It all started this late winter, when we glanced at the boat outside of our window. A Flipper 575 (think typical medium-sized hard top motor boat), resting on a somewhat rickety boat trailer and covered by a generous amount of snow. Bettan. That had been her name for the 20+ years she’d been in the family, and she had indeed taken us to many glorious, wondrous, breathtakingly beautiful places around the archipelago and helped create many, many happy memories. When Mike and I took over the house 2 years, Bettan came as a part of the deal. Sweet, we thought, back in NYC. A house AND a boat. We’ll be living the life. But then… pieces shifted and the (preferred) look of our specific puzzle changed. Bettan’s past-its-glory-days engine caused us a massive headache, for one. We also realized that moving a giant boat is an incredibly stressful thing to do (we started calling the drives with trailer and boat “death rides”). And boats and all the equipment cost a ridiculous amount of money. So this winter, we started thinking. Is boating really our thing? Well, maybe, we thought. We love exploring uninhabited islands and get access to parts we couldn’t get to otherwise. We think the archipelago (and especially its outer parts) is out of this world gorgeous. But is it worth the stress and the money of keeping a boat? Definitely no. And how do we feel about puttering around this pristine place, using an old 2-stroke engine spewing out emissions and relying on fossil fuels to move forward? Not very good. So as hard as it can be to part ways with an old ”friend”, Bettan got to move to a new home this spring – and we were left with a freed up, big corner of the property that will soon be turned into another vegetable patch, some money in our pocket… and a desire to learn how to kayak.
Kayaking appeals to us in so many ways – especially as these eco-minded, sports crazy and outdoors obsessed people that we’ve turned into over the past few years. A completely muscle-powered way of transportation that can take us to all the pretty places AND make us stronger? Please, sign us right up!
The fact that we both had very (very) limited experience of kayaking (or any form of paddling) played an extremely minor role in our decision to become kayakers, however. We also had a somewhat narrow understanding for the fact that there’s a legit learning process to it, and that you can’t take on a multi-day island hopping adventure just like that (because of course, those were the ones we were visualizing as Bettan the boat rolled down the road – the sunsets and the sunrises, the tent, the calm waters, the animal sightings and the solitude). This all led us to this past Wednesday, July 17th, when we participated in a beginner’s kayaking class off of Gräddö – and the rest of this blog post will be about that endeavor.
“Kajak och Uteliv” (“Kayaking and Outdoor life”) is the company operating the kayak rentals, tours and classes by Gräddö brygga, about 15 min by bus/car from Norrtälje. Situated right by the water (obviously), the location is quite excellent in many respects – close by are some of the finest kayaking waters in all of Sweden, yet it’s all easily reached from Stockholm, Uppsala etc. We joined guide Evelina Silokangas and 5 other beginners at 9:30am for a full day’s worth of introduction to kayaking. First, we learned about all the equipment you should carry with you when you head out – e.g. a full change of clothes packed in a waterproof bag, map, compass and various safety devices (such as a pump and a paddle float). From there, we went on to getting to know the kayaks, their compartments and how to pack them while still being up on land. Here we realized you can fit quite a lot – there are tons of nooks and crannies you can stuff things into! With experience, we’ll learn what we like to have close at hand as we go and what can be stored further away. (In Mike’s case, he’ll for sure pack a sweet snack in the closest compartment.) After going through some basic paddling techniques and what your grip around the shaft should look like, we carried the kayaks down to the dock from where we’d launch. Immediate insight: kayaks are heavier than we expected – but still totally manageable to carry. And while we used single kayaks all day, we have our minds on getting a double one for the future. Different people give different advice on whether two singles or one double would be the way to go for us – but we’ve arrived at the conclusion that we like to be close and not able to drift apart, plus a double would allow us to help each other when one is feeling tired. In other words, we’ve decided to follow the exact input the El Kott twins gave us.
