You only live once

By Deb Baer Becker
Woman Newspapers

Kayaking.  Yes, I’ve done that.  I’ve paddled the cold Pacific waters with a man I’d never met before in a craft that feels like a leaf bobbing atop the high seas.
    I reasoned the kayak excursion was a good activity for me to do while the Hubster attended business meetings and polished his golf game.  I remember telling friends about the upcoming trip, that I’d booked this excursion for myself, my first time kayaking.  
    “I’m YOLOing!” I’d said proudly, “When might I have another chance to float around Monterey Bay with sea lions and seals and otters?”  I wanted to sound outdoorsy and adventurous.  But even as I said YOLO (You Only Live Once), I felt like a pretender.  These were bragging rights I had not yet earned.
    I’d barely slept the night before kayaking day, despite two glasses of a bold California Zinfandel at dinner.  Okay, I had the emergency third glass of wine, liquid courage that faded in the wee hours while I tossed and turned.
    The next morning twenty courageous souls gathered for a pre-excursion meet and greet over boxed lunches. Concern over storm surge and choppy water dominated the conversation.  But the sun poked through the clouds as we boarded the See the Sea bus and made our way to Monterey Bay.  
    When we arrived at the outfitter’s shop, I confessed my fear to our guide.  He suggested I partner with an experienced kayaker within our group.
    I small-talked my way through our group.  Everyone already had a partner.  I was just starting to think—chicken exit—when I noticed one man in our group who seemed to be alone.
    He was tall, a bit of gray hair, glasses, and a kind smile.  He looked fit in his fleece and Gore-Tex jacket.  This guy was the real deal.  He’d already found a paddle and a life-vest.  
    “Have you done this before?” I asked, trying to sound calm.
    “Oh yes, many times. I’m an experienced kayaker,” he said like it was no big deal.  He’d said the two words I needed to hear most: experienced kayaker.
    “Do you have a partner?” I said, tamping down my intensity, coy as a killer whale eyeing a fat juicy seal.
    “Um, no, well, I might just do my own—,” he said, backing up two steps.
    I stepped into his personal space, grabbed his arm and said,  “You have to be my kayaking my partner!”
    “Well, okay, Deb.  It’s Deb, isn’t it?” he said.  “Sure, I’ll be your partner.  I’m Pete, by the way.”
    “Oh, thank you. I’m just not sure I can do this,” I said and my eyes got a little teary.
    “Sure you can, Deb,” he said, and helped me into my life vest, adjusted the straps in back.  He handed me a paddle and showed me how to use it while we walked together down the dock’s wooden planks to a floating dock where, two-by-two, our group got into their tandem kayaks.  
    Pete took his place in the back seat, and then I awkwardly placed my feet and clumsily dropped my ass in the front seat.
    The kayak dipped and bobbed with the current and any shift of my body rocked it, which caused waves of panic within me.  “Is kayaking always this bumpy?”  I asked.  I couldn’t see Kayaker Pete from my forward-facing seat.  The stiff life vest prevented me from turning around.
    “Deb, a kayak is quite sturdy even in this choppy water, and it’s very maneuverable, too,” Kayaker Pete said with a hearty chuckle as we made our way along a jetty of sea lions, hundreds of thick-necked regal beasts who sunned themselves and vied for higher positions like Washington politicians.  I followed Pete’s instructions to keep paddling left so the current didn’t push us into the rocks.  
    When we rounded the tip of the sea lion jetty, our guide, who should be arrested for safety violations, directed us out into the bay where the chop was real, and wind whipped white caps were just a hundred feet away.   
    “Why do we have to risk our lives to see the other side of the sea lions?” I yelled through the wind and sea spray.  
    “Oh, it will be okay, Deb.  Just think of all the other people who didn’t have the courage to try something new today,” said Kayaker Pete.
    Okay—who is this guy? I thought to myself.  I couldn’t turn around, couldn’t see him. He was the voice in the wilderness.  Someone had dropped Jesus in my kayak!  
    As I suspected, the sea lions looked exactly the same on the dangerously choppy side of the bay as they do on the calmer side.  Paddling was difficult, and I pushed hard, and water flew across my back—and hit Pete in the face.
    “It’s okay, Deb.  You’re doing a terrific job keeping us away from the jetty’s rocks,” Pete said in his heavenly voice. “We’ll turn around and head back into the cove, so paddle on the right for a while.”
    Thank God! I thought.  My back is killing me!
    And then it was over.  I rolled out of the kayak onto the floating dock.  I wobbled on rubbery legs and scrabbled up the stairs to the dock, dumped the life vest and paddle.  I stepped off the dock and onto the good, good earth.
    I kayaked in the cold waters of Monterey Bay and saw sea lions, seals, and otters; and the only thing that made the adventure worthwhile was the encouraging words from a kind man named Pete: Think of all the other people who didn’t have the courage to try something new today.