Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Kayaking

May 19, 2015

As the summer approaches, I am beginning to think about one of my favorite activities:  kayaking.  I love kayaking so much, I would kayak every day, if not for one small impediment:  I am a lousy kayaker.

Physical coordination is not my strength, and lacking the coordination to manage a kayak oar properly is an excellent example of my limitations.  I have been instructed many times on how to paddle and steer a kayak, using one’s back and shoulders. The most common beginner’s kayaking mistake is to row from your arms.  You discover quickly enough that this tires you out and is an insufficient means of propulsion.  Just about every beginner figures out how to stop paddling with his or her arms after about twenty minutes in a kayak.  After more than one exciting kayaking expedition, I am still a beginner.

When I was on the Florida Keys this past January, I decided to join one of the many kayaking eco tours in the area.  We were paddling out to the renowned mangrove swamps at sunset, and I wanted so much to see the thousands of egrets, pelicans, and cormorants who nest there, keeping silent, regal watch over their kingdoms which are being shrunk by human habitation and industry. Yet, from experience, I suspected how the whole thing would go down:  our guide would give us the five minute paddling tutorial, I would nod to indicate that I understood, I would barely stay balanced while settling into the cockpit, and I would spend the next two hours flailing around in the water, struggling to catch up to the rest of the expedition, making a fool of myself, or putting my life in danger.

In my defense, I actually started off well.  Over the first forty minutes, I huffed and puffed my way out to the mangroves, trailing just behind the guide and the other kayakers.  We reached the islands right before a cloudy sunset and listened to him talk to us about the beautiful birds that we saw standing guard in the trees.  With night fall, we donned headlamps and looked for bioluminescent creatures jumping in the water.  I felt fleet as a fish, free as a bird, doing what I loved, absent of self consciousness.

Then the hard part began.

The guide led us into the branch-twisted maze inside the mangroves, which are really swamps built upon deep water roots.  I banged my boat helplessly into the thickets; I got separated from the group in pitch blackness; the people behind me got separated from them too; my seat back broke, placing enormous strain upon my sore back muscles; as we returned to the docks, everyone else but me caught the downwind, while I flailed yet again in circles, banged around by the strong evening ocean currents; our frustrated guide had to tow me back in to the docks.  As he did, he complained, “Now I’m worried that you will tell people not to kayak with my tour business!”

“You don’t understand“, I responded, standing in front of him, drenched and exhausted. “I had one of the best times of my life.”

I really did have one of the best times of my life that night.  Alone on the water earlier that evening, I looked into the black sky and told God:

“Thank You. 

Thank You for giving me the courage, calm, and drive to do something I love, despite how poorly I do it.

Thank You for giving me a body which still works, a heart which beats with strength, and a back which will recover after a few ibuprofen.

Thank You for giving me the wisdom to understand that life’s legitimate pleasures are to be enjoyed now, without worry or concern for what others think of me or for when I will no longer be able to enjoy them.

Thank You for this most excellent kayaking disaster.”

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY.

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