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Outdoor Rec

July 26, 2013
Two students kayaking the Puget Sound

“The kayak glides low in the water as you and your partner discover a mutual rhythm–right, left, repeat, your arms like firing pistons. The glistening head of a seal periscopes out of the water a hundred yards off your port as you pass farther into the open.” -James Olson

Editor’s Note: Here, Outdoor Recreation guide and enthusiast James Olson writes about why joining PLU’s Outdoor Recreation adventures may mean loss of sleep and early mornings, but it is well worth the sacrifice. It’s just too much fun to miss!

Outdoor Rec

By James Olson ’14

It’s a Saturday. The tame muffle of sheets percolate loft-bottom as your roommate scrolls under their covers. Faint blades of greyscale manage their way through the dorm room blinds. Last night was a late one; fill in the blanks. You slide the activation bar on your phone, checking the time. It reads: far too early for a weekend. There may have just been a bell. You wipe crumbs from the crook of your eye as you work on remembering why you set an alarm–Outdoor Recreation.

Emerging from the cafeteria tray-drop, two days prior, you had scrawled your Hancock in the brackets of a sign-up sheet at the behest of the daily advertisers for Outdoor Rec. Kayaking, written in pink chalk on their board, had caught your eye: the concocted allure of the water, the Sound, the phenomenology of it all, swapped for the exhaustion and library-hours of your week? It had all sounded too appealing. So you joined.

But now it’s Saturday, and nothing addicts you more than those simple minutes in bed. They told you the trip was non-refundable, but is $15 worth the death of this beatitude, this unadulterated bliss? . . .

You decide yes, it probably is, and so your pragmatic self pumps you out of bed, in piecemeal steps: first clothes, then backpack, then email checked for things to grab before you leave the room. You scurry out, and meet the rest of the kayakers in front of the UC, vowing never to sign up for one of these trips again, no matter how stressful your week, and how much you wished, at the time, for the trip’s immediate rescue from your stack of piling worries. Sleep is just too precious.

But you’re here now, and so you stuff into a white 14-passenger van, and introduce yourself via some camp-type name game, providing, along with your name, a major and place of birth. The fellow next to you is from Alaska. You wonder briefly what brought him to PLU to study psychology. You watch Tacoma out the window. A pillow would be messianic, you think to yourself.

The ride takes 15 minutes, and as you flood out into the Point Defiance parking lot,  you realize that you are, indeed, no longer in Parkland. Fractured beams of sunlight tattoo the uneven concrete. You hadn’t noticed the sun’s emergence from the cramp-legged trenches of the white van, but you notice it now. It is erumpent beyond the palmate canopy of Washington forestry girdling the lot, as you follow the guides down the sloping asphalt towards the water.

On an elevated walkway above the water, a guy with dreadlocks and a clipboard huddles with the guides by a trailer of stacked kayaks. You fancy a yellow two-seater. The guides turn to the group, now loitering on the grass, and review some brief, safety-guideline, waiver-type information. You sign something. The kayaks are pulled down onto the grass, and you make your way over to the yellow one, which is more of a jonquil, once processed by the sun.

Someone in the group asks to be your partner. You indicate the vessel with an outstretched hand and a minor shrug. They nod and say sure. Around you similar arrangements are made. The atmosphere is agreeable. The guides circle, fostering positivity. It could be fake, but the sunlight denies your inner cynic. You let it drop. You smile at the guides. They smile back.

The kayaks are heavy and pulse their weight against your hip. Your sneakers crunch on gravel as you carry it down the beach. You slide the kayak halfway into the water and lift yourself in. You’re wet, but nonplussed by this wetness. The sun reflecting off of the water is warm, even if the water is not.

You begin to tour the Sound, your progress rocky at first. The kayak glides low in the water as you and your partner discover a mutual rhythm–right, left, repeat, your arms like firing pistons. The glistening head of a seal periscopes out of the water a hundred yards off your port as you pass farther into the open. Cheerful banter floats like confetti above the miscellaneous student fleet of which you are a member, the voices of unburdened conversation bouncing off of the Sound’s casually stirring surface. A wake wings your kayak, as smooth advance hastens, and the tandem teamwork of your yellow vessel peaks. You meditate, the exchange of in breathe for out your only immediate priority. And you are light in the water.

You reexamine anxiety. There is a test the following Tuesday, a date for which you are nervous, and an email from a parent to which you really need to reply. Rather than hold your head under to see them, however–as is characteristic of the collegiate worrier–you let them pulse out of the dark and up toward the surface and simply disappear. Anxiety is manageable if understood as a facet of rhythm, a process of one stroke after another. Jellyfish can sting, but the trick is to glide above them, not letting them within the cockpit of your smooth trajectory. From that vantage they are beautiful, little fluffs of candescent smoke, easily eschewed, but wonderfully observed.

This is the wisdom of the wild, a wisdom, unfortunately, all too quickly forgotten. Which is why we return: to witness the harmony of complex patterns rendered simple, and to consider stress as natural, as better observed from a place of buoyancy. This was the why for Thoreau; it was the why for Edward Abbey, and it was the why for John Muir.

It is also the why for Outdoor Recreation.