Deception in the Wind

Finally we got a chance to comfortably put our kayaks in the water. My husband and I had been visiting the Finger Lakes region of New York for days, hoping the weather would improve. Our bags were packed with warm-weather clothes (shorts, tanks, sandals) but the only outfit each of us had worn so far consisted of a fleece sweatshirt, a pair of boots, and a raincoat.

This day was different. It wasn’t perfect, but it was far better, and we smiled as we pulled into Keuka Lake State Park. Yet, even in the satisfaction of doing what we had traveled so far to do, the day became another lesson in the need to remain flexible, accept what comes, and learn from our mistakes.

The problem was the wind. Had it not been for the constant blowing, the temperature might have reached 70 degrees. More than the chill, the swiftly moving air made it unpleasant for floating, at least when compared to times of quiet stillness, when water could be glass. No, today we would have waves and churning and noise in our ears. I tightened the band on my hat, just enough so it would stay (hopefully); loose enough that it wouldn’t hurt.

We unloaded the kayaks and carried them 100 yards to the stone beach. A couple crouched together on a bench as their dog stretched its leash, searching for our displaced scent. With lifejackets on, water bottles filled, and sunscreen applied, we were ready to tour a portion of the shallow Keuka Lake.

Getting ready in the sunshine

The clear water of Keuka Lake

“Let’s go that way first,” Glenn suggested, pointing to the north, into the wind. He had read my mind. Do the hard work while we were strong, and let nature blow us back home when we were tired.

We shoved off. Since I’m not an experienced paddler, the waves made me a little nervous as they tossed my boat around. But once I got the nose facing directly into the wind, I became surprised at how easily I could glide through them. I began to relax and admire the shoreline as I paddled along. Boats of various sizes were tied to docks of various sizes—some long and fancy; others short and weathered—which led to houses of the same description. Shoulder to shoulder, shacks stood next to luxury homes, each one quiet, as if everyone was someplace else.

A solitary man fished from a small-but-well-equiped motor boat. I crept past him, being careful to stay in the opposite direction of his cast. I navigated the choppy water, again with surprising ease. We stayed near the coastline, because it was more interesting to look at than the wide open expanse of churning lakewater, and the surface was calmer and the air quieter.

At a productive pace, Glenn and I found ourselves at the north end of the lake in no time. There the waters transitioned into a small, lazy stream, just deep enough to get a shallow motor boat through. Nearby trees on the shore and tall reeds in the marsh acted as a wind break, so it was pleasant and peaceful there. I let the kayak drift against a rock inside an eddy to rest. Glenn brought his boat against mine and we drank some water and shared a bag of cashews.

That sure was easy, I thought to myself. I barely felt tired at all, and we had crossed a fairly long stretch of lake.

I watched the breeze occasionally lift up the edges of the lilly pads, making them look as if they were waving to me. Red-winged Blackbirds hovered and then landed on the five-foot high reeds, bending the vertical stalks 90 degrees, then hopping sideways down toward the ground. They were feeding on something I could not see, and they clicked and called to each other, hovering, landing, disappearing into the tall grass.

Glenn went ahead of me as we explored the marshy area. Then, I heard a sudden and alarming honking noise. When I turned to look, I saw expansive wings, laboring to get into the air. He had stirred a Great Blue Heron and was receiving a scolding for doing so. When it disappeared into the tall grass, I assumed it regained its statuesque position, rendering it camoflauged once again.

Yes, the weather was not perfect, but it was still a beautiful day.

“Ready?” Glenn asked, meaning he wanted to go back.

Not really, I thought while my mouth said, “Okay.”

We were now on the western shore, the opposite side of the lake from where we had started.

“Let’s row to that point, then cross,” he suggested with a wave of his paddle. I followed agreeingly. We hugged the shoreline again, where we passed a small marina filled pleasure boats.

I smelled charcoal, proving someone else was enjoying this windy Friday afternoon. Boatslip owners had setup patio scenes–complete with furniture and canopies–on the docks by the most luxurious looking boats. Sailboats rocked and clanged in rhythm with the wind and waves. Under the awning on one boat, I saw the soles of two. Ankles were rested on top of a tan leather captain’s chair, crossed in relaxation, the body hidden from view.

Yes, the weather was not perfect, but it was still a peaceful day.

Then, we had reached the point where the hard trek would begin. I dug in my paddle and began to row. My eyes spied a place, north of the beach, in the middle of the lake, where the waves settled into a pattern of two directions, one southwest, the other southeast, the latter being exactly where I wanted to go. I expected it would be difficult to get through the wavy chaos in between, but I could taste the reward of reaching that point: a wind-powered push home.

But as I paddled, it seemed as if I could never reach the spot. Was it a mirage? Why was my boat so keen on laying against the waves instead of obeying my southbound steering? Fortunately, the sun’s energy kept me warm as some of the waves splashed over the sides of my kayak, spraying water across my legs.

There would be no rhythmic paddling: right, left, right, left. It was only a hard left. Another hard left. Followed by a rudder-like dip on the right. No matter how hard I fought, I could not get the wind behind my back. I grunted and rowed and then began to curse. I had reached the halfway point. The waves were rolling right toward home, yet still I had to dig in and compensate and dig in again.

My notion of an easy ending had been smashed into a frustrating fight with nature. Only near the shore did the pressure ease. I landed the kayak and disembarked, not with the pleasure of a satifying tiredness, but with the damning of plan gone bad.

As I watched Glenn glide in and looked out over the lake, I tried to determine the error of our ways. Then, the only answer I could think of came to me. Keuka, like all the Finger Lakes, drains to the north, toward the Great Lakes and Canada. The wind was blowing toward the south. I had been fooled by the southbound wind into ignoring the northbound current. We had reacted to what was happening on the surface, without considering what was happening underneath. And suddenly the experience had become a string of metaphors.

• When planning, base your strategy on consistent fact (current), not fluctuating trends (wind).

• Don’t let the loud and boisterous distort your respect for the quiet and strong.

• Be willing to adjust your plan, keeping tuned to your instincts. I should have changed course when I realized how easy it was to paddle into the wind. Or at least I should have stopped to ask why it was so.

• Be prepared for a plan not to work. Luckily I was not tired from the first leg of my trip. I had taken water and a snack, thus I had the strength to fight my way home.

• Do not curse what beats you. Learn from it instead.

We hauled the boats back to the truck, uphill this time. I tried to shake off the frustration and center myself again on the pleasures of the day and of the entire trip, rain or shine. Such as…

With cold rain outside, we explored the indoor wonders at the Museum of the Earth

We walked to places special enough to be considered sacred, such as the 215-foot Taughannock Falls …

and looked inside the earth at Watkins Glen Gorge

Outside the woods and off the lake, we investigated the best of what the region offered…

including a few stops for some very good beer.

We visited the institution that recorded the birdsongs I first listened to as a child, setting in motion my lifeling appreciation for nature.

Yes, it isn’t perfect, it isn’t always easy, it isn’t always what we expect, but life certainly is wonderful.