Friday, August 5, 2011

Surviving Maine


As a newly appointed assistant dean, and fresh arrival to the College, I was honored when students asked me to be faculty advisor to the outing club. Perhaps, I thought, this means that they will no longer be suspicious of my judgment, as they had been since learning that I moved from Santa Barbara, California to live in Waterville, Maine.

My association to the Colby College Outing Club came with benefits. I had free access to a storehouse of outdoor gear, including the canoe that I checked out to use on the river that ran beside my house, and I could sign up for trips to explore the beauty of Maine. Some of those trips rank among the best in my memory of outdoor adventures. The return hike on Mount Katahdin, the terminus of the Appalachian Trail, included a take-your-breath-away trek across the precipitous “Knife Edge” that traverses the ridge between Baxter Peak and Pamola Peak. One morning’s adventure led to Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. We were among the first people in America to see the sunrise that day, since coastal Maine is the easternmost edge of the United States.

A particular spring Sunday afternoon held three adventures that tell three stories of personal survival. That was the afternoon that two students invited me to go kayaking on Great Pond, which sounded like a great adventure since it would be my first time kayaking. Even though we were in open water, we used river kayaks, which are closed hull crafts with a “skirt” that seals the boater in the kayak. Kaj, the outing club president, gave me a rudimentary lesson on using a paddle, and added at the end, almost as an afterthought: “Since we don’t have time to teach you to roll, remember to pull the skirt off your boat if you go over.” With that, we pushed off; I took up the rear as the two students, who were experienced kayakers, led out across the pond.

Kaj’s final instruction proved to be lifesaving because within minutes my kayak flipped over. I was submersed head first in Great Pond without the ability to right myself. My first thought was, “I am going to drown.” The reality of certain death arrived with surprising calm, and with as much emotion as hearing the weather forecast on a sunny day: “slight chance of afternoon clouds.” Then, I remembered Kaj’s lesson, “… pull the skirt off your boat if you go over.” The skirt came off easily, and I bobbed to the surface. I righted my boat when I noticed my dislocated shoulder.

I survived turning over in a sealed kayak, and this story avoids being a tragic tale told by someone else. The students towed me and my boat to shore. We drove to the hospital in Waterville, where adventure number two commenced, since, like me, the doctor on duty had never seen a dislocation, which would make putting me back together an experience of orthopedic speculation. The third adventure followed when we left the emergency room and went to dinner, where I learned not to eat Thai chili peppers.

My years in Maine held many adventures that are, to me, individual stories of grace and wonder. Those stories, however, like survival adventures two and three, will have to wait their turns to be told.

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