It’s heady, being a respected professional. Through many decades, I’ve honed the writing/editing/communication skills that give me status, and a livable income. And I love my work. Finally, I can pick who I work with and what I work on. But now I find that’s not enough.
I reached the top of a precipice, looked around, and spotted a new challenge. Heck, I live in Maine now. There’s islands out there to explore; what better way than in a long, slim sea kayak. About a year ago, someone (known as Wild Bill) came up with the idea that I should become a certified Maine Sea Kayak Guide. So I called an outfitters and signed up for the course.
I had all winter to get excited, since the course would be in the spring. Two weekends of training on Gay Island in Musgongus Bay. I couldn’t wait: I geared up for this course for weeks, trying on my new tow belt, packing and repacking my sleeping bag in its dry bag cover, going through the handbook, tying knots, considering how one uses a compass. Seven of us went out that first weekend with two instructors. We unloaded our gear on the island and then went back on the water — 46 degree water. First thing we learned was a wet exit. Then we learned rescues; every kind of rescue.
Some in the course had dry suits, but not me. I toughed it out in my old scuba wet suit. Unfortunately, so did my very thin young buddy who I had to save first. He was shivering. “I need to get him chicken soup,” I yelled.
“Just get him back in his kayak,” the instructor retorted.
Nearly reaching hypothermia, when my legs couldn’t get themselves back into my kayak, we returned to the island lodge. Then the navigation lessons began. I never knew what a nautical mile was until that night. And when it made sense to me, I realized how far I had to go — how many nautical miles — to achieve this new goal of mine. But it began to make sense: a nautical mile is one minute of latitude. That realization was my breakthrough.
Six of us returned for the second weekend of training. My wet exits were faster, and I could put more oomph into those rescues. Hypothermia returned, but I refused to quit. We all guided through scenarios that went from dangerous to hilarious. I loved it when the instructors turned over their kayaks and began fist fighting. So, the course ended and it became time to prepare for the test.
Maine is the only state that certifies its sea kayak guides and the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries doesn’t make it easy. Just driving to Augusta was traumatic for me. I did great on navigation, fine through the oral part, and then the wizened guides gave me a scenario I couldn’t crack. It involved young campers I’d taken to an island for an overnight; one gets burned by boiling water. All my responses were correct. Except, I didn’t think to also mention that I would call my outfitter and tell them I’ve had to have someone evacuated from the island. Liability. I just didn’t think of it. Most people don’t pass the test the first time, so I shouldn’t have felt let down. But I was devastated.
Rather than go back a month later to retake the test, I decided to become an apprentice. Is this something that I really want to do? I mean, I have work, more work than I can handle. Do I really want to be a sea kayak guide responsible for people’s lives?
I kayaked plenty this summer, exercising my new skills, enjoying all the touring, finding people who would join me as we paddled on the Maine Island Trail. Then, suddenly, impulsively, just last week, I walked into the Port Clyde Kayak shop and asked if they needed an apprentice. They did.
I went the next day. The owner, Brian Cody, gives me a VHF radio and tells me to stay at the end of the line and let him know if anyone capsizes. The winds were really picking up, from the north, which can be dangerous. An older woman (let’s say, someone a good decade older than myself) couldn’t get herself away from the rocks. I used the radio to call Cody and ask if I should tow her.
I managed to get her to the group, and things looked alright for a while. We paddled by the Marshall Point Lighthouse and then landed on islands that are closed until August 15 because of nesting birds. This was August 16. We sat there as juvenile eagles flew everywhere.
Going back across the channel was rough. Very rough. I stuck close to Molly, the older woman. One of the tandems was going off course. Cody was already towing one kayak. I knew I would have to steady my kayak and grab Molly’s. The waves were going in many directions. I couldn’t even think about capsizing. I just grabbed, hooked up my tow line, and managed to get her across the channel. I’d radioed Cody to tell him about the tandem going off course. We met up and I suddenly realized that I’d lost the radio in all the yanking about with the tow rope.
Well, I said, wouldn’t you rather have the two of us safe. “Actually,” he replied, “I’d want the radio too.”
Today I returned for my second attempt at being an apprentice. The waters were calm. I’d replaced the lost radio. And the group was easy: college students. I did everything I was told to do. It’s humbling, to realize at my age that being under someone’s tutelage is not interactive. Cody tells me what to do; I do it.
And I learn. I make mistakes; then figure out how to correct them. The ocean can be unforgiving. In my own small way, I’m trying to respect this amazing force of nature. Cody is also a force of nature, and he’s already shown me a great deal. Can I make that drive to Augusta again and make a second attempt at that three-hour test? Can I become a certified guide? Cody and Wild Bill insist that I should.
Right now, I’m understanding the merits of being an apprentice. This is an amazing journey that I’ve been fortunate enough to take at a point in life when I can truly appreciate what others know — and I don’t.