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.