Anyway, back to Gräddö and our kayaking class. The part where you “hop onboard” can pose a challenge and according to Evelina, this is where most accidental swims occur. The entire group managed this somewhat treacherous transition in a dry fashion though, and we could all get going. The hours leading up to lunch break, we practiced different ways of moving with the kayaks, i.e. forwards, backwards, stopping and turning. The guide would demonstrate and explain, and then we would try to replicate. We felt pretty good here. The water was relatively calm, we could do what was asked and we felt pretty safe and secure in the kayaks. Having the deck spray skirt (Swedish: kajakkapell) tucked around the waist also prevented us from getting cold, as the water was still fairly cool.
We continued onwards and towards the designated lunch spot, still practicing and drilling exercises but also chitchatting and enjoying the sunshine. Post lunch, which took place on some round boulders and included a brief talk on environmental awareness, the responsibilities coming with the “Freedom to roam” law (Allemansrätten) and what to keep in mind when out and about in kayaks, we slipped into wet suits (which were included in the class). The wind had picked up at this point, and as we were on the northern side of Gräddö-Asken and the winds were indeed coming from the north, the sea was quite choppy. When making our way out from the little cove where we had pulled up the kayaks during the break, Mike ended up sort of “stranded” on a flat boulder, as the waves pushed him there in about 2 seconds, before he’d even had the chance to put his paddle in the water. He got a helping hand and was soon on track again, and we continued doing some new paddling exercises thereafter – this time around, we learned more efficient ways of changing direction of the kayak, that would prevent speed and momentum from getting lost. This, however, we practiced as the waves were pushing us around quite a bit, so it turned into a session working both turning skills and navigating choppier conditions. I almost tipped over a few times, but managed to regain balance. One of the exercises we did involved sticking the paddle blade down a little deeper into the water, keep it down and then turn it slightly. All this looking down (to make sure you did it right) combined with the waves and the bobbing up and down led to Mike getting sea sick. It’s debated if anyone has ever managed to get sea sick in kayak before, so don’t be turned off! In retrospect, we think this is quite funny – and it gets even funnier when Mike shares how all he could think about during those nauseous minutes was how to throw up without anyone else noticing. Thankfully, he never had to act on those desires…
We finished off the class by entering calmer waters again, where we practiced falling in, rescuing a partner and getting up and into the kayak again without any help. Looking back, we’re both SO grateful we ended up taking this class, and especially with regards to these exercises. Falling over, removing the deck skirt, holding on to the paddle and not letting go of the kayak might seem an easy task at first glance, but it’s not. After doing it a few times, however, everything started coming a bit more naturally to us. We took turns falling in and rescuing, and it feels so great to know the order of business and feel competent enough to pull another kayak up in front of you, empty it of water and help a partner back up. This was invaluable learning for both of us. In addition to helping someone else, we also pulled ourselves back up, and this required both raw muscle power as well as stamina (it’s remarkable how tired you get so quickly when trying to pull yourself up on top of a moving, wobbly, slippery object from the water). We were introduced to a few different techniques, and also got to experience how unstable a water-filled kayak is as opposed to an empty one – another good lesson for sure.
We arrived back to the dock and the head quarters a little after 4pm, wet and a touch cold, but also very happy. After a quick clothes change and some kayak cleaning, we were all handed our own “Euro paddle pass ” (Paddelpasset nivå gul), which is a proof of basic proficiency in kayaking. We said thanks and goodbye, and took off soon thereafter.
Even though the waves and the wind were a little difficult to handle, we both feel like it was great we got to try some different types of conditions. If it had been super calm and we would have ended up in tougher weather in the future, we could very well have turned panicky. Now we have some insight and some practice already, and know what to be scared of and not.
All in all, we’re so excited that we’ve taken the first step towards becoming paddlers and can’t wait for the next time we go out. We’d recommend anyone interested in adding kayaking to their list of self-propelled activities to take a similar “basics class” as we did, and have only good things to say about the place we went. We have nothing against boats and boating, but the idea of more kayaks and less obnoxious engines roaring around the archipelago does sound pretty sweet to us. Who’s in?