A Kayak Ride in Maine

By Richard Goodman

At 6:30 am on an August morning, I pull the heavy, sleek kayak across the grass toward the water. The grass is damp, and the kayak glides surely to where the lawn meets the rocky beach. I have to lift the kayak by the gunnels and haul it to the water some fifty feet away. I step cautiously over rocks I can't see—the kayak's bulk obscures my view—until I reach the water's edge and set the kayak down with a splash. I'm on an island in Maine. The amber sunlight spreads across the flawless water in front of me. I'm wearing a chest-tightening life jacket, baseball cap, swim trunks and flip flops. I ease myself into the kayak, always a touchy maneuver with great possibilities for farce. Once installed, I push the kayak away from the shore with the paddle, digging the end into the sand for leverage. Then there is that space shuttle-like moment when the bottom is freed, and the kayak begins to glide off into the water.

For glide is what you do in a kayak. You glide across the water like some sort of nautical skater. Newton seems wrong here, as the kayak's lengthy reaction to my paddle's action appears far more extensive than equal. The world is still. There are a few lobster boats moving from trap to trap on the water in the sunny distance. The sound carries so well, a boat a mile away can seem like it's bearing down on you. I'll hear a lobster boat's motor and crane my head around in slight worry only to see the boat is far away. I can never get used to this disparity, and it makes me feel a little foolish.

I paddle the kayak along the edge of the island. Above, on a branch of a bleached, skeletal pine, an osprey perches. As I approach, it sees me and begins a high, relentless screech. These noble birds, with their haughty, Medici profiles, are a welcome presence. With their superb fishing skills and fierce dedication to their young, they make you want to be a better human with whatever resources you've been given. They are proud, hard-working birds, and I want to be proud and hard-working, too. I paddle away from the island, which is now fully bathed by the early sun. The smell of the water enters my nostrils. There is no better aroma, nothing in the world like the scent of Maine coastal water. The water is limpid, briny and wonderfully alive. It's so pure it almost seems drinkable. Yes, it's cold, and you feel the electric pins and needles when you swim in it—if you dare. But as a kayaker I only dip my hand into it from time to time for cleansing and renewing, and it's Ponce-de-Leon refreshing.

When I am out riding in a kayak, I feel like the first man. I feel as if I'm seeing these sights before anyone else has ever seen them. That I am the first person to see these dark massive rocks and quiet tall spruces before anyone else in the world. I think this has a lot to do with the point of view of the kayak. It's a stealthy and almost noiseless experience. Its purpose seems discovery. It's also easy in Maine to feel this way where there are hundreds and hundreds of small, uninhabited islands that you can paddle by without seeing a soul. It's easier here to pretend you're Magellan in Maine.

I paddle east. I see a seal's head break the surface of the water. Surprise and delight from me. There is water everywhere, deep and cold, but for some reason I don't think of seal being underwater until one appears. Seal are curious, and, if not exactly friendly, are often unafraid. If you're lucky, one will surface near you, probably having seen the bottom of your kayak, and will swim by to have an assessment. It's almost impossible not to grin when you see one of these sleek, alert, graceful animals. Today, though, this particular seal is staying apart from me, and I can't make out the details of its face. It is a seal, though, and I feel lucky having seen it. It's as if I am in a state of grace somehow. I kayak hoping to see animals. I have in the past seen weasels making their way amongst the rocks on shore. They slither along adroitly as if they had designed the rocks for their movement. Weasels are highly disparaged, but no animal consciously does harm. I have also seen bald eagles in the huge nests high above, and loons, and little ducks I can't identify and, at the water's edge, a lone Great Blue Heron.

Now, as I paddle around the tip of the island and make my way toward the modest dock area, something new: a huge sturgeon leaps out of the water not ten feet away. Even with so brief a glimpse, it's absolutely unmistakable. Its long, antediluvian body with its notched spine and blunt snout looks like no other fish. It crashes back into the water and disappears. Because of the quick, explosive nature of the sight, it leaves me wondering if it actually happened. Wondering, too: do fish jump to warn us, to have a look, to show off? Another mystery that doesn't need explaining. What a creature I've just seen! For the first time I wish there were someone with me to share this moment.

My shoulders feel strong as I paddle, in that steady switchback motion of a kayaker. The day is getting warm. I'm sweating lightly. I take a scoop of water and splash it on my face. It braces my whiskers. It's delicious. I paddle past the dock area. No one is there, just the tethered boats, empty and ready. I continue around the island, slowly and steadily. My mind rejects anything complex. It's at this moment that the ego subsides. I'm grateful for its diminution. It's a burden I carry with me all day, every day. But the clarity of the wisdom of these rocks, trees, this sharp cold water and these animals shrinks my importance. It's a huge burden, this presumptuousness I have learned being human. I sometimes spend most of my day trying to justify it. It comes, I think, for a huge insecurity, and at the heart of that insecurity is the knowledge of my own death. If I must die, how important can I be?

Nature, of course, has no such concern. Nature has no ego. For a few blessed moments out on the Maine water, I see this well.

I increase the power of my stroke, and the kayak surges, like a racehorse. Muscle and mind work flawlessly together. I paddle around the northeastern point of the island and head for home. I see the little cove where I began this ride. I slow, then stop, my paddling, not wanting the ride to end. I don't want the lightness I feel from the abandonment of self-concern to end. The kayak drifts ever so slowly toward the little beach. It finally touches with a small, sandy crunch. I awkwardly get out of the kayak, right foot first, then left. I pull the kayak up on the beach. It feels unnatural to be walking on land. Am I really terrestrial? I'm not so sure. I take a deep breath and look back out onto the water. Most of the island is still asleep. I am savoring in my mind the moments on the water, becoming, reluctantly, a biped once again. I was out just under forty minutes. I circled the island.

Now, to return to my duty of being a human—better, stronger, and wiser than nature.


Richard Goodman's new book, A New York Memoir, was published in 2010. He is also the author of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France and The Soul of Creative Writing. He has written for The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Harvard Review, Commonweal, The Writer's Chronicle, Ascent, French Review, and the Michigan Quarterly Review. He teaches Creative Nonfiction at Spalding University's Brief Residency MFA in Writing Program in Louisville, Kentucky.

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