Kayaks Are Birds: Creative Non-Fiction About Flying in Boats

 

Sea kayaking is the closest I’ve ever come to flying. I used to think of flying in the commonplace way, requiring wings and open air and altitude and clouds. Airplanes and hang-gliding and parasailing desperately try to mimic the elegance of birds, with their hollow bones and their weightless feathers. I suppose if we’re being literal, pilots and paratroopers are a whole lot closer to flying than I’ve ever been in my boat.
But when I really start to think about what flying means, when people say they wish their superpower was flight or that they could fly away with the likes of tiny birds to tropical locations when the winter rolls in, I think about sea kayaking.
Flying is almost synonymous in our culture with freedom; freedom to travel, freedom to defy physics- to tell Newton that we won’t fall lying down like the apples did. Flying makes us feel small in a vast universe, but strong enough to see it all for ourselves. Flying is about openness, about reaching a place we couldn’t with just our feet. Flying is about escape, about adventure. Flying is true ownership and power over your fate. Sea kayaking encompasses all these possibilities in a way that a commercial flight with JetBlue Airlines never could for me.
In January when I joined fellow students from Johns Hopkins University on a paddling trip around the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands, I really flew. Sitting in my boat in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico with no land in sight, watching light reflect off the waves like a molten mirror, I paddled on. On only my own steam, the strength of my core and my forearms, I pushed ahead a long, narrow kayak full of gallons of water, all my clothes, pots and pans, food, a tent and my own body.
Sitting atop the water is almost more amazing than it would be to sit on a cloud, with the possibility of seeing a sea-turtle’s quilted back or the rough grey fin of a dolphin beneath you. You can clearly see what’s in the sky, but the surface of the water is more like a stainedglass window than a clear one. On a clear day you might see the sand and plants at the bottom, but more often than not the water is full of mystery. On the clearest day paddling Walker’s Pond in Cape Cod, my mom and I saw a submerged row boat. It’s probably been there for as long as I’ve been paddling (my whole life), but I’ve never seen it before or since.
I paddled for hours with my companions before we reached a sandbar. I connected with the earth in a way I hadn’t before—trusting it to propel me to safety, admiring it for its beauty, and knowing of its power to overpower me. I’ve always had a healthy fear of water that almost rivals my love of it. It’s my method of flight.

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