Getting lost is more than just a navigational problem for kayakers. If our mind isn’t focused on what motivates us, this whole kayaking thing can feel a bit pointless.
This spring I’ve had a few people confide in me that after many years of kayaking, they’ve found themselves in the midst of a kayaker’s existential crisis - some variation of “What am I doing this for?” After kayaking for decades in some cases, routines can become a bit stale; initially thrilling rates of skills development can plateau; once lofty goals may look quite a bit smaller in the rear-view mirror; and sometimes the wake of our friends’ ambitions may have drawn us along on daliances that were more of a shrug than an enthusiastic nod. We may have lost sight of our goals, or simply moved past them. Whatever the cause, when we’re not in touch with what motivates us we suffer a double-whammy effect. We feel less enthusiastic about paddling, and - because state of mind has enormous effects on technical performance - we actually get worse at doing it!
Kayaking is an optional activity for all of us. None of us is out here because we have to spear the next meal, or ferry our family to far off islands to follow the seals. Even those of us who call kayaking our job have chosen that profession in lieu of pretty much any other, more prudent choice. It’s a passion, so understanding what motivates each of us to paddle is critical to enjoying it; and enjoyment is essential to doing it well.
When a friend confessed to me that their paddling verve was on a bit of hiatus, I shared the motivations that have driven me in my kayaking lifetime - and how those have changed a number of times. I came to the hobby of sea kayaking from coastal sailing, where my most enjoyable days were spent weighing my own abilities and judgement against the forces of the wind and waves in boats that weighed in tons, and hitting stuff wasn’t an option. Challenges in those boats were found pretty far from shore, and would take me a few days or a week to find. 13 years ago I had a couple very dependent humans at home under my care, so I needed a way to test my mettle against the ocean closer to shore, in much smaller time-slots. Having just moved to the Mount Dessert Island area, exploring my new Downeast surroundings by sea kayak one morning at a time seemed like a good fit. What motivated me in these first years was the quick-learning curve that we often experience when we’re quite new at something, and a good dose of adrenaline every now and then.
I realized a few years in that, while I was still having fun challenging my personal skills, I wanted to mix in something new. Training to lead kayakers, and working as a guide for a couple summers provided fresh challenges, but to be honest that path was a bit short-lived. I soon realized that I found conversations with tourists a bit dull, and what I looked forward to the most in a day with guide clients was the little bits of teaching. Following that motivation, I took off on a somewhat dizzy path of instructor training, practice instructing, starting a kayaking business, more training, shadowing mentors who seemed to teach so effortlessly, and so on. Trying daily to unlock the puzzle of how to foster learning in a particular student and in a certain environment is what drives me today. It’s a living passion, and following it is a joy - even as it makes me do all kinds of otherwise illogical things, like eating lunch on a rain-drenched rock in the ocean, on a miserable 40-degree afternoon in early May.
The question of what drives you as a kayaker, is worth reflecting on from time to time, because I’ll bet that answer has changed or evolved for most paddlers through their years on the water. The magic of sea kayaking is that it has so many facets. It can be a vessel for a wide variety of goals - serene camping explorations to charming little islands, complex expeditions to remote destinations, playing with boat control in menacingly rough waters, guiding clients in a coastal environment, or introducing friends to new skills. Knowing what excites us helps us spend our time more purposefully, whether that’s another stage of instructor training, a challenging tour with friends, working towards surfing some gnarly standing wave with grace, or doing more weekend camping with your kids.
Each of those conversations I had this spring, initiated by a kayaker’s existential woe, ended with a clearer idea of what excited that paddler. The result for one was to work towards a new certification, and for another it was turning a more analytical eye to their personal paddling skills. Personally, with my now-teenagers becoming far less dependent on me than they were 13 years ago, I’m realizing that I want to spend more time on the water with them before they move out!
Wherever the reflective process takes you this spring, I hope you find what drives your kayaking forward, and craft your paddling season to serve that passion. A meaningful destination on your horizon can be the difference between a long upwind slog, and ripping down-wind with the hissing crest of a wave under your stern.
Good luck! - Nate