Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sea Tales

It’s a hard life.
As I write this column, I am sitting on a small deck outside my bedroom. Just across the way, the Atlantic Ocean shines a bright blue-green in the morning sun. Upstairs, in the kitchen/living room area, my youngest grandsons are eating their Super Crunchy Sugarbombs for breakfast. I have already heard my daughter-in-law caution them not to bother me this morning.
“Grandpa is working,” she said.
Yes. Working.
My younger son and family are spending a few days with us in a beachside condo in an aptly named town called Surf City. It’s nice for them, with Paddy grabbing a couple of days of beachside relaxation between his summer job as a camp director and the fast-approaching football season and teaching year. It’s nice for us, because it’s a beautiful spot shared with the ones we love, with my only real regret being that son Colin and his brood were unable to break away from the annual Large Mosquito Festival that’s now going on in their neighboring city of Fargo, North Dakota, to join us this time.
It occurs to me that both my sons have done a pretty good job in choosing both wives and locales. Both married smart, pretty girls who are good to them and amazingly nice to me. One son lives near the coast, which is an obvious plus, while the other is in northwestern Minnesota, the bridge between the lakes region and the beginning of the great plains. The Atlantic Ocean and Big Sky country. Not a bad pair of places to visit.
We’re both usually kind of willing to try something new, though I’ve been known to draw the line at certain raw and otherwise slimy seafood dishes and she hesitates sometimes when it comes to dips into dark, unknown bodies of water. Both sensible attitudes, if you ask me, so I don’t know what got into us when our niece presented my spouse with a kayak as a retirement gift.
That’s right. A kayak.
While they’ve apparently become the hip new thing in personal water propulsion, my only real knowledge about the little boats is that they’re what shivering Inuit hunters use to bob around the Arctic Ocean while waiting to hoodwink and harpoon a hapless seal.
But Megan was thrilled with the gift and I was confident, thinking my involvement with small, tippy boats and the people who paddle them would end with hauling it up from my sister’s Lake Superior beach. Strapping the thing to the roof of our car wasn’t even too bad. I considered duct tape, the universal tool for all such tasks, but finally settled for something like a gazillion bungee cords and some interesting language to kind of attach the little yellow (yes, yellow) boat sort of securely on top. It was an angst-filled 500 mile drive home as I waited to see if the plastic-hulled craft would catch an extra-strong burst of wind, tear itself loose from its bonds and flutter under the wheels of an 18-wheeler.
But it didn’t, and I guessed I was home free as I slid the little yellow fellow into our backyard storage shed. I figured she wouldn’t want to go alone, plus the murky, muddy waters of our local lakes and rivers would be an additional deterrent.
It didn’t take long to disavow me of my first assumption, as she proposed a trip to a Peoria shopping area just a couple of days later.
“We need another kayak,” she said.
I could feel a sudden shudder beneath my feet as the balance of power shifted.
“Why?” I asked cautiously.
I knew why, of course, and actually began to warm to the idea of an idyllic side-by-side paddle down a sparkling, sun-drenched stream.
I was less enthusiastic about the next direction our new hobby took.
“Let’s take them with us to North Carolina,” she said.
Another gazillion bungee cords and several new swear words later, we were on our way. It took a few along-the-way adjustments to prevent our wind-struck vehicle from taking off in the second-most spectacular experimental flight since the Wright brothers put Kitty Hawk on the map, but we made it through the Great Smoky Mountains, even, and finally launched our maiden voyage in the Intercoastal Waterway, the 3,000-mile stretch of natural inlets, salt-water rivers, bays, sounds and canals that stretch along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to provide a safe, navigable route without many of the hazards of travel on the open sea.
We shoved off into the sound, enjoying an easy paddle-and-float journey that included stops at sand bars, oyster banks and salt marshes. We saw fish, sea birds and a few other boaters, though, for the most part, the glassy surface of the inlet sea was ours to enjoy. It was a wonderful experience, filled with looks and laughs and lingering memories.
It was not until we finally turned around to head back to port that we realized that easy paddling one way means a tougher, against-the-tide pull on the return trip. We also realized how much one spot on a coastline looks like another, as we worked our way back towards where we thought we had put in. After going much further than we needed to, I finally asked an elderly boater heading out on a morning fishing trip with his grandson.
“Which way to the public marina?” I called out.
“Back the way you came,” he replied. “Look for the water tower.”
I guess some sailors might consider a municipal water tower a pretty good landmark to remember when heading out, but hey, we’re still learning.
“We’ll be back in a couple of hours if you’re still lost,” he added.
Lost? Well I guess so.
But look what we found.

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