Facing Fear, Together: Mothers do it all in Alaska

Note: I wrote this piece for the May issue of Alaska Coast magazine, believing that, like a lot of things associated with motherhood, uncomfortable situations come with the territory, starting with the moment kids announce their arrival in this world. AK Kid is growing up, taking every opportunity to fly, run, jump, or in this case, float his way toward independence, even if I won’t follow. We’re walking pathways that are trending right angle more than parallel these days, leading me to do a lot of inward review. I hope you like the result.

Until recently, it’s been fairly easy to steer our youngest child toward pre-selected vacation activities. Have small child, will travel, so we hiked, fished, flew and poked around Alaska with little fuss from the peanut gallery. Somewhere over the past year, however, in between a Denali flightseeing trip and a southeast Alaska cruise, an unanticipated streak of independence emerged from the depths of my 7-year-old’s soul, and it started with a kayak.

“When, when can we go?” my excited son had asked, inspecting a rainbow of colorful boats hanging upside down from the stern of our UnCruise Adventures  ship last August.

Oh, no.

I hate kayaking; or, at least, I used to hate it. Those same skinny vessels had been a watery trap several years ago, and I hadn’t gone near one since. Even my husband, a sea kayak enthusiast, couldn’t prevent me from swearing off kayaking for good, and yet, there we were near Ketchikan, shoving off for seven days of intense exploration, and me staring at the boats, gripped by visceral terror.

Soar in the forest canopy? You betcha. Kayak? Uhhhhh.

I am generally not a wimp in the area of outdoor recreation, just ask the people who know me best. I can hike through bear country, fly in a tiny plane over open water, and use a chainsaw. I know how to zip line in a driving rainstorm.

But kayaking – due to an incident perpetrated by undertrained staff at a Lower 48 lake resort – holds no allure for me, 20 years after becoming trapped within the cockpit of a boat I had no business climbing into without proper instruction. Despite attending lectures about kayaking, reading books about kayaking, and watching videos showing happy kayaking families in an attempt to mitigate feelings about the sport, my flight response still screamed “NO!”

So what was I supposed to do when my 7-year-old announces he yearns to paddle? Alaska teems with outdoor opportunities, and to truly explore its nooks and crannies, one must step willingly into its wildness. It’s a conscious decision many parents make while traveling, and it’s one my husband and I choose on a regular basis. Except for the damn kayak thing, we’ve otherwise embraced this healthy attitude of stewardship and exploration, touching the face of Alaska on her most basic level. Until now, we’ve always done that, together.

Stepping beyond comfortable boundaries for activities in which you have questionable background or expertise is part of the adventure travel experience. Alaska certainly has its share – river rafting, bear viewing, and even skiing all carry a certain amount of risk, and it is at this crossroads of comfort versus courage that people, particularly parents, must decide to move forward, or not.

Smarties.

Thankfully, UnCruise Adventure staff were neither unprepared or untrained; nor were they unsympathetic to my fears. After a respectful (and lengthy) session in kayak safety and mechanics, safe exits and supervisory reassurances, my son and husband were blissfully ensconced in their double boat, paddling away in a rhythmic one-two motion that made me jealous. Gingerly, I allowed myself to be coaxed into another kayak, a stable Necky warhorse my husband refers to as “the Bismark of kayaking.” Hands shaking, chest filling with honest pre-panic, I sat as a statue, save for my feet tapping the rudder pedals like a nervous drummer.

“C’mon, Mommy!” shouted my son from somewhere behind me, waiting, as was the entire boat, to see if I would bolt from my position on the easy-launch deck. The captain, too, was out of the wheelhouse, having heard the story and wanting to offer personal assurance that nothing could possibly happen to an Alaska travel writer on his boat.

“You’ll be all right,” the expedition leader said quietly, as he gently pushed my kayak backwards along the deck’s plastic frame. I couldn’t see anything anymore, not the people lining the railing, not my hands that gripped the paddle so tightly my knuckles hurt, and my ears roared with a herculean effort not to burst into hysterical tears.

Then everything was silent. The kayak, now free of its terrestrial boundary, bobbed quietly on the dark, green, calm water. I shut my eyes. When I opened them, my husband and son were there, grinning at me, one hand each on the bow and stern of my kayak. And I remained upright the entire afternoon.

 

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