If you thought that retirement just means having more time to do the things you always did in your free time, like golfing and playing cards... well, let me disabuse you of that notion. For me at least, it has meant discovering brand new things. RVing was the big one, of course—it actually made my retirement possible—but there have been others since then. Most recently, I discovered how much I enjoyed playing the ukulele... and this past winter, I got into kayaking.
The few times I'd been out on the water in a small boat, I had enjoyed it, but I never actively pursued it as an activity. A pity, really, especially since most of my favorite New Mexico state parks are adjacent to lakes. This winter, though, a friend who was an avid kayaker in her younger days got me interested enough to buy an inexpensive inflatable kayak and try it out.
The Sevylor Tahiti was a tubby thing (in fact, the company got its start making inflatable bathtubs). It was slow-moving, and difficult to control in any kind of breeze... but it didn't matter. From the first time I went out on a still lake at sunset, I was in love with the experience.
Relying on my friend's advice, I ordered an Eddyline Skylark 12' kayak and one of Eddyline's lightweight Mid Swift paddles. The Skylark is a "crossover" model that fits somewhere between the common rotomolded polyethylene recreational kayaks and the super-expensive lightweight fiberglass ones. It was a big step up in price from the inflatable, but worth it: the Skylark's sea-kayak-inspired hull knifes smoothly through the water, and my friend says that it handles superbly. I just know that it's a pleasure to paddle.
i knew nothing about kayaking, but my friend quickly brought me up to speed with training sessions. I learned to cope with waves (although I much prefer calm water)...
... and practiced capsizing and exiting the boat underwater, then climbing back in, until I was comfortable doing it. I'm a poor swimmer, so it was important not to panic if I lost my balance and tipped over. (Of course I wear a good PFD. After trying on several, I chose the Kokatat MsFit, a short-waisted model
that's reportedly popular with both male and female kayakers. I like it because it doesn't feel too bulky, and it has lots of zippered pockets.)
So after practicing "bracing" against the water with my paddle... over I went!
(The yellow and blue thing on the foredeck is my bilge pump.)
Exiting the boat upside-down underwater was easier than I thought, even when wearing my spray skirt.
These "wet exit" practice sessions gave me confidence that even if things went awry, I could recover. Similar to practicing stalls in an aircraft, they helped to prepare me for problem situations.
I was able to record my experiences with an inexpensive waterproof camera, which turned out to be not only fun, but useful for analyzing my paddling technique. The usual choice for this sort of thing is the GoPro Hero series of waterproof/shockproof cameras, but they generally run from $200 to $400. However, I had picked up an Oregon Scientific ATC9K video camera awhile back, when an online reseller was offering it for $99—inexpensive enough to buy for occasional use.
Although it's not in the same class as the GoPro cameras—in fact, it looks and feels like a cheap plastic toy—it turns out to perform surprisingly well when shooting HD video. It came with a big rubber strap, so I just strapped it to the bow of the kayak and let it record my trips. I was even able to extract good-quality stills from the video; the photos above showing the big splash and rolling over the kayak were taken from video footage. I wouldn't recommend buying it at its current $240+ price—you'd be better off with a GoPro Hero camera—but if it turns up again on closeout for a hundred bucks or less, it's worth a look.
Once I had the basics down, I was able to really enjoy getting out on the water. I started at the Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge, on the Colorado river south of Lake Havasu City, Arizona—a perfect place to learn, with its still water and reed islets that teemed with wildlife. The thing I like most about kayaking is the way I can glide along and be almost completely ignored by the birds and animals. I bought a $30 waterproof case for my iPhone, and was able to shoot very good stills and video while drifting silently along the lake shore. (The iPhone, believe it or not, is now the world's most popular camera.)
Watson Lake in Prescott, Arizona provided a kayaking experience of a different kind. This lake has a complex shoreline and many "rock stacks," all with a half-melted look. It's as if you took the Jumbo Rocks area of the Joshua Tree National Monument and flooded it.
It was fascinating to paddle around, exploring the many small, still coves between the rock formations. I only wish I could have stayed longer, but the commercial campground I was in, while adjacent to the lake, was cramped and expensive.
(You can see the yellow camera I mentioned, strapped to the bow of the kayak and pointing back at me.)
I should mention that none of this would really have been practical without a way to get the kayak onto and off my car... and for one person, that isn't as easy as it sounds. Two people can easily lift a kayak up into a typical J-cradle or saddle-type carrier, but for me, lifting a 41-pound boat over my head while leaning forward past the curve of the car was nearly impossible. I tried several kinds of kayak carriers that claimed to make the task easier, but they just weren't good enough. I was beginning to get worried. After all, if something is difficult to do, you're not likely to want to do it.
Fortunately, I found a solution in the form of Thule's Hullavator kayak carrier.
This clever device lets me load and unload the kayak at waist level, and uses gas struts to make it easy to lift it up to the roof for travel. I won't bore you with the details here, but if you're curious, I've put together a page about the Hullavator, showing how it works.
With the Skylark kayak on my new Subaru Forester, I can drive down to the shoreline almost anywhere, unload it onto my shoulder using the Hullavator, and carry it to the water. And now that I'm back in New Mexico at Bluewater Lake State Park, I'm ready to really give it a workout!