Paddling with Bae: My Gateway to the Outdoors

June Lake

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Two years ago, I loaded up a kayak into the trunk of my car and headed to the beach at the marina. There I stood in the sand, this Black woman, on a beach in Southern California transforming this peculiar box into a kayak. I had no idea that I was about to embark on a journey that would change my entire relationship—with myself, with the outdoors. Never before had I felt comfortable enough to venture out alone. It wasn’t natural and it certainly didn’t come easy for me, but somehow kayaking changed everything.

I learned how to swim when I was about five. So, basically, for as long as I can remember I’ve had a relationship with the water. Growing up in New Jersey, summers were hot and humid, but if you were lucky enough to have a friend with a pool, summers were also everything. I was one of those lucky kids—I spent my summers splashing around the pool with my best friend.

We were in a backyard pool, but in our minds, we were mermaids and dolphins, exploring the ocean. I always felt there was something magical about the water, even in a pool. How else do you explain the way fear could grip your tiny body as your friend sang out, “Duuuun dun… duuun dun… and swam toward you from the deep end. And there you stood in the shallow end, terrified of Jaws. For me, water has always had that power. A power and ability to awaken pure imagination and steep the mind in curiosity.

As a kid, I turned that backyard pool into a daily adventure. And now, as an adult, the water still affects me the same way. Whether I’m staring at a calm lake, roaring rapids, or a sprawling ocean, I feel that same sense of childlike wonder and think to myself, what would it be like to be in the middle of that? What adventures can I have? I want to get out there and explore. On the practical side of the daydream, though, I had grown up in the water, I had no experience being on the water.

I certainly couldn’t afford a boat, but a kayak seemed attainable. Except that I lived in an apartment. Where would I store something of that size? Nowhere. So back to square one: owning a kayak didn’t seem possible, either. I settled on the idea that someday, when I finally owned a house with a garage, I would buy a kayak.

Then, in 2016, I came across a news article about a portable, foldable kayak by this company called Oru Kayak. This discovery obliterated the biggest obstacle. But then smaller obstacles I like to call self-doubt and excuses bubbled up. Who would I kayak with? (I’m not comfortable doing anything alone.) How often would I really use it? (I knew next to nothing about kayaking.) Let’s be real, here, it’s a lot of money! (Have you lost your mind?)

For a brief moment I forgot about all of my reservations, and in a late-night lapse in judgment with way too much time on my hands, I tapped “confirm purchase” on the largest impulse buy of my life. But as soon as that purchase confirmation page popped up, panic set in. You just bought a kayak?

My kayaking experience was limited at best, and that’s putting it lightly. I had only kayaked a handful of times in my entire life. Twice I joined a local Meetup group to go kayaking. And both times I had to rent a sit-on-top kayak and I wasn’t thrilled with a sit-on-top. I wanted a sit-in kayak like the other members in the group. After those two trips, I decided to sign up for a six-day, guided kayaking trip to paddle with Orcas. It was my first time paddling for an extended period of time and my first time in a sit-in kayak, and it was a tandem. Hell, I hadn’t even camped in a tent before, and yet, l wanted to do this.

This is kind of my M.O. I feel like I’m always in over my head—every adventure starts with an idea and a lack of experience with said idea. And then I just do it.

I had a blast on that six-day trip, and it proved to me that physically I can handle kayaking, but I definitely wouldn’t consider that enough experience to feel confident enough to kayak alone. My brain skipped right past all the amazing possibilities and potential adventures and went straight to every worst-case scenario imaginable. I had no idea what I was doing, and this time there wouldn’t be a guide. I was in way over my head. Or so I thought.

June Lake, California

I started out small and headed to my local marina for the first paddle. It felt safe. The water was calm, not much boat traffic, and most importantly it wasn’t too deep, so if I capsized, I could safely make it to shallow water.

There I stood, on a crowded beach ready to assemble my kayak. As if transforming a box into a kayak wasn’t novelty enough, I did so with the full understanding that I’m not exactly the poster child for water recreation. I felt an immense amount of pressure to get this right. Well aware that some might attribute any misstep in my process to my race and unfamiliarity with such activities—people that look like me don’t kayak and I had no business being out there in the first place.

I took a methodical approach to construct my kayak. One piece at a time. One nervous piece at a time. I could feel the stares. Some people approached and asked questions, others just stared and pointed. I preferred the questions. My insecurities battled against my determination. I would not cave under the pressure. I was going to use this kayak for the first time. There was no turning back. I had to prove to myself that I could do this, and no amount of insecurity or fear was going to stop me.

I set my kayak in the water, made my first awkward entry, and I was off. It felt weird at first. I wasn’t the most stable and every little wake that the slowest passing boat created scared me. But I did it. It was freeing. Fear aside it felt great to be on the water, on my own terms. I had much to learn, and although I packed up that day proud of myself, I couldn’t help but wonder if I could really put this kayak to good use or was this whole thing just a fling.

In order to confidently put my kayak to more use in the future, I needed more practice but there aren’t many locations for kayaking in Los Angeles. I certainly wasn’t ready to head out into the ocean, so I paddled at another nearby harbor. Again, it felt good to simply be on the water. The first paddle wasn’t a fluke. This is where I wanted to be. I had found self-sustainable happiness and I didn’t need anything other than my kayak and a paddle to make it happen.

