I’ve made the trip hundreds of times. Maybe that’s why I was overconfident. Just hop in my kayak and paddle back to the marina. I’d checked the weather, as I always do. It was below freezing, both the air and the water, but I was dressed in layers. With any kayaking trip, though, it’s not the temperature but the wind that’s always the factor. I have a steadfast rule that if it’s double digit winds, I don’t go out. Four years ago, in my first-ever kayaking trip, I’d been in a very bad kayaking accident and I had no plans to repeat a scenario where the Chesapeake Bay sucked me out into its depths again.
My weather app informed me that the winds were calm in the morning when I’d be heading out, but that with each passing hour, they’d be climbing into the double digits. No problem, I thought, just a quick trip to the sea glass beach, in and out, home before lunch. Fifteen years as a beachcomber should’ve told me that “quick beach trip” is oxymoronic, and I shouldn’t have been surprised that I was the one who ended up putting the “moron” in that word.
Four hours later, the wind whipped off my baseball hat and I stood at the shoreline beside my kayak, pondering my crossing back. It was a set of circumstances that was new to me. Winter storms and resulting shoreline erosion had created a new scenario where these apparent 15-20 mph southeast winds were bringing the full force of the Chesapeake straight up the creek I needed to cross, whitewater-style, in the direction I needed to paddle. I knew I couldn’t head directly across, because the tide would flip my boat. I thought if I entered the water downstream, I could maybe paddle with the current, then turn my boat and head into the wind. Remembering the weather forecast, I knew I needed to get out of there before the wind got any worse.
I put the kayak in the water, and as I placed the first waterproof, insulated camo waterman’s boot into the vessel, it took over, deciding it was going to make a sharp left turn and head immediately in the direction of the wind and rapids. It wasn’t waiting for my other foot, my paddle, or the rest of me, as it took off at full speed, doing what it was designed to do, and gliding effortlessly through the fast-moving water, taking me with it in a quite ugly fashion.
I flipped backward onto my left haunch, but only momentarily, as my shocked, flailing ass was swept out from under me by a boat with a mission. The kayak sort of rolled over me and I felt the awkward, twisting motion of my body as it tried to simultaneously stay in the boat and get out, not instinctively knowing whether to escape into the freezing water or stay out of it. Blinded by the bay, I felt the cold water enter my ear, the horrible sucking sound of the rushing water and the dragging sensation of the kayak trying to pull me down what was essentially a river at that point by one stuck boot. The cold water splashed sense into my brain: if the boat flipped, it would be all over—how would I get out if my foot was still stuck? And then, this: holy goddamn shit, I found that whole, 1930s red car taillight today and it’s in the boat with all the other sea glass. This boat is not flipping with all that sea glass in it. Nevermind the Coast Guard dragging my bloated dead corpse out of the water; my motherless children. No one else is getting this awesome bonfire marble.
Somehow, I hadn’t let go of my grip on my paddle. Turning one end of the paddle to the sky, I jammed the other end into the muddy bottom of the bay, which stopped the boat enough for adrenaline to allow me to sort of pole vault/flip/drag/twist myself over onto the top of the kayak and into the boat, facing backward and upside down. The boat was moving rapidly down the creek with the wind. I had to get control of the kayak, turn it around in this mad wind and whitewater waves, and find the strength to paddle it against the wind and back up to the marina, though I couldn’t feel my hands. I thought about just letting go, floating down the creek, landing at whatever farm it took me to and knocking on a door to get a ride back to my car.
But I got myself into this, so it was my own damn job to get my dripping, frozen ass out. I may have been up shit’s creek, but I still had the paddle.