Paddle Therapy by Michael Lampman
Sea Kayaking is fun but it can also be great therapy for many physical and psychological infirmities. The day of one of my recent 'treatments' was a workday and I spent most of the afternoon watching the clock. As soon as it was acceptable I was out the door and on my way to the lighthouse, a favorite launch site for these evening outings on the gulf. I had loaded my kayak onto the car the night before and arrived at work ready for a quick getaway.
When I reached the lighthouse I was so eager to get started that didn't notice the brisk wind until I was a few yards out into a choppy sea. I discovered the hard way that I had forgotten to seal my spray skirt. No matter, it was 75 degrees and sunny. A little seawater in my lap wasn't going to do any harm.
After adjusting my skirt I dug in and headed east angling slightly into the wind and sea. Conditions were demanding enough to require real concentration. I focused on establishing a strong and steady pace. I had popped a Darvocet before leaving work so the pain in my back and legs wasn't too bad but near the end of the third mile I was still hurting and struggling to ignore it. I kept up my pace and watched the waves intently, deliberately counting their frequency and length and matching my cadence to them.
Then, after I had been on the water for just under an hour, my pain vanished. I was delighted but not surprised since this happens every time. I paused and realized that I was farther offshore than I usually like to be solo so I turned, lowered my skeg, altered my pace appropriately and surfed toward a clump of cabbage palms about three quarters of a mile away. With my pain gone I was finally able to fully appreciate the solitude and beauty around me. I was in familiar waters along a remote section of coast where other men are seldom seen. The distant palms were swaying rhythmically behind a tiny patch of sand glistening white in the sun. An osprey soared above nearly close enough to touch. My body felt youthful, sinewy and strong. I was sure I could go on like this for days and the short ten miles I had planned would seem like little more than a warm-up.
I beached among myriad little fiddler crabs scurrying out of my path. This was not really an unusual place but now the beauty of it seemed overwhelming. My pleasure in it was so intense that I felt it welling up in my chest almost bringing tears. I lay on my back for a short time staring at the sky and listening to the sea. When I got back into my boat and started back toward the lighthouse my paddle felt almost weightless and the lightest touch seemed to make me to soar over the now nearly becalmed sea. Too soon, I was approaching the lighthouse. I was ahead of schedule. The sunset was still twenty minutes off. I had planned on finishing by paddling westward into it. I slowed my pace enough to enjoy the increasingly iridescent horizon. I was invigorated and continued to feel emotionally elevated and physically pain free for the next two days.
At sixty I am in pretty good shape but I have a lot of arthritis pain. I take medications to help manage it but the most effective relief I ever experience comes from paddling. They say that endorphins block pain and induce good feelings so I suppose much of this is a chemical response but I have never been able to achieve such an intense state of euphoria and freedom from pain through any other exercise. Maybe it is easier for our bodies to release endorphins when we are having fun paddling in beautiful places than when we are in the agony of more "pure" forms of exercise like jogging on a treadmill.
I paddle often but mostly in the company of friends or family. These outings are for relaxation and the enjoyment of being outside and seeing nature close up. Few paddlers I know are interested in deliberately working out. I was recently delighted to make contact with another paddler who shares my enthusiasm about paddling for exercise. We spoke of designating a day every week to do this together. However, on further reflection, I wonder if this is a good idea. I am not sure how much of the therapeutic effect is associated with being alone. I will give the partnership a try if only for the added safety. I wonder if it is possible for two people to paddle together for over 3 hours and never exchange a single word?
Copyright © 2003 Michael Lampman
Michael Lampman is a designer/builder of cedar strip canoes and kayaks; owner of Solitaire Boats, LLC. He is the founder of Paddletally, a large and active paddling club in the Florida Panhandle where he and his family have been paddling for 25 years. His line of boats can be also be seen at http://solitaireboats.com