In Over My Head While Kayaking in Chicago

January 6, 2020
In Over My Head While Kayaking in Chicago

“Let’s go kayaking! It will be fun!” said the voices in my head.

My limited experiences of kayaking had been fun: a sunset kayaking trip in Galveston, the Colorado River in Austin. I had even purchased an inflatable kayak for paddling around the quiet waters near my home in southern Illinois. And, as a pastor, I keep my eyes open for interesting educational opportunities. So when I saw the course “Leading in a Dynamic Environment” being offered in Chicago, involving kayaking, I signed up quickly.

It was a small group of women, maybe ten of us including the leaders and hosts. We gathered and got to know each other on a Sunday evening, and were fitted for kayaks. The leader, one of the first women in the country to achieve Level 4 instructor certification, provided some lessons on leadership, on the water and off, through the weekend. It was a fun and supportive group.

I’m OK when I’m in control, but don’t like falling in water. I don’t like water in my face. I don’t like being out of control.

The next morning we loaded up the kayaks (they are really heavy, and I’m really out of shape) in downtown Chicago, and headed south to Lincoln Park Marina. It was a warm and sunny September day, the water was clean and clear in this protected area. It was fun paddling around the fountain, getting wet and cooling off.

Then it began to get challenging. Brene Brown said something about things we can do at the exact same time: to be brave and afraid. That was me. I got wet accidentally, falling out of my kayak as we played a game, riding kayaks like horses and throwing little balls into each other’s cockpits. That was definitely a balance challenge for me! Of course I fell in and came up sputtering. I was starting to remember that I have a bit of a fear of water. I’m OK when I’m in control, but don’t like falling in. I don’t like water in my face. I don’t like being out of control.

After lunch, I got wet on purpose, falling out of a perfectly good kayak so we could practice water rescues: fall out and climb back in, working in pairs. It was hard physically and emotionally, facing fears of water I hardly knew I had, feeling scared but doing it anyway. There were perhaps more tears (fear, relief, being coached and cared for) than smiles, but I did it.

The next day was a different story.

At the end of the day I was so grateful for fears faced and overcome, warm sunny skies, gorgeous Lake Michigan water, and the opportunity to do it again the next day. I felt happy exhaustion.

The next day was a different story. With an overcast sky and the threat of rain, we got on the lake early. We went beyond the safety of the marina, but were still somewhat protected by a jetty wall, blocking much of the current. Even so there were three to four-foot swells. I played it pretty safe and, knowing I was the weakest kayaker of our group, one of our instructors stayed pretty close to me.

My braver friends were surfing the swells, and I was positioned perpendicular to the motion of the water, enjoying their playful delight. Then, I realized I had to swing around to get back in position, and as I did, a swell hit my kayak and I knew I was going in to pretty deep water!

Kayaking in Chicago was hard physically and emotionally, facing fears of water I hardly knew I had, feeling scared but doing it anyway.

I remembered to take a breath, and under the water, over my head, I went. However, because we had practiced the day before, I knew I could trust my life jacket. I didn’t panic. I worked with the instructors who were coaching me and managed to get my overweight, out of shape, 59-year-old self back into my boat. In fact, I was exhausted. It was so very hard, and there were a few four-letter words and a lot of adrenaline involved. But I did it!

I faced and overcame another longstanding fear: deep water. I was the only deep-water rescue in our group that day. After a lunch break, many of the others did more rescue practice. I had done enough; I didn’t think I would have the strength. So once again, I paddled in safety (back in the marina) and watched my friends’ antics. Still, by the end of the day, I felt like a (very emotional) super hero. I had bruises and sore muscles from head to toe, but these few days probably accomplished more in addressing my fears of water than years of therapy.

Talk about getting in over my head! I’m not sure what I learned about leadership, but I ponder what happens when I get out of my comfort zone and face my fears. What does that look like in my life and ministry? How can I continue to challenge myself?

This year I’m going whitewater rafting.


Photo for In Over My Head While Kayaking in Chicago by Pixabay.

About Sherry Black

Sherry Black is a second career Episcopal priest and full time hospital chaplain. Having lived in eight of the United States of America before she was ten years old (a few of them twice), and having had the privilege of some fun family vacations, she loves to travel. Unfortunately this is limited by time and money. As a widow, she has become fairly comfortable with solo travel, but has also participated in group travel. Her bucket list is long; so much to see, so little time!

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