Thursday, July 9, 2009

Kayak Kauai

We pulled into the short gravel driveway and parked between a 1960s VW bus and a rack of kayaks. After tugging on my reef shoes I approached the woman sweeping the front steps of the hunter green bungalow and asked if we had in fact found Kayak Kauai. We were in luck. We filled out the usual forms that say we can die in any number of ways and the company isn’t responsible for any of them, and met Micco, our teacher for the next hour. Micco is a man in his mid-fifties, small, wiry, tan, with a grip that could mold cold metal. A simple handshake made me feel a world of respect for him, even if he was wearing a Speedo.

We practiced holding our paddles correctly in the yard and learned that paddling is more of a pushing than pulling motion. After that, Micco put us in a two person open kayak and we launched into the river, only about 30ft from the house. Another couple was just returning, so without time for any instruction, Charles and I had to maneuver the boat so we wouldn’t hit them. I think I have a gift for moving in water, even if it’s on a boat, because the logic of the paddle just came to me. If I held it firm in the water while Charles paddled from the front, the boat would turn quickly. Micco said I must have some kayaking experience, but the last time I was in one was over ten years ago with my dad-I didn’t think I had retained much.

We paddled out following Micco, concentrating on our technique so we wouldn’t get blisters or tire too early. Very simple lessons, but knowing a few tricks helps a lot. Keep your palm open when your hand is pushing and make sure your paddle is turned the right way (though Micco said we’d move in the water no matter which way our paddle was facing). There are different strokes, one where you wiggle your paddle in the water quickly back and forth which somehow acts to move the kayak sideways. Handy, if you have pull up alongside another kayak.

We glided to the mouth of the river and were greeted with the view of Hanalei Bay and “Bali Hai” in the vivid late afternoon light. Micco advised us not to call it “Bali Hai” – since that’s the made-up Hollywood name not much appreciated by locals. The Hawaiian name for the two famous peaks is Makana (gift). Our kayaks were inches above the reefs but Micco guided us out into deeper water. Then he said we were going to learn how to re-enter the kayak from the water, which required us to capsize first.

Charles isn’t the most secure person in the water – he had only just gone snorkeling for the first time two days before – so I was a little concerned about how he’d take this. One thing about Charles though, he doesn’t panic if he would embarrass himself in front of strangers by doing so. Don’t ask me about the logic of this, I’m just glad it works. So we bent to our right and tipped over, bobbing up on the current side of the boat so swells wouldn’t shove the boat into us. Well shoot, now what do we do? We learned fast that kayaks are deceptively heavy for hollow plastic, and Charles and I couldn’t tip the thing upright since our feet didn’t touch the bottom giving us no leverage. At Micco’s instruction, I swam to one side and hurled my upper body across the upturned bottom of the boat, clinging to the far edge with my hands. A lot like getting up on a horse without a saddle, which I have never been good at. With me pulling and Charles pushing up from the other side, we righted the boat and heaved ourselves, stomachs first, into the seats. My sunglasses and Charles’ glasses had survived by luck alone. Charles was drenched. I was in very chipper spirits, feeling alert and bright after the dip. Next lesson was how to handle waves: head straight into them because if they catch the side, you’ll tip over. We paddled into the first wave feeling the swell lift and drop us with a slapping sound. Then Micco said we could try surfing on the next one – turn around and paddle fast to catch the wave, and try not to get turned around or…

There we were again. Bobbing in the water next to our kayak. After we hauled ourselves back, Charles vetoed my desire to give kayak surfing another shot. He had had enough seawater for one day. After a few words of wisdom about going against the current going out, and with the current coming back, Micco announced that he needed to leave, but we were welcome to paddle around for as long as we wanted and return the boat later. Charles and I were tired. We headed back pretty quickly, noticing blisters forming despite paddling techniques.

Paddling along the river was bliss. It was quiet, warm, and smelled green; I could have laid back and let the boat rock me to sleep. I navigated us to our dock, somehow remembering the correct fork in the river, and we said our goodbyes to Micco. In the car, Charles had this to say: “of all the things we’re doing on this trip—snorkeling, kayaking and ziplining—Kayaking is the only one I didn’t think would kill me. And it did. Three days into the trip and you broke me.”

I just smiled. It had been a lovely afternoon, and Charles would probably come to agree with that after his muscles and blisters healed.

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