This story is by Janet Hafner and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Am I too old for a wildlife adventure? – No . . . seventy is still young.
I had no idea where Port Hardy was, nor was I sure about the adventure part, but the brochure in a sports store showed glowing sunsets, mink scurrying along logs in rain forests and splashing Orcas. It made my nerves tingle.
Remember . . . swimming is not your strongest sport. And . . . you know nothing about kayaking. My enthusiasm blotted out doubts. I’m single now and there isn’t anyone to tell me ‘no’.
San Diego to Vancouver, then Port Hardy where beyond the dock, lay an expanse of unidentified dark matter. In the distance it met up with water and beyond that – more water.
We were six men and two women – eighteen to seventy. Jake and Stan were tall and muscular . . . our guides into the unknown. Supplies provided – our job, to paddle. Before I could feel discouraged, a ‘how-to handle a kayak’ session flooded my brain.
“Okay, are we ready?” shouted one of the guides. My stomach churned with apprehension.
“Yeah,” sang the chorus. I looked at our group. Our guides were fit, but what we lacked in fitness, we made up for with eagerness, commitment, and boundless energy.
Stan, number one guide, said, “What you’re standing in front of is – your best friend. It can save you.” We made friends with our kayaks. Climbing in and out on dry land gave us an inaccurate feel of the challenge we would face once in the water.
“Get your water shoes on – load the supplies into the dry storage wells, then we’ll be ready,” Stan barked. With the kayaks packed, we picked a partner and headed to the water. Port Hardy has tides that move in and out by hundreds of feet . . . the tide was out. My partner was a man in his forties who, by the look of his belly, loved beer, but his broad shoulders would be a plus carrying a fully laden kayak.
We carried our watercraft to the dark stuff – stepped in it and sank to our ankles in muck. We wobbled, we squished, we trudged forward mindful that the water was far off. The further I pushed forward, the deeper I sank until my knees were deprived of sunlight. “Should we put it down and rest?” I shouted.
“Not a good idea,” answered Marty. We forced ourselves through the sludge – stepping, sinking, struggling to pull our feet out. The suction held us tightly and then let go. My foot flew up flinging muck in my face.
At last, we were at the water . . . the kayak danced and bobbed, happy to be where it belonged. Frigid Northwest water washed away the slime. We dropped a mini-anchor, took a couple of deep breaths and headed back to do it again.
The command came, “Get in your kayak.”
I remember throwing the top half of my body over the side of the kayak – my rump sticking up in the air like a whale’s tail, and then, I was in it . . . exhausted but . . . in it. When does the fun begin?
Jake whistled three times and shouted, “Let’s paddle.”
Energy and enthusiasm traveled from the bottom of my feet pressed hard against the foot rests in my kayak into my bottom shivering from icy water left on the seat. From there it flowed up my spine where it branched out into my arms and finally into the paddles.
Paddling is a blend of art and science. The effortless strokes of our leaders propelled them forward. They skimmed the water. It was stunning. When they tire, I bet it won’t look so pretty.
Awkward and tense were the trademarks of the inexperienced. Our paddles dipped too far or not far enough into the frigid waters, which ran down my paddle and without stopping continued in mini-streams down my arm and ended in a pool under my arm where it snuck under layers of insulation.
We tried to keep up with Jake’s style. A couple of strokes and a long smooth glide . . . we paddled and paddled and . . . paddled . . . no gliding. We were far behind.
“Follow me,” Jake yelled. He paddled from the center of the channel to within fifty feet from shore. “Link up.” We formed a cluster. Smiles had faded. “How’s it going? You all did pretty good, but we’ve got to pick up the pace.” No reply. My heart thumped against my chest. That was . . . full speed. Are you kidding me?
Our other guide, Stan, picked up his paddle. “Look . . . it’s a pull and push motion that makes it work. It’s the rhythm. As the right hand pushes forward, the left hand pulls the paddle alongside the kayak. Like this.”
Jake sang, “Got it?” A couple of us nodded. “Let’s give it a try.”
Our watercrafts jostled for position, paddles poked and pushed as we tried to get away from the group. A new mantra emerged. Push and pull . . . push and pull. My right side was definitely stronger than my left side. Even it out, I hummed. The superior leaders paddled left, right, left, right . . . the cadence was obvious. My rhythm was left, right, left, left, left . . . three lefts to make up for the powerful right.
We struggled, but arrived at an island in time to pull our best friends onto the beach.
“Now get everything out of the dry-wells before we lose the light.” Jake cooked an evening meal. “Pick a spot to set up your tents – two to a tent. Get ready for an early morning.”
That evening we sat around the fire eating something that was really delicious. Vegetarian cooking is pretty good. Talk focused on paddling.
“It’ll get better.” Exhausted arms and full bellies crawled into sleeping bags.
It was barely daylight when the call came for breakfast. We found our crafts sitting on land, not water. We packed up, squished and sank in the muck until we got the kayaks to the water. If the coffee didn’t wake us up, the icy water did.
With each day, distance increased because the prediction, “it’ll get better” came true. The art of gliding – mastered. Jake taught us about lichen, moss, and nurse-logs. The brochure said mink scampered along logs – they did.
“All our islands are primitive,” Jake said. “What you’ll be walking on will feel like a giant sponge. It’s been growing for centuries. Overhead canopies give each island an eerie feeling like some fantasy movie.”
By day five, we were tired and disappointed that the orcas hadn’t appeared. We teased Jake and Stan about advertising and not producing.
“Do we get a refund if no orcas show?” the tall Texan called. We laughed, they laughed, but no killer whales surfaced.
It was our last day. It was misty. Morning was getting started and a clear sheet of glass welcomed us. Our paddles no longer slapped the water as if to wake it up. Our paddles delicately dipped in the water without a sound. Because we had used most of the water we carried, the kayaks sat lightly in the water. Paddle, paddle, glide.
Jake yelled, “Look left . . . near the shore.” A mama orca and her calf were playing, breaching high out of the water. The pod of kayaks moved swiftly to get a closer look. Adjusting my gloves, I was left in the middle of the strait.
Jake yelled, “Janet, look down the strait. Get your paddles out of the water.”
I squinted far beyond the bow of my ‘best friend’. I lifted my paddles out of the water. My eyes focused ahead at what looked like a gigantic submarine and a smaller one aiming for me. My heart pounded in my ears. Stan called to me, “Don’t do anything. Sit perfectly still.” Why don’t you tell me to get out of the way. What should I do if he surfaces under me? I watched. They dove . . . they surfaced. They dove . . . they surfaced. One, two, three, four, I counted to ten and counted again. Just when I thought my heart would stop, the largest orca dove . . . ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen . . . and up he came, directly behind me. The smaller one surfaced. They continued their journey without ever looking back.
Cheers rang across the strait. I bowed my head. Paddlers circled around me making whooping sounds. Jake raised his arms, quiet returned. With eyebrows raised he grinned and said, “We said we’d give you orcas. We keep our promises.” Boundless adventures really do have boundless rewards.