This second outing enlightened me and in that special moment, I decided that like all the boats in the marina, my kayak needed a name. The official model of my kayak is the Oru Bay ST. Staring out at the various names of the docked yachts and sailboats, it occurred to me that a lot of people name their boats based on a play on words.

Bae seemed perfect. It’s slang, used to affectionately refer to someone you’re in a relationship with, and I had this newfound love affair with my kayak. It was fitting. Not to mention as a single woman I didn’t want people to think it was weird or feel pity that I was kayaking alone so I started telling people, “I’m going paddling with Bae.” My kayak had a name now; we were official, and I wanted more. I wanted to see more than just the houses and boats that flanked the marinas. I needed to spread my wings (or paddle…so to speak).

I knew that if I was going to feel at all comfortable venturing beyond the harbors, I would need to feel safe. Sure, I knew how to hold a paddle, and I knew how to swim, but I didn’t have a clue about any of the technical aspects of kayaking. And I definitely had no idea what to do in the event that I capsized. I needed to learn, but where?

I Googled kayak safety and came across a kayaking self-rescue course for beginners being offered through REI. Nervous Nelly walked into class that morning. But soon I realized there were only two other kayakers and we were all basically at the same skill level. I let out a sigh of relief. No ego amigo. I was ready to relax and take it all in. And take it I did. I realized just how much of a knowledge deficit I had. I learned different paddle strokes, proper form, how to exit if I capsized. Most importantly learning and being able to practice the basics of kayak reentry made me feel confident enough to take on bigger goals. I got this! So, where to next?

After doing a little research I found my first real paddling destination: Big Bear Lake. Living in Los Angeles had deprived me of nature for so long. Recharging amidst the mountains and the trees and, of course, a lake seemed perfect. Like Pavlov’s Dog, self-doubt crept in as soon as I started daydreaming. “You’re going to drive up to Big Bear—by yourself—to go kayaking? You’re not a real kayaker. You have no idea what you’re doing.”

Questioning my ability is very familiar territory for me, but over time I have discovered the kryptonite to my negative self-talk—tell someone my plan. (Which also just happens to be a smart habit, in terms of general safety.) It seems the only thing stronger than my own negativity is my will to follow through with my plans once I’ve shared them. If I tell you I’m going to do something, then only hell or high water will stop me. The fear of having to explain why I chickened out is worse than trying and failing. And so full of fear, I packed up my car.

I had never been to Big Bear, so I didn’t know what to expect. I drove up the winding mountain road curious as to when it was going to feel like I was actually in the mountains. Then suddenly, as if mother nature flipped a switch, the desert disappeared behind pine trees and granite rock. I was getting close. And there it was on my left, Big Bear Lake.

The lake’s sprawling expanse captivated me. I couldn’t take my eyes off its cerulean waters. Visually it offered so much more than the rows of endless boats and housing complexes. This is what I was searching for, yet my stomach cramped with the anxiety that conquering this new paddling destination was becoming real. I reminded myself that I certainly didn’t drive two hours just to stare at it. So, I drove to the boat ramp and found a safe place to assemble and launch Bae.

Hoping to avoid the crowds, I had chosen to adventure mid-week instead of the weekend. Yet, despite the minimal crowds, I discovered with this kayak, even one onlooker is an audience. But I had done this before. No sweat. And so, I assembled my kayak and pushed off.

Those first paddle strokes slicing through Big Bear were almost spiritual. The glassy waters reflected the clear blue skies as if they were one in the same. Bae and I glided across the water like a bird set free. Huge boulders and pine trees dotted the shoreline and craggy mountain tops stood in contrast between the serene water and cloudless sky. I even saw a bald eagle. I was completely at peace. I had reached the point of no return. Kayaking in beautiful spaces spoke to my soul.

My mindset totally shifted after my Big Bear trip. If I could do that, if I could paddle there, what else could I do? Where else could I paddle? I had tapped into an undeniable energy. I found this activity that brings me joy, makes me feel at peace, calms my often chaotic mind, and challenges me. I even learned to start believing in myself. Clearly, I needed to keep going, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

Kayaking has become the impetus for everything I do outdoors. It’s the reason I’ve been able to push well beyond the boundaries of my comfort zones in ways I never believed I was capable of doing. Through my solo kayaking adventures, I’ve learned to be comfortable in the setting of my own company. Before kayaking, I wasn’t even comfortable going to a restaurant alone. I’ve since traveled around the globe alone—well with Bae in tow, of course. I even started camping just to be as close to the lakes as possible.

I’ve had to confront my fear of bears, bugs, and boogeymen along the way and I have to swallow the same fears with every outing. But I know if I give into them, I will only be robbing myself of a beautiful experience, and Bae and I have had some beautiful experiences. We’ve kayaked around the world, on the bluest of lakes, the deepest fjords, and the most sprawling of canyons. It’s been an amazing journey so far. As it turns out, I didn’t just purchase a kayak that day, I purchased an entirely new lease on life.