The Magic of Small Places
After a couple of days paddling the bay behind Little Tybee Island, Georgia, our group headed through the pass toward the ocean. Tidal currents swept through channels and steepened over sand bars. My head swiveled to anticipate from which direction the next pushy crest would come. On the open Atlantic, the waves seemed huge. My body tensed. Breath came in ragged bursts. I wasn’t sure I would manage these conditions and there was no way to turn back by myself.
I glanced toward the channel we’d just left. A solitary blue boat, a tiny body in a faded blue lifejacket, glided toward us. It was Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin.
The other three coaches in our group, Trey Rouse, Scott Fairty, and Alec Bloyd-Peshkin, are all spectacular coaches. I value what I’ve learned from each of them. But they are strong men. It was Sharon, a woman barely 95 pounds wet, whose confidence kayaking rough water taught me that I also belonged in this unfamiliar world of sea conditions.
Juniper: Why do you paddle?
Sharon: I live outside of Chicago. Hiking or biking, I have to drive hours to feel like I am away from the City. But paddling Lake Michigan, I am both in the city and a million miles away.
Juniper: You often launch from Jackson Harbor, where Chicago’s downtown skyscrapers dominate the horizon. How is being on the water different than walking the beach?
Sharon: What’s dynamic and interesting is what happens at the edge between Chicago’s downtown skyscrapers and the huge inland sea of Lake Michigan. If you go far out, you’re with sailboats, motorboats, and tour boats. But only paddlers can occupy water at the shore.
A few days ago, we paddled through the Chicago Harbor Lock and landed on the break wall by the lighthouse. Only kayakers can land on that wall, have lunch, and look back at the city. Maybe nobody has ever had lunch there before us. We access privacy in the midst of the urban environment because we’ve worked on skills we need to navigate the harbor, the lake conditions, and make the landing.
Juniper: What is it that thrills us in being the only ones?
Sharon: Like a kid in a big house, we find a nook where only we fit. In one of the most densely populated places in the world, we slip in and occupy a private space. In the midst of six million people, that space belongs to us alone.
It’s off the map, even though no place could be better mapped than Chicago. It’s a secret portal to another world that exists inside this world. Most people can’t see it. But we see it because of the way we get there. That’s magical.
Juniper: Your father, Murray Peshkin, was a physicist and worked on the Manhattan Project. When I tug a strap around my Yakima bars, I remember what your father said about not underestimating the power of friction. What else of your father’s wisdom do you bring to paddling?
Sharon: My dad talked about elegance. As paddlers, we work with the water and wind, as opposed to fighting them. With anything muscled, messy and splashy, we’re fighting the environment instead of working with it.
A clean rescue is the simplest, most efficient, and safest. A quiet stroke is more effective than a messy, splashy stroke. Any way that we can maneuver on surf that is elegant is going to be more fun.
Juniper: As you talked about elegance, Sharon, your chest lifted like a ballerina’s. I’ve seen you access that grace in your boat.
Do you remember falling in love with kayaking?
Sharon: I did not start out in love with kayaking. Alec and I went to Bayfield, Wisconsin on our honeymoon. We showed up on the beach in shorts and tee shirts for a day trip to the Apostle Islands. There were three-foot waves on Lake Superior. We had never been in a kayak. The guide packed our wetsuits in our back hatches.
The plan was to paddle to Basswood Island and have lunch. But we didn’t get far before deciding to turn back. In beam waves, I could not turn my boat. The guide put me on a tow and jerked me round. I capsized. Lake Superior, back in the day, was really cold! We landed and the guide said, “maybe we should put on your wetsuit.”
Juniper: Did you understand the danger? Or was it just uncomfortable?
Sharon: I was uncomfortable and humiliated.
Juniper: Humiliated because you capsized?
Sharon: Humiliated because I couldn’t do it.
A few years later Alec and I had kids. We found an outfit called the Great Lakes Explorers. They offered lessons and short trips. While our daughter, Hannah, went to Alec’s parents in Milwaukee, we went to the Garden Peninsula for an overnight trip. It was just two days on the water, one night on an Island. Totally tame. Totally awesome.
We took turns in a YMCA course on whitewater kayaking. We took turns going on short whitewater trips. It was baby steps.I learned to roll when I was turning 40. As Hannah and Jeremy got older, Alec and I started paddling as much as we could.
Juniper: A lot of us do one thing for a while and then we’re onto something else. Paddling is something that you’ve done for many years. You’ve committed time and resources. You’ve pushed yourself to become one of the most skilled women paddlers in North America and you share your skills and wisdom with others. You also have a beautiful and inspiring relationship with your life and paddling partner, Alec. What pulls you to commitment?
Sharon: I don’t have any intellectual commitment to staying with things. I changed my major six times. I went to grad school because I couldn’t figure out what else to do. For a long time, I changed jobs every seven years.
But paddling stays interesting and fresh. To be a good sea kayaker, I have to know about technique, safety, and seamanship; about charts and nautical terms. I need to learn rules-of-the-road on water. I study meteorology because I need to know about weather. I am continuously asking whether I do something a particular way because I’ve always done it that way? Or is there a reason to change?
Also, paddling is not just intellectual. It is a fun way to move. And we are made of water. Drawn to water. Blue mind research tells us we’re happier and healthier when we’re near water. Kayaking has intellectual stimulation, exercise, connection to water, and community. I stay with it because it scratches multiple itches.
Juniper: How are you balancing kayaking with the rest of your life?
Sharon: In the pandemic I’m still busy. But I don’t have to commute two hours every day. We’re not coaching this year. Alec and I paddle for a couple hours in the evening and it is enormous. We’re spending less time doing paddling work and more time paddling as our escape. That’s been really nice and it’s unique to now.
I think we might get out tonight. When all the beaches and harbors in Chicago were closed, we found a super-secret, unofficial launch site in Indiana. And you know, that’s magic.
About the Writer
Juniper is a certified three-star ocean kayak paddler. She’s dipped a blade into the surging water of Deception Pass, paddled with Sharon on the Long Island tide race, and into caves and slots of Ireland’s Donegal coast. You can read a selection of her writing here.