Summer time, lake time

(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reproduced by permission.)

A kayak paddle is an instant-feedback mechanism. If you use it incorrectly — if you lift the blade too far out of the water or pull through the stroke too fiercely — you get water dripped in your lap or splashed in your face. 

I’m being taught this lesson (again) as I paddle a sit-on-top kayak around Percy Priest Lake outside of Nashville. It’s a warm day, so the periodic water splashings aren’t exactly a hardship. Perhaps because it’s early, the lake has a relaxed vibe even considering the number of fishing boats, sailboats, stand-up paddleboards, rowing sculls, and even a jet ski or two, all sharing the water.

The neon green boat I’ve borrowed isn’t long and sleek like a sea kayak, or nimble like a whitewater model, but it’s fine for puttering around on Percy Priest. It’s my first time on this water, so I’m hugging the shore, going counter-clockwise from the Hamilton Creek Marina. The little plastic craft isn’t much longer than me, but it’s stable and easy to paddle. There’s a bottle holder molded into the kayak’s bottom, between my legs, and an elastic cord that clips to my small dry bag.

Paddling past the last row of sailboats at the marina dock, I look to the left and spot a dark-green kayak pointed directly at me from 50 yards away. Bristling with fishing rods like antennas, the boat contains a man with a handlebar moustache wearing a big hat. The kayak cowboy shouts to the shore behind me, “D’you give up on me?”

 I look to my right, in the direction he’s aimed his question. A man sits on the rocky bank, his kayak in the water next to him. “Just eatin’ my beanie weenies,” he replies.

 A great blue heron (or GBH, as my wife and I call them) stands ankle-deep on the shore. It waits until I’m 20 feet away before slowly unfolding itself and flapping like a pterodactyl off and away.

 At one point I turn the boat away from shore and back-paddle until my stern meets the rocks, then I let the wind swivel the nose of the kayak toward the bank. Finding equilibrium, the craft stays put without my effort. I eat a granola bar and have a drink and watch a sailboat that’s turned into the wind, trying to raise a sail.

 I suppose because it’s a Corps of Engineers facility, the lake has no houses or other buildings along the shoreline. That doesn’t mean it’s not visited, though. I see the evidence at the numerous access points in the woods: A battered white-plastic chair marking someone’s regular fishing spot. A half-dozen fire rings at places along the shore. Trash—bottles, cans, plastic bags—littering many places, making me shake my head.

 As I turn for the return leg, the breeze moves behind me. Although it helps push me toward the marina, it no longer cools at all, since I’m heading in the same direction at more or less the same speed as it is. By now I’ve spent almost two hours on the kayak, and feel as if I’ve been doing stomach crunches the whole time.

 It’s been a fun day, almost like a trip to the beach…a feeling that will be compounded not long from now, when I will have an awesome oyster po-boy at a  Nashville restaurant.

 As the line from The Wind in the Willows goes: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing— absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”