Thursday, December 09, 2004


Kayaking started out as a nocturnal activity for me. Someone had a kayak at a sailing club party after Thursday night dinghy races. I was 14, so I wasn’t drunk, like most of the adults.

When they decided to hold time trial races around the speed buoy and the can buoy off the club basins, I posted a respectable time. I also had a lot less trouble straying upright than they did.
After the wet grown-ups retired back to the cooler and keg, I asked if I could take the kayak out again. The owner said I could.

It was Annapolis harbor, a June evening, back when the Naval Academy held graduation exercises that late and called it June Week instead of Commissioning Week. The sun had set, so I paddled very carefully across the channel, knowing I was completely invisible. I must have seen “Cockleshell Heroes” on the late show, because I felt that kayaks were in their element in the dark

It was also the height of the Vietnam War. Warships often visited for the graduation week. An old diesel sub was tied up at the corner of the seawall, armed guards on deck. As I paddled along the seawall, someone offered me five bucks to go bang on the submarine. I counted the men with M-16s on deck and declined the offer.

Midshipmen were making out with their girlfriends in the darkness on the shoreline stone work. One of them winged a bottle at me when he saw me coasting silently past, a few yards away.

After a circuit of the harbor I came alongside a lighted buoy, tied the boat to it and climbed up to sit on top of it. I was careful not to obstruct the light. I doubted if that subtle detail would make a difference to the marine police, but I knew I looked young enough to get away with pleading ignorance. Meanwhile, I wasn’t so ignorant as to endanger people by interfering with the buoy’s designed function.

Darkness cloaked me. No one chased me from my perch. Too soon I had to return to the sailing club.

That experience linked the stealthy kayak to the night for me. I did not sit in one again until 14 years later, having done all my boating in sailing or rowing dinghies in the interim.

The boat I borrowed was black. Dusk and darkness beckoned from the tidal creeks of Annapolis, where I had once again fetched up.

Not that I had anything against paddling in daylight, but I had to work. Much of the year, darkness was falling or had fallen by the time I got out.

At off hours, in off seasons, peace reclaims the waterways. I saw lots of wildlife above and below the surface. Deer sheltered in small scraps of undevelopable land cut off by highways laid out before rampant development made land so valuable. Accidental wilderness was left behind. Fish dimpled the water’s surface or churned up jets of mud as they raced out from under me, paddling through the shallows. Turtles plopped off logs.

In the years since, my daylight forays now outnumber my nocturnal missions. But I still like the stealthy slide of a sleek kayak gliding through the darkness, alone or in the company of other commandos.

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