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  • Susan Conrad

WATER IS MY ELEMENT


WATER WAS TABOO in my family: a strong river current had snatched my father’s five-year-old niece, who had slipped and fallen down a muddy bank while playing along its shores. The river took her and would not let go. My father vowed to never let me suffer from the same demise and forbade me to play in or near water during my youth. But what happens when you tell a child not to do something? Right. I was drawn to the very thing my parents tried to shield me from. I was I was nine years old when I learned that the letters W-A-T-E-R formed Helen Keller’s first spoken word. This impacted me in a way I couldn’t understand at the time, but now I realize that much like those five letters meant to Helen the wonderful cool something that was flowing over her hand—a living word that awakened her spirit and set it free—so water became for me a substance to love and cherish.

Being on the water, paring life down to the basics, puts things in perspective for me and helps me look differently at the world, sometimes when I most need to. Laudably, kayaking is a layered sport—it can be whatever you want it to be: gunk holing in protected nooks and crannies; playing in dynamic water; surfing; racing; pushing through grueling, exposed crossings; barreling down adrenalin-spiked whitewater; exploring sheltered coastlines—or paddling the Inside Passage. For me, it’s simply about being on the water, about going outside—and finding my inside.

I was reminded of this today, while paddling on a narrow three-mile-long mountain-rimmed lake near my home in Oso, Washington. I launched my 17-foot sea kayak onto rippled waters and paddled the three miles to the end of this charming land-locked lake, lost in my thoughts, reveling in the now of it all. I entered a small stream that poured gently into the west end of this lake. I paddled against a gentle current and glided past hundreds of white and yellow lily pads that covered the surface of the water; past mating dragonflies and meandering butterflies; past scurrying turtles and swaying pink wildflowers. With the sweet smell of pine and cedar wafting around me, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, wanting to hold on to this feeling into eternity.

My life has been a bit hectic this summer, to the point of feeling utterly overwhelmed. Often I feel my heart belongs in two very different worlds. I sometimes grieve for that adventurous, self-propelled Inside Passage world while living this one. But I’m OK with knowing that this summer, and perhaps next summer, I won’t have the luxury of taking months, or even weeks off to dip my paddle into the deep blue sea. A brief three-day escape with kit and kayak will have to suffice. Or, when time is really tight, I’ll lace up my trail runners and head out into

the hills that loom behind my house, or I’ll hop on my mountain bike and spin off some of my pent up craziness. Or, like today, I’ll simply slip my lissome kayak into a nearby lake, and momentarily change my perspective.

What’s your element? Where’s your happy place? What does it smell like? Close your eyes and taste it, feel it, hear it. Go there.


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