(My next posts will be documenting my recent kayak adventure on Lake George, NY. Photos of the whole trip can be seen here.)
And so at 10:06 AM, we were off.
(Photo caption: Looking north. The steamboat beats us to launch).
Paddling away from shore, a shiver went down my spine — the good kind of shiver, like when you hear one of your favorite songs come on the radio. Taking in the miles of lake and mountains before us, the Tom Petty song started playing in my head…
Into the great wide open,
Under the skies of blue
Out in the great wide open,
A rebel without a clue
Indeed, in some ways I was the rebel without the clue. While I knew I wanted to experience the thrill of paddling the length of Lake George, I did not know anyone else who did it. I did not know how long it would take us. I really had no clue what to expect from this massive lake. We weren’t climbing K2, mind you, but adventure is relative.
During the planning stage, the only information I could find was of an outdoor guide who organized kayak Lake George trips. He had a photo of some paddlers on his website from a previous trip. Sizing them up from the snapshot, I assumed that if those guys could do it, Chris and I would be fine. But mostly, we were flying — or rather, paddling — blind.
Speaking of Chris…
Chris and I met in graduate school at Syracuse University over a decade and a half ago. Chris studied Clinical Psychology and I was in the Social Psychology program. We may have shared one class together, but our bond was formed as teammates on our department’s co-ed softball team (back-to-back champions!) and at the numerous parties we attended (grad students threw the best parties).
We became fast friends and through the years, we shared many experiences and covered many miles. Maine to Seattle. Philly to Providence to Puerto Rico. Vermont to DC. And who could forget the three trips to Vegas? Our escapades would conclude with Chris delivering one of his signature lines with Jon Stewart-esque timing,
“Just so you know, we’ll be burning the negatives from this trip…”
As I mentioned in my first post, when I floated the idea of this trip to my friends, Chris did not hesitate. He did not equivocate. He just said yes and bought a plane ticket from his home in D.C. It was not until we were leaving the shore that Chris reminded me that he had been in a kayak only once before, and that was on a slow moving river years earlier. His words did not concern me (Chris is fit and coordinated and the only time I saw out of his element athletically is when I took him skiing), but they surprised me.
Perhaps it spoke some of Chris’s faith in me, but the fact that he would take on a trip of this magnitude with such little experience added to the sense of adventure. While we both expected the trip to be fun, there was no forgetting that this was a trip of purpose: Come hell or choppy water, we were going to paddle this great lake from end to end. I was appreciative to be on the water with someone who respected this goal without either of us ever saying a word about it.
Our launch point was the southern tip of Lake George, the home of Lake George village, tourists, and powerboats. I’ll extol the virtues of kayaking a bit later, and while very safe, kayaks are simply small crafts that are vulnerable to the wakes from boats with engines.
Inferring from what I saw from power boaters’ behavior, few had any sense of what it’s like to be in a kayak. Many drivers would offer up a friendly way, but plow through the water close enough that we’d have to put all of our attention on navigating their wakes, trying to keep our cockpits from taking on water.
We made it to southern tip of Long Island at 12:05PM. Our pace, about 2 miles an hour, was slower than I expected, but given the lake congestion and the fact that we were just warming up, I thought we were doing fine. Our bodies, still adjusting to being in kayaking position for hours, were ready to be stretched out. With the sun shining, we stopped for a snack and a swim. We both felt good and strong and soon we departed for another 4-mile stretch to Dome Island.
(Photo caption: Dome Island in the distnace. The waters calmed enough for me to pull out my camera)
Things were about to get interesting.
Boats were out. The wind picked up noticeably, hitting us from the west and pushing us off course as we paddled north. White caps formed on the waves that seemed to hit us from all directions. This was no longer a leisurely paddle; there was a hint of danger in the water.
We were now on the widest part of the lake, close to three miles across. The bottom of the lake lay 150 feet below us. Chris was trailing directly behind me and I yelled over the wind for him to pull up where I could see him.
Dark thoughts popped into my mind.
If one of us broke a paddle right here, we would be totally screwed.
I know I could pull Chris out of the water. Could he pull me out?
What in the f*ck did I get us into here?
I kept these thoughts to myself and yelled to check in on Chris. The waver I heard in the tone of his reply reflected my thoughts. Oh, yes. There was some fear with us now. Not overpowering. But undeniable.
I thought back to an event on Lake George from years past. My friend Mike and I went for a late afternoon canoe paddle to a nearby island in May. A storm moved in quickly, and to borrow a line from George Costanza from Seinfeld, the lake became angry that day, my friends. We were no more than half a mile from shore, but I could feel Mike’s fear in our canoe radiating toward my seat a few feet behind him. I recall watching Mike hit the water in what seemed like slow motion. Like going over your handlebars on a bike, I had just enough time to process my fate. In a flash, I would be join Mike in the frigid water.
I gasped audibly as the cold overpowered my body. I remember seeing my Mike’s eyes. Huge saucers of panic. The short of it is that we ended up being rescued (10 minutes? 20 minutes?) later by a man who scooped us up in his pontoon boat. Luckily, he’d seen us capsize through his telescope from shore. That day was the closest I have ever been to death (though if push came to shove, I know I would have survived), and I carry the memory with me whenever I’m on the water.
Thinking back on that day, I remembered how the fear caused our thinking and our bodies to tighten up. When the wave hit Mike in the front of the canoe, his rigid posture caused him to overcompensate. And over we went.
“Just relax!” I yelled back to Chris, reminding myself at the same time.
“Keep your body loose like a bull rider and let’s ride these bitches!”
Relaxing helped. Dome Island still sat alone and far off in the distance, its too-perfect shape reminding me of one of those monster islands from an old King Kong movie. A lesson in being present, we put our heads down and focused on the only thing of any relevance in our lives — the waves directly in front of us.
Up and down. Up and down. Paddle. Paddle. Paddle.
Despite the rough water, the adrenaline rush propelled us to cover the four miles to Dome Island in less than 90 minutes, significantly faster than the first leg of the day. We needed to get out of our boats and rest, but Dome Island made it clear that she was not interested in entertaining guests. Thickly forested with no signs of man, the island lived up to its name, rising straight out of the water like a fortress with no easy place to dock the boats.
After a struggle to bungee the boats to some low-lying trees, we got on all fours to scale the steep island wall. Because of its height and central location, English scouts reportedly used Dome Island to spy on the Indians during the French and Indian War. The forest appeared eerily unchanged from the time of that war. The only signs of life were the daddy long leg spiders that seemed to cover every inch of ground. Several climbed on me as we sat on the uncomfortable terrain, trying to regroup and plot out our next destination.
We would not stay long.
(End Part 2)