The Kayaking Caper

Back in September my supervisor at work asked me if I’d be interested in participating in a kayak training in order to become a certified instructor. The idea behind the invitation was that I’d be able to help teach kids how to kayak during camps the following summer. On the surface I thought this was a really great opportunity. For starters, I had some experience with kayaking, canoeing, and rafting, so I figured I would be decently equipped. I have also learned in recent years to always accept invitations as they come – there is always something you can gain, even when you go in with doubts. The cherry on top was that I’d be out of the office and away from my desk for three full days. I accepted the invitation without giving it too much thought or asking too many questions – my first big mistake.

I spent the weekend before the training perusing the kayak manual I had been sent, trying to familiarize myself with the terminology and the various strokes I was sure to learn over the coming days. One of the questions I failed to ask was where exactly this training would be taking place. I had the address but didn’t do any research beforehand as to where exactly I’d be going. I had been envisioning a nice, leisurely three days on a quiet little lake where I got to work on skills at my own pace.

You can imagine my shock when I plugged the address into my GPS to discover my destination wasn’t a peaceful man-made lake, but the Mississippi River. The weather began adding to my now increasing levels of anxiousness. It wasn’t sunny and warm like I had been dreaming. It was overcast with a biting wind that made it bitterly cold. Again due to my lack of proper research I failed to dress accordingly. I came in shorts and a thin long sleeve shirt. Ready for the elements, I was not.

I introduced myself to the other “students” that I’d be spending the next three days with. As we all chatted it was starting to dawn on me that I may be in a bit over my head. Many of my fellow instructor-hopefuls worked in some form of outdoor recreation and had bountiful kayak experience. This training for them was more or less a technicality to attain certification.

The man that would be instructing us introduced himself and ran us through a brief round of get to know you questions. One of those questions was where our favorite place to kayak was. I listened as all the others listed off exotic rivers and lakes from around the country. It got to me and, filled with embarrassment, I shared that my favorite place to kayak wasn’t some dangerously challenging river or stream or stunningly beautiful natural lake. No, my favorite place to cut my teeth as a kayaker extraordinaire was Creve Coeur Lake. If any of my peers had snickered or laughed I wouldn’t have blamed them.

From there we jumped into the training on land, going over the expectations for the week and discussing what we would aim to accomplish. When we arrived we had been given a packet of information, including a schedule for the three days. I immediately began committing this schedule to memory, preparing for when we’d be getting on the water. As I looked out at the water I was filled with dread. The powerful winds and spurts of rain created a choppy surface. Before I could mentally prepare, our instructor more or less said we wouldn’t be going off the schedule because it gives people a false sense of comfort. Wonderful.

We continued through the training, going over different scenarios and terms to know while in the kayak. We learned the different parts of the kayak, the variety of strokes, proper safety measures, and the like. At one point he said we wouldn’t be getting in the water today due to the weather conditions. Wait, did he say IN the water?

Lunchtime arrived and we were given the notice that we would be practicing our skills on the water once we all reconvened. I sought a brief solace in my car as I tried to wrap my head around what I was about to undertake. This was NOT unfolding the way I had anticipated. This week was going to prove to be a challenge far greater than I expected. The fact I was finding myself so wary of actually getting in a kayak (you know, the whole point of the training) proved that I was about to take a major step out of my comfort zone. It didn’t help that seemingly everyone else was excited and eager to get on the water.

As I geared up to get out on the water a flood of fears rushed through my mind. What if I fall in? What if I can’t get my kayak to go where I want it to go? What if I humiliate myself? Spoiler alert: all of those fears would come to fruition over the course of the week, but more on that to come.

I got in my kayak and pushed off the shore into the water. I learned very quickly how focused I would need to be at all times just to maintain my balance. However, I felt more comfortable than I was expecting. Maybe I would be more suited for this than I realized. Once everyone was in the water we made our way out into the middle of the river, with our instructor consistently offering words of wisdom and guiding us as we went. Every so often we would stop and he would teach us a new stroke while demonstrating the proper technique. We would then have several minutes to practice these new strokes. Whatever little confidence I had gained quickly vanished. I looked around in astonishment and jealousy as my peers picked up these strokes with ease. Meanwhile, I just couldn’t get it figured out. Either I did the stroke with the proper technique and my kayak didn’t go where I wanted or I threw technique out the window so that I could get back to the group (I had a tendency to drift away from the group).

The whole purpose of this training was to then be confident and competent enough to teach others. There were numerous times our instructor said something along the lines of “When you’re teaching beginners the proper way to execute a forward stroke you must….” The more he said this the more it became glaringly obvious. I’M a beginner. As we learned and worked on each new skill the instructor would ask one of us to demonstrate for the group, while also practicing how to effectively teach it. Needless to say, I was never asked to demonstrate.

The first day of training mercifully came to a close. Despite how difficult of a day it was, I was still looking forward to coming back the next day. Now that I had a sense of what this training entailed I would come back more prepared, both physically and mentally.

