Sharon Rock Garden Smile by Josh Tatro

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.

Feature photo by Josh Tatro. You can follow he and Sharon’s kayaking adventures on their website, Have Kayaks Will Travel.


  1. Wade

    Love this article. Thank you Juniper and Sharon for sharing some of your selves!


    1. Hatie Parmeter

      We agree! Thanks for reading, Wade!


    2. Bill Moriarty

      How interesting! Those were really good questions. I really enjoyed the article.


      1. Juniper Lauren

        Thanks, Bill!


  2. Marion

    This makes me want to be in, on, under, around water, our ocean.


    1. Juniper Lauren

      Oh yes, Marion! Get onto the ocean.


  3. Christel

    What a lovely peek into something I know very little about. Thank you for the vivid descriptions and for sharing yourselves, triumphs and learnings.


  4. BrightFlame

    What a delicious story. I could feel the wind and surf on my skin. Paddles raised to rough-water womxn! My comfort zone is a small swell or calm waters, and I love feeling part of the sea in this way. Or sitting still on a pond at twilight as beavers, herons and eagles do their thing.


    1. Juniper Lauren

      Hi BrightFlame,
      I’m so glad to know that you paddle small swells. On oceans? Let’s go together onto water, as well as the many other conditions that we surf together.


  5. Rebecca

    The conversation on privacy and having a small space of your own resonates so much in this time of being stuck at home with the whole family. I have started putting much more emphasis on getting out and finding my own small spaces. Thanks for sharing this conversation!


  6. Joan M Brooks

    Thank you, Juniper, for so skillfully taking me on a journey with you and Sharon into the world of kayaking. I have to say, just looking at the photo scares me to death. I’ll stay on solid ground and live vicariously through the two of you, strong kayaking women.


  7. Jaguar Reow

    Inspiring article. Makes me want to leave everything and jump in a kayak this instant!


  8. Jeff Schuster

    Great article! passing it on. Thanks Juniper!


  9. Maggi Joseph

    Lovely article that invites thinking deeply about kayaking–something I never expected to do.


  10. Bonnie Cullum

    This is wonderful. Thank you for sharing Juniper. It sounds like so much fun and so much challenge. I am so proud of you.


  11. Elizabeth Anne Kubala

    Great conversation between two devoted kayakers! Great questions. Great answers. I resonate with the thrill of finding little wild spaces in the middle of the crowded city


  12. Kriss Kovach

    I’m headed to Chicago next month and now I want to get in the water ! ( now there’s a statement I’m surprised to make????)


    1. Hatie Parmeter

      Hi Kriss! We are based in Chicago (and run by a former Chicago River kayak guide) and can say that it is so worth it! I am not aware of any rental spots doing wintertime rentals due to wild waves, cold water, and icy conditions. It’s definitely gorgeous in the summer, though! Thanks for reading and have a great trip!


    2. Juniper Lauren

      Hi Kriss,

      So nice to see you in this space. Chicago in March is wild. But it would be lovely to have you follow Ava’s paddle blade onto those Great Lakes!

      Juniper Lauren


  13. Crystal

    I agree with Joan that I may enjoy this vicariously. Many areas I can relate to, but I have only kayaked several times and seeing those alligators on the surface gave me an eagerness to put my feet on the trails. Thank you for sharing and who knows maybe I will give it another try. Very proud of both of you and glad you shared.


    1. Juniper Lauren

      Hi Crystal,

      I’ve paddle with alligators on Caddo Lake, Texas. There is a piece of the lake named “Alligator Alley.”
      Instructions from the experienced, local, 30-something park ranger: don’t paddle between them and their nest (which is a big mound of sticks, somewhat like a beaver’s), be cautious in breeding season (spring), and don’t hit them on the head with a paddle. As in DUH!
      And they rarely to higher than 4 feet higher than water level. With those confidently-delivered instructions, I made a lovely, solo, overnight through the Spanish-moss draped Cypress on Halloween.


  14. Deda

    So lovely of you to bring us into one of your magic small places! Thank you, Juniper.


  15. D. King

    I really enjoyed this interview. I like thinking about kayaking as an elegant endeavor. I also appreciated the reminder to never underestimate the power of friction!


    1. Juniper Lauren

      I laughed out loud about the power of friction!


  16. Ruthie Redmond

    I never thought about the easy escape you get from the city with kayaking. I’ve only been kayaking (or was it canoeing) once and that was on Town Lake in Austin to see SXSW bands for free. I understood its advantages then… but Sharon speaking of the solitude available is making think twice about learning the craft. Great interview Lauren, your love of kayaking is felt.


  17. Mohan

    What a wonderful and inspiring article, Juniper. Thanks for sharing.
    Your piece brought back memories of watching Sharon and Alec paddling/surfing among the big waves of Lake Michigan with the Chicago skyline in the background. It was amazing to see them meld with the waves with such ease and grace.

    Your writing really brought Sharon’s spirit to life.


  18. Delight Stone

    This article reminded me of the magic in the world. Fun, love, and passion can be found in something where one initially capsizes! Thank you Juniper and Sharon for this inspiring interview.



  19. Dorothy

    Thank you for sharing this, Juniper.


  20. RS

    I loved reading this. Thank you for sharing, Juniper, and for asking such elegant questions of Sharon, for her to open a window of her experience to us. I just started accessing the water more during the pandemic in simple sit-on-top kayaks, here on LadyBird Lake, and in the hillcountry, but I particularly really find my experience in Sharon’s reflections what it feels like to feel space in the midst of the City. When I drive 5 minutes to get to the shores and dip my boat in, I am so quickly worlds away. You both certainly pique my interests in more adventurous modes of exploring the open water! What a satisfying thrill that must be to hone that practice.


  21. Jeanine

    I loved this.
    Small is big.

    As a former Chicagoan, I agree having “private in public” places in Chicago should rightly be regarded as magical, just as it should in any city. A moment of quiet and peace is real treasure, anywhere, and especially in the cultures many of us find ourselves in.

    Thank you for this reminder that so often precious magic like this comes with diligence and commitment.


  22. Charlotte Gullick

    What lovely questions that helped such rich dialogue to take place – thank you both!


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