stern until you can kneel backwards into your seat then turn around--low and careful so as not to upset yourself again--and sit down.
Once we both were back in (you have to go one at a time) we had to grab the bilge pumps and start pumping because kayaks are unstable with water sloshing around in them. We pumped and pumped and pumped until my arms were burning and ready to fall off then we finally refastened our spray skirts, recovered our paddles and headed for shore.
Andrew had told me before we went out that after it was all over I'd feel more powerful but I'd laughed at him and told him I was so dreading it all that I doubt I'd feel anything but relief. He was right, I felt completely powerful. I realize that in Valdez the water will be colder and there will be waves and difficulties with weather and conditions but still--I felt like I could do anything.
Except pump more water.
And my wetsuit? I am in love completely. I was so warm and toasty in it that even in the water I was comfortable and never got cold--it even felt good. Except for the sea weed wrapping around my foot. I will be taking it on our Valdez trip for sure. It made me feel even more like a super hero and I think I caught Andrew mumbling about it making me look like Cat Woman. And I think he meant that in a good way.
I even have a video from the event though it's not the greatest quality. At least you get the general idea.
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