The first time I kayaked La Jolla Cove (which is, I think, the first time I ever kayaked), I didn't really know what I was getting myself into. I didn't wear a wetsuit. I forgot sunblock. I got burned so badly, I had to sleep with cold compresses on my legs, and get an ointment from my dermatologist.
At the time, I sat in the back of our tandem kayak and let Edith do a lot of the paddling work up front.
Technically, whoever sits in the back is supposed to be stronger and therefore in charge of paddling, but I got stuck back there because I was bigger than Edith, and my (heavier) weight had to anchor our vessel. I wasn't stronger, only bigger. The mildest current wiped my energy out. And there we were, out there in the ocean, amidst tiger shark and sea lions, all on our own.
Back then, we were a bit nervous about getting too close to the caves along the shore, much less paddling ourselves inside of any of them. The best we could do was, back on dry land, pay a couple of bucks to peer out at the ocean from a platform inside Sunny Jim Cave which, now a tourist attraction (accessible through the Cave Store), used to be where mob boss bootleggers brought booze in by rowboat during Prohibition.
But now that I live in California, and San Diego is only a couple of hours away, making annual visits easy enough, I could return, later in the year, on a sunnier day, and try again to get closer to at least one of the seven sister caves of La Jolla Cove.
This time, I booked a sea cave kayak tour with a group. Again, I declined a wetsuit, despite encouragement to the contrary. Again, I was in a tandem kayak, but without Edith at the bow, I got matched with a partner: a young Mexican father whose wife, son, and two teenage daughters had all paired off together. And, once again, I, the bigger passenger, got placed in the back.
Our guides coached us on how to paddle like hell through the surf to get out to sea, giving us a bit of a push over the cresting waves that others were surfing and paddleboarding.
I didn't remember such big waves, and I wondered how Edith and I had gotten out there on our own. I was glad not to be attempting it by myself.
Only this time, my partner in the front was more concerned with shooting video of his family out on the ocean than with paddling. I watched him rest his paddle across his lap as the current tried to sweep us alternately back to shore and out to sea, and...
...I paddled like hell.
How could I have once had such a cushy position at the stern, and now such a hard job - pushing not only my own weight, but also an extra large vessel, and the weight of an additional person, all by myself?
Since when was I in charge?
Actually, in some ways, I preferred to be the sole paddler. When we sidled up to the caves, I wanted to hang out and float, take some photos of my own, observe the cormorants, and bump up against the other kayaks. But in those peaceful moments of quiet observation, that's when my partner decided to go.
He never seemed to want to remain still, always encircling the group, getting too close to the rocks, paddling too much on one side, leading us too far astray for my preference. Once I'd had a taste of being in charge back there, at the helm of the stern - as tired as my arms were, as much as my hands were blistering, as much as my already burned legs were reddening - I wanted to steer us, solely, slowly.
At the end of the tour, passing sunbathing sea lions and dodging snorkelers, we actually got to paddle our way into an opening in the rocky shoreline - with openings at each end, not technically a cave, but more akin to a cavern.
Paddling into the cave through a straightaway, the side of the kayak bumping against the tunnel's rocky walls, we looked up at the wet rocks above us and let out various battle cries to hear our own echoing voices, as we bicyclists do when wheeling under highway overpasses. The current nearly sucked us into the other side, so we had to paddle hard just to remain still, making photography inside the cave itself impossible.
By the time our group was ready to turn around and return to the beach, I was marveling at how strong a paddler I'd become, having negotiated the rapids of the LA River just a few weeks before, and having carried much of the weight on this excursion. Unlike the LA River (where our kayaks have not been tandem), out in La Jolla, the ocean is deep, its terrain various - from an underwater canyon to a reef and even a desert and a kelp forest. You can really dig your paddle in and push, not merely skim the surface the way shallower waters sometimes dictate.
And on the way back, the ocean tide just brings you back in. If you sense a giant wave cresting behind you before you've reached shore, just lean back and let it take you. No paddling required.
Black Swan, and The View from Behind First Place
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