The first season of kayaking was serene, partly because of my ignorance about small boat safety on the ocean. Paddling out from shore with the sunset producing its captivating sky coloring, one island after another moving astern so effortlessly in the flat calm water, I eventually found myself alone. The silence was literally golden at that time of day. No power boats in sight, no wind for sailing, too far from shore to hear road noise, I could become aware of where I was and my thoughts turned to the water itself. It seemed cold. As the sky faded, the water too was getting dark. For the first time since leaving shore I became aware of the tide moving and the depth of the water beneath me, now well over 100 feet.
Two miles behind, the shore near my home was visible with houses lights beckoning the dinner hour. Finally, as the night replaced afternoon, it occurred to me that no one knew where I was. And since I had no radio, no phone, no charts, no compass, no knowledge of how to re-enter a capsized kayak, it made no sense to be so far out. Wondering how I had let myself get into this position, I turned toward home, paddling gingerly to keep the boat upright. The breeze on my face was cool now, and the entire scene was feeling substantially less friendly than it had earlier. The tide was not especially strong, but it seemed to be resisting my motion; I wondered if my paddle strokes were making enough progress.
These concerns had not grown into anything close to panic but they did cause a definite “edginess” as the superimposition of one thought after another began to convince me that it would be wise to sign up for a kayaking safety training before the short summer passed. Then the edginess turned to panic.
The monster must have sneaked up behind me after I turned toward shore. I had no warning. An enormous thud and loud splash occurred close behind me, in that kayakers’ blind spot where in order to see, turning the boat is required. It sounded as if a rock the size of a bathtub had dropped from the sky. By the time I got the bow around far enough to look, it was very quiet, except for the pounding noise of my heart. The only evidence of the event was a rapidly expanding series of large ripples.
Experiences like that are good for us humans. At least they seem good after the fact. The marine creature, probably a seal, was letting me know who called that particular latitude and longitude home. Since there are no elephant seals in the Atlantic, he didn’t weigh tons after all. He was more likely in the range of my own 200 pounds. Being in a heightened state of awareness from just having taken inventory of my paltry safety preparations, my ‘flight or fight’ response registered him as angry giant rather than playful water dog as I have since come to recognize. I later thought to myself, “I wonder what they think about humans during their times of relaxation out on those calm shoals?
When back on shore a half hour later, the encounter with the seal was remembered as the highlight of the trip. The solitude and the radiant sunset were valuable to be sure. But thanks to that assertive seal, the ocean took on a new relationship characteristic for me. I can’t swim like a seal. I can’t fly for miles over the water like sea birds do so easily. Perhaps the solitude was an important prerequisite to the wider experience that evening. Exercise, sunsets, looking at a clear moon, observing wildlife of all kinds each can remind us of life’s greater perspective. Those spontaneous experiences can ignite the realm of spirit. Not at all religious, it is that spirit within, the one that relegates one’s ego to a properly subordinate status and position.
All boat treks from that harbor cross that territory. When in a kayak there, I now can’t go by without thinking of, appreciating, and hoping to greet that vivacious, healthy and personally instructive sea mammal.