When With-a-Why and I went for the first test paddle of the yellow two-person kayak, I took the stern seat without even thinking. He’s youngest of my four kids, the baby of the family. In my mind, he was still a little kid, who would go in the front of the kayak like ballast. We weren’t even halfway across the bay when I noticed that I’d made a mistake. The person sitting in front of me wasn’t a little kid, but a young man, with long legs and strong arms: bigger than me, stronger than me, smarter than me.
So we switched places. With-a-Why spent about thirty seconds figuring out how to use the rudder, and he’s been in charge of steering the kayak every since. We went out in the yellow kayak almost every day last week, training for the week-long trip we’ll be taking down a different river this August. It’s a Hobie Cat kayak, which means that in addition to paddling, we have the option of using foot pedals that push us along.
We couldn’t use the foot pedals in our shallow bay, because the thick weeds made even using a rudder impossible. In the deep water of the river, though, the pedals worked great. The bulky design of the sit-upon kayak that had been such a disadvantage in the shallow bay proved to be very stable in the waves and the wakes of passing boats.
Smiley Girl and Shaggy Hair Boy, watching us from a nearby canoe, yelled suggestions as they watched us paddle. “Move your hands closer together on the paddle,” Smiley Girl said. I could feel the air moving past my head as With-a-Why experimented with his paddling technique. “Um, you might want a helmet,” Smiley Girl said helpfully.
When we decided to deliberately capsize the kayak to see if we could climb back aboard, family members gathered happily at the edge of an island to watch. “No cable television here,” Taekwondo Nephew, “You’re our entertainment.”
With-a-Why had no trouble pulling himself back in, but it quickly became apparent that I don’t have the upper body strength of an eighteen-year-old. Most of the family enjoyed watching me flail about in the icy cold water that slowly sapped my strength. They all yelled conflicting advice. With-a-Why eventually pulled me into the kayak by grabbing my life jacket and yanking me aboard: unfortunately, the maneuver sent him flying off the other side of the kayak, much to the delight of the cheering spectators.
“It’s like that brainteaser where you have to get the fox, the chicken, and the corn across the river,” With-a-Why said as he climbed back aboard. “I have to fall out to get you in.”
It was my father who came up with a better solution: he designed a simple rope ladder – a bit of clothes line and one rung – that I could attach to the side of the kayak. Getting my foot onto that rung gave me the purchase I needed, and during our second emergency drill, I climbed back aboard on the first try, much to the disappointment of the family members who had gathered to watch.
We learned other lessons over the week as well: we now pack a wrench in case the pedal mechanism stops working. With-a-Why learned the hard way that he needs to re-apply sunscreen after swimming. I figured out that work-out shorts with mesh paired with the top of a bathing suit was way more comfortable than a one-piece bathing suit.
The yellow kayak was stable enough to paddle out into the deep channel of the river, where it felt odd to be in such a tiny craft. With-a-Why sang while he paddled, and his voice carried across the water. When we passed an island where two older folks were sitting in wooden chairs in the sun, they both looked up and smiled at me.
At the end of each kayak adventure, of course, we had to paddle back across the shallow, weedy bay to reach the camp dock. Our paddles kept throwing up weeds, which fell down on us, dripping water and mud, and the afternoon sun that we paddled into was hot. It always seemed wholly appropriate for With-a-Why to sing the song from the opening seen of Les Miserables, the one where the slaves are pulling the ship in. “Look down, look down. Don’t look him in the eye. Look down, look down. You’re here until you die."