The weather for the second day was similar but not quite as daunting. It was still obnoxiously cold but the wind wasn’t quite as severe. Our instructor informed us that we would indeed be getting in the water today. More specifically, we would be practicing how to get out of our kayaks when they’ve been flipped upside down. Fantastic.

We went through our morning session of on land training before it was again time to get on (and ultimately in) the water. This time, however, we’d be geared up a bit differently. Today we would be fitted with wetsuits. Now, I had never worn a wetsuit before but I knew not to expect it to be too comfortable. Never in my life have I worn something I felt so out of place in. It was tight, constricting, and just all in all unpleasant. I guess the one positive aspect of it was that it did diminish the mental barrier of having to get in the water.

Before we got in the kayaks we first worked on one important skill: throwing a flotation device to someone who has fallen into the water. It was perfectly fitting that the one skill I actually felt confident doing was the one where both my feet were firmly planted on land. I will admit, this did provide me with a boost of confidence before getting out on the water. Maybe today won’t be as bad as yesterday. Ah, the joys of hindsight.

Similar to the prior day, we worked our way across the river, stopping every so often to work on skills. Along the way I intently worked on mastering the strokes I had learned from the day before. I was frustrated to discover I hadn’t become a kayaking natural overnight. I was hoping the knowledge I had gained would seep into my subconscious as I slept. Alas, it did not. We were gradually introduced to new skills and strokes. I became increasingly discouraged as my peers graduated to these new strokes as I still struggled to improve in the basics. I still have the vivid image of the others zipping along the water as they practiced how to turn sharply as I slowly petered along, desperately trying to work on my forward stroke (one of the very first ones we learned).

It was eventually time for the skill I had been dreading the most: escaping an overturned kayak. Our instructor effortlessly demonstrated exactly how to do it and it was evident this was something he had practiced hundreds of times. Intentionally flipping my kayak went against every instinct I had (although it was clear I had very little instincts when it came to kayaking). I finally mustered up the willpower to purposefully lean my kayak just enough until I was completely upside down and submerged underwater. I was then shocked at how quickly and efficiently I was able to work my out and back to the surface. At least now I knew I could successfully get out of an overturned kayak, something I wish I wouldn’t need to put to practice later (you see where this is going).

After another brief shot of confidence I quickly discovered that getting back in the kayak would prove to be more of a challenge. With some help from the assistant instructor I was back in my kayak – but not for long. Another skill we needed to practice was turning a flipped kayak back over and helping the individual back into their kayak. I had just just gotten back into my kayak from the comforts of shore, and even that was complicated.

For reasons that are beyond me I volunteered to be the one in the capsized kayak that would need assistance getting back in. From watching all the others seamlessly work together to return the kayakers to their vessels I figured it wouldn’t be too difficult. Boy, was I wrong. After a few minutes of struggle I just couldn’t hoist myself up and over into my kayak. I wasn’t just losing physical strength, I was losing mental fortitude. If I wasn’t already humiliated enough, our instructor came over to inspect the situation. My partner graciously tried to take some of the blame, although it was very clearly me that was the issue. Our instructor recognized that and I could sense his impatience as I remained stuck in the water. Several minutes later I was mercifully back in my kayak, intent on remaining inside until we returned to shore.

Absolutely dejected, I found myself willing the instructor to call an end to today’s training. After a few more skills and lessons he finally signaled that it was time to head back and call it a day. My confidence and self esteem had plummeted and I knew the likelihood of me passing this course was slim to none. I was already beginning to contemplate whether or not I should even show up the next day when the thing I feared most began to unfold.

We were maybe a hundred yards from shore and all I was thinking of was changing into dry clothes and driving home. I lost my focus on my strokes for just a second but it was already too late. Time went into slow motion as I felt my kayak gradually start to lose balance and lean to the left. There was a moment when I realized I had leaned too far to recover and that I would soon be underwater. Putting the new skill I had just learned into practice I quickly kicked out of my kayak and popped up above water. Before I fell in I had naturally strayed a bit away from the group, so it wasn’t immediately obvious to the others that someone had capsized. I should mention, the choppy waves had waned significantly, so the water was as calm as it had been all day. That, along with the fact that we were so close to shore, made my unexpected swim a head scratching occurrence. Surely, what I did was intentional and simply an opportunity to practice our skills. That’s what some people assumed, but I stupidly corrected them.

Thankfully I didn’t have as much of a struggle getting back into my kayak but I was utterly defeated. As I exited my kayak my mind was made up – I wouldn’t be returning for the final day of training. My look of defeat was apparent to the others, with a few of them offering some words of encouragement. I expressed to one of the others that I was leaning toward not coming back the next day. She offered support and encouraged me to come back, that a day here was better than going back to the office. While I didn’t necessarily agree with that sentiment in that moment I appreciated her words nonetheless.

Once we were all back on land and loading up the kayaks I approached the instructor to give him the news. I explained that it was obvious I wasn’t cut out to be an instructor and that I was clearly in over my head. Before I could inform him I wouldn’t be returning he cut in to offer his own words his encouragement. He assured me that, even if I wasn’t quite instructor material, I had still shown major signs of improvement. I wasn’t sure what he had been watching, but there was something about the way he responded to my level of deflation that struck me. He saw how much I was struggling but he also reminded me of my resolve. Although I wasn’t succeeding by the standards of the class, I had been succeeding in conquering fears and veering out of my comfort zone. Without even knowing I intended to not return he convinced me to finish what I had started.

The next morning began similarly to the others in that we kicked things off with a group conversation. We talked each day about our expectations, what we hoped to accomplish, what we had learned, and just overall how we were feeling. I shared with the group that I was feeling very defeated and discouraged after the previous day but that I was eager to end the training on a positive note. One thing I wasn’t expecting through this training was to feel such a strong level of support from a group of strangers. I felt that they were truly behind me and urging me to push forward.

The sun had thankfully come out after a couple days of being overcast but the wind was still everpresent. In fact, the wind caused the waves to appear even more threatening than before. I foolishly hoped that this would be too much of a deterrent for us to get out on the water. Yeah, right.

We wrapped up our final morning of on land training before gearing up for our last trip on the water. My approach on this final day was different. Instead of worrying so much about the others and how quickly they were mastering their skills I would focus on developing my own skills at my own pace. There was something liberating about already knowing I wasn’t going to pass the course. As a result, I didn’t feel as much pressure to improve each new skill. I could become more comfortable with the basics knowing that I was in fact a beginner.

Nonetheless, I still didn’t have a ton of confidence heading out into the wavy river. I felt noticeably unbalanced and had a few moments where I thought I’d be swimming. But I was determined to do everything possible not to fall back into the river, at least not right away. I was laser focused, aware of every movement I made throughout the kayak. I had to be intentional with every stroke as I navigated my way across the river.

As the group was introduced to some more advanced strokes and techniques I was instead practicing the strokes we learned from the first day – forward stroke, backward stroke, draw stroke, etc. I certainly didn’t feel completely competent but I was starting to finally see some improvement. Again, not feeling pressure to succeed at the same level as the others allowed me to appreciate this minimal victory.

The afternoon wore on as we continued to maneuver our way around the river. In a moment of relative quiet I took some time to reflect on what had transpired over the last three days. This experience certainly wasn’t what I thought it would be. Not only had I experienced plenty of fear and doubt but I also had to confront some feelings of guilt. As it became increasingly obvious that I was in over my head I felt guilty for wasting time. I was wasting my employer’s time because I was sent to this training with the intent of coming back as an instructor. Yet here I was sputtering on the water when I could have instead been in office being far more productive. I felt guilty about wasting my instructor’s time. While he didn’t devote a ton of time into teaching me he still could have better focused on the others without having to worry about some novice falling into the water at a moment’s notice. Finally, I felt like I was wasting my time. I could have been in the comforts of my office, safe and sound.

Yet, as the three day course neared its end I found myself feeling thankful. I took in the sunshine hitting the water, appreciating what a unique opportunity this was. I learned a lot (namely that I am NOT good at kayaking), things I wouldn’t have learned had I not come. I wouldn’t have tested the boundaries of my comfort zone, I wouldn’t have pushed my limits of resolve and will power, and I wouldn’t have experienced the value of support and encouragement.

The training concluded and we were each called for a meeting with the instructors to receive our final verdict: pass or fail. It was admittedly nice going in to this meeting already knowing the outcome, and I’m sure it made it easy for the instructors to not have to come out and explicitly say that I didn’t pass. In our meeting, the instructors were both overwhelmingly kind and supporting, pointing out the areas in which I improved and reassuring me that kayaking takes a lot of practice. One thing I had come to appreciate over the course of the training was the passion the instructors had for their craft. Living what you love is something that is very important to me and I cherish the ability to see others doing what they are truly passionate about.

I bid farewell to the others, thanked them for their encouragement, and made tentative plans to work with some of them on future projects (another added bonus – networking!). I’d definitely be lying if I said I wasn’t eternally grateful to be in my car, driving home from this particular location for the last time. But instead of leaving that parking lot feeling defeated, as I had the days prior, I left feeling renewed. Yes, on the surface I had failed what I had set out to accomplish and I had plenty of moments where I felt like a failure. But when I look deeper I see that I didn’t fail at all. As I mentioned earlier, I succeeded in so many other ways, and honestly, those ways are far more valuable to me than a certificate telling me I can teach someone how to do a proper bow draw stroke. I tested my limits and lived to tell the tale. I learned so much more than I expected, although perhaps my biggest takeaway was this – next time I’m asked to go kayaking, I’ll be asking a lot more questions.

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