Column: Kayaking foray douses fear, everything else

I blame my lifelong fear of going out on water on Steven Spielberg.

Yeah, that sounds good. It’s better than admitting I’m a wimp or a wuss. But placing the blame on the iconic filmmaker who directed “Jaws” really isn’t an exaggeration.

I’ve gone into the ocean during trips to the beach but never without worrying if a 30-foot shark would swallow me up even though I was less than 20 yards from land. I’m hesitant to even go in swimming pools. Once, I swam a lap and a half at the YMCA back home before jumping out of the water, freaking out in fear since the pool was way too deep for my liking.

Despite all of this, the other month I suggested writing a story on the local kayaking scene. When I arrived in Jasper three years ago, I remember seeing kayakers on the Patoka River and thinking at the time it seemed like fun. So I volunteer to wedge myself into a plastic-looking vessel and ease onto the Patoka River, partly trying to overcome my nonsensical fear and partly to be more adventurous.

On a Thursday night in July, I’m set for my first foray into kayaking. I’m told I don’t need anything. Just show up.

On this trip, I join five others: 50-year-old Jasper resident Phil Mundy, 61-year-old Jasper resident Joe Sergesketter, 57-year-old Huntingburg resident Terry Bockting, 16-year-old Nicholas Luke and his 14-year-old brother, JohnPaul. The two youngsters, who live in Wooster, Ohio, and Jasper, respectively, are going out for the first time. The other three are veterans, kayaking for decades. Between them, Joe and Terry own 10 kayaks and Phil uses eight demo kayaks from the fleet of 15 to 20 kayaks within Adventures Recreation & Gear, which he owns.
 
Joe used to canoe, but quickly gave that up for kayaking after realizing he enjoyed the latter much more because they’re easier to load, handle and paddle. He owns six total kayaks and still has the first one he ever bought. He used to take it to Patoka Lake and sail with it, making a makeshift mast and constructing a homemade sailboat.

Terry, meanwhile, became hooked more than three decades ago after going out with his family in Maine on what locals called a “pond” that was more than 20 miles long and two miles wide at its narrowest point.

“You’ll find a peace out there that you don’t find anywhere else,” Terry says of the water. “It just gives you a tremendously peaceful feeling.”

Peace isn’t the first emotion I feel. I slide into a long, fashionable orange kayak and Phil tells me that usually if the first 10 seconds go all right, then I’ll be good for the whole trip. I later show this isn’t true, when I completely flip over about halfway into our 7.2-mile journey.

Within a half-hour or so of beginning, the six of us come to a part in the river that’s obstructed by a fallen tree. Ron helps move aside some limbs, enough for us to get through after briefly leaving our kayaks and stepping onto a tree stump. After I get back in, I paddle ahead, reverse a bit and then paddle back, seeing if everyone else had made it through, though I should be more worried about myself.

In an instant, I realize I’m going to flip over. There’s nothing I can do other than close my mouth so I don’t swallow any water and hope that nothing bites me once I’m submerged. The guys get a good laugh — they say they’re laughing with me rather than at me — and I’m more embarrassed than worried as I’m able to stand up in the river. I’m not only drenched, but my shirt has become one with my chest.

After finally settling down, I get into a good rhythm and am able to even lodge myself free after I become stuck a few times. Once I finally start to calm down, I hear leaves being crunched and the sound of an animal running down the riverbank. I’m more than a little startled. I turn to my left and see a rather angry beaver running down into the river. In the beaver’s defense, maybe he wasn’t angry, but if he was welcoming us into his domain he sure had a funny way of doing it.

“Did you see that?” I nervously ask JohnPaul and Nicholas, who are sharing a kayak while the rest of us are in single-seat vessels.

“That was awesome,” JohnPaul exclaims, and I hope my previous question didn’t prompt him to think I was scared.

Toward the end, I’m invited on a 33-mile trip that would start from Patoka Lake and end near the Riverwalk.  I’m thinking I’d need a week to finish that trek. These guys do it in a day.

A week or so after our jaunt, I call Terry to ask for some information for the story. Terry then begins dispensing advice on what type of kayak to buy. There is more than one kind? I think to myself. The longer the kayak, the faster it will go, Terry says. Some are good for open water, others are more suitable for beginners. More important than anything, he says, is to find one with a comfortable seat. Then he starts describing another type of kayak: long and sleek. That sounds good, I think. Terry then hesitates, laughs a little, then says, “It’s an ocean kayak.”

My only thought: He knows he’s talking to me, right? The guy who just started kayaking? The guy who flipped over on a 3-foot-deep river?

Back to Patoka. I finally arrive at the boat launch near the bridge and I feel unable to move. I’m essentially welded to the kayak. With the help of Phil, I try to find a way out of the kayak. I hop up but can only land in my seat. Eventually, we turn the canoe over and I flop out onto the gravel. The whole scene probably is reminiscent of a baby being born.

Phil says he can’t describe what just happened but that he’s never seen anything like it before.

“That was awesome,” he says, mirroring JohnPaul’s reaction earlier.

Everyone starts laughing. I’m happy, especially after they inform me they’re still laughing with me.

Herald Sports Writer John Patishnock can be reached at sports@dcherald.com.




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