I wake up at 6:00 and sort gear into three drybags, the small red one to be available in transit for camera, phone, map, compass, and snacks. Along with tent, Thermarest, and a heavy-duty anorak left in the mudroom by a previous lodger, I load it all into my backpack. The overcast is breaking up as I walk down to the highway. This is the day.
A couple with a dog in a pickup offers a lift to Lund. The sky has cleared over the water riffled with a slight northerly breeze. When the kayak rental place opens I’m ready, and Arlen, the boy in dredlocks, pulls out a long blue boat and shows me how to reenter it using paddle and float in case I capsize. I punch the numbers of water-taxi, search-and-rescue and coast guard into my cell phone.
Blue overhead, exuberant billowing clouds on the mountains east and west. I fill compartments, secure hatches, stuff the anorak behind the seat, put on life jacket and spray skirt, slide in the cockpit, and push off. I try to follow the instructions I printed out from the Paddler’s website and studied on the airplane: get power not from your arms but the muscles in your core—the abdominus tranversus I’d once been taught to isolate by a physical therapist; push more than pull; alternate between sides in a single motion like peddling a bike; find the momentum of your flow through the water and maintain it.
Sooner than expected and less tired, I’m around the point and in view of the Raggeds, and beyond them, Townley, Powell and Cortes. My course angles toward a cruiser heading for Thulin passage. They’re not slowing down, so I do and wave. They leave a fat wake that’s fun to tumble over. I’ll stay on the outside of the islands, no need for shelter now. The breeze dies, the surface flat and polished. A gentle swell produced by a distant boat, the only one in sight, rocks me in its bosom, the back of my neck warmed by the sun, hands cooled by water dripping off the moving paddle. I steer further off shore, a moving point on this fluid expanse that I’ve stared at from many directions and heights for over 40 years, anticipating, remembering, and returning from other worlds. Now only swivel-breathe, push-pull, dip-lift in a sideways figure-eight motion.
Then a muffled ringtone from inside the drybag clipped to the deck cords. I unroll the seal, grab the phone and hear Jan’s bell-like voice. “Where are you,” she asks. I hesitate, finding it hard to speak: “Outside the Raggeds headed for Powell Island.” “Great,” she says. “I just called to reassure you about Claire. She’ll have surgery on Tuesday. I’m headed to Solvang for a League of California Cities meeting. Dennis is watching both kids.”
I turn off the phone, stow it back in the drybag and take out the camera to record this moment. Instead of returning it, I leave it in the pocket of the life jacket. The straight course is shortening the trip, and my smooth forward motion is occasionally accelerated by mysterious surges from behind. Sure I want to get there, but not too soon or too easily.
The need to pee and eat lunch along with curiosity about the view beyond the island ahead closes the reverie. I scan the rocky shore in search of a place to haul out and spot a shelf a few inches above the waterline. Up close, I paddle along it and find what looks like a lower shelf just a few inches under the surface. I undo the spray skirt, slide my butt up on the deck and reach down, expecting a firm footing. Instead I’m suddenly in the water, floating in the life jacket, holding the edge of the kayak with one hand and the shore with the other. I let go the shore, swim backward a stroke and now my feet hit bottom. I drag the boat up by its handle, and then remember the camera, pull it out from the pocket and push the on button. Of course it’s dead and the LED screen is fogged. I remove the batteries and card and set it in the sun to dry. Then I pee and remove several layers of clothing and spread them on the rocks.
So, I tell myself, pride comes before a fall. The minute things go my way, on to the next thing, off the attention. Just like last week, after the problems with the slide construction in the backyard were solved, when I hastened to install it and chopped a hole in the irrigation pipe. Well, no point in beating myself up. Maybe the loss of the camera, along with the lack of a computer, will strengthen the focus on writing. I enjoy the lunch of a leftover empanada from Nancy’s smeared with goat cheese from Hatchabird Farm and afterward climb up the rock bluff wearing only crocs to have a look.
Around the point, in the direction of Cortes, the wind has picked up considerably. There are whitecaps on the waves, a sign that would have sent me to the water taxi in the morning. My confidence shaken by two mistakes, I recognize that there’s no longer a plan B. But I’m not feeling fear or the approach of panic or even an impulse to pray, just eagerness to get on with it. On the way back to the picnic spot, from high on the bluff the kayak and my drying clothes look small next to the calm water in the lee of the island. I clamber down, pull on my merino longjohns and slip into the heavy windbreaker, which feels like armor before battle. With my socks, I sponge out the water left in the cockpit, pack the camera ruefully into the drybag and carefully seal all hatches. I slide the paddle under the elastics before dragging the boat into the water, telling myself there now can be no excess of caution. But as I tighten the sprayskirt over the lifejacket, I remember Arlen saying you don’t need to bother with the suspenders, so I let them hang.
It feels good to be afloat again, and soon I’m bobbing, a little out of control. I yank the cord to lower the rudder, but it doesn’t give. Time to steer with the paddles, to really dig with the muscles of the core. Clearing the point, I’m going perpendicular to the wind, parallel to the waves, which push me sideways faster than my forward motion. Nevertheless I’m making progress away from the island, breathing hard, pumping adrenalin. Without a rudder, I need to angle away from the direction of the swells and keep on course with extra strokes on one side or another. A wave breaks gently across the bow and covers the deck with a couple of inches of water, but the boat feels stable, and the spray skirt keeps it from filling up. Then, another one creeps up beside me, leaks into the cockpit soaking my pants, and makes a pool in the sag of the skirt. I stop paddling to tighten and hike it up, and try to attach the suspenders, but they’re snagged.
I’m well out into the channel now and realize that despite the additional two mishaps, this is what the kayak is made for. Whitecaps are fine, at least at this size. I give another yank on the cord and the rudder drops. The pedals slide, the bow turns in the direction I want, I’m no longer breathing hard and I have options which way to go. I’d planned to make the shortest crossing, toward Mary’s Point, but that’s not in the direction of my destination and it’s where the wind is heading, so I pick the longer crossing toward Twin Islands, which will put me in their lee and be both safer and quicker.
Feeling the second relief and triumph of the day, I reach the narrow channel between Twin and Cortes and greet flocks of geese on the shore and wood ducks afloat. I fantasize approaching Hollyhock and being welcomed by people at the beach. But where is it? It’s not marked on my chart and there are places all along the shoreline that look like they could be retreat centers. I’d only glanced at the map on the website and once spotted it on Google Earth. I paddle up to a sandy spot in front of a group of houses and yell, but nobody’s home. I pull back into the channel, continue another quarter mile and ask two people building a new house, is this Hollyhock? One answers that it’s the neighboring property, just across the fence. I leave phone messages for Jan and Peter reporting safe arrival, tie the boat to a rock, climb over driftwood logs to a path up the hill, pass through an amazing garden and enter the office. Ruth and her co-presenter are coming through another door.