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  • Writer's pictureMartti Peeples

The Joys of Kayaking

When I was a child, the thing that made millions of people afraid of getting in the water was the motion picture Jaws. I watched this movie and declared I would never sail in a tiny boat. I kept my word until I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan. A few of my high-school buddies found a canoe rental place and talked me into tagging along.

When we arrived, the water and the sights around us were so beautiful, and that was all she wrote; from that moment forward, I always wanted to be on the water. I went back to canoe by myself but didn’t stay on the water long because, for some reason, the canoe felt too big. I needed something smaller, and the rental place suggested a kayak. I took a look at the kayak and determined it too small and didn’t go out.

Many years later as I started traveling with my job, I wanted to try new things. All I know is that I have an attraction to the water, so I always went in search of beaches or beautiful bodies of water. When I moved to Nashville, my condo was surrounded by a beautiful lake. There were islands half the size of Belle Isle and I saw all sorts of watercrafts, mostly kayaks. I went online, found a rental place around the corner from my condo, and immediately signed up for a rental. It had been years since I had been on the water, and even longer since I had been out alone. But I remembered the feeling of calm and peace. The most captivating water I experienced was in Montego Bay, Jamaica. But in Nashville, I wanted to see what Percy Priest Lake had to offer.

I rushed to the rental office on my first day off. A young lady took me through all the instructions: how to hold the paddle, the use of my life jacket, and what area not to go in, and then that was it: I was on my own. I got in the kayak and she gave me a push-off, and now I was the true captain of my ship and master of my destiny.

There I was: left stroke, right stroke, trying not to put the paddle too far in the water because it made the kayak lean. After a few strokes, I made it to a turn, and the sights I saw made me fall in love. From the water, the trees looked fuller, with a deep green. The water was calm, so I just floated for a moment, looking at the islands I saw from my car, now in a totally different view. They looked as though they held secrets, and I wanted to know what those secrets were. I pointed my boat in the direction of one island and just started paddling towards the “mark.” As I got closer and closer, I saw some birds sitting on a branch sticking out of the water. They looked at peace and I started to gain a feeling of peace. I didn’t have the desire to go to the island; I wanted to see everything!

Damn! I looked at my cellphone and saw my end time was getting close, so I headed back to port. Once on land, I felt a sense of accomplishment. So I asked the attendant how soon I could book another kayak. She gave me all the weekend dates for the month of July, and this began my love of kayaking. I found it so relaxing. Each time I would go out, I ventured further and further. Other kayakers would see me and give me pointers on how to turn the boat and the right position in which to sit. I thought upright was the correct way, but a leaned-back position is better. Each week I adjusted my seating and then started practicing my speed. The Vanderbilt row team was on the water and I would race against them to see if I could keep up. I impressed their coach because I could stay alongside them for a nice distance before they pulled ahead of me.

I loved being on the water, watching the cranes fly overhead. I became obsessed with capturing their flight. After several attempts and the loss of a pair of sunglasses, I finally was able to videotape the cranes’ takeoff. Each week I was tested on my skills and handling of the kayak and behold, I reached “expert” level. I could now cross the lake. I couldn’t wait to try. The first time I attempted to cross, the waves were huge. My kayak rocked and rocked and I was sure I was going to tip over, but I learned to just float over the incoming waves. I felt like Lieutenant Dan from the motion picture Forrest Gump; I yelled for the waves to come!!! I was the captain of my vessel and the master of my destiny. If there were incoming waves, I would pull my oar from the water and just float up and down. When the water calmed, I started my strokes. Finally, the shoreline. I could see people laying in hammocks further up the hill. They looked as though they had no care in the world. When I found a place to just coast, I did my first live feed.

The sense of accomplishment, the warmth of the water, and the sun on my face just made me feel a closeness to God. I could see all that He had created: the islands, the landscape, fish jumping out of the water. I was addicted.

I also noticed changes in my body. The “love handles” were going away. My arms were developing muscles. My core was getting stronger. I was hooked. After working long hours during the week, this is what I craved. I was so sad when the season came to an end.

I was counting down to the next season, but there was going to be a delay because now we were in a pandemic. Kayaking was not happening. I was heartbroken. Covid had robbed me of my relaxation. I returned to Michigan and by that June, kayaking was deemed one of the safest activities you could do. So I went in search of a place to go and found that the Metroparks offered rentals. I called and inquired about the times and days, and that was all she wrote. Kensington Metropark wasn’t Percy Priest Lake, but it offered the peace and the oneness I craved.

Sadly, during all my kayaking experience, I was the lone African American. So I went to social media and asked people to come out. My sister was the first to join me. This was a special day because we had bonded during Covid. Not only were we on the water together, it was our first time physically seeing one another, and we had a great time.

The big adventure was a year away. I was okay with Kensington, but it didn’t offer a challenge. I searched online for other bodies of water and behold, I found a tour group that took people out on the Detroit River. I used to see people kayak on the river and think to myself that they were crazy. Well, I guess I’m crazy because I went on three tours with Detroit River Sports. The tour I was eager to do was the Belle Isle tour: three and a half hours on the river. My tour became a private tour when everyone else canceled. My tour guide was the same gentleman with whom I had the privilege of going out on my first guided tour. As we made our way down the canal, glares would come from people visiting Lakewood Park. People were shocked to see this African-American woman kayaking on the river. I didn’t know Detroit had so many marinas along Jefferson Ave. We made it to the Roostertail. This is where we were supposed to cross the Detroit River and enter the canal behind the golf course on the island.

My guide noticed how well I was doing and asked if I wanted to go down to MacArthur Bridge. I said YES! We made it down to the bridge, and going under was a feeling of jubilee. I went into my turn and the undercurrent was so strong, I had to fight with each stroke of the paddle. Finally, I made the turn and now I was at the Boathouse looking at the view of the island from the water, which gave it a new look and excitement. We paddled by the Detroit Yacht Club. Behind the golf course was a canal I never knew existed. I was in awe of the sights. We found a spot to pull over and stretch our legs. We walked to the lighthouse and took in the beauty surrounding us. Again, more glares from people both Black and white. An African-American family saw me, and when the young son saw me heading back to the kayak, his eyes got big. He looked at his mother and asked if he could do that, to which she replied, “Not today!” I got back in my kayak and waved to the family as I pulled off. We exited the canal and crossed the river one more time. The current was calmer and the crossover was much easier. We made it back to the canal and as I entered, families again looked on in bewilderment.

I returned a victor! A true master of the kayak. I had learned some of the great history of the Detroit River, the Boblo Boat, Belle Isle, the Fisher Mansion, and so much more. But for you, my friends, if you want to get the scoop, you’re going to have to join me next season at Kensington Metropark, where I teach the basics of kayaking. And when you’re an expert, hit the Detroit River with me.

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