by Cindy Carlson
As the sun rose over the pearl-gray bay, leisurely swells rolled toward shore, scattering foam fingers along the silver beach. I dug my toes into the coolness where water meets land, sending thought-roots through the soles of my feet, deep into the ocean floor: I am strong and healthy. I age with joy.
It had been a rough few years. I had watched my parents slog through the dailiness of chronic illness, my father rendered mute and immobile by Parkinson’s disease, my mother stooped and slowed by her own illnesses and the demands of his care. Somehow the years separating us had vanished; I saw my own newly-arthritic hands in her gnarled fingers. I was dreading this birthday and the ugly side of aging I had witnessed.
But thanks to a gift from my husband, Rich, we were on Hanalei Bay at sunrise, in Hawai’i, the fiftieth state, on my fiftieth birthday. The rugged coastline of Kaua’i’s north shore seemed the perfect venue to flout my age. We had hiked the Na Pali Coast Trail; now it was time to kayak the Kalihiwai River.
From Kayak Kaua’i in old Hanalei—headquarters for the island’s annual long board championships later that day—we headed west on highway 56, two plastic sit-upons atop our rental car, until the patchwork of deep green taro fields merged into forest. We grabbed water bottles, dragged the kayaks to the mouth of the river, and slipped into its unexpected chill.
River-silk rippled through a corridor of ancient trees, towering ferns and banana-poka vines. Birdsong echoed in the underbrush. We paddled miles upstream toward the distant cliffs rimming the horizon and the faint sparkle of the waterfall that feeds the Kalihiwai.
In the shelter of a mangrove, snug and musty, we watched a sudden cloudburst while a pale rainbow materialized over the ridge. I silently repeated the morning’s mantra, the truth of it settling around me. I am strong and healthy. I age with joy.
“Race you back downriver,” Rich said, shoving the kayaks into the water. The air was sweet from the passing storm, the current strong enough to reach the mouth in no time. Not ready to quit, we could paddle the kayaks across the bay to the rental site and hitch a ride back to retrieve the car. If we set out immediately. The wind had picked up and the swells were growing.
The river’s stillness dissolved quickly into choppy surf. I strained to keep the kayak’s nose pointed ahead, toward open water. We were navigating a narrow route into a spirited breeze, between the rocky ledges of the Na Pali coast to the west and the rapidly-building waves toward Hanalei in the east.
Beyond the crescent beach we’d just departed, mountains rose like dramatic emerald draperies, folding vertically, spilling into deep velvet-green valleys, then rising again to soaring cliffs. Ahead, the turquoise water flattened, stretching forever into royal blue and the curve of the horizon. Heaven in shades of blue and green. For a moment, I was content to drift.
That’s when a fin broke the water in front of me.
“Shark!” I shrieked, digging my oar, careening toward shore. My chest screamed for air. Panicked, I couldn’t look back for fear of tipping my boat. Rich called. I paused, lifted my paddle and turned my head.
He was waving. And grinning. All around him bobbed at least a dozen sea turtles. One dove below the surface and, in its place, up popped a hind flipper, exactly like a fin. They circled us, peering with dark eyes. For a full five minutes we drifted, surrounded by sunlit ripples and the soft whooshing sound of our new friends. Then with little more than a gentle splash, they disappeared beneath the waves.
“Wooo-hoooo!” Rich brandished his paddle above his head, then burst into laughter. “If you could have seen your expression . . .” Mid-chuckle he stopped, staring past me toward the shore. “Uh-oh,” he said.
I swung my kayak around. My breath caught in my throat. Halfway between us and the beach, plumes of rooster tails spewed skyward like geysers over titanic waves. Real Hawai’i-in-the-movies waves.
“Hang on, baby!” Rich said. “We’re in for a ride.”
I am strong and healthy. I can do this. I squared my shoulders toward land. No time to think. The breeze pressed until I was swept into it, arms straining, yielding to its force. I looked up to set my bearings. There was a commotion on shore—bright splashes of white, yellow, blue. A crowd was milling.
It was the surfing championship, and we were about to ride into the middle of it.
Rich yelled from behind, “Pick a wave and hold on!”
I slid up onto the crest of a wave. I can do this. Please, God, make it a small one. I gripped the paddle across my chest, parallel to the water. Spray sparkled around my head, an electric whiteness against the intensely blue sky.
And then we rode—two tiny rollercoasters propelled through a turbulent sea.
Like a monstrous exhale, the wave thrust my tiny boat onto the sand. Rich slid up, beaming, beside me. We tumbled off the boats, and he dragged them to the soft sand as I staggered behind, then dropped, exhausted, to my knees. I shivered, perched on that fine line between thrill and terror.
Rich kneeled and put his arm around me. “Great ride,” he said.
“Made it.” I unclenched my fists.
“Too bad the contest hasn’t started. They might give you the ‘over fifty’ prize.”
I stared at the crashing waves, imagining how I’d looked on top of one of them, trying to freeze that image for the years ahead. Fear is a funny thing. There’s no time for it beforehand, and afterward you don’t need it. You have survived. From somewhere deep in my exhaustion, a new mantra was emerging. I was eager to hear it.
Cindy Carlson grew up in the snowbelt of western New York, and, when not traveling and birding with her husband, spends her time along the Chesapeake Bay. A winner of the Hampton Roads Writers contest for creative nonfiction, her work has appeared in The Quotable, Litro NY, damselfly press, Lowestoft Chronicle, Eclectica, and The Wayfarer.