Monday, June 15, 2009

I Feel Like Super Woman

Kayaking in AlaskaNext 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.

Kayaking in AlaskaLast 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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33 comments:

Robin said...

Your post just brought back a lot of memories. Years ago, Jay and I did a sea kayaking course here. When it came time to practice that wet exit I had the hardest time convincing myself to purposely flip over! Up until then I'd been the only one in the class not to have fallen in, and I really didn't want to start then - and that was in lovely warm water inside a protected marina! You're right though, the reality isn't nearly as bad as the anticipation.

We did go on to complete the whole course but I found that while I love flat water paddling and a little bit of chop is fine, the pretty heavy duty waves and currents of the Eastern Med, not to mention the "surfing" all the young guys in the group were so hot on, was not so much my cup of tea. I think I'd have enjoyed it more with your 11 year old girls, but the struggle to keep up with a bunch of incredibly fit young guys in their twenties was a bit too much work to be fun.

branda50 said...

I am with you about swimming and not knowing "what lies beneath" me...eew....I also would have to do this one handed as I have to plug my nose...I have a friend who tries to convince me her little kayak won't flip....
I once took some teenage girls river rafting......I was so nervous but we had so much fun and I am still telling stories of the days events....
We will be in Valdez on July 29th....

The Source said...

I hope you and the girls have a wonderful time! I'm one of those people who worries a lot about the "things" swimming around, but oddly I worry more in lakes and rivers than I do at the beach. I guess I figure there is a greater chance of stepping on a 5 foot catfish than getting attacked by a shark??

Oh, I made the Caribbean chicken yesterday for dinner...it was a hit! Everyone loved it!

Mel said...

Way to go MICHELLE!
Love,
Dad

Beth said...

DUDE!!!! I'm so impressed. Of all the things you have written about, this is the one that blows me away the most. Holy Hannah!! I would have had a panic attack and then died. I have swam in Michigan lakes in the upper peninsula and it is cold, but I can't imagine Alaska-cold. Your kids must think you rock.

Bliss said...

Way to go!!!! Impressive!
I love conquering things like that (only...wow...I haven't conquered anything quite like that..)

~3 Sides of Crazy~ said...

Sounds like an awesome experience. Have a great trip!

Just Mom said...

You are Super Woman! Way to go!

Debbie said...

What a lovely post. I lived 8 years in AK while my dad was stationed at Elmendorf. We never did anything like this - but my DH & I want to take our girls to AK in the future and this looks like something I might have to try!!! What a great feeling to have accomplished that - good for you!

Oh, and I could feel your disturbance about the seaweed - shiver...

Chele said...

My husband loves kayaking! I have never done it because of fear of turning over! Thanks for letting me know I am not the only one!!

Naomi said...

That is unbelievably beautiful! I would love to see Alaska someday.

Shelly W said...

Brrr. Just looking at that makes me cold. Let us know how the trip goes!

Kelly @ Love Well said...

You ARE Super Woman. I'm so proud of you.

Also, nice move on the wet suit. Talk about perfect timing. That can make the difference between a so-so trip and a GREAT trip.

Melissa said...

Way to go! I have thought about learning kayaking, but since I don't like being submerged under water I keep deciding against it. It's the training that you described that makes me give it up. I am excited for you and the empowerment that this gave you!

Tim Appleton (Applehead) said...

Great job! That is one of my favorite memories of Alaska, Sea kayaking with the whales coming up to the surface with in 50 yards of me.The fish kept jumping and hitting my kayak.

Heart2Heart said...

Michelle,

How exciting it must be and a hearty WOO HOO for you! Congratulations for overcoming a fear and conquering it hands down.

Love and Hugs ~ Kat

cndymkr / jean said...

How absolutely fantastic. I can't believe, no wait, I can believe you did this. You're made of tougher stuff then you know. That wet suit just sealed the deal.

Summer said...

I would have done it too. Just to prove I could. But I would have been terrified.

I hate natural bodies of water. Well, being in them anyway, with who knows what lurking in the depths.

Denise said...

Great post!

I've been following your blog for a bit now and really enjoy it.

This was exactly what I needed to hear as I have some of these very same fears and just need to get over it and DO IT!

Thanks for the inspiration!

Inkling said...

I hope you have a fabulous time. We love sea kayaking, and I love it when my hubby leads a group and I get to tag along. Our favorite spot so far is the Broken Islands off of Vancouver Island, but someday I'm longing to explore the Queen Charlotte Islands.

chelle said...

How awesome!
I so think I want to try sea kayaking some day!

Jenna Consolo said...

No question. You ARE Super Woman!

I'm sure being able to say you did it is a lot more fun than actually doing it, but hey! You DID it!

Will you email me your cell phone number? I'm trying to figure out how I can meet up with you while you're here.

Heather said...

You are a brave, brave (and adventurous) soul.

Michelle said...

I'm in awe of you Michelle.It's not something I think I'll try (not a strong swimmer)Maybe with hubby along there.Good for you going camping with the girls :) Have a great time.

Laurel Nelson said...

Actually Michelle some of the lakes here DO get pretty warm. I've been surprised. The past couple years we've gone to Finger Lake (I think) in Wasilla with the ladies from church and the water was warmer than the air! I totally thought it would be cold but it wasn't...I bet in a few weeks Goose Lake will be a lot warmer too especially since this is a better summer than last so far.

Cheri said...

WOW! I am in total Awe of what you did. Good for you!! I was glued to your description of the event.
I know that it is not an experience I would like to try.

Lorri said...

This was the most interesting thing I've read all day! Wow!

Jennifer said...

This sounds like fun! You must be a brave woman to be the sole chaperon for that many preteens.

I know that wet suit will make you happy... heck, any wet suit would be better than nothing. Have I mentioned the time I went snorkeling in Ketchikan?

Stephanie said...

That picture of you is fantastic. You are so pretty.

I've been ocean kayaking once...and I threw up. Those "roll-y waves" did a real number on my stomach. That said, I still managed to have fun. I'm not sure I'd want to go again though. :)

Enjoy the camping trip!

Lori said...

Wow! That's amazing! You're SO cool! I want to sea kayak so badly. My brother in law is living in Hawaii and teaching people there. I really want to learn and take on places in the CA coast.

Beverlydru said...

Enjoyed reading this tale. I love it when things fall into place like you described. It feels like God is raining his pleasure on us and it's getting through!

Omah's Helping Hands said...

Oh wow! Looks like fun! I just may get up the nerve to try it now. ;) What a wonderful thing for you to do Michelle. Those girls are so lucky. Have fun!!! I have to agree with you though. Not knowing what's below can be intimidating, and seaweed is the worst. That always put me into shreiks when getting into it. Yuck!

Swimming Cap said...

Looks like fun. I've always wanted to kayak in Alaska.