If you read any of the sea kayaking magazines, you probably have seen the stories about Freya Hoffmeister’s attempt to be the second person and the first woman to circumnavigate Australia in a kayak (Paul Caffyn completed the feat in 1982). It is an impressive challenge and a big accomplishment if she pulls it off, but honestly, I’m not that interested. Freya is an extremely skilled paddler with a lot of connections and sponsorship. If anyone is going to be successful in this quest, she is a very likely candidate. I’m actually much more impressed by another female kayaker that I just met for the first time last fall. I will call her Jean.
Jean showed up at the store where I was working in October. She was looking at kayaks. Jean is an older middle-aged woman, widowed with adult children. She is overweight and has a couple chronic health problems that are mostly under control. She also had a dream to buy a kayak and learn to paddle. Her adult daughter was along with her on that first visit. It was pretty obvious from the comments that Jean’s daughter was making that she, as well as Jean’s other kids, did not support her dream. They were discouraging her from getting a kayak figuring it was just some whim that would quickly pass. I showed Jean some used recreational kayaks and made some suggestions on types of boats and equipment that would work for her. She wanted to take lessons, but no one around here would be offering lessons until next spring. I encouraged her to get signed up for a lesson in the spring, and to come to the Laacke & Joys Paddlefest to try out some kayaks.
When spring rolled around, Jean showed up to buy a PFD and to sign up for one of the beginner paddle trips at Paddlefest. She was nervous about test paddling without first having taken a lesson, but we gave her a few pointers and directed her to a couple of the more stable kayaks for her first outings. The guided evening paddle on the Milwaukee River was calm so far as current and waves were concerned, but it was very windy. Jean bravely went ahead and participated in the trip paddling about 3.5 miles in some pretty strong wind gusts. Since then, Jean picked up a used kayak and scheduled a private lesson with me. She insisted on trying a wet exit and worked on swimming with the kayak in tow. Yesterday, I was out teaching a bracing clinic at Upper Nemahbin Lake. It’s not unusual for me to see kayakers I know paddling around while I am teaching. I caught sight of a green recreational kayak that I recognized. During my lunch break at the boat ramp, I saw Jean with her boat on her truck getting ready to leave. She had come down to the lake herself, unloaded her kayak and paddled around the lake about 2.5 to 3 miles total. We talked for a few moments, but the smile on her face said it all. She is living her dream. Jean has no corporate sponsors, no previous expeditions on her resume. She has less than 10 miles of paddling total under her belt, but I am much more impressed by her accomplishment and infinitely more interested in her journey than I will ever be by Freya’s trip. In my mind, Jean has overcome some much greater obstacles.
Here’s to all the paddlers out there who are quietly pursuing their own dreams on every local lake and river!