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Lessons from Sea Kayaking trips that are also useful in a Pandemic

a sunset over a body of water

By Joe Kiefer, Kayak Adventures Guide Manager & Member of the Seward Wilderness Collective.

In 2013, I was tasked with leading a 10 day kayaking trip in Baja California, Mexico for the non-profit organization I was working for. Thankfully, I was under the tutelage of Peter and Vicki, experienced kayakers and outdoor leaders who’d been planning similar trips for 30 years. Peter took me aside before we left and let me know: “you’re going to miss some stuff, you’re going to forget some things. That’s OK. Don’t get embarrassed or worried. Try your best to use those mistakes as lessons for your growth as a leader”. By the end, I had learned a ton of lessons on that trip, from how to navigate the rocky coastal desert coastlines to the proper preparation of yellowtail sashimi on the beach after a fresh catch.

But the lesson that stuck with me the most? Pull your boats far enough up the beach at night or the tide will take them. At the end of our paddle on our second day, everyone landed on shore and went to work cooking and prepping for dinner. I was in charge of managing the boats but got distracted and didn’t get them far enough up the berm. When we woke up, I felt the pit of my stomach drop as I realized two of our kayaks were missing! Thankfully I was able to flag down a panga (a Mexican fishing boat) and pay them to find our boats and retrieve them for us, but I was incredibly embarrassed by the mistake. My lessons learned from that particular mistake that feel applicable lately as I am stuck in quarantine: in the evening, keep things organized and ready for the next day. Clean up, meditate, or make a to-do list. Do whatever will help you set up the next day for success, no matter how small the success might be. Pull your boats up far enough that the tide doesn’t sneak up on you during the night, you’ll thank yourself later.

We’ve all been itching to go outside, to plan trips, and to explore with you in our beautiful Alaskan backyard. Because of the pandemic, we can’t really do those things, so instead, I’ve been working to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned from leading kayaking trips since losing those boats. Here are a few more lessons that might be applicable to this strange and scary time in our lives.

a small boat in a body of water

Being a team player is important or…”You can’t paddle a tandem kayak by yourself!”

In an expedition setting, being able to work well within a team may be the most important skill you can learn. You can’t even get a tandem kayaking moving if one of you isn’t paddling. So much of what we need to do can’t be done alone and working together helps keep everything moving efficiently. In our current world, being a team player might have a lot of different meanings for you: Social distancing can be tough, but it’s part of being a team player to protect folks who are immunocompromised or have other health issues. Working with those in your household and looking out for each other is so helpful in a time when tensions can run high. Look out for one another!

a body of water with a mountain in the background

Remember everyone who makes this possible

It’s easy to feel a measure of personal success when you’ve navigated tricky weather and arrived to the perfect glacier viewpoint on the water. You’ve worked hard and the views are totally worth it. But behind every successful kayaking trip, there are all sorts of other people who’ve helped you find success. People like water taxi captains, deckhands, booking and logistics staff, and weather forecasters. Likewise, the health care professionals, grocery store workers, and other essential service employees that help to keep infrastructure running while we social-distance have been incredible and worthy of so much praise!

a large body of water with a mountain in the background

Leave yourself a little time for magic

When we’re training new guides, I always like to remind them that you can’t completely frame out your schedule when kayaking because magic will always find a way to mess with your timings. Whether that magic is a sea lion popping his head up to investigate you or an incredible view of a bald eagle while on shore, you’ve got to make sure to leave yourself that extra moment for all the unplanned wonder. While we can’t spend time with each other, it’s good to remember that we can still feel wonder in the world and to keep our eyes out for all the little things that inspire us in the everyday. Whether it’s a phone call with a friend or a walk in the rain, find ways to feel a sense of wonder even when you’re unable to live your regular routine. It will find you in the most unexpected places if you’re looking for it.

a large body of water with a mountain in the background

There are some things we can control and some things we can’t

We can’t control the weather but we are 100% in control about our expectations regarding the weather. Some of my favorite trips have been in absolutely torrential downpours, because everyone was able to maintain a positive attitude and they were ready to have fun no matter what nature threw at them. If you go into a trip with very specific expectations about the “perfect conditions” then you are going to struggle when anything goes awry from your expectations. Keeping an open mind and trying your best to find the positives, even when things feel bad, is a tough skill to practice but it always helps. We’re all struggling right now and life is very different than any of us would hope for, but we can still look for the positives and find ways to take care of each other.


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