Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On water, on ice

The alarm clock went off well before sunrise, to a morning thick with fog and drizzling rain. Sean and I had harbored ambitions about Mount Olds, that scary mountain that I couldn't summit a month ago — and now it's November and requires snowshoes and an ice ax and an avalanche beacon and seven hours of free time before work. Those ambitions dissolved in the cold rain, and it was not hard to let them go. Sleep comes easily to the relieved.

And just like that, it was nearly 10 a.m., and I was just about ready to give up on the day when Sean suggested we go sea kayaking on Mendenhall Lake instead. I really wanted to, but wavered. For reasons that wouldn't make any sense to him, I am every bit as scared of paddling across the calm surface of a lake as I am of climbing a 4,500-foot monster mountain on November 10. I have an irrational fear of water that runs deep, which I can trace back to the time I accidentally wandered into a water-blasting ride at Sesame Street World in Texas at age 3, or fell into a fishing pond at age 4, or ended up temporarily trapped underneath an inflatable "water weenie" while being towed behind a jet boat in Bear Lake at age 8, or being swirled around in a keeper hole while tubing through Lava Hot Springs at age 18, or catching a rope around my neck underneath a whitewater raft in Cataract Canyon at age 21. I have frequent dreams about drowning. Water haunts me in a way that nothing else can. I wish it wasn't this way. I'm actually a naturally strong swimmer; I'm convinced I could build up impressive endurance for long, difficult swims if simply training for them didn't make me so uneasy. Also, I live in one of the most amazing water playgrounds in North America, a passage of rivers and channels and fjords and great swaths of wilderness that can only be accessed by boat. So I try to take my baby steps away from my fears, but I can't say it's not difficult.

The late morning was calm and cool, about 38 degrees. I pulled on a pair of fleece gloves because they were all that I had, but my fingers quickly went numb as I started to draw the paddles through the teal-colored water. The nose of my borrowed kayak plowed through a thin veneer of clear ice and the boat teetered. My heart nearly stopped. Calm water is not too intimidating for me - like I said, I'm a pretty strong swimmer. But the temperature of Mendenhall Lake, with its waters that until very recently were frozen in the Mendenhall Glacier, registers at just a few degrees above freezing this time of year. Tip a kayak that I have no skills to flip back over, and I'd have five, maybe 10 minutes tops to swim to shore before I succumbed to hypothermia. So the tiniest little jolts would make my heart race and head pound. But eventually, I started to find my flow, and came to the conclusion that this boat probably wasn't just going to randomly toss me into the calm water — given my irrational fear, a truth difficult for me to accept.

We made it to the face of the glacier and hauled out on shore. The last time I was out this way was January, when the lake was frozen, and I don't remember this particular rock wall — I'm fairly certain that it wasn't exposed 10 months ago. That's how quickly the Mendenhall Glacier is melting. My friend Brian tells me that in only five or so more years, the glacier is going to permanently lift off the surface of the lake, and we'll no longer be able to paddle (or in the winter, pedal) right up to its face. It's sobering, to see how quickly great things disintegrate.

And with that came a feeling of tranquility ... acceptance of loss and fear, and human ability to keep moving through both. They say you should do one thing every day that scares you. As I skimmed the smooth water through a maze of floating ice formations, I was amazed at how peaceful that act felt.

For a comprehensive guide on how to choose the best kayak for you, visit https://www.globosurfer.com/best-kayaks.


  1. I have so much respect for you. It's a real challenge for me to act despite my fears. It's something I work on a little bit every day. O, the adventures to be had!

  2. Boy you have some bad luck with water. Nice pics as always.

  3. Wow! Beautiful, both the photos and words. I also have to say that first photo is incredible! Thanks for sharing.

  4. A good writer engages the reader and entertains the mind, but a great writer moves beyond that and brings to light ideas (both new and old) that linger on the minds and hearts of readers who have no choice but to contemplate what they just read. Thanks for being that writer.

  5. I totally agree with Christopher.

  6. Jill...nothing wrong with having a healthy respect for water. To get yourself more comfortable with kayaking, look around for a copy of sea kayaking book by Derek Hutchinson. There are ways to get back in a boat on calm water when you accidentally tip (not easy to do, but it can happen). There are especially some rescues that are good in those situations where there are two boats and one has tipped. Learning how to do those things will help you. Here in MN we have Lake Superior. The water in is nothing to joke about as it can kill you quick as well. Dress correctly and up your skills and you will be rewarded.

    And good for you for just getting out there despite your fears.

  7. I have always wanted to try kyaking now I think I only want to try it in Alaska!

  8. Ditto. Thank you.

  9. I totally understand irrational fears. Kudos to you for working though them. It takes you places you never think you'd get.

  10. VERY awesome. I'm glad you gave kayaking a go. It's one of my favorite things to do up here, even though it's always a little unnerving to be sitting in a piece of plastic (or kevlar, if you're fancy) that could tip you into 38 degree water. Brrrrrrr!!!! Once you have kayaked amongst whales, you may never go back to the bike. ;) Great job conquering a fear - that's never easy!

  11. Nice post, thanks for sharing.

    38 degree water is very cold, but the average person, if they survive the initial first minutes, actually has much longer than 10 minutes to survive.

    When you flip in water that cold, and you're not properly dressed, you'll most likely experience involuntary gasping. If you're underwater when that happens, you're in real trouble. Practicing wet exits in warm water is key for the beginner kayaker.

    If you survive the first few minutes, at that temperature, you have a few more minutes where you can actually use your hands. After a while, you can't even hold on or swim. Without proper flotation, you'll drown long before hypothermia kills you. According to recent studies, you have as much as 30 minutes in 34 degree water before unconsciousness. You can survive another hour (unconscious) before you die from exposure. This data is from various clinical studies: your results may vary.

    In reality, you can survive in the water for a long time before hypothermia kills you. And if you are lucky enough to get rescued and flown to a hospital, you'll survive without injury. Counting on rescue from someone else is a mistake.

    If you go into cold water it is important to keep trying to survive. You can survive in very cold water for a long time, but your mind set must be focused on survival, and not thinking you're going to be dead in a few minutes.

    It's important to spread the word: fight for your survival. Don't think it's all over in 10 minutes.

    And always dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature.

    Here's a good resource.

  12. ...well now my fear of moths just seems silly.

    Great read as always, Jill. Nice insight about the glacier--great things do have a way of ending faster than we expect them to. There's always something to learn.


Feedback is always appreciated!