Kayaking with Dad

Naomi Winders

My dad loved kayaking. Next to soccer, it was his favorite pastime. He had lived in Alaska before he married my mom and that’s where he picked it up. Being able to cut through the smooth water and glide across its surface was calming. It provided you with the opportunity to see nature you couldn’t usually and to experience a different perspective. My dad would go every weekend if he could, and he tried to. He had a single kayak of his own, and later he got a double kayak that two people could sit in. If you walked into our garage, it was obvious that kayaking was a definite hobby. With the two yellow and orange kayaks stacked on top of each other and a pile of oars and life vests surrounding them, there was no denying it. Dad loved to kayak. 

He hated practically everything else, though. He hated messes. When he would come home from work, if there was anything on the floor, even a single Goldfish cracker, he would yell at me and my two siblings to clean it up. His favorite phrase to use was, “We’re living in a pigsty!” He hated when we would be loud too. When we would shout and play games with each other. We were always told to play outside, which we were happy to do. He hated us doing anything poorly. If wanted to do a hobby, or do well in school, or anything that took skill, we would have to be the very best. If we weren’t top of class, Dad wouldn’t be impressed. At home, you never really could gauge how he would react or how he actually felt about something, he just always seemed angry and disappointed.  

He hated mom too, or at least acted like he did. He would always tease her or just insult her, out right. One time I even remember, he pushed her into the bathroom to yell at her. That was scary. To be honest, I don’t know if he even liked us. He hated children; he had already had four before us from two previous marriages. I’ve never really felt that he actually liked me. 

Dad got the second kayak so he could bring his kids along, and we were always happy to join him. We liked getting to spend any time we could with dad. To be specific, we liked spending blissful, quiet time with him. He probably only brought us along because he knew it was a way to get us to be quiet. We spent most of our kayaking trips focusing on our paddles and watching how they would cut through the water.  

Kayaking with him would always make us feel so mature. My brother and sister, both older than me, would have their own kayaks. I would usually be in the double with dad, following his commands of which side of the boat to stick the oar into the water on. I didn’t mind not being completely trusted to be out on my own. Being in the same boat with dad was almost more exciting, because it was just the two of us, steering our own ship.  

Mom never came kayaking with us, but that was okay. We spent more time with her anyways. She was the one who would always play with us and make us lunch and help us with school. Dad would always stay in his office. It was located in the room closest to the front door. When he was home, he would still be the closest to not there as he could be. We couldn’t ever go in that room. I don’t even remember what it looked like. All I know is that his old, wooden writing desk was in there, and we were not allowed to touch it. Even when I was older, and he hadn’t used or touched it in years, I was unable to pull open its drawers. 

On one weekend kayak trip with dad, we had to navigate through a swampy part of a river, filled with branches and plants blocking our way. Dad gave me specific and strict instructions in order to help him guide us out of there. I listened to them carefully and followed his orders with precision. At the end of the day, he told me how good of a job I did. “I would kayak with you anytime.” His complimenting words still stick with me today. I felt honored and special and loved.  

Looking back, I think those words meant so much to me because it was some of the only genuine and loving words I received from my dad, from what I can remember. Most of the time, when he would complement me, it would be something about my good grades or backhanded compliment. “I would kayak with you any time.” Hearing him say this meant it came directly from him, and I think that’s why I loved it so much. I never really picked up on what he actually thought about me. I still don’t think I have. But hearing that my dad liked spending time with me and wanted to spend more? Now that feeling felt good. 

I loved kayaking with my dad. It was quiet and nice and one of the only times dad wouldn’t be upset with us or mom. He taught us how to use the paddle correctly and what to do if we were to fall in. It was an activity I looked forward to every weekend. 

When we moved to Alaska in 2007, we ended up selling the kayaks. It was Dad’s decision. He had to work a lot. I barely even remember him being around. If I’m being completely honest, I don’t remember him being there in Alaska at all. But me and my siblings were older, and we had school and extracurriculars to focus on. We went kayaking less. 

While we were in Alaska, there was one day we decided to rent kayaks and explore these three connecting lakes just a couple miles from us. Mom came along that trip, but she never really had before. I was in a double with my dad, despite being older. I insisted because he’d said he’d kayak with me anytime. At the second lake, my mom ended up falling in and she lost her glasses. We had the kayak rental company come pick her up while we finished touring the last lake. Dad was annoyed. Mom was cold. We didn’t really go kayaking after that. 

At some point, my dad completely left. It was before my parents were officially divorced in 2012. He left in waves. He began to be there so little that when he was completely gone, it was hard to notice a difference.  There was, however, a moment that I remember knowing he was fully gone. 

I had fallen asleep on the couch watching TV with all the lights on. Normally when this happened, my dad would come home, turn off the TV and lights, and I’d wake up knowing that he came home and made sure things were taken care of. This time, I woke up on the couch in the very early morning – still dark outside. The TV was playing Disney Channel reruns and all the lights were still shedding light onto the emptiness. Dad hadn’t come home.  

I clicked the TV with the remote, turned off the lights, and went back to sleep in my bed upstairs. That night I felt the weight of loneliness in my blanket and the next day I slept until two in the afternoon. 

The last time I ever went kayaking with my dad was on a trip to Whittier, Alaska. We had driven down to explore the city and see the Prince William Sound. There we rented kayaks for me, Dad, and my siblings. Mom stayed in a hotel lobby and read a book she brought. This time, I was in a kayak alone.  

It was absolutely beautiful being surrounded by mountains, still snowy at the tops. I was scared that an orca whale would appear and tip my kayak over, but none did. Since I was on my own this time, it was up to me to guide myself. Dad wasn’t there to give me directions on what to do. At some point, I had gotten tired and I wanted to turn back, to go and read with mom in the hotel lobby. I still remember the piece of wisdom that my Dad gave me. “A man was once running a marathon and he got tired at the halfway mark. He decided he couldn’t complete it and ran all the back to the start.” Kayaking the rest of the route, the memory I have is just me in a kayak alone with the mountains surrounding me. I don’t remember Dad being there for the rest, even though he was. I just don’t have any other memories of him on that trip. He went far ahead of us, and my siblings went further ahead of me. I was on my own, navigating my way back, and I was able to find my own comfort in it.  

I still have a love for kayaking, but I haven’t